Sherlock goes toe-to-toe with the Old Ones in Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened.
Whilst I don’t dislike the Sherlock Holmes books, I’ve never really pursued them with great interest beyond a couple of the more famous ones. H. P. Lovecraft’s work has been much more my cup of hot brown water for a long time. Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened slams these two legendary series together into a surprisingly solid detective adventure game.
First off, a little background. Frogwares have been making Holmes games for many years, and have recently dabbled in the worlds of Lovecraft in The Sinking City. Whilst they had been planning on moving onto their next Sherlock entry, the Ukrainian dev team had to cope with Russia’s invasion of their country. I won’t get into all the complexities involved in that, but having to work through a foreign invasion of one’s country would be a harrowing experience. The team decided to hold off on creating their next project, and instead recreate one of their previous games from the ground up in the form of Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened, previously released in 2007. Credit to them for working through what must be dreadful circumstances.
Now, I didn’t play the original release of this game, but apparently you require no knowledge of it, as this release is entirely rebuilt, with only the original story remaining intact. Everything else has been completely recreated for a modern release, and it certainly does show, especially in some of the visuals on display.
The story goes that having only just built up their relationship, Holmes and Watson are thrust into a world-spanning case that begins with something as simple as a missing person. Starting out in London, the pair end up in Scotland, Switzerland, and even New Orleans as they pursue a mysterious cult who are responsible for the disappearances of countless people around the world. The gradual escalation in the tale is quite excellent, as the minor threats grow into something much more terrifying. It’s worth noting that there are certain elements of the narrative that reflect certain sensibilities of the time, as well as Lovecraft’s rather abhorrent opinion on other races. These views aren’t condoned by the devs, and they even acknowledge these issues at the beginning of the game. With that said, do be prepared that some characters treat other members of society rather poorly, and don’t receive comeuppance for it. Unpleasant, but narratively relevant.
Events unfold in a logical way, with Holmes in particular becoming more and more obsessed with the case and the strange visions that begin to plague him the deeper he digs. Watson’s medical background makes him the perfect sidekick for bringing the great detective back from the brink over and over, whilst Holmes’ almost flamboyant gambits find ways to acquire the information they need to get to the bottom of the case.
Characters that appear throughout are all solidly written, even though they are often near caricatures of the roles they play in the story. The prostitute with a heart of gold, the evil scientist, and the mad-with-power sheriff are all accounted for and play out in the way you’d expect them to but have plenty of personality. The supporting cast won’t surprise you in how they play out, but they’re played well enough to stand out in what could otherwise be pretty by-the-numbers roles.
Story certainly takes centre stage in Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened, but the gameplay is solid enough too. Each chapter takes place in its own environment, which you are mostly free to explore. You’ll have some key questions that you’ll need to answer to progress the chapter by gathering evidence through speaking to bystanders as well as key characters, and searching the environment for points of interest. The investigation mechanics are very similar to The Sinking City, with you needing to put events in the correct order via silhouettes only Sherlock can see, consulting archives by filling in key information to have something you need be revealed, and connecting clues to find out where to go next.
This latter part is done via Holmes’ “mind palace”, where those key questions appear. As you gather evidence, you’ll find more and more elements available for you to use to answer those questions. You’ll often need to pick three or four items that you think will answer the question, and should you choose correctly, the game will continue. It’s a little irritating, as even when you know the solution, you still have to link the correct evidence to progress, and if you haven’t found that piece of information yet, you’ll need to scour the environment until you do. In chapter 2, I had this exact thing happen, with me knowing which warehouse to visit, but because I hadn’t spoken to the right people yet, I wasn’t allowed to go in and move the story forward. It’s a bit irritating, especially when you have to trek back and forth through larger areas, but it’s certainly not game breaking.
I did quite like these investigation elements, as when you figure something out you feel quite smart, as very few of the answers are obvious right off the bat. And when things aren’t clear enough for you, you can brute force solutions if you have enough evidence, although you might unlock fewer bonus items if you do this. It’s a simple enough way of doing things, with a system of icons to hint at what you need to do with each piece of evidence. These symbols aren’t included in the hard difficulty though, so be prepared for a challenge. In the first couple of chapters, I wasn’t clear precisely how the game wanted me to progress, so it took a little wandering around trying to find evidence, when I was actually meant to use the archives or mind palace. There isn’t a tutorial as such, although there is a series of texts you can read via the menu, and I’d advise you do so before diving in.
The bonuses you can unlock are nice, and range from new outfits for Holmes and Watson, of which there are many, and objects related to Sherlock’s adventures and the tales of Lovecraft. These objects don’t add much to the game, but finding references to Arsene Lupin and Herbert West were a pleasant touch.
Initially, the visuals didn’t impress me all that much, with the standard graphics you’d expect from a UE4 game, but some of the later areas really did look good thanks to some great use of lighting and creative skyboxes for some of the more otherworldly locations. There was a little bit of that jank I saw in The Sinking City, such as rain coming through a solid roof, or NPCs walking eternally into walls, but on the whole things looked pretty good. When combined with the excellent sound direction, there were moments of genuine unease as you explored places in which unholy acts had been carried out.
Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened is a solid adventure game and an impressive achievement for a dev team going through a difficult time. Whilst there are some flaws here and there with some puzzles being more confusing or time consuming than they need to be, the overall experience is a lot of fun for the eight to nine hours it lasted. There are other bonus items for me to unlock, but I don’t see me running through the tale again for some time as I feel I’ve got all I wanted from it in a single run, but completionists will have a field day, as will Sherlock fans who will likely find swathes of nods to the great detective throughout. Giving this a go should be an elementary decision for adventure game fans.