Note: This review was written in cooperation with fellow editor Annagram.
Frogwares‘ murder mystery adventure game Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened – Remastered mixes H.P. Lovecraftian horror with Arthur C. Doyle’s detective stories, but does it work well together?
Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened – Remastered (PC)
(France 2008, developer/publisher: Frogwares, platform: PC)
Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate a kidnapping case in London which leads them to a secret organization worshipping the primal god Cthulhu that wants to end the world.
The analytic vs. the supernatural
The main idea of having the scientific mind and compassionate heart of the detective duo confront a conspiracy of supernatural magnitude might at first seem ludicrous, but it somehow or rather sometimes works. The best moments are when a creeping atmosphere is evoked, e.g. when one explores an underground place where rituals were held and strange symbols as well as the iconic Cthulhu statue are shown.
Diving into the horror and madness
Reading about people disappearing in the swamps of Louisiana either because of alligators or sacrifices is also a clear indication that the developers tried to establish a feeling of dread. Weaving together a tale about a pirate treasure and the Cthulhu mythos is also interesting, even if the connections come rather late. Navigating dark tunnels and hearing the sound of waves and thunder in the distance adds to the cosmic horror Lovecraft conveyed in his stories.
Unfortunately when madness takes over, it comes across as unintentionally funny. This might have to do with the clunky and repetitive animations of characters, their exaggerated voice acting or simply because the moments when people shown on the brink of insanity are so sudden, even affecting Holmes for a short while, don’t make much sense. It’s when one reads in newspapers or goes through mad scribblings with symbols and lunatic writing that the Lovecraftian horror is once again felt, if only so briefly.
Maddening story and characters
The overall story is not only very slow-paced, but also quite nonsensical, which is saying a lot, considering that Lovecraft’s stories themselves aren’t particularly rich with realistic plot development. None of the characters are memorable and the locations, e.g. an asylum, could work, but they don’t because what one finds out isn’t especially frightening or the inmates are too annoying to take seriously. Granted, it’s still a very dark story at its heart about the abduction of mostly foreign people and how experiments are conducted on asylum patients for sinister purposes. But there’s very little suspense or horror despite a few gory details and deaths.
It’s telling that Holmes or Watson don’t make comments on weird statues and symbols, that Watson shoots a cultist exclaiming “I’ve got it, Holmes!” or that Holmes’ nemesis Moriarty is briefly shown in the asylum and simply used as a distraction for the guards to escape. In general, both protagonists do things that are out of character, as Holmes steals money and a shotgun from a man’s home only to use it later for shooting down hanging corpses in the swamps as alligator food so that one can safely pass through the waters.
One of the most ridiculous sequences is when Holmes runs after a pickpocket in New Orleans, resulting in a chase through many buildings, above and below, accompanied by silly music that takes so long that one wonders if this is still a serious detective or horror story. With some terrible controls and switching to a nauseating first-person view, in addition to a few bugs, e.g. the hunted having no head at one time, it’s truly a nightmare one wants to end as soon as possible.
Reading for horror and fun
Fortunately reading through various articles or book pages doesn’t mean that one has to use a magnifiying glass, as the fonts are much bigger than in Secret of the Silver Earring. It’s often a joy to read every document, especially with the newspaper articles which also include jokes and funny ads that could have been published during the era.
More puzzling puzzles
For a game that is about a serious story, notwithstanding the strange actions of Holmes and Watson, the most puzzling aspect is actually the puzzle design. If it weren’t already unrealistic how many objects the detective carries around, it goes against all reason that he decides to pick up a ladder or even a whole trolley. Being able to open some doors with a spoon and others with a poker or key makes one wonder why some items work and others don’t.
While most inventory-based puzzles aren’t very difficult, the order in which one does certain things or rather places objects can be very pedantic, as can be seen in case of building a contraption for opening two doors with an anvil, table, etc.. In general, one is often prevented from performing actions or go to specific places, with Holmes saying “Not now!” or “I don’t have to go there!” As one is often stuck and doesn’t know where to go or what to do, Watson’s only and useless comment “What do you make of this, Holmes?” doesn’t help much, either.
Collecting all the clues and making all the connections
Something which made Secret of the Silver Earring especially annoying was that one could only progress if one had examined everything and talked to everyone. Unfortunately, this is still present and made even more difficult with an increased number of locations or rather spaces to visit that don’t necessarily have the required item or person. As one isn’t notified if one has gathered all clues in one room or open area, pixel hunting becomes again an unavoidable necessity.
This is very noticeable when one has to examine the ground for small clues with a magnifying glass. Thankfully, the spacebar hotspot key alleviates some of these problems, even though this isn’t explained in the game itself. One can even consult a hint system that reveals solutions step-by-step, making progress easier, although in same cases these hints are a bit too obscure or state the obvious. At least a fast-travel option with more locations unlocked on a map help backtracking, because one does a lot of this.
It’s not logic itself
Of course there aren’t only inventory-based puzzles, but a few logic conundrums. These are usually nonsensical, e.g. moving around numbers from 1 to 10 for unlocking a door. Deciphering a code might at first seem like a mathematician’s dream, but as it takes too long and has many variants, it becomes a tedious exercise of thinking in directions that don’t make much sense.
Answer me this
The annoying daily quizzes in Secret of the Silver Earring are gone and replaced by a few questions Holmes asks Watson. The answers have to be typed in, and while most are logical, they don’t leave much room for error. This means that even if one knows the answer, one has to use the exact words the developers want the player to type in, making this another unnecessary obstacle.
More places to go and get lost in
Many locations are rather big, but the open spaces that don’t require opening many doors or moving through different rooms as in the previous game are still very confusing, as can be seen with the London docks where running around identically-looking alleys to find a warehouse or other building is as frustrating as in an asylum with very similar corridors and doors. Controlling Holmes is often a hassle, not only because of changing perspectives, but because Watson stands in his way so often that one is ready to slap him. Even when he’s on a boat, navigating the swamps becomes a nightmare due to the controls.
When the game was first released in 2006, there was only one way to play it: in first-person. Fortunately for those suffering from motion sickness or who don’t like this point of view, the Remastered edition added a third-person option. However, this one still comes with orientation problems and also leaves some parts of the environments invisible, making it trickier to navigate. As the point of view is limited, one still has to switch to the original perspective for certain parts of a location in order to have a better overview.
Looks and sounds of the past
Graphically, the game offers better character models, although the repetitive and silly animations are still present and often detrimental to the atmosphere. A few great water reflection, leaves falling and sand blowing effects are also nice, but the environments aren’t particularly pretty despite offering more variety than in Secret of the Silver Earring.
The music is quite good and isn’t as grating on the ears than in the former game, including some rather fitting moody pieces. Still, as there isn’t much variety and the soundtrack feels more like running in the background, it’s rather forgettable.
Voice acting is generally convincing, except again for the children parts. Still, there are a couple of strange situations in which the characters’ utterances don’t fit, as in the eponymous “Blood!” exclamations of Holmes that seem to have become a running gag for the series.
Remastered but not better
Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened – Remastered tries to make things easier for the player with a hint system, hotspot key, and the absence of pedantic daily quizzes that plagued its predecessor. However, it introduces all sorts of new and bigger problems which are not only of the gameplay but of the storytelling variety.
For a Lovecraftian game, there isn’t much suspense or horror, as the plot doesn’t make a lot of sense and the characters are forgettable. Holmes and Watsons’ as well as other people’s actions often lead to unintentional laughter, but this is soon stifled when one is again stuck on pixel hunting, endless backtracking and weird puzzles.