Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened

Reviewed by  Mark Hasley

For the past few months, I have been playing several of the recently released games and have decided that there really aren’t any bad games out there.  The only problem is that, until very recently, there weren’t many particularly good games either.  It has long seemed to me that there were only a great many adequate games.  However that opinion has changed.  I have just finished Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened.  It transcends 'good' and moves into the 'extremely magnificent' range very quickly.  It is one of the best new games that I have played in years.  Frogwares and their associates have gotten rid of all of the irritations of the previous Holmes games, have added to or perfected all of the things that they had previously done correctly, and have created an almost perfect mystery-adventure game.

A bit of history is perhaps needed here.  Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened is the third of four Holmes games that have been released by Frogwares.  The Mystery of the Mummy was the first and least of them.  The Silver Earring was the second and was a much improved game.  However, their third attempt, The Awakened, is very nearly perfect.  Indeed it so close to perfection that I went online and ordered the fourth game today.

The story is a typical Holmes story, but it was not actually based on any tale written by Conan Doyle.  The person playing the game is introduced to a bored Sherlock Holmes and his stalwart companion, Dr. Watson.  They come upon what appears to be a minor kidnapping, which (as a good adventure game usually does) rapidly becomes a very complicated and ominous creation of an amazingly clever but unidentified criminal genius.  Eventually Holmes and Watson uncover a plot to raise a vile Lovecraftian monster whose intentions are to destroy the planet.  That’s really all there is to the story.  If a player thinks he’s heard this tale before, he has.  So what?  In this particular case the story may not be original, but it is well written, interesting, and even exciting.  That is more than enough for me.

The type of interface used here is of understandable concern to anyone who has not yet played this game.  Be assured that it is the old but reliable point and click, mouse driven approach to game play.  The game is generally a linear one.  A player can wander around the various areas at his own pace, but certain goals must be accomplished before the next section of the game can be attempted.  The startup screen offers the usual Load, Save, Credits, Options, etc.  The player can adjust the various volumes and can use (or not use) subtitles.  There seem to be limitless saves available.  I used at least twenty and there was no indication that there was a limit.

The game is a first person game wherein the player usually takes on the character of Sherlock Holmes.  I am forced to write it that way because there are a few points in the game where the player becomes, and does the work of, Dr. Watson.  This is in no way a problem.  The character change is so easily made and so excellently fit into the context of the game that a player makes the transition with no difficulty.  I did find it a bit strange that all of the excellent cut scenes were presented in third person.  This meant that at times the player stopped being Sherlock Holmes in order for him to watch Sherlock Holmes.  At first it was as confusing as it sounds, but I got used to it rather quickly.

There is an inventory at the top of the screen, and it is easily accessed by right clicking.  Items are clearly shown and can be readily combined to form other items.  Holmes is moved by left clicking, and will run with the application of two left clicks.  All in all there is little that is new here.  The inventory also contains virtually all of the conversations, all of the documents, and all of the records that Holmes and Watson discover as they proceed through the various geographies.  As the player proceeds, there is also the usual and very helpful map that allows you to click from one place to another rather than walking all over the place and then back again.  It is obvious that, by the time the game draws to a close, there is a great deal of material within the inventory, but every item and document can be easily found and readily utilized.

One different situation in this game is that there is no cursor per se.  Holmes goes in whichever direction he is facing when the left mouse button is clicked.  He can be turned a full 360 degrees simply by moving the mouse.  When he (the player) is facing in the direction that he wants to go, a simple left click moves him forward.  There is no arrow or other item to indicate direction.  However, when an item can be picked up, used, or examined, then a hand cursor appears.  This took some getting used to.  Several times I came to and attempted, without success, to open a door.  I then looked down, and when the door handle came into view, there was a hand magically on the handle.  Once that cursor appeared, then a simple left click opened the door.

The situation was analogous with conversations.  There are lots of wonderfully different characters in this game and Holmes must talk to them.  There is no magic sign or any type of cursor here.  Holmes simply gets very close to the person, the player left clicks, and a pleasant conversation is had by all.  The lack of a visual clue takes a bit of getting used to, but once I got it figured out, I enjoyed not having all kinds and shapes of icons cluttering up the screen.

For me, the real value of any game lies in the variety and quality of the settings and sounds.  And it is in these areas where Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened excels.  The music here is varied and generally excellent.  The different pieces of music match their scenes perfectly and always add to, but never intrude on, the actual gaming experience.  Thankfully there is none of the whiny and repetitive violin playing that plagued The Silver Earring.  In this game music sets the tone and/or enhances the mood brilliantly.

The ambient sounds are also quite impressive.  There are a great many different locales in this game, and in each of them the player hears the perfect sounds for that situation.  Hinges squeak, doors slam, horses whinny, and oars creek.  Everything sounds like it should sound, when it should sound like that.  This is the first game in a long time where I plugged in the earphones and actually listened to what was going on in the background.

The characters too are well spoken.  There is a wonderful collection of accents here.  Since the game takes Holmes and Watson all over the globe, the person playing this game gets to hear all types of British accents, several different American accents, and a few odd European accents.  Each of these characters is easily understandable without becoming some comic stereotype.  Since the voices are so effective, the characters are virtually all believable.  Without exception, the supporting people in this game are what they should be, and they act as that person would in real life.  Even the animation is effective in that the mouths and faces actually match what the people are saying.  Everything fits.

For those of us who know and appreciate Holmes and Watson, these particular characters are extremely well done too.  Holmes is shown as the ultimate mental mechanic.  He is brilliantly logical, but also cold and austere.  He loves the problems with which he deals, but he isn’t particularly interested in the people whom he assists or defeats.  Watson is simply Watson.  He is brave, solid, not very imaginative, excitable, and always there.  The game’s developers avoid the cheap and inaccurate approach wherein Watson becomes a silly vapid man.  Here he is the earnest and honest ‘sidekick’.  The two men are exactly what they are supposed to be.

Of course, all of the above was made even more impressive by the fact that this game takes the player to a lot of different places.  For without exception, the details in and the impact of the graphics in these varied locations is excellent.  The bleak and dreary parts of London are beautifully bleak and dreary.  The lonely mountain scenery of Switzerland is stunning in its austere impact.  The brightness and color of the Southern United States is well displayed here, as are the more genteel surroundings of the wealthier parts of New Orleans.  Sunlight, storms, breezes, and all kinds of weather are consistently well done.  The variety of excellent graphics in this game is amazing.  Indeed, there is one specific part of the game where Holmes and Watson are in a small rowboat in the middle of the swamp at night.  While Watson rows, Holmes stands in the bow with a lantern and seeks something.  The eerie scenery coming slowly into the flickering and limited light of the lantern, and then fading away again, provides some of the creepiest images that I’ve found in a game in quite some time.

Throughout the game there are details that set the mood and tone to perfection.  Dogs growl, butterflies flutter, boats and barges drift by, signs squeak, birds fly, rigging squeaks and fishnets flap in the breeze.  At every turn the gamer is impressed and surprised with detail and minutia that raises the game far above the norm.  In this game the graphics are, at every turn, simply stunning.

The game is not simply a collection of eye candy and pleasant sounds.  It also has an impressive collection of entertaining and sometimes tricky puzzles of various types.  There are lots of secret documents and codes to unravel. There are several 'combine the inventory items' puzzles.  There are combination lock puzzles, some ‘scientific examination’, and lots of different ‘how to get up there or down there’ problems.  Obviously these are mostly different kinds of inventory puzzles.  It should be mentioned that the developers have given us lots of special 'detective stuff ' to play with here.   Holmes’ laboratory at 221B Baker Street is great fun to utilize.  At times Holmes is provided with a magnifying glass, and must actually use it to examine specific clues.  I never found the puzzles overly difficult, and I could always find the clue or hot spot when I needed it.  It’s also noteworthy that there is one chase scene that is the most enjoyable chase-maze-puzzle combination I have ever dealt with.  As Holmes, I leapt through windows, jumped from one level to another, climbed different kinds of ladders, solved minor puzzles with great rapidity, and had a thoroughly pleasant time chasing a bad guy.  It was a long, boisterous, enjoyable, and different type of problem.

Frogwares has also provided several more of those quizzes at the end of sections.  They were rather irritating in The Silver Earring, but here they consist of only one question.  The player suddenly becomes Watson, hears Holmes pose a particular question, types in the proper answer, and “the game's afoot” (sorry everybody...  I couldn’t resist).  I didn’t mind these at all since they tended to help me focus on my main objective again.

A final note here on the puzzles...  there are no mazes and I don’t think that there are any timed puzzles.  I also don’t think the player can die.  I phrased it like that because there are several spots in the game where the music seems to be reaching a crescendo and Watson is shouting “We must hurry, Holmes”, and it seemed as though I could die, but I never did.

There are very few negatives with the game.  It ran smoothly and with no problems on my Windows XP.  In all cases operation was excellent.  There are, to my knowledge, no patches available or required for the game.  However, it must be stated that installing the game took a great deal of time.  It’s equally true that loading a saved game or starting a new game seemed to take forever.  Here too the developers have attempted to soften the irritation of waiting.  As the game or section loads, an attractive sepia-toned picture appears.  As the loading of the game proceeds, the picture slowly morphs into a fully colored graphic.  It’s an unnecessary, and therefore rather pleasant, touch.  It must also be admitted that this is not a game for children.  There is no language problem here.  There are no incidents of profanity or vulgarity.  However, there are some fairly graphic scenes that contain more than a full measure of blood, gore, violence, and grotesque death.

Before I close, there is one other comment that is more about the Holmes tradition than a gaming issue.  The people who put this game together never lost sight of the fact that this wasn’t just an entertaining mystery/adventure.  It was a Sherlock Holmes adventure!  I’ve previously noted that both Holmes and Watson are excellently portrayed.  And any student or lover of Holmes should also know that the Baker Street irregulars appear, Victorian scientific apparatus is seen in all of its brass and glass glory, and even Professor Moriority makes a brief but memorable appearance.  And while a few details are missing from their rooms, there is a slightly bent fireplace poker, a Persian slipper, and a violin.  There is also a huge framed poster of Reichenbach Falls to remind viewers of exactly with whom it is that they are dealing.  The gamer is even allowed to measure footprints with a tape measure, and use a magnifying glass to find clues.  The people who put this game together have bothered to show the proper respect for a literary icon.  And I, for one, really appreciate it.

There seems little else to say.  I found the game to be beautifully crafted, visually stunning, literarily excellent, and adventurously entertaining.  It is simply a really fine game.  I can’t wait until their new game (Sherlock Holmes versus Arsčne Lupin) arrives in the mail, so that I can discover if they have managed to be excellent again.

©  March 2008  Mark Hasley

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Visit the  Official Adventure Games of Sherlock Holmes Website  to learn more about this game and the other Sherlock Holmes Games, download video trailers or demos, see other fantastic screenshots, and much more.

Developed (2006) by  Frogwares Game Development Studio  and published by  CDV  (September 2007 in US)  and  Focus Home Interactive  (December 2006 in Europe).

Rated:   M   for Mature   (blood and gore, drug reference, suggestive themes, violence)

Minimum System Requirements:  Windows

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Walkthroughs or Hints:

"MaGtRo's Walkthrough" available here!

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