A few days ago I finished the game Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened, released in 2006 by Frogwares (and re-released in 2008 as a re-mastered version, mainly adding the ability to switch to a third-person view, which was the version I played). I have been aware of its existence and I have been wanting to play it for a while, and when I saw it on play.com for 5 GBP I bought a copy. I had read a few positive reviews of the game in advance, but unfortunately it failed to live up to any of these. One of the most positive reviews of the game can be found on the website Adventure Classic Gaming, which scores the game five out of five overall and concludes with the following paragraph:
“Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened is a game that I can highly recommend. The game’s plot is utterly engrossing and easily overshadows the few imperfections that are in the game. The voice work is beautifully done; the ambience is stunning; the payoff with the dramatic confrontation between good and evil, light and dark, truth and shadows, repays the player with an unforgettable emotional culmination in the end.”
I figured, rather than doing a proper review of my own, I’d piggy-back off this reviewer’s conclusion and briefly argue against (or at least disagree with) the claims made.
“The game’s plot is utterly engrossing and easily overshadows the few imperfections that are in the game.” No it isn’t. It starts off well enough, but by the end we seem to end up with a loosely connected mess which all adds up to those generic Cthulhu cultists are at it again. I never had any Oh, so that’s what’s going on! moments, there were no great revelations (at least none which engaged or made too much sense), and I’m having a hard time retracing the story back to where it started and explaining to myself how all the pieces fit together. The plot felt like bare-bones Lovecraft, like something someone with only a passing knowledge of the mythos would come up with, with close to no originality of its own – and the few bits that seem original and interesting hardly go anywhere. It’s now common pop-culture knowledge that the ancient being known as Cthulhu slumbers on the bottom of the sea and that various sects seek his awakening so that he may devour / destroy / enslave the world. You’ll either need to execute that plot really well, or you’ll need some additional sufficiently executed elements to spice things up.
“The voice work is beautifully done”. Definitely not. It’s adequate, but it feels uninspired and devoid of any real emotion. There are also a couple of very awkward children who’re obviously voiced by adults scenes. As a side note, for some reason I kept imagining how Sherlock Holmes’ lines would’ve sounded like if they’d been delivered by Conker The Squirrel instead.
“[T]he ambience is stunning”. Overall no, but at times it can be pretty decent. The level of detail and the effects are at times impressive – like when you see the distant trees and the boats going by in the port area, and you notice the reflection effects of the boats on the water. It also helps that the large areas you move through all seem to load at once, including the houses that you can access. So you can for example see from your window down onto the street (and vice versa), and peek into houses and see characters you can go in and interact with. But you generally can’t interact with most of the environment, there are large empty spaces where there’s nothing you can do, there generally aren’t that many houses you can enter, the same textures are reused too frequently and obviously, and often areas will seem oddly deserted and tidy, thus breaking with the overall ambiance.
“[T]he payoff with the dramatic confrontation between good and evil, light and dark, truth and shadows, repays the player with an unforgettable emotional culmination in the end.” Wait, did we play the same game? There’s no real good vs. evil plot to this game; Sherlock Holmes tracks down cultists because their nefarious scheme gets tangled up in one of his cases, and once he realizes what’s going on he seeks to stop the cookie cutter Cthulhu cultists’ nefarious plan, like any sane man would. In most games you play as the good guys and you battle against the bad guys, and I guess this game was another one of them, but good vs. evil was never any sort of underlying theme. It would arguably be evil to destroy the world, and good to stop someone from destroying the world, just like it’s evil to kidnap princesses and good to rescue princesses from their kidnappers.
And I would hardly call the ending very emotional. The characters involved, other than Watson and Holmes, we have no knowledge of nor experience with, and the cultists remain as generic as ever up to the very end. The last scene is just Holmes trying to explain the convoluted plot to the player (and Watson) from the comfort of his study.
It definitely wasn’t a good game, but it wasn’t terrible either; it was somewhere between bad and mediocre. I definitely prefer Adventure Gamers slightly harsher review of the game:
“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[.] […] 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.”
As a side note, Frogwares has made a few other Sherlock Holmes games by now, and sometimes they will make amusing references back to the previous games / cases. For example, in The Awakening you give an ancient book to the local book store owner for translation, and in the Frogwares’ game Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis it becomes obvious that the book has had a bad influence on him. Watson also seems to be suffering from Cthulhu-related nightmares. So kudos to the developer for adding amusing winks and nods that those who’ve played through their other games in the series can enjoy.