Monday, September 24, 2007

Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened Review

Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened, developed by Frogwares and published by CDV.
The Good: Mostly realistic detective work, useful objects are clearly marked, challenging puzzles, decent lengthy story
The Not So Good: Terribly linear, no current objective list and sporadic guidance, obscure yet specific clues to gather, too many illogical solutions, barren static environments, drawn-out cut scenes
What say you? The extremely subtle clues and odd puzzles overshadow realistic methods and testing puzzles: 5/8

One of the most gifted detectives has been represented countless times in books, movies, and computer games. Tackling cases of the strange and unexplained, he is probably the most recognizable fictional character of all time. I am, of course, talking about Gil Grissom. Oh, and Sherlock Holmes is pretty good, too. Yes, the venerable sleuth is back in a computer adventure surrounding cult activity in London and around the world, including exotic locales like pre-FEMA New Orleans. Will Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened maintain the heart-pounding excitement of the novels, or will it become yet another poor licensed product hoping to cash in on a big name?

Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened features Half Life era graphics (sadly the original, not the sequel). While this may be vastly outdated when compared to contemporary shooters, they are a step up in the adventure genre as the game is actually rendered in all three real-life dimensions. The level design is basic, and while there is a nice attention to detail with an architecture that reflects the time period, the levels are so small that good theme is to be expected. The towns are lifeless at best: usually, each “city” is only populated with a couple of people, instead of the bustling metropolises you should be traversing. The characters in the game are very stiff and poorly animated, but at least the mouths generally follow the dialogue they are speaking. There is a good amount of blood in the game (it is rated “M”), but nothing beyond what you would see on CSI (curiously, not rated “M”…sounds like a double standard to me). I guess we can just expect baby steps as adventure games catch up with the rest of the world and join the realm of 3-D, but Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened still looks archaic. The sound is better: all of the characters have decent enough voice acting delivered in an app subdued format. The background music is appropriate for the mood of the game as well. While the presentation of Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened might be good enough for gamers accustomed to basic point-and-click 2-D offerings, but the graphics and the sound definitely do not impress.

Since The Awakened follows the trials and tribulations of Sherlock Holmes, you would think the story would be halfway decent, and it is. While it might have been better to incorporate a real story penned by Sir Arthur (although it would spoil the ending for people familiar with that particular story), it works well enough with a tale of the supernatural. The controls are standard for a first person shooter, but point-and-click enthusiasts will have to convert over to three dimensional gameplay. WASD is used to move around the game world, and clicking (or using the spacebar) is used to interact with objects. The appropriate action is chosen depending on which object you are looking at, and the cursor in the game changes to highlight important things in the game. You don’t have to be looking directly at an object for the cursor to change, which is great for hunting the extremely subtle clues that are present throughout the game.

Sherlock is equipped with an inventory that holds various objects of importance. There are a few combination puzzles in the game, but most of these make sense (except for possibly the “bone torch”). The game doesn’t let you advance in the story without picking up every piece of evidence you need; Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened will not explicitly tell you what you need to find, however, so it can take hours to try and figure out what, exactly, the game wants you to discover. Dialogue in the game is boring and drawn-out to annoying extremes. Thankfully, you can skip past it with a quick press of the escape key, and the entire conversation is recorded in your notebook for future reference (good for subtle clues). Notes are also made during your investigations, and the map lets you teleport to previously visited locations. The one thing that Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened lacks is an objective list. While the game does fully restrict your movement to the present area (with prompts of “I have no need to go there” and “I should investigate further”), the game never tells you what to do or where to look or where to go next. This is even worse if you exit the game and come back later: you had better remember what you were doing.

Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened is a very linear game: you must do everything the game wants you to do before you can advance, no matter how minor. If Watson remarks, “you should get a newspaper,” you better darn well buy a newspaper or the game will not advance. Unlike better adventure games like Sam & Max, Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened doesn’t allow you the flexibility of doing things out of order, and successive games will always play out the same with identical dialogue and puzzles. Normally, you will first search for small clues in the game world, scouring every square inch of the crime scene looking for small black pellets or picking flowers. Most of your time is spent looking around until the cursor changes and hoping this is the last piece of evidence you will gather. After spending an inordinate amount of time staring at the screens, you will analyze your clues, solve answers with your evidence, and solve some puzzles. Most of the puzzles are numerical in nature, making you figure out a pattern or something along those lines: they are OK. The main problem with Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened is the main problem I have with most adventure games: there are too many irrational solutions that make no sense. Examples: placing a horn on a goat’s head, picking flowers to uncover a metal rod, taking a false beard from a bookcase, the aforementioned bone torch, satisfying Watson’s obsessive need for lemons (from a tree used to open a secret door), opening a gate with a wooden leg, and combining an anvil, a pot holder, and a trolley to open another gate. These are inventive to be sure, but I’ll be damned if they make any sense.

In short, Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened features everything I hate about adventure games. I will say the game comes with some good parts: the story is enjoyable (if convoluted), most of the clue gathering has an air of practicality, and finding required items is easier with the large cursor. But Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened has too many weird puzzles and solutions that must be completed in order. While there are some hints provided by the game to push you in the right direction, I would have had a heck of a time trying to complete the game without the almost constant assistance of a walkthrough. You must do everything the game wants and you can’t forget any single action, no matter how insignificant, or you will be stuck. At least Sam & Max let you go about things in a different order; the flexibility that is missing from Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened goes a long way in making the game frustrating to play. While we don’t quite reach the level of tossing sea salt onto a tombstone to make a building collapse (interestingly, also published by CDV), Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened still has too many puzzles I deem impractical for the common gaming audience. So, I bid good day to you, sir, as I free up some hard drive space.