With two previous Sherlock Holmes titles already under their belts, you'd figure Frogwares would have the formula down pat by now. But while they're clearly learning from experience and growing more comfortable with the world and characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, apparently someone forgot to send the Kiev-based developer the memo that defines the word "formula". Unlike so many game series, each successive Sherlock game has been characterized as much by the differences from its predecessor as by the similarities. From the first-person, node-based, puzzle-heavy debut in the Watsonless Mystery of the Mummy to the story-driven, third-person Case of the Silver Earring with its two playable characters, the one constant so far between games (besides Holmes himself) has been change.
The Awakened is the latest Sherlock mystery from Frogwares, and it definitely continues this trend of ambitious design. The new game reverts back to a first-person perspective, and gone are the point-and-click control scheme and prerendered graphics of the earlier titles, replaced by a free-roaming, direct-controlled game in full 3D. But those are just the mechanics. Perhaps more notably, the new game steps outside the purely logical, rational world of Holmes and into the psychological dimension of H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos. It's a seemingly paradoxical combination, and the game is all the more intriguing because of it.
While The Awakened has been released already in a limited number of English speaking territories, its worldwide publisher Focus Home International informs us that there will be some minor improvements to the game prior to its more widespread release in the coming months. So rather than cover a version of the game that many won't play, we'll hold off on a full review for now. But with a finished preview version now available, I was able to put the opening section of the game through its paces.
It's perhaps a bit excessive to highlight a game's load screens as a noteworthy feature, but there's only one chance to make a good first impression, and The Awakened definitely gets off on the right foot. Rather than simply show a progress bar filling up, the game also offers a very clever visual transition from simple sketch to 3D art that leads into the game proper. A small thing, yes, but an attention to detail rarely given most games. The introduction sees Dr. Watson tossing and turning in his sleep, tormented by as-yet-unexplained bad dreams that are surely a portent of terrors to come.
After a moving camera shows off the game's 3D engine, swooping through the streets before finally settling on the window of the famous 221b Baker Street, we find Sherlock Holmes lamenting the lack of romance in new crimes. He needs something to test his intellect and his passions, and of course he's about to get his wish, although first there's a short fetch quest to help players adjust to the new control scheme.
There are two ways to control the playable character in The Awakened. The first is a mouse/keyboard combination that is quite common to action games, and similar to the one used in the last Frogwares game, 80 Days. The other method, which many devoted point-and-clickers will be pleased to see, is a mouse-only option. By clicking and holding the left mouse button, your character moves forward, and you simply need to steer him in the right direction. It's very simple, and you'll soon be deftly conducting Holmes (and later Watson at various times) through his apartment and out onto the London streets.
Of the two methods, I found the mouse/keyboard combination to be preferable for a couple reasons. The first is its increased mobility, as it enables you to freely move both laterally and backwards. Using the mouse alone, you can only ever move forwards, so it requires a bit more turning in place. The other is that there's a small lag between clicking the mouse and the character moving, while the keyboard option is far more responsive. With no timed sequences in The Awakened, this lack of precision presents no gameplay obstacles, but it's a clear disadvantage of the mouse method. Still, these concessions will likely be a small sacrifice for many.
One minor inconvenience that applies to both methods is that the game defaults to walking speed. Running requires either an extra keystroke or double clicking, depending on your control method of choice. There is a toggle key to change the default speed, but this setting continually resets after performing an action, which is a similar problem encountered in Broken Sword 4. It's hardly a deal-breaker, but it's an annoyance that adds up over the course of a full game. Hopefully this can still be fixed for the final release, as the large environments in The Awakened ensure that you'll spend much of the game moving at the quicker pace.
There is no visible interface in The Awakened for the most part. Only when you come into range of an interactive item does a cursor appear. You must aim your view directly at the object you hope to manipulate, but the process is fairly forgiving, and on the whole it's an elegant system that doesn't clutter the screen unnecessarily. Equipped items appear as small onscreen icons when applicable, but otherwise the inventory is also hidden, as are separate screens for fully recorded dialogues, documents acquired, reports with Holmes' observations, and a map that allows for quick travel between places you've discovered and visited once. These sections quickly fill up, and while theoretically most of the reading is optional, it goes a long way to fleshing out the story, and you'll likely need to sift through it when confronted by a new version of the "quiz" that first appeared in Silver Earring. In The Awakened, this occurs in the form of a question from Holmes that must be answered using a text parser, so guessing won't get you far.
The rest of the presentation is generally positive, if not quite cutting edge. The 3D environments are fairly crisp and the character models nicely designed, and there are quite a few options to enhance either graphics or performance to best suit your computer. I ran the game on a fairly mid-level system and encountered no difficulties running the game with as many bells and whistles as the game allowed. Voice acting in the game is once again well done, and the instrumental music is sporadic but adds a suitable ambience when playing. Unfortunately, it had a tendency to skip frequently, and footfall occasionally disappeared entirely, and I saw no in-game options to optimize this aspect of the game.
As I only played through first two segments of the game, covering the detective's home neighbourhood and a nearby shipping dock, I can't reveal too much about the game's larger plot, but the case begins with the disappearance of a local servant. The investigation soon leads to a secret area with obvious occult influence, and when Holmes uncovers evidence of a gruesome (definitely not for the squeamish) ritual killing, the game is truly afoot. The Awakened reportedly takes players away from London to a psychiatric hospital in Switzerland, and on to various stops in the United States and Scotland before all is said and done.
If the first couple of hours are a proper indication, The Awakened will serve up a nice variety of gameplay, from conversing with other characters to such things as simple inventory applications, symbol indentification, and 3D physics puzzles. The inevitable crime scene scouring requires some pixel hunting under magnifying glass, which is actually far more fun than it sounds. I even encountered a scenario where Holmes and Watson needed to work together to overcome a particular obstacle, and it's nice to see Frogwares being more creative with their partnership. If there's a drawback to be found, it's that the environments seem rather sparse interactively, limited to necessary objects which are few and far between. Low interactivity is a common problem in adventures, of course, but it's unfortunate that The Awakened doesn't more fully reward the free exploration available.
The best impression any hands-on preview experience can leave is the desire to play more, and The Awakened certainly accomplished that for me. The game's interaction level will remind no one of the Lost Files mysteries of old, but with its diverse gameplay, (relatively) progressive production values rarely seen in the genre these days, and a story that should offer a fascinating psychological challenge for the great detective, this game looks to be the deepest and darkest Sherlock Holmes adventure from Frogwares. And if it's able to build on the momentum established in the first few locations, it may very well prove to be the best. For those eager to check the game out sooner rather than later, The Awakened can be found in Canada, Australia, and a few European markets. Otherwise, the final version of the game is due out in the UK next month.