Sherlock Homes has never been more gruesome. The Testament of Sherlock Holmes, the sixth installment in developer Frogwares' long-running series of adventures starring Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's celebrated detective and his sidekick, Watson, kicks off with the discovery of a mutilated corpse. It then proceeds through suicides, another mutilated corpse, poisoned dogs, an autopsy, an opium den, and a generally desolate atmosphere that is a long way from the drawing-room mystery style of this usually all-ages franchise. It might not be the best of the line, given the very high bar set by Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened back in 2006. But the macabre plot, severe characterizations that show Sherlock as an antihero, and lovely graphics combine to make this a mesmerizing adventure.
The basic style and setting of Testament are similar to what has gone before in Frogwares adventures. You take on the role of Sherlock Holmes as he investigates a new case, with odd diversions into the shoes and paws of other characters, such as associate Dr. Watson and even a hound dog (not the high point of the game). The story is considerably darker than the stories of previous games in the franchise, however. Where predecessors mostly chickened out on the gory stuff--even the Jack the Ripper game released in 2009 hid the serial killer's shredded victims--this one lays it all out there. This is evident from the first crime scene that you investigate, which involves the horrific torture-murder of a priest in a church.
Forget about genteel Victorian mysteries; one of the first things you do here is pick up a severed thumb. This sets the depressing mood of the entire game, which features more than one grisly corpse to examine. There is much more here than just shock-factor gross-outs, though. The darkness extends to characterizations, and even Holmes is depicted in a rather unsympathetic manner. He was always well known to be a cold fish, but here he is rude, insulting, and even a suspect in the crimes for a little while. For the first time, you have cause to doubt Holmes, which gives new life to the series.
For a while. Although Testament gets off to a roaring start with corpses, mad poisoners, and cemetery exploration, everything settles down to more of a traditional Holmesian romp by about the midway point of the game. Yet this isn't a letdown. Too much blood would have given the game a slasher-film vibe that would go against the premise of the adventure series and the characters of Holmes and Watson as set forth by Conan Doyle in the late 1800s. And it isn't as though the story coasts to a finish. On the contrary, this is the most involved game in the entire series, packed with the appearances of many of Holmes' most noteworthy heroes and villains, loads of puzzles, and numerous conversations that establish mood and deepen the portrayals of both the leads and the walk-ons. The script is excellent, as are the voice-acting performances. This is one game that you could enjoy just sitting back to watch.
Only the too-slavish devotion to point-and-click adventure tropes causes the game to drag. Rooms always need to be scoured for clues. Items are typically buried in the scenery, forcing you to scroll around entire screens waiting for the moment when the icon turns into Holmes' trusty magnifying glass and lets you know that the game's afoot. This isn't as much of a nuisance as it sounds, however. Most rooms are fairly small, and you are allowed to move forward even if you don't examine every little clue in every nook and cranny of the background.
Puzzles can be overwhelming; most are very tough, and there are a lot of them. Virtually all are ingeniously designed, but there are so many that you soon start questioning the sanity of it all. Would a priest really hide love letters under a chessboard puzzle? Would anyone lock boxes with everything from intricate hexagon puzzles to ciphers? This all adds depth to play, at least, and increases the running time. And some puzzles are totally entertaining, such as the board where you plot out deductions about clues. Expect to spend a good 12 to 20 hours on the game, depending on your noggin and your resistance to the temptation to cheat by digging up a walkthrough online.
Testament vastly improves on the look and sound of previous games in the franchise, with noticeably more detail in character models and scenery. Visuals are mostly effective, especially when it comes to the ornate chambers and slums of Victorian London. Character faces generally come with finer features, too, although there are some strange miscues that make the odd supporting figure come off like a mannequin.
More powerful visuals have also been adapted to allow for three different control schemes. For the first time, you can freely switch back and forth between a first-person view, a third-person gamepad-style perspective, and a third-person mouse-click movement angle. So you have a choice whether you prefer using a gamepad, a keyboard and mouse, or a mouse alone. Audio is a cut above what has been previously featured in Frogwares' Holmes games. Music is far more varied and more reminiscent of a theatrical score, and the voice acting is, as has previously been mentioned, absolutely superb.
If you like traditional adventure games, you should love The Testament of Sherlock Holmes. Fans of the genre will be heartened to see how much effort has been expended on such a complex, adult adventure. Even with the minor issues with pixel hunts and puzzle overloading, this is an uncompromising, riveting adventure game.