Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened review
Since this review was first published, the game has been re-released as a "Remastered Edition" which offers a third-person, point-and-click control option, aloing with improved graphical effects and an updated help system. This review is based on the original version.
There are some things which are just bound to happen. After a dozen Sherlock Holmes adventure games and about as many Lovecraft-themed ones, after Freddy vs. Jason and Alien vs. Predator, it was really just a question of time before someone contemplated doing Holmes vs. Cthulhu. Well, the wait is over. Having done two previous Holmes games themselves, the people at Frogwares have decided to put Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous detective on the trail of a cult of Cthulhu worshippers who have kidnapped various people for use in one of their dark rituals. The result of this strange association is Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened, and whether it manages to combine the strengths of both franchises or ends up being a monstrosity even Lovecraft wouldn't have dreamt of is what we'll now have to determine.
The Awakened opens with Dr. Watson having a nightmare about a previous case and his reminiscences will be the basis for the game. Despite the blur of mysterious faces and creepy incantations that haunt his dreams, the most striking detail of this introduction is that the poor man's bed only has a bare mattress. Since this is a Sherlock Holmes game, let's get in the mood and do some reasoning: what can be deduced from that detail? Well, it obviously means that it was technically too difficult to have realistic blankets or even sheets. From which we can infer firstly that the game is in real-time 3D, and secondly that you shouldn't expect the eye-candy level of big-budget action titles. Elementaaarrghy, my dear Yog Sothoth.
What you can't deduce, however, is that the game also uses a first-person perspective. Don't worry, though, as that doesn't mean it has been turned into The Adventure of the Missing Linking-Book. You see Holmes very frequently, in the many conversations and cutscenes, and you won't be spending your time flipping levers or adjusting weird pieces of machinery. As a matter of fact, based on my previous experience with real-time 3D adventures, I'd say the move to first-person was a good choice. When you're going to spend so much time investigating and searching environments, the last thing you want is to miss clues because of wrong camera angles or because your character is in the way.
The interface is also somewhat unexpected at first. You move Holmes' head and turn him around by moving the mouse, and the usual WASD keys (or others of your choosing) make him move forward, backward or sidestep. It's also possible to control everything with the mouse (holding the left button to move forward), but I found this option far less intuitive and practical than the mouse/keyboard combination. Right-clicking brings up your inventory, where you can combine items or make one active. Little icons (an eye, hand, etc.) appear on the screen to indicate that something can be interacted with, and a quick keystroke makes Holmes do so. All in all, I found the interface to work surprisingly well. One might have wished for a functional "always run" system (the current implementation resets to walking every time you do something), but holding the Shift key to run manually isn't much of a problem if you're using the keyboard.
Unfortunately, simplifying the onscreen interface carried over into the game's interaction density. Hotspots are limited to the bare minimum, namely clues you have to find and items you have to use. It's certainly a bit disappointing at first, but you quickly come to accept that it's how The Awakened works and that you're not playing one of the Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes games. As a consequence, however, the game's vast environments tend to feel very empty. This is made all the more noticeable by the general lack of life in them; most areas are completely still, without characters or little animations that would make them come alive. The lack of light and colour also reinforces that impression. I understand that this may have been meant to convey the darkness of the plot, but most of the time you see perfectly around you, and the feeling is not that of dark shadows concealing untold secrets but just of greyish dullness. As a matter of fact, one of the environments goes for light and vibrant colours, and the contrast between that seemingly-reassuring luminosity and the dark events you're investigating there is far more effective than any length of greenish docks or greyish corridors the game uses at other points.
Technically, apart from the lack of animations, the environments are well-rendered, fairly detailed (for a 3D adventure game), and quite large, so that you can play for an hour without encountering a loading screen. The characters are less successful. The faces are very well done, giving each character a distinct look, but they generally remain blank. Thankfully, the game's usually strong voice acting manages to convey most of the personalities and emotions on its own, but more facial expressions would definitely have been welcome. The bodies, on the other hand, with their lack of detail and stiff and exaggerated animation, make the characters look more like puppets on a string than human beings. The designers seem to have been aware of the problem, and frequently use close-ups to conceal the problem, but it still hits you on the head from time to time.
The idea of playing Holmes in vast 3D environments might give rise to some worries: if the player is supposed to go looking for minute clues in such areas, isn't the game going to turn into an insanely hard pixel-hunting chore? Indeed, I argued in an earlier review that Holmes' traditional methods rely on an eye always open for clues, a solid scientific culture and superior deductive powers -- factors which constantly risk being translated in games as pixel-hunting, obscure knowledge and leaps of logic. I've yet to play a Sherlock Holmes game that doesn't have pixel-hunting problems, and The Awakened is unfortunately no exception. At various points in your investigation, you have to scour areas for clues to what happened. This sometimes includes static close-ups of interesting parts, where you get to measure footprints or take out your magnifying glass to look for small details. This is actually more fun than it may seem, as the location of the clues generally makes sense, and looking for them makes you feel like you're truly investigating, following footsteps or trails of blood, rather than just scouring the area at random. Furthermore, the game usually removes hotspots you've already completely examined, so that you don't have to look at them a dozen times while searching for other clues. The game also won't trigger certain events or let you go somewhere else at times until you've found everything you need -- though this bottleneck may feel overly artificial. Nevertheless, there's still bound to be times when you'll get stuck because you've missed something, forgotten to look up or down, or overlooked a dark corner. I guess some amount of tri-dimensional pixel-hunting is indeed unavoidable.
When I started playing the game, I quickly became afraid that its designers had fallen headfirst into the other two predictable Sherlockian pitfalls (leaps of logic and obscure knowledge). As you finish your first session of looking for clues, Holmes offers a detailed summary of the events that unfolded that doesn't seem humanly attainable from the evidence you've gathered. Still, shortly afterwards, you get to examine the clues at his lab table, and the reasons for his deductions become apparent -- but only because he has some incredible knowledge of materials and chemicals that you evidently do not possess, which makes the whole examination rather uninteresting to play through, as you're just doing what you're told to do and letting the game draw the conclusions. Thankfully, both Holmes' incredible leaps of logic and the lab table disappear from the game afterwards, and you get to understand events little by little by yourself, rather than having the game serve them to you.
You even get to draw some conclusions of your own. At several key points in the game, you have to type in your answer to a question, to see if you've been following everything. I enjoyed these little quizzes. They are never really hard (apart from an annoying spelling inconsistency at one point), you have as many tries as you need, and the game keeps a record of all the conversations you've had, documents you've found and conclusions you've drawn, which you can review before giving your answer. As a matter of fact, I found this record to be a great feature throughout the game, and I often referred to it to remind me of what was going on. It's a shame that the written documents are made very hard to read by small text and a general blurriness.
So far, The Awakened sounds like a standard, more or less successful, Sherlockian game. Where does Lovecraft fit into things, then? To be blunt, nowhere. H.P. Lovecraft was a prolific American writer who created a disturbing, complex and cohesive mythology centred around various races of alien beings who invaded the Earth at points in its history, some of which were so powerful that they came to be regarded by humans as monsters or gods. Unfortunately, it seems that most game designers have only heard of one of Lovecraft's stories, The Call of Cthulhu, which tells of a group of demented people trying to raise Cthulhu, a squid-like being of tremendous power currently dreaming at the bottom of the sea -- again, The Awakened is no different. As matter of fact, the mock-Lovecraft elements are so weak that the group Holmes is trailing could have been worshipping Ogoun Badagris or the Flying Spaghetti Monster without requiring much change to the plot.
While the Cthulhu elements will definitely disappoint Lovecraft fans, they certainly work to give the game a "horror" edge. The Awakened does not shy away from featuring bucketloads of blood, and contains a couple of scenes definitely not for the squeamish. The game is definitely meant to be creepy, and it does that very well throughout. There's always a dead thing close at hand, with hints of foul practices, and the discrete soundtrack uses every trick in the book to make you feel uneasy. Even good old Watson, while retaining his usual role as comic relief from time to time, managed to make me jump in my seat several times -- though that owes more to his erratic movement pattern that allows him to materialise in front of you when he was right behind a moment earlier than to a conscious effort on the designers' part.
The game's hybrid nature, between Holmes and Cthluhu, is reflected in its extremely varied gameplay, which makes sure it's always suited to what's going on instead of following a formula. Along with the clue-searching, analyses and quizzes I've already mentioned, The Awakened features a fair share of standard inventory puzzles (including a couple that use the game's physics engine, though you shouldn't expect anything revolutionary on that front), some logic puzzles, a handful of numerical conundrums, a treasure hunt of sorts, and even a little chase sequence, which is probably the most entertaining part of the game. There are no timed or skill-based sequences, and you can only die on a few occasions, with ample warning beforehand (be sure to save your game then!) You also play some short sections as Watson from time to time, though it doesn't really differ from what you do with Holmes.
Varied in nature, the gameplay is also very uneven in terms of difficulty and quality. One thing that never seems to get nailed right is the sense of direction. Far-too-explicit instructions combined with some forced linearity (where you can't take or use objects before having been given an explicit reason) reduce several sections to just following orders rather than having to think your way through. At other times, I often found myself at a loss as to what the game wanted me to do. Each type of challenge has its own "rules" and expectations, and the game usually does nothing to tell you what they are, often seeming to assume that they are obvious enough not to need any explanation -- which they aren't. As a matter of fact, I felt some puzzles' difficulty lay more in guessing what their rules were than in solving the puzzle itself. The interface, devoid of a general "look" function, doesn't help with this lack of direction either. You sometimes activate a hotspot only to be told that Holmes expects you to use something on it, but with no clue as to why that might be necessary, or even what exactly you're looking at. And while the English translation is generally good, some blunders here and there also contribute to leaving you even more lost in the fog -- one of the game's several rough edges that, while not strongly detracting from the overall experience, subtly hurt the game every now and again. That is not to say that all the gameplay in The Awakened is a chore, but for every challenge that is fun to solve there's another one that isn't.
As a matter of fact, this hit-and-miss quality is a general characteristic of the game. While some sections work rather well (especially Holmes and Watson's trip to America, which has the most lively locations, the most interesting assortment of puzzles of the game, as well as some rather nice plot developments), others should never have made it into the game. For instance, near the end, when you're very close to reaching your goal, you have to go through a long series of inventory puzzles, which are rather good in themselves, but are completely unrelated to the events at hand and manage to destroy whatever momentum the game had managed to build up to that point. But the worst part of the game was much earlier. About a fifth of the 25–30 hours you'll spend on The Awakened takes place in an asylum, and you don't know the meaning of abysmal until you've played through that. All that time spent running along grey and boring corridors which all look the same, going on a seemingly never-ending stream of fetch quests for a series of babbling and cackling patients who never manage to be anything but annoying, is enough to make you half-mad yourself. Furthermore, it seems the designers decided to open The Big Book of Clichés at the page for "asylums in horror stories" and use every single one of them (yes, including constant mad screaming, cruel experiments, and body parts stashed in a corner). Throughout this entire section, I had to force myself to persevere, as there was nothing in the game compelling me to continue.
And so we finally come to The Awakened's biggest problem. It does some things well and some things not-so-well, but its prevailing characteristic is that is offers very little incentive to go on playing. I said at the beginning that Holmes was "on the trail of a cult of Cthulhu worshippers who have kidnapped various people for use in one of their dark rituals". That wasn't a summary of the early portions of the game; that's basically all there is to the plot. When you hear the names of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and H.P. Lovecraft, one thing it is reasonable to expect is mystery -- and that is precisely what this game fails to provide. It plays out in a completely predictable fashion, without a single twist or revelation, as Holmes just follows the trail of the evil cultists in order to avert the end of the world -- though he could probably have stayed at 221B and waited for the game's plot to bore Cthulhu to sleep. There are some smaller mysteries along the way, but the game does a poor job at conveying their relevance in the larger picture (apart from providing the clue to the next step). And when you take it for granted that you're facing an army of bloodthirsty weirdos going on a rampage, a murder or two hardly feels surprising or interesting. At the end of the day, when the motive is known and the circumstances irrelevant, determining whether this blood splatter on the left comes from the same person as that blood spatter on the right doesn't feel worth either a backache or a headache.
Ultimately, The Awakened is not a mystery worthy of Doyle or of Lovecraft. Rather, it's something between a thriller and a horror story that doesn't do full justice to either. If this is what you're looking for, if you feel the reliance on creepy atmosphere is enough to keep you going, and if you're ready for both the hits and the misses in the design, then you should have a reasonably good time overall. Otherwise, take a pass on the game and don't worry about the missed opportunity. It was inevitable that the paths of Holmes and Cthulhu would cross one day, but it is equally certain that they'll return in more of their own games in future, having gone their separate ways again. This, too, is just bound to happen.