Videogames aren't just about full-on, relentless action requiring total concentration and laser-sharp reactions – although the games that provide those things tend to hog the limelight. Sometimes we crave something a little more sedate, which perhaps exercises the brain more than the reflexes. That is pretty much what Sherlock Holmes: The Devil's Daughter will offer when it arrives on June 10 for Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC.
It's perhaps surprising that previous Sherlock Holmes games haven't really captured the public imagination – after all, who doesn't fancy emulating the much-loved eccentric fictional sleuth? Mind you, The Devil's Daughter's predecessors could be accused of taking gameplay sedateness too far: they were generally fairly standard point-and-click adventure games, and therefore distinctly anachronistic.
However, the latest effort from self-deprecatingly named French developer Frogwares works hard to provide a more appealing gameplay experience. It runs on Epic's Unreal Engine 3 and, as we discovered during a couple of hours of hands-on play of the game's first case, it throws some action sequences into the mix too, along with the more familiar clue-hunting and deduction.
Sherlock Holmes The Devil's Daughter preview: A mix of gameplay mechanics
Before we jumped into the game, a representative of Bigben Interactive, the game's publisher, talked us through its salient points and raced through a demo designed to show its refreshingly diverse gameplay mechanics. He explained that The Devil's Daughter contains five cases, each of which should take three to four hours to complete – which adds up to between 15 and 20 hours of gameplay, which is acceptable if not hyper-impressive.
Sherlock Holmes purists might not approve entirely of the fact that The Devil's Daughter isn't afraid to deviate from Conan Doyle's oeuvre though. For example, the game begins with the arrival of a young girl called Katelyn who, we learn, is Sherlock's adopted daughter and will be staying at 221B Baker Street. Mrs Hudson and Dr Watson are present and correct, at least, along with the Baker Street Irregulars – some of whom you get to play as occasionally.
Frogwares' emulation of 221B Baker Street is spot-on, full of convincing period detail and all the clutter you would hope to find. It's from here that you can access Sherlock's bedroom, in which he can don disguises, and his voluminous archive – which includes stacks of newspapers and a vast reference library, stuffed with case-cracking information. Plus you find Toby, Holmes's faithful bloodhound, who will have his own part to play. A London map on the wall also allows Holmes to fast-travel to all the locations that emerge during his investigations.
The case for this preview demo, taken from the later stages of the game, centres on the arrival of a gloriously hammy American actor named Orson Wilde – who is also coming to stay at 221B Baker Street in order to study Holmes to play him on stage. His initial entry showcased one of Holmes's abilities: whenever you meet a new character, you can scrutinise their outward appearance in fine detail, drawing conclusions about their personality from what you find. Often there are several possible conclusions from a single visual clue, so you have to choose.
Hitting the right bumper in a location allows Holmes to detect clues that average mortals would miss, and there's an engine that allows him to tie discoveries together and draw conclusions (again, you usually have to choose between a number of those).
We were shown an action sequence in an illegal gambling den, where Holmes had to work out how to get past a bouncer guarding a door, by triggering a chain of events that caused a distraction. Luckily, Holmes has the ability to visualise those before carrying them out, so you can get your sequence right before causing mayhem.
We also saw some proper third-person action sequences: from Holmes tailing suspects, to using a dual-joystick balance mechanic while crossing rooftops. Plus at one point, Holmes donned his Pastor outfit to perform a fake exorcism, with the help of one of the Baker Street Irregulars, and to moderately hilarious effect.
Sherlock Holmes The Devil's Daughter preview: Sniffing out clues
The first case – entitled Prey Tell – sees a young boy whose father had disappeared, approaching Holmes for help. The case takes the detective to the down-at-heel environs of Whitechapel.
After investigating the boy's flat and a period spent eavesdropping on conversations in the local pub, Holmes identifies a suspect. He delegates Wiggins, a Baker Street Irregular loitering in the vicinity, to tail him. Controlling Wiggins provides some decent – albeit pretty forgiving – stealth action, necessitating taking cover frequently, some rooftop-climbing, a period masquerading as a shoe-shine boy, and external investigation of the suspect's destination.
After some research into a heraldic device in Holmes's library, Holmes and Watson then pay a visit to the newly discovered address, where Holmes scrutinises characters present, teases information out of them (with the correct conversational choices), and roots around for further clues. The trail leads to needing to use Toby the bloodhound for a while, following a scent-trail. Thus we work towards a solution for the case.
Even this first case is sufficiently meaty to contain at least three hours of gameplay, and way more entertaining and varied than the average point-and-click adventure. The action sequences, although pretty undemanding, immersed us nicely in Holmes's London which, having made several Sherlock Holmes games, Frogwares has nailed.
The quality of the characters we encountered, both in cut-scenes and general gameplay, was decent – although nowhere near as cutting-edge as those of, say, Quantum Break; The Devil's Daughter hasn't had millions of pounds thrown at it. But in terms of general ambience and quirkiness (in-jokes about Holmes's celebrity crop up frequently), Sherlock Holmes: The Devil's Daughter is hard to fault.
Holmes fans looking for a relaxing but absorbing way into their hero's world would do well to check it out.