WARNING: Some minor spoilers may lie ahead.
I just finished Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened, and I had a very good time with it. (in fact, I stopped playing the Bioware magnum opus Mass Effect in favour of it). I first heard of this game through the demo release on Steam. If you just play it for an hour or two, you won’t be impressed – it is obviously a lowish budget game, the voice acting is decidedly B grade, and the lack of budget makes the virtual environments seem a little sparse and uninhabited. The tech is also a little outdated – it uses an updated Myst engine, with some nice shader based water effects as the only real eye candy. But forget all that – to really enjoy this game you need to push through past the five or six hour mark, and look beyond the surface. Here’s what you get for $20:
1. Play as Sherlock Holmes (and sometimes Watson too). I am not a huge Holmes fan, but I have seen a few of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes on DVD (my brother has the complete set, he’s a big fan). The dialog is very believable (even if the voice acting is not so great), and there is lots of it, all spoken. The main characters are interesting enough that it warrants a go.
2. Play in an 1890s setting, in both Europe and the US (there is a lot of travel to exotic places in this game). How often do you get to do that these days? The environments are simple, but because you have free ,first-person navigation, they are very immersive. And the developers understand their engine (especially the lighting) well enough to give you a pretty good presence experience too – by the time you discover the first cult temple, you are definitely feeling the mythos doom.
3. The Cthulhu mythos (this is what attracted me to this game in the first place). The reason mythos stories work is because it is very complex, with hints of wierd tribes, ancient history, incomprehensible madness and bizarre conspiracies all intertwined (and glued together with some blood and guts for good measure). This game has the lot. Because it is so heavily narrative, there are lots of opportunities to dribble out the horror in small doses. For example, you pick up a lot of newspaper clippings and books which give a huge amount of detail all written in a great 1890s over-the-top sort of way. This ensures that you understand the meaning of everything, so that a simple scribble on a wall can become very ominous. I think the game fails to capture the overwhelming sense of inevitable doom that is essential to the mythos, but it does a very good job otherwise.
4. No contrived action/reflex sequences that artificially extended gameplay time at the expense of the mood and theme of the game. Sherlock Holmes stories are about the triumph of cool (almost inhuman) logic cutting through the most complex of contrived evil plans. This game remains true to that – yes, there are a couple of fight scenes, but these are shown as brief cut scenes. You spend your playing time thinking about what is happening in the game world, and not getting frustrated at the game itself (0k, the lock picking mini-game is a little contrived – last time I looked, locks were not like the Towers of Hanoi inside). But most importantly this means no having to save every half hour for fear of dying senselessly (are you listening, Mark Crowe and Scott Murphy? 😉 )
I would give this one two thumbs up. There are some interface oddities, and the scripting logic is a little screwy sometimes, but at a budget price it delivers. Be warned, though – because of the linear story and the pre-set puzzles, the replay value is going to be similar to a movie or book.