Sherlock Holmes ah back ph’nglui wgah’nagl!
Frogwares is a game developer whose wonderfully unique output we’ve been thoroughly enjoying over the past number years, with the likes of The Sinking City, and their long-running Sherlock Holmes series making for charmingly off-beat experiences that manage to nail the atmosphere and vibe they’re going for whilst providing detective shenanigans that give your sleuthing skills a proper workout.
The Ukrainian-based indie studio has always made up for any rough mechanical edges its work exhibits with well-executed stories set in worlds that feel worth exploring despite some clunkiness here and there. This latest outing sees the team pivot from a planned open world adventure to a remake of 2007‘s Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened, a decision taken due to the fact they’re creating games slap-bang in the middle of an active warzone. With all the stress and pressure of the current situation in Ukraine, the devs chose to work on something smaller in scale for the time being, and this reworking of their 16 year old Lovecraftian murder mystery is the result of that decision.
Taking into account the circumstances in which it’s been made, it feels rough to come down hard on this latest Sherlock Holmes outing, and it’s a game that’s very obviously had a lot of effort poured into it. However, there’s no escaping the fact that a project timescale of one year, compared to the three years it took to create the excellent Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One, has had a noticeable effect on the end product here. Yes, as much as this all-new Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened updates and modernises the original game to a fairly impressive degree, there’s a lot of clunk, cut corners and sacrifices been made in order to get it out the door, leading to an episode that feels a little flat and uninspired.
But let’s look to the good stuff before we deal with what’s wrong here. Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened sees young Sherlock and Watson get themselves embroiled in a mystery that takes them from a bog-standard missing persons investigation all the way into the madness-inducing cosmic horror of the Cthulhu mythos. We’ve already seen how well-versed Frogwares is with all things Lovecraft through the underrated excellence of The Sinking City, and the marriage of HP’s bizzarro world and that of Holmes and Watson feels like a match made in heaven.
In this regard, Frogwares has delivered the goods to a certain extent, the atmosphere here is spot on for the most part, all grimy streets, dark alleyways, docks full of dodgy individuals and the feeling the something absolutely not good is pulling strings left, right and centre. As our dynamic duo explore locations in London, New Orleans and the Swiss Alps, you’re faced with crime scenes that give your noggin a good old exercise, with the series’ signature pixel hunting for clues and piecing together of evidence all present and correct. When it’s good, it can be pretty great, and we never tire of the banter between these two legendary characters.
There’s been a total overhaul of the graphics, the level and quest design, voice-acting, music and so on too, so fans of the original 2007 version who’re making a return trip will absolutely find plenty to be engaged by in just spotting the differences and replaying an adventure that’s been modernised to this extent.
However, there’s no escaping the fact that the investigations, characterisations and options afforded to players here have suffered due to the circumstances under which this game has been made. Sleuthing sequences aren’t nearly as expansive or choice-driven as usual, there’s only ever one potential suspect with no chance to follow the wrong trail or ruin an innocent person’s day by barking up the wrong tree. The disguise mechanic from previous efforts has been ditched, conversations with NPCs feel stilted and the crime scenes themselves lack any real imagination or sense of fun/mischief. You’re left pixel-hunting around mediocre environments and trying to piece together parts of a puzzle that just isn’t particularly engaging.
The further into the campaign you get, the more Holmes is meant to be losing his grip on reality as he draws ever closer to the truth at the core of the mystery, an aspect of proceedings that’s represented by sections where you enter warped realities in order to solve disappointingly predictable and tired puzzles. These elements lack the usual flair we expect from Frogwares when it comes to depictions of sanity teetering on the precipice and compound further issues with level design that’s, for understandable reasons, been stepped back and shrunk down from the team’s normal output.
There are a few technical issues to wade through too, most notably lip-syncing in cutscenes that’s way off point, making for a distracting effect as you attempt to sit through the game’s many conversations. We also found some of the searching for clues during investigations felt far too finicky, with exacting pixel-picking required to discover some vital elements that you’ll need to move forward in the story. This is also a game that, over the course of its twelve-hour running time, simply isn’t spooky or scary enough given its subject matter. We’re not expecting to be terrified out of our skin, obviously, but anything even remotely approaching a jump scare or a little uneasy tension here and there would have given things a nice lift.
Overall, what you’ve got with this remake is a game that we’d only really recommend to hardened fans of the Sherlock Holmes franchise. There are some decent moments, for sure, you’ll certainly be stumped by some of the investigations along the way, it’s great that they finally dropped combat altogether and the atmosphere, as usual for the studio, is pretty much on point aesthetically. However, this is still a comprised version of what you’ll be used to from these games, a valiant effort that’s been held back by a difficult situation.
Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened is a remake made under difficult circumstances and for that reason its shortcomings are certainly more than understandable. However, the fact remains that the resulting game falls short of the standard we’ve come to expect from Frogwares’ excellent sleuthing series. There’s still some reasonable investigative work and a nice atmosphere for fans to enjoy should they decide to bite the bullet here, but rough edges, a lack of scares, dialled back level design (compared to Chapter One) and detective work that plays it too safe makes for a Holmes outing that’s rather hard to fully recommend.
- Some decent investigative sequences
- Holmes and Watson are always fun to hang with
- Atmospheric locations and some other nice upgrades to the original 2007 effort
- Technically clunky in places with plenty of rough edges
- Level design and investigations are dialled back compared to other modern offerings in the series
- Lack of tension or scares is disappointing
- Finicky pixel hunting can lead to frustration