Forgive the history lesson, but up until now Frogwares’ Adventures of Sherlock Holmes series has felt like a direct videogame adaptation of the classic ITV version. Stuffy Victorian gents, queen and country, etc. Now, the studio has shifted gear entirely and morphed its Holmes into a strange hybrid of Jeremy Brett and Robert Downey Jr. If you’re familiar with the series so far, it’s a jarring change – but not an unwelcome one, and it thankfully avoids what must be a real marketing temptation to throw in a dash of Cumberbatchian fop.
Watson, too, has changed from his ITV template into the kind of man you’d expect to prefer opening cereal cafes in Shoreditch to treating cholera. Somehow it works, as a soft reboot of sorts. (No canonical explanation is offered to explain the new moustache.) For those who aren’t fans of Sherlock Holmes and its various adaptations, this will mean very little, although a rough and ready Sherlock may not be quite what they’re expecting.
Like 2014’s Crimes & Punishments, Devil’s Daughter is split into five cases, with the final adventure promising to bridge them all together. It is, we're told, entirely possible to identify the wrong suspect and not be informed of your folly until the very end of the game. This approach should work well, avoiding the '15 hours in' malaise which plagued earlier titles that chose to tell one big story and struggled to keep up steam.
Episodic investigations keep the rushes of satisfaction coming, and allow for huge changes of scenery. From Whitechapel slums to the Surrey countryside and everything in between, Crimes & Punishments had plenty going on to sustain the player’s interest, and Devil’s Daughter seems to be following the exact same path. The mechanics of crime-solving are little changed from before – Sherlock will talk to suspects, explore and collect clues, populating his notebook and neurons with observations which allow the player to make deductions. That’s right – neurons. The interface for picking suspects and motive has you directly manipulating Sherlock’s brain cells, connecting them until a decision can be made. It sounds a lot stranger than it is.
Deductions can be wrong, and while the game does have a system in place to flag faulty logic, it can and will let you fail.
The first case has Holmes, fresh from an opium binge and looking more dishevelled than any Cumberbatch fan would expect, investigating a series of disappearances in the Whitechapel area. Ever since Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack The Ripper, Frogwares has recycled this part of the capital with good reason, being as it was something of a murder capital of 19th century London. This version, however, is different. It’s been expanded, a labyrinth of narrow streets and closes. From your first visit, you know you’ll be returning time and time again – there’s too much stuff here to be used just for the opener.
In a style typical of Sherlock Holmes Things, what starts off a simple missing persons case grows into massive conspiracy involving a local Lord, his charitable enterprise, and blokes with guns. This sort of escalation isn’t as far from Conan Doyle’s penny dreadfuls as one might assume, but feels a touch more Pinewood Studios than Baker Street in its bombast, particularly when you get to the actual rooftop chase that happens all of a sudden.
The big new gameplay feature comes in the form of action sequences. In the two hours we played, there were balancing minigames, the aforementioned chase (during which you control a Baker Street Irregular instead of Holmes) and even a tense, make-or-break sequence where you have to pretend to be a shoe-shine boy. It’s a lot less bizarre than it sounds, but these sequences provide welcome breaks to the monotony of crime scene investigation.
The presentation, too, has received something of an overhaul. Frogwares get better at this every time – the last few games have been worlds ahead of their earlier, more ramshackle efforts to bring Holmes to life. They used to look and feel like ultra-low budget PC games. Devil’s Daughter feels at home next to full-fat console titles, its look and feel sitting not too many rungs below Ubisoft’s version of Victorian London, which had significantly more dollars and manpower leathered into each brick, cart wheel and bead of sweat than has probably ever been spent on the entire house you live in.
This series always feels like it’s on a trajectory toward something more than the sum of its parts, with each version being a vast improvement on the previous. That trend looks set to continue, and while it wouldn’t feel right to say that Devil’s Daughter finally realises all the potential that this series has had, potential which for years has been dogged and obscured by design limitations and cheap production values, it certainly seems closer than ever. We’ll see.