Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One

Sherlock Chapter One review teaser
Andy Hahn Jones

Written by Andy Hahn Jones

March 31, 2023

Frogwares’ previous take on the most famous sleuth to grace the pages of Western literature has provided a substantial portrait of the character at the height of his investigative prowess, but Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One shows us how he became the world’s greatest consulting detective, and for the first time allows him to operate in an open world. As an origin story, Chapter One sets a young Sherlock loose on a fictional Mediterranean island to solve cases, fight criminals, and unravel an old personal trauma he has repressed from his memory. Between five core mysteries, a couple dozen or so smaller missions, and a handful of bandit lairs (these and all other combat scenarios being optional)—along with numerous DLC cases adding even more items and quests—this entry to the franchise serves up an admirable amount of engaging and varied gameplay. The main story cases also offer an element of choice and an intriguing ambiguity that adds depth to the experience. There are a few instances in which their experimentation fumbles—particularly when it comes to dispersing material across an overly large game map—but overall the acclaimed Ukrainian developer has delivered a compelling adventure that honors both the lofty expectations of its title character and the reputable work they have done depicting him in prior installments.

In the year 1875, a 21-year-old Sherlock travels to the British-occupied island of Cordona, to which he had moved as a young child with his brother, Mycroft, and his then-recently widowed mother, Violet, who died ten years before the start of the game. Sherlock wishes to visit her grave, much to the disapproval of Mycroft, who claims the endeavor is a waste of time. This is well before the first appearance of Dr. Watson, so filling the role of sidekick is a mysterious figure known as Jon. This aptly named companion is an ethereal presence right from the start, and it is quickly confirmed, in explicit terms, that he is an imaginary friend of Sherlock’s. Immediately upon arrival, the two are thrust into a predicament involving a psychic medium accused of stealing a valuable gem from an arrogant nobleman during a séance. Soon after that, the situation escalates—violently, of course—and Sherlock must put his embryonic crime-solving skills to their first serious test.

Four cases of this kind are enfolded into a fifth that spans the length of the game, collectively making up the main storyline. Although Sherlock can’t resist a juicy mystery when one presents itself, his personal aims for visiting Cordona take on an increasing urgency as secrets are steadily unmasked. While visiting his mother’s grave, the fledgling detective receives a tip from an eccentric art gallerist named Verner Vogel: Violet’s death, officially of tuberculosis, may have occurred under more sinister circumstances. Whatever happened, it carried enough trauma that Sherlock has blocked it from his memory, and when he revisits his family’s old manor, he finds his dissociation so strong that it severely restricts his ability to enter certain areas of the home. He is only able to progress through each room of the house when he is able to summon a relevant memory. Piece by piece—new revelations arriving after each main case is solved—Sherlock is able to put together a haunting puzzle involving his mother’s profound mental health issues and the questionable care she received.

Populating this moving narrative is a wealth of memorable characters, not the least of which is Sherlock himself. His personality largely resembles the way it was treated in the very first Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, in which his expertise is said to vary drastically depending on what he finds interesting and useful—“Knowledge of Literature—Nil,” “[Of] Chemistry—Profound,” and so on. Subjects he doesn’t find interesting he regards with condescension. It’s no surprise, then, that he can be arrogant and over-calculating, but his drive to solve crimes emerges from a compassionate sense of justice and an idealistic—naïve, even—devotion to truth. Verner Vogel, cheery and Dionysian, is his perfect foil who serves as a compelling rival throughout. Verner teases Sherlock for his lack of interest in the arts and questions the detective’s notions of objective truth—at times to the point of sophistry. He is obnoxious and pretentious, but he is also able to penetrate Sherlock’s almost pathological aversion to having a good time with an intensely genuine friendliness. Mycroft, initially absent though often discussed, plays an increasingly important role as the game works its way to the finale. A plethora of other great characters are distributed among the several cases, providing a considerable degree of dimension and diversity.

The one who really steals the show, however, is Jon. Habitually referring to the detective with the affectionate nickname “Sherry,” Jon is whimsical and warm—as well as sassy and a bit of a prankster. He makes for a consistently compelling visual presence, magically materializing at every turn, always with a clever quip and often in the background doing something entertaining, whether perched high atop a set of file cabinets, attempting to pick the lock of a door marked “Accounting,” or doing sit-ups with his legs wrapped around the rafters. He keeps a journal, accessible through the main menu, in which he praises or scolds Sherlock depending on how skillfully you complete the game’s tasks. But Jon is more than a flavorful embodiment of Sherlock’s psychological ailments. He’s a fierce defender and advocate—a protector that Sherlock has created to offer comfort and stability during a time when every other caretaker in his life was too distracted by ongoing family tragedy to do an adequate job of it. As the narrative progresses, the two share a number of tender moments, and by the conclusion you might just find you have a great emotional investment in Jon—I certainly did! That Frogwares is able to derive such poignancy from a character who is known from the beginning not to actually exist is impressive.

Chapter One utilizes a fairly standard third-person 3D interface on either keyboard or gamepad. You guide Sherlock’s movement with the WASD keys or an analog stick, pressing a button to interact with objects and people around you. There’s an option to make Sherlock run, and you can rotate the view around him with a mouse or the other thumbstick. Sherlock can pull out a camera and take a picture, though it’s seldom required. Another button will toggle Sherlock in and out of “concentration” mode, in which the surrounding area is rendered in shades of gray. While using concentration, individuals will be highlighted, displaying in full color. You can do this to virtually any person standing nearby and it will give you their nationality, a brief description, and an adjective indicating whether they are likely to respond positively to you (“affable,” “hostile,” “sympathetic,” and so on). This last part is largely dependent on class differences, and at times it is necessary to change Sherlock’s outfit (through the menu) to better match an individual unwilling to give information, which will in turn change their attitude toward him. For example, if a working-class person is contentious with Sherlock, changing him into a laborer’s apron might make them sympathetic.

There’s such an impressive variety of gameplay here, including many supplemental but rewarding tasks, that I didn’t even get around to all of them—furnishing Sherlock’s old family home, for example, or hunting for a coin collection that Mycroft has scattered about the island to teach Sherlock a lesson. Still, as with most investigate adventures, the bulk of what you’ll be doing is collecting clues. This is mostly completed by searching the environment for hotspots you can interact with. Sometimes clicking an object—say, a desk or a dead body—will switch the perspective to a close-up first-person view. In these cases, the game will tell you how many clues you are looking for and check each off as you find it until you locate them all. These clues will be detailed in Sherlock’s casebook, which provides hints on how to proceed in the form of icons. An icon depicting several people, for instance, indicates that you need to seek information from passers-by, whereas a speech bubble means you need to confront one of the key participants in the case about a piece of evidence. (These icons can be a bit hard to keep track of; luckily, there is a “How to Play” part of the menu where they can promptly be consulted.) Sometimes pinning evidence, which can be done through the casebook or with the press of a button, will reveal certain areas where you can use your concentration to gather evidence. Other times a disguise is called for, or Sherlock may need to research a particular clue at the police station, news archives, or City Hall. Everything is integrated well enough that searching for information never feels too much like a fetch quest, and generally the game design is strong enough that your intuition and deductive abilities are guiding you without any additional help.

But what about when all the evidence is compiled? The main cases allow you to use Sherlock’s mind palace, where you can combine different clues to create various deductions and place them in a kind of logic chart to be analyzed. Sometimes you will need to choose between different interpretations of the evidence, which will lead to varying overall conclusions as to who is guilty. At this point, you must make a decision and confront whoever you believe to be the perpetrator. You also get to decide whether to show mercy or swing the hammer of justice down upon them. Offering a similar element of choice are character analyses you are asked to give. The perspective will change to a close-up view of a particular individual as Sherlock sizes them up, and you will be prompted to observe their physical features for indications of character. When you are finished, you will be presented with two conflicting character portraits and asked to choose between them.

Regardless of what decisions you make with character portraits or accusations, the game will progress the same, with little indication as to the veracity of your choices. I encountered only one instance in which an accusation was explicitly confirmed as accurate, though upon replay there were subtle (and inconclusive) suggestions as to whether or not I got it right—a person affirming or denying my read on them, for example, or certain telling phrases made following an accusation. There is, however, a point system that will award greater points for certain deductions than others, suggesting that a “correct” path does exist after all. Personally I loved the less tangible indications and could do without the point system, because I found the ambiguity forced me to consider the sum of the evidence outside the confines of game logic. If both suspects have a plausible alibi, is one more believable than the other? How do the motives differ, and does one person’s reasons for committing the crime have complications? I had to use my own personal judgment, and except for one case in which the hard evidence was virtually identical—right down to each suspect possessing the exact same incriminating object, with the exact same justification for it—I found that I was, in fact, able to arrive at satisfying conclusions. This felt meaningful and rewarding, and though I had a lot of fun replaying the various endings to each case to see the different outcomes, I ultimately committed to my initial deductions.

Occasionally Sherlock will need to conduct a chemical analysis to identify a particular substance. Here you are presented with various chemical reagents and must combine them to match a formula representing the sample Sherlock is studying. Formulas are presented as various combinations of symbols in specific quantities. Generally speaking, your reagents will have different combinations of the same symbols in different quantities and must be manipulated before you can combine them to match the sample. You do this through using various operations that will swap a positive or negative attribute to a number, add or subtract to the quantity, and so on—each operation only able to be used a finite number of times. To be honest, I could never quite get a firm handle on these parts and only completed them through relentless trial and error, so I feel a bit ill-equipped to comment on their quality. However, they weren’t a detraction to me, either, and those who are better at these sorts of puzzles might have a fun time with them.

Then there are the recreations of crime scenes. These are notable because they are the only part of the game in which you get to control Jon rather than Sherlock. The detective will fall into a meditative state, the world taking on the shades of gray of the concentration mode, as Jon is presented with various hotspots denoting key events in the unfolding of a crime. When approaching these locations, you press a button to cycle through different possibilities concerning who was where at a given time, and what they were doing. For example, if a broken chair is found in one corner of the room, it was probably thrown from the other side—your casebook should give you a good indication as to who threw the chair, and at whom. When the crime scene is fully assembled, it will present a clear picture of how the events played out.

For those who prefer objectively correct solutions, there is no shortage of supplemental material—indeed, the side cases are voluminous enough to fill up at least another full-length game on their own. Generally they are organized by type—cases the police have been unable to solve, for example, or various tasks assigned remotely by Mycroft. These cases ditch the mind palace, and character portraits are infrequent, meaning they mostly only retain the gameplay elements in which there are clear answers—the chemical analyses, the crime recreations, and so on. These are less substantial than the core cases and can be solved relatively quickly, though they are a lot of fun and a nice change of pace from the main storyline. Furthermore, cases of the same type (say, police cases) become sequentially more involved and difficult.

Finally, Chapter One introduces a mode of gameplay common to open-world games but absent from previous entries in Frogwares’ Sherlock Holmes franchise: combat. These sequences are entirely optional, restricted to certain parts of the story that can easily be skipped with the press of a button, as well as to clearly labelled bandit lairs scattered throughout Cordona. During these moments, Sherlock fights through stages of enemies who swarm him with a variety of weapons—some charging with knives, others wielding primitive but powerful firearms. The control system is simple here—press one button to aim, which will temporarily slow down time, and another to fire Sherlock’s pistol.  While foes can be killed, the game encourages you to take them down nonlethally, in which case Sherlock must first find a way to put them into a disoriented state before completing a sequence of Quick Time Event prompts to cuff them or knock them out.

Opponents can be stunned by either shooting various items of their gear or clothing—hats or ammunition canisters—or objects in the environment such as light fixtures that will absorb them in a flurry of sparks. Also, you can use a snuffbox periodically to accomplish the same result. None of these tricks work, however, on enemies wearing helmets or armor on their faces—you first have to shoot that off. If you’re hit too often in a short amount of time (health regenerates automatically after a certain period without additional injury), Sherlock will die, and the game will restart from the beginning of the sequence. Once you get the basics down, these encounters offer little in the way of surprise, utilizing the same stock villains over and over, but they offer a fun thrill and challenge that complements the slower pace of the investigative work.

There are two difficulty modes for combat. On the harder setting you cannot skip enemy encounters. Also different is the amount of time enemies will remain stunned and how long the snuffbox takes to regenerate. It’s only on the easier setting that these parts are skippable, which is a boon to those who could do without the added sense of danger, as well as those who might find this particular combat system overly tedious. There’s a choice of difficulty modes for detective work, too. In the easier investigative mode, hotspots will be clearly marked—but considering in the hard mode all you have to do is press a button to scan the area and reveal them all anyway, the two modes aren’t all that different. The lower difficulty mode will also tell you when you have new deductions in the mind palace and when you have collected all relevant evidence for a case, but these can be readily checked even on the harder setting. I played the game on the harder settings both in terms of combat and detective work and found both to be reasonably challenging—enough to offer some engaging adversity but not so much that I ever felt overly stuck on a particular section.

Chapter One carries on the realistic aesthetic of previous Sherlock entries, crafting an immersive atmosphere for you to explore. The streets of Cordona feature a stunning blend of Victorian architecture alongside the sunny fixtures of a seaside town. A laudable assortment of locations is built organically into the main storyline, which will find you investigating an opulent mansion populated by patrons adorned with mysterious masks, an art gallery filled with both gorgeous period-accurate paintings and more eccentric exhibits (including one involving the body of a shark), an archaeological excavation site, and the domicile of an elephant-obsessed neighbor who keeps one of these magnificent creatures as a pet, among other areas. I often found myself pausing to take a screenshot in admiration of the great attention to detail, to commemorate both the extraordinary—such as an impressive collection of artifacts in one of the rooms of Sherlock’s family manor—and the more mundane—street posters advertising occult happenings, or a room filled with tins of Queen’s Breakfast tea.

The sounds of Cordona augment the extravagant sights rather nicely. While the score is mostly designed to stay out the way (the most memorable music being an ironic use of a piece from The Nutcracker), it is effectively moody and cinematic. The real highlight from an audio perspective is the voice cast, who deliver performances of the highest professional level. The actors portraying Sherlock and Jon (Alex Jordan and Wil Coban, respectively) deserve special praise here, as they provide much in the way of emotional resonance, especially as the story works its way into higher personal stakes for the young detective. But the cast is truly exemplary across the board, the cases filled with memorable performances across a wide range.

While there are no serious problems with Chapter One, the one area that doesn’t shine quite as brightly is the sheer size of its map. Open worlds are not always perfectly compatible with adventures, as the genre often calls for a specific kind of exploration that vast, nonlinear spaces don’t accommodate very well. Frogwares avoids this problem by wisely confining the action at any given time to self-contained areas within the broader environment. Yet you may still find yourself looking for clues in a particular room or building, only to have to trek across the sprawling island to search another relatively small location. A faster mode of travel through Cordona would have helped—you will encounter carriages offering a ride, but they just transport you to places you’ve already been, something you can do anyway by pulling up the map. There were times when I felt more densely packed environments would have been preferable to traversing large open spaces—it might even have improved the game’s performance, which isn’t bad but sometimes lagged for me on the main map. Nevertheless, there are merits to free exploration, and the abundant quantity of cases, with all their diversity, is rewarding enough to overlook a bit of extra legwork.

Final Verdict

Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One is a noble undertaking, offering a great time with the literary figure at a still-formative time before he became the accomplished detective we know and love. At its core is a poignant narrative that allows us to see a younger Sherlock with great intimacy and vulnerability. The main story cases feature a well-rounded assortment of gameplay, along with a rewarding element of choice and an intriguing ambiguity that elegantly ties into the game’s ongoing question of objective truth. The numerous side quests offer plenty for those who prefer to arrive at clear-cut conclusions. The combat is a fun addition, its optional nature inclusive to players who aren’t coming to Sherlock looking for a gunfight. All of this is brought to life by a stunning cinematic atmosphere and a voice cast comprised of consummate professionals. If the game’s massive map sometimes slows things down, this is easily compensated for by the rich experience on offer, one rife with absorbing mysteries and compelling characters that could easily take 30 or more hours to fully investigate. This isn’t exactly the Sherlock Holmes we’re used to, but fans of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most celebrated creation and investigative adventurers alike should make sure they spend some time on Cordona.


Hot Take

Heat Gauge

Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One is a memorable and praiseworthy addition to Frogwares’ esteemed franchise, offering a deep and poignant origin story to go with a wide variety of engaging gameplay across a huge, beautiful open-world environment.


  • Thought-provoking and emotional narrative
  • Extensive array of fun gameplay types, including plenty of investigation and optional combat
  • Intriguing element of choice and ambiguity in the outcomes of main storyline cases
  • Vast quantity of more traditional detective work in the side quests
  • Absorbing atmosphere with rich, realistic visuals
  • Outstanding voice cast with several particularly memorable characters


  • Map can feel excessively large at times
  • Combat system can be repetitive

Andy played Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One on PC using a review code provided by the game’s publisher.


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