One clear, overriding fact became immediately apparent, as I started up The Testament of Sherlock Holmes: Sherlock is a grade-A unrepentant jerk. I'm used to Holmes being a potentially unpleasant character. From Doyle's original stories to the more modern interpretations of the character, one of the great detective's universal traits is that he can be, well, kind of an arse.
In the better-told stories, though, he's a charming arse, using his rapier wit with precision. In fact, I tend to think of Sherlock Holmes as being a lot like Batman. He may be cranky, and moody, and kind of a pain, but he can use charisma and good grace when the occasion calls for it.
Also, like Batman, Sherlock Holmes doesn't really go around killing people. At least, he's not supposed to. Holmes himself, it seems, now disagrees.
The Testament of Sherlock Holmes is surprisingly difficult to describe, for a game that takes about 10 hours (give or take a couple) to play. On the one hand, it's a classic point-and-click mystery game, full of puzzles that need solving just for their own sake. On another hand, it's an interactive take on one of fiction's most famous detectives, designed to let would-be sleuths participate. Sadly, though, what it mostly feels like is a mess, a pastiche of good ideas, bad ideas, good execution, and poor execution that never quite line up into a cohesive game.
The gist of The Testament of Sherlock Holmes is that three horribly creepy children find one of Watson's tales in their attic, and start reading it. This unnerving and unnecessary framing device sends us back to London in 1898, and finds Holmes -- after a tutorial that, through misdirection, appears irrelevant for most of the game -- smarming his way across the city, trying to solve a truly gruesome murder.
This particular Testament is, indeed, not for the young, squeamish, or faint of heart. Players must take their magnifying glass and tweezers to examine horribly tortured and mutilated bodies in all their painstaking, visceral detail, complete with a 19th century autopsy. If that doesn't sound pleasant, well, it isn't -- and characters are more than happy to keep commenting on the various scents and odours a morgue with no refrigeration can provide. As compared to Holmes's moments playing medical examiner, all of the breaking and entering, trespassing, and grave-robbing the game asks the player to do seem downright peaceful.
The game succeeds in one crucial way, however, and that is in its atmosphere. This particular late-Victorian London gleams with details, from books and bricks in the homes of the well-to-do to the misery of an opium den full of penniless addicts. The poorer, meaner quarters of London at the turn of the last century seem to hold on to a fear and fog that make the grimness and desperation of its citizens more vivid. Wealthier homes and areas feel disconnected from the undercity in a useful and entirely plausible way. When the game eventually steps out of its heavily inhabited London, in later acts, is also when it begins to lose touch with its own premise.
Throughout the game, the player mainly inhabits Holmes, and that's a good role to have. Holmes is the one finding the clues, using the tools Watson provides (the deduction board is nice, once its function is finally clear), and making all of the leaps of logic that hold the story together. And yet with frustrating regularity, Testament will suddenly put the player into the position of Watson and force them to be Holmes's lackey. "Watson, go fetch this book," Holmes says from his desk, and suddenly the player is Watson, with only one task to accomplish: to fetch and retrieve the book. The player switches back to Holmes, to investigate the book, and then once again pops into Watson's perspective to go fetch another book.
At least Watson is a man. During one particularly trying segment, the player doesn't even get to be the good doctor, but instead has to be the dog, Toby. I never knew dogs -- particularly old ones, who move at roughly the speed of cold molasses -- could be so adept at stair puzzles. Sherlock thinks you are a Good Dog, but somehow that doesn't make the overly long section of the game any less condescending or more interesting.
There is an adage often heard in crime and medical dramas on TV, a variation of Occam's Razor advising simple solutions: "when you see hoofprints, think horses, not zebras." The player, like Dr John Watson, may be inclined to think horses, and even have moments of pride for finding the metaphorical hoofprints. Holmes, however, will eventually inform everyone point-blank that the solution isn't just zebras, it's hell zebras from space. What do you mean, you couldn't tell from the absolute lack of clues or plausibility? It was simplicity itself!
That Holmes should find a magician's costume (and, eventually, its late inhabitant) in the later acts of the game brings home just how much Testament relies on misdirection, and how poor a tactic that is in a game with multiple, shifting vantage points. The player is all at once Holmes the brilliant, who understands everything and whose infallible leaps of logic carry the day, and also Watson, who spends most of his time confused and outraged, occasionally let out of his box to perform simple tasks.
As a game, as a mystery, and as a story, this particular Sherlock Holmes has absolutely no sense of flow or rhythm. The resulting shifts in both game logic and story logic continually throw the player off-kilter.
The ill-timed perspective swapping is one such example. When the player, as Holmes, is deeply engrossed in some forensic analysis at the work table, having to pause, take over the other character, then go search 221B Baker Street for some book, then bring it back, then open the inventory to make sure it's selected, then close the inventory, then click exactly the right space on the work table -- well, by the time control comes back to Holmes, it's hard to care about what was in the book to begin with. Though a menu option exists to swap characters at will, the function is only enabled during a late point in the game, and disabled again as soon as the need to investigate two places at once has passed.
By the time the story comes to its major plot twist, Holmes and Watson simply stand around in their sitting room and talk through the whole thing, while some images pop up around them to highlight people and events. The solution, the ultimate mastermind tying together all of the threads of story that Holmes and Watson have been chasing, not only comes completely out of left field, but also takes place completely in Holmes's condescendingly brilliant mind, with no input from the player.
And that, ultimately, is where The Testament of Sherlock Holmes becomes so disappointing. Holmes, by necessity, is smarter than everyone. Not just all of the other characters in the game, but everyone -- including the player. Forcing easy conclusions to go through dozens of deductive steps, and leaving the hard ones waiting in the wings, visible only to Holmes but not to the player, leaves a lingering, distasteful feeling. Sherlock Holmes is condescending not only to his assistant, his dog, and his neighbours, but also to the player.
It's one thing to steer a jerk around a game. It's another thing to steer around a jerk who implicitly makes the player "lesser" in his world. Though certain deductions are a delight to reach and satisfying to solve, ultimately as designed the game needs to hide its solutions and its inner workings from the player. The true mystery is not, "why did someone kill this man?" but rather, "Why doesn't the game trust me enough to let me solve the whole story on my own?"