Review for Sherlock Holmes The Awakened (2023)
The words "remake," "remaster," and "reboot" seem to have been the buzzwords of the past few years, for better or worse. Classics such as Grim Fandango or Sam & Max are updated with their cores intact and only relatively minor narrative and gameplay changes. On the other hand, adventures like the recent Sherlock Holmes The Awakened (2023) are re-releases that depart drastically from their initial counterparts. Those who have played the original 2006 version or 2008 remaster will find this remake almost unrecognizable, the environments redesigned, and the story changed drastically. Even the gameplay resembles that of the more recent Sherlock Holmes entries rather than that of adventure classics.
Sherlock Holmes The Awakened (2023) is published and developed by Frogwares, along with the original (and its 2008 remaster), plus a whole catalog of other Sherlock Holmes adventures. This game sees Holmes and his colleague, Dr. John Watson, investigating a string of disappearances, leading to a conspiracy involving a cult that worships Cthulhu, a demon many players will recognize as the creation of H.P. Lovecraft. Though the stories of both versions head towards the same destination, their paths are drastically different. Players who have experienced the original will notice this from the remake's prologue alone, and it's increasingly apparent as the story proceeds. Where the original has hinted that the supernatural may be genuine but does not explicitly say so, the remake sometimes puts the mystical up front and even incorporates it into the gameplay. However, the paranormal elements torment and challenge Holmes' intelligence and penchant for rationality. The narrative hits that sweet spot between a Sherlock Holmes mystery and an eldritch horror story. Also, since it's one of Holmes and Watson's first cases, there are scenes in which they bond and reveal intimate moments from their pasts. Seeing their friendship flourish while taking on a Lovecraftian mystery makes the story exceptionally engaging.
The remake's presentation is a definite improvement. The earlier version's environments often felt bland and barren, even too bright for the horror it tries to convey. There were dark environments, but only a few. In contrast, the remake's locales are top-notch, whether you are walking through the gray, gloomy streets of London; the sunny city and green bayou of New Orleans; or even a dark and dirty insane asylum filled with corruption and secrets. The musical scores help make each level unique, usually consisting of subdued violin or guitar strings, piano, vocals, and more. The result is either calm, eerie, or mysterious tones. Sometimes, it can be loud with tribal drums or give a sense of urgency with subtle chants and percussions. The character models are also very detailed, which plays a role in helping you observe their features and makes them stand out from one another. The phenomenal voice-over work complements the characters well. Whether it is Holmes with his intelligent and often reserved nature or Watson being compassionate and professional, the dialogue and delivery do the main legacy cast justice and provide distinctive personalities to the side characters.
However, the remake has some noticeable issues with facial animations and lighting. The character's facial movements are primarily static, rarely changing. On top of that, the lip-synching could be better when looking at faces up close. The original had these problems too, but it was due to the technology at the time. Also, while many characters in the remake are well-modeled, Holmes' face is inconsistent. He switches from looking plain and clean to occasionally tired with a stubble beard. The change is not gradual. It goes back and forth without rhyme or reason.
The gameplay is also a vast departure from the original, and again for the better. The 2006/2008 version contained challenges focusing on intricate puzzles. Many of the puzzles themselves required that you have the brain of Sherlock Holmes (or look up a guide) to solve them, deterring many who want to figure things out independently. The remake takes inspiration from its more recent predecessors like Crimes & Punishment and The Devil's Daughter, which consist of finding clues in the environment and logging them into a journal. There is also the ability to observe people to create their profile, with the addition of confronting certain characters with the evidence collected. Holmes also has "Concentration," which allows him to find hidden clues, prompted by the green Cthulhu symbol, or tap into his imagination to reconstruct crime scenes. At times, Holmes and Watson must consult the archives to help them identify, for example, animal footsteps or an unknown substance. All the clue-finding and journal entries end up in his Mind Palace, where you must connect them to get a concrete answer, moving the story forward.
As in the previously mentioned games, these mechanics more closely define the kind of detective Sherlock Holmes is: observant, always able to weed out the tiniest detail others overlook, and identify people by merely glancing at them. The remake handles the gameplay more linearly than Crimes & Punishment, which revealed multiple observations with the possibility of getting the wrong solution. However, the remake utilizes this to good effect. There are breaks between the deduction challenges with a few mini-games and puzzle segments to get through. Unlike the original, the puzzles are enjoyable and challenging but not overly complicated. Moreover, the brainteasers contribute to the effect of Holmes' sanity slowly deteriorating throughout the story. Also, the game comes with many suits and disguises for Holmes and Watson, unlocked by finding enough clues or progressing the narrative. It leads to some fun and optional customization for you to experiment with. There is also additional content via "The Whispered Dreams Side Quest Pack," available for an extra charge.
Some gameplay issues may vary depending on how you handle difficulty. The different settings include "Young Detective," which helps identify interactable objects, tells you when to consult your journal, and makes the Mind Palace feature easier to sort out; or "Master of Deduction," which provides none of these. There is also "Mycroft," which allows you to customize which elements are on or off. On a first playthrough, Master of Deduction can be challenging, especially with the Mind Palace. But at the worst of times, it reduces you to frantically clicking on objects to find which ones are interactable. It is mainly a problem when there are two interactions for the same thing, but the wrong interaction keeps getting clicked because Holmes or the camera is at an improper angle. Also, my progression through the game halted a couple of times. One of the most frustrating moments occurred when I needed to find objects that contributed nothing to the Mind Palace. Some ambiguities come from the "Pin Evidence" mechanic, where you pin a specific piece of evidence to see it outside the journal. It is hard to tell whether this actually affects the ability to find clues and confront individuals, but it is a good idea to pin whatever is marked by any symbols around it, just in case.
Regardless, Sherlock Holmes The Awakened (2023) is a labor of love from veteran Sherlock Holmes developers. They could have just painted a fresh coat over an older game. Instead, they started from scratch and created something that one-ups the original, taking creative liberties with the story and gameplay inspiration from the more recent detection-inspired entries. My first time through this mystery adventure took twelve hours and was time very well spent.