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.Continued on the next page...