Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened is the latest game from Frogwares, a European developer that specializes in Sherlock Holmes adventures (they also developed The Mystery of the Mummy in 2002 and Secret of the Silver Earring in 2004). Interestingly, none of their Sherlock Holmes adventures have been anything alike, with major differences in style, presentation, and characters involved, but one thing they have had in common is that they’ve all been right around mediocre, and The Awakened is no exception.
The Awakened starts out in London. You play mostly as Sherlock Holmes (and every so often as Dr. Watson), and as the game opens up you learn that immigrants have been disappearing throughout the city. Quickly you infer that the immigrants aren’t just being robbed and killed or anything simple like that -- something darker is afoot, and your investigation leads you around the world, from Switzerland to New Orleans to the Scottish coast. Along the way you must find and analyze clues, talk to witnesses and glean information from their testimonies, and of course solve puzzles.
Basically, The Awakened is the type of adventure that the CSI and Law & Order games strive to be. There is a long case to be solved, there are tools to be used (although Holmes is a little bit limited since the events take place in 1894), and there are several crime scenes to be examined -- but there are also the kinds of puzzles that you’d expect from an adventure game. You won’t be able to complete The Awakened just by thoroughly pixel hunting your way through each location.
Also, The Awakened is a little different because of its engine. Unlike most adventure games, which use discrete locations with either first- or third-person perspectives, The Awakened uses a first-person perspective with large, fluid locations, and so it’s more like a first-person shooter. Given that sort of game, the controls are about what you’d expect: the WASD keys move Holmes around, the mouse is used for steering and panning the camera, and the space bar works as the “action key” when you get close to an interactive spot (such as a person to talk to or an object to pick up).
In some ways this sort of engine is nice. For one thing it’s different, which is always a plus for me as a reviewer, but it also helps to breathe some fresh air into a genre that doesn’t see a lot of variety in its engines. Also, because interactive spots are shown to you when you get close to them, there isn’t as much of a reliance on pixel hunting here as in other adventures, and that’s definitely a step in the right direction. But on the downside, instead of the photorealistic locations you usually see, you get locations that look somewhere between mediocre and bad. Worse, the locations tend to be on the dark and drab side, and I felt that I spent too much time stumbling around in the near-dark.
The puzzles are also a mixed bag. There are some fun sequences in the game, like when you have to chase a thief through the back alleys of New Orleans, but then there are puzzles that seem all but impossible, like when you’re given a sequence of numbers and asked to decipher a code from it. I mean, I like number puzzles and all, but I didn’t even know where to start with this one, and I’m guessing that it’s just one place of many where you’ll have to consult a walkthrough.
The main problem with the puzzles is that the game’s interface isn’t all that friendly. You’re not given a lot of hints for if you’re on the right track, and the game insists on not letting you do things until it thinks you’re ready for them. Sometimes this is fine, like when you find a recipe for a smoke bomb, plus all of the ingredients for the bomb, but you’re not allowed to pick any of them up until you actually need the bomb. It’s obvious that you’ll eventually get to use the items; it’s just a matter of when. But in other places the timing is all but random, and it’s frustrating to try something and get no response, or to be told that what you tried doesn’t work, only to have the game do a 180 after you’ve completed some seemingly unrelated task somewhere else. The game is also a little vague at times about what you’re supposed to be doing, and I think with a little more attention to detail and a little bit cleaner mechanics, the game would have been much more enjoyable to play.
But as it stands now, Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened gets a midline review from me. For every good thing about the game there’s also a bad counterpart. The engine is unusual, but it doesn’t look especially good. The storyline is intriguing, but it’s a lot darker and more gruesome than you’d expect from a Sherlock Holmes tale. And the puzzles sometimes work and are fun to solve, and sometimes they don’t and they’re not. And so The Awakened is just one of those games. If you like dark mysteries or Sherlock Holmes, then you might want to give it a try, but if you don’t, then you can safely skip it and not worry that you’re missing anything.