Sherlock Holmes: Silver Earring review
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.
To appeal to the puzzle lovers, there are indeed a small handful of self-contained logic puzzles, though most of these are localized in a single location on one day. The enigmas range from code-breaking to pattern recognition to clue deciphering. Although these puzzles provide a welcome change of pace, there was one eight-part sequencing puzzle in particular with clues so obscure that it will grind many players' progress to a screeching halt. This is really unfortunate, as it's a cleverly designed puzzle otherwise, as are the others.
The game auto-records every single interactive dialogue, key document, and even special observations made by the controlled character, all neatly displayed in a player journal. This becomes a significant puzzle element, as each day ends with a summary of acquired facts in the form of a test, which you must support with your documented journal evidence. The case review is a terrific concept, as it's a natural, logical means to focus on relevant details. Unfortunately, the questions themselves seem to have been randomly chosen, often serving no real purpose to benefit the investigation. You'll never encounter questions you can't answer for lack of information, but there are some rather dubious interpretations of wording, which may cause some people unnecessary problems. Since there is no feedback to individual questions, and several have multi-part solutions, it's frustrating not to know where you've gone wrong when you feel you've supported your answers correctly, and this happened to me more than once.
The game mechanics are standard point & click, but with one major caveat. Silver Earring is agonizingly finicky when it comes to character movement. You can point, and you can click, but too often neither Holmes nor Watson will budge unless you've found a sweet spot through an invisibly narrow path. Moving the characters to a different viewpoint involves searching for the special onscreen "walk" cursor, which can be annoying enough. Finding that cursor only to have your avatar ignore the command repeatedly is downright aggravating.
You'd think any title with control issues would avoid gameplay that draws attention to its deficiencies, but not so with Silver Earring. In two separate instances, the game makes you helplessly dependent on the stubborn interface. The first is an ill-conceived stealth sequence that you'll need to accomplish not once, but twice. In real time, you'll need to sneak Holmes past a patrolling guard and his insufferable dog with its canine super-senses. Although a relatively simple puzzle in itself, the time pressure alone would be enough to turn some people off, but the real deal-breaker is that you can't necessarily move where you click, or in the timeframe required. In the split second it takes you to realize that Holmes is still planted in the same spot, or stopping short of where you've directed him, you'll be discovered. Believe me, you'll be asking yourself long before hitting the "Load" key for the 20th time why the developers thought this would be fun.
When you've fully recovered from that trauma, you'll soon lead Sherlock into a winding, twisty forest maze. Yeah, everyone's favourite gameplay convention to begin with. Did I mention it was timed? Well, it is. Did I tell you it was "game over" if you fail? You betcha. Do I need to explain that you'll be pulling out every last strand of hair as your last few precious seconds tick away while Holmes refuses to move where the cursor says you can? Didn't think so. Frankly, I just don't understand this. There's simply no justification for poor pathfinding in a point & click game in 2004, particularly when your gameplay demands the kind of precision it can't offer.
Another disappointing aspect of Silver Earring is that it ignores many opportunities to incorporate organic puzzles into the story, or holds your hand through other puzzles. There are absolutely no dialogue puzzles, which are a natural fit for a criminal investigation. You merely click through all available options with every character, using no actual detective instincts whatsoever. And when taking control of Holmes' familiar chemistry table, he'll verbally advise you what to do every step of the way. There are other inexplicable examples of similar unwanted guidance, and each represents a lost chance to incorporate another level of challenge.
On the topic of wasted opportunity comes my largest lament - the game's ending. Relax, I'm obviously not going to tip my hand plotwise. My disappointment stems from the fact that the game doesn't require you to actually solve the case yourself. In fact, it's absolutely certain that the vast majority of players won't come close to solving the Case of the Silver Earring, and all the various mysteries it comprises. Instead, the player sits back and watches the inimitable Sherlock Holmes spend a full 20 minutes unraveling the complex, interwoven narratives encountered throughout the game. This includes details previously hidden (purposely) from our attention, and a resolution built on one fantastic hypothesis after another. This is actually quite consistent with the original Doyle short stories, but it's one thing to passively read through a finale, and quite another to sit idly through it after spending 15 or so hours under the impression you were building towards your own decisive conclusion. I now have a firm grasp of what it's like to be Watson, but personally, I felt cheated as a gamer.
There is much to like in this game, and Frogwares continues to establish itself as a developer with tremendous promise. If it seems I'm being overly harsh, it's only because the high standards in some areas really serve to expose its limitations in others. Ultimately, my recommendation for The Case of the Silver Earring depends on your expectations going in. Fans of the great detective will revel in a gorgeous, charming, original mystery worthy of the Sherlock Holmes legend. Those looking for a substantial, challenging, hands-on experience will likely feel let down by the overwhelming focus on narrative at the expense of gameplay. However, for anyone simply seeking an accessible, entertaining, story-driven adventure, you'll likely find enough in this game to satisfy you. Just know going in that the missed opportunities and flawed interface issues prevent it from realizing its abundant potential. You may forget about it soon afterwards, but you'll enjoy it while it lasts, and won't be sorry you invested your time.