Sherlock Holmes... The very name commands respect and lends instant credibility to a mystery. It also carries great expectations for any original story to live up to the legacy created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. That's challenging enough, but for game developers, that is only half the battle. Add to that the difficulty of building compelling gameplay around the famous Holmes tradition, and the task becomes all the more daunting.
Unfazed by the potential pitfalls, Kiev-based developer Frogwares has twice looked to the master sleuth for inspiration. The latest game is now afoot in a new third-person point & click adventure called The Case of the Silver Earring. Having clearly learned some important lessons from their debut endeavour, Mystery of the Mummy, Frogwares has created a title that barely resembles its predecessor. How did they fare? [Cue British accent] The answer is not so elementary, my dear gamers. Let us look more closely at the facts before drawing our conclusions.
As the game opens, Holmes and Dr. Watson are invited to attend a private music concert, which is promptly interrupted by the murder of the host, a wealthy industrialist. All initial signs point the finger of suspicion at the dead man's daughter, but the case (naturally) becomes far more complicated than first appearances. Over the course of five days, the mystery extends way beyond the investigation of the initial tragedy, taking unexpected and seemingly unrelated twists and turns along the way. At times the plot strains believability, and new events will cause more than a few perplexed "huh?" moments, as the narrative isn't as tight as it could be. Still, the story (which isn't based on any Doyle fiction) provides an enticing motivation to continue your detecting.
In some ways, the more critical component in making this a true Sherlock Holmes tale is the characterization of the key players, and Frogwares obviously did their homework. The big three of Holmes, Watson, and Inspector Lestrade are all faithful to Doyle's interpretation, and while I'm no expert in Sherlockian lore, the dynamics between them just feel right. Several times throughout the game we're treated to lengthy (non-interactive) discourses that allow Holmes to dazzle with his analytical genius, Watson to offer his methodical sensibilities, inquisitive curiosity and occasional indignation, and Lestrade to... well, do what Lestrade does best; namely, get all the facts of the investigation wrong, but with a well-meaning ignorance. I'd have preferred to see Holmes display a little more energy at times, as his dry, unflinching composure here occasionally seems poorly suited to both the circumstance and the original character, but this is a minor complaint. Overall, the central characters provide the integral backbone of Silver Earring.
By far the game's dominant attribute is its graphics. This is 221B Baker Street like you've never seen it before. With the possible exception of Microïds, Frogwares takes a back seat to no one in creating gorgeous pre-rendered 2D backgrounds. Though largely static, the Victorian-era world of Holmes is depicted in stunning detail that truly demands to be admired. There aren't a lot of environments in Silver Earring, but each is intricately detailed, using a rich, vibrant colour palette, resulting in a high "wow" factor. Cutscenes are equally impressive, with some wonderfully stylish presentations. In-game scripted events and an assortment of camera cuts are interspersed to add further cinematic effect, to varying degrees of success. It certainly helps maintain interest, particularly during the lengthier dialogues, but the artistic composition is occasionally questionable, unless it makes sense that a group of people should be crammed in a screen corner of an empty room, or you like staring at Holmes' back while he speaks to half of someone's visible head.
The 3D models that populate the game world are also nicely designed, with a diverse cast of characters all with a completely distinct appearance. Unfortunately, these models are much rougher around the edges than the backdrops. Strangely, several of the characters appear slightly cross-eyed, which is a trivial matter, but is a bizarre distraction all the same. More significant, however, is the animation. Characters demonstrate poor lip synching, and move stiffly, with a tendency to glide over the ground. On occasion, there are also some noticeable "skips" in the animation. Other times, it's clear that corners were cut, such as when Watson and Holmes are purportedly wearing masks, but appear without them. Again, none of these are unforgivable flaws, but there's definitely room for improvement, which is even more apparent in contrast to the brilliance of the backgrounds.
Sound is a generally positive aspect of Silver Earring. The voice acting is consistently good, with flashes of phenomenal (Watson!!) to dreadful (a mercifully short appearance by Wiggins, the Irregular). Normally I play adventures with subtitles on, but I'd strongly encourage anyone playing this game to turn them off, as it really adds to the atmosphere (and hides the numerous typos). There's no fear of missing any crucial information, which I'll explain in a moment. The game's music is a solid collection of classical orchestral arrangements, though some become a little repetitive, and don't always suit the onscreen events. After turning the music down slightly from the default setting, however, I found the scores added nicely to the game's ambience.
If Silver Earring were simply an interactive movie, I could stop right here and declare the title a definite success. Unfortunately, with the good comes the bad, and more cracks start appearing once we delve into the gameplay specifics. They aren't crippling, but they do tend to deprive the game of any momentum every time it appears to be finding a rhythm.
You'll control both Holmes and Watson at various times throughout the game, though they aren't working in tandem, and the game usually dictates when you'll use each character. Watson is given the more mundane duties, while Holmes gets the more glorified tasks. This adds a little diversity to the proceedings, though of course at the expense of Holmes and Watson interacting on a regular basis. The game structure is very linear, as you'll never leave one location until you've accomplished everything you need to do.
Silver Earring's puzzles are widely divergent in both style and difficulty. Much of the game will be spent doing predictable investigative work - examining crime scenes, collecting evidence (and other useful inventory items), and interviewing witnesses. While careful observation is an obvious requirement, the game does devolve into tedious pixel hunting periodically, and the cursor can be slightly deceiving in highlighting hotspots. Fortunately, these examples are few and far between, but at times you may find yourself missing that one tiny clue that prevents you from proceeding.Continued on the next page...