One of my favorite movies when I was a child was Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. There is a scene in the film where the candy magnate leads his group of tourists into the “chocolate room,” a huge lush garden where every plant, tree and stone is edible. Now, imagine that you are the overwhelmed Charlie, your eyes glazed over at the incredible bounty arrayed before you…and then Willy Wonka says, “Enjoy it all. But you can’t leave until you have eaten every bite.”
That will give you some idea of what playing The Case of the Rose Tattoo is like. There is so much to see and do and explore here, so many details, so much dialogue and description that before the game is over, you can find yourself buried under the sheer weight of it all.
The game starts simply enough. There is a massive explosion at the exclusive Diogenes Club, which nearly kills Sherlock’s brother, Mycroft Holmes, who is a Big Cheese at the British Ministry of Defense. Sherlock himself is too distraught at the news to leave the legendary flat at 221B Baker Street, so it is up to Watson to handle the initial investigation. Using a map of London to instantly travel between locations, Watson can visit the scene of the crime, Scotland Yard, and St. Bart’s Hospital, where Mycroft lays in critical condition. Having taken care of preliminary matters, Watson returns to Baker Street to team up with Holmes. Together, the team uncovers a convoluted conspiracy that weaves together the bombing, blackmail, kidnapping, murder, extortion and foreign espionage.
Make no mistake; the complex story is masterfully written. The primary plotline deals with the theft of secret plans for a new explosive, which were stolen from the Ministry of Defense. The bombing of the Diogenes Club is just one of the many smaller mysteries that branch off from Holmes’s investigation into the Ministry theft. Each step toward solving one of these mysteries seems to open up two more leads to follow. By the end of the game, you have some twenty different locations to visit in your pursuit of the truth. The overall storyline is, indeed, more complex than even the lengthiest Sherlock Holmes novel. Yet by the story’s end, each seemingly disparate thread is wrapped neatly back into the tale’s tapestry.
But what is the real strength and, ironically, the biggest downfall of the game is not the big picture, but the details. These begin with the game’s look. Holmes, Watson and the rest of the characters (including the animals) are all photorealistic sprites moving through an intricately rendered 2D world. You will be familiar with the technique if you have played The Riddle of Master Lu or Toonstruck. The backgrounds are gorgeous and authentic, really giving you the feel of being in Victorian London. And virtually everything in them is clickable: windows, clocks, fireplaces, rugs, furniture… you can get a description of nearly everything you can see. But these aren’t your everyday brief descriptions; they are paragraph-long observations about the object, its use or artistic merit, what it says about the tastes of the owner, or merely an excuse for a wry and witty comment on a character or Victorian society. They are all very well-written, often eliciting a chuckle or out-loud laugh. But the very detail of the background art also works against the game. There is so much to see that you often miss a critical and extremely tiny object in the mélange. This is further hampered by the fact that objects may not only be tiny, but partially obscured to the point that you may literally only have a one or two pixel hotspot to detect the item. Many items also must be examined more than once to get them to reveal all their secrets. Finally, add the fact that many times a seemingly innocuous piece of the background must be located and clicked in order to produce a certain bit of dialogue. The end result is that the typical room has some dozen examinable details, each of which produces a paragraph worth of reading material, and each of which you are forced to go through to make sure that you don’t miss any leads.
Conversations with other characters tend to follow the same design. Many of the choices offered to you lead you down blind alleys, and even a seemingly direct and brief question can result in five minutes worth of back-and-forth dialogue. While this dialogue is very well written and captures the flavor of the Holmes milieu perfectly, much of it is unnecessary to actually advancing the plot. However, since you seldom know from looking at a conversational choice what lead will result from it, you are once again forced to choose every single option to assure that you don’t miss a plot-critical clue. I’ve seen Kevin Smith movies that didn’t have as much dialogue as this game.
Another love-it-or-hate-it aspect of Rose Tattoo is that while you start out with a pretty clear direction of what path your investigation should take, by the time the game is half over it has become almost completely non-linear. You have the choice of half a dozen different plotlines to follow and well over a dozen different places to visit. This can be a good thing, since if you find yourself stymied in the investigation of one sub-mystery (probably because you missed commenting on a coffee cup somewhere that you didn’t see) you can always go attack a different chunk of plot. But as more and more locations appear on your map, and you realize that the leads are multiplying faster than you can keep up, there can come a point where seeing the sheer enormity of how much you haven’t been able to even start to investigate yet can be more than a little daunting.
But these are subjective quibbles. Some gamers may feel overwhelmed and bogged down by the wealth of details and open-ended nature of the game; many gamers will relish the way those same details immerse them completely in A. C. Doyle’s London while the non-linear format lets them explore the story in any way they wish. When it comes to the more objective qualities of a game, Rose Tattoo scores high marks in almost every department. The interface is straight point & click. The left mouse button is used to move you to a spot, look at an object, or initiate conversation. The right mouse button is your versatile one. You use it to access game options (save, load, subtitles, volume, etc.) and inventory or to give you a wider range of actions to take with an object. For instance, if you left-click on a bottle, you will merely look at it. Right-clicking will give you the option to look at the bottle, but may also include such choices as TASTE, SMELL, EXAMINE and PICK UP. Another big plus in the interface is being able to access Watson’s journal by right-clicking on him. (Watson accompanies Holmes on his travels almost everywhere once the master sleuth takes over the investigation.) This journal keeps track of all the conversations in the game. (By the end of my game, it was 163 pages long.) Aware of the massive amount of conversation in the game, the designers included a keyword search function, which lets you easily find the clue reference you are looking for. The voice acting is generally average-to-good, while Holmes himself is simply outstanding. And even at the $30 or so you will usually pay for Rose Tattoo on eBay, its length makes it a great value.
The one area in which Rose Tattoo fails is the puzzles. First, there aren’t very many of them. 95% of the “puzzling” comes from conversation. There are very few exceptions when Holmes must use his home chemistry set to analyze a clue. Holmes himself will usually walk you through these with voice-overs, but even when he doesn’t, it mostly is just a matter of trying to pour all fifteen of the available chemicals into a beaker. Holmes won’t pick up the wrong ones, so there isn’t really any way to do the analysis incorrectly. There are also two locked door puzzles. One is brain-dead easy, and the other has appeared in virtually every single adventure game since the invention of the cathode ray tube.
However, despite the lack of brainpower expended on the puzzling, The Case of the Rose Tattoo remains one of the more atmospheric and intelligent games in the mystery/adventure genre. It manages to be smart, witty, stylish, immersive, educational and entertaining. But like Charlie confronted with an entire garden of sweets to eat, I recommend consuming Rose Tattoo in small bits over a period of time. The richness of the treat may give you a bellyache if you try to eat too much at once.