Sherlock Holmes The Awakened is an eldritch mystery-solving puzzle/adventure game with some light action elements for PC (Steam, Epic, GOG), PS4, PS5, XB1 / XBX + S and Switch by developer Frogwares. You play as both Holmes and Watson as they investigate a sweeping case that takes them to both sides of the Atlantic and into the depths of madness. Does this public domain mashup live up to the best or worst of its source material? Let’s find out.
I Have Read Many of the Original Sherlock Holmes Stories…
…and I hate them. Each was the same; first, page after page to convince us there is no way anyone could ever figure out what happened. Followed by Sherlock explaining how he solved the mystery with evidence the story withheld from us.
But a game, of course, is a different animal. Here we are Sherlock, and the same smug understanding that is so frustrating in a novel becomes a power fantasy. Adventure games thrive off complicated puzzles, often requiring ridiculous solutions. It’s a perfect fit.
Before we get further into the details, here is some background. Frogwares is a Ukrainian developer. As a result, this game was built in trying circumstances. I will say right off the top that I really enjoyed it, despite any shortcuts they had to take with it due to their restraints. Also, while I saw a few glitches in my playthrough, none were game-breaking or even very disruptive to the experience.
However, it is a remake of an existing game, Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened, which I did not play. Thus, I cannot really speak to how much has changed from one version to the next, only what I thought of its current incarnation.
The original was episodic, and you can still see the bones of that in this one’s skeleton. The game unfolds in a series of closed-off hubs that you rarely revisit and don’t often affect one another. I don’t like episodic content, but it wasn’t a dealbreaker for me here.
Finally, this is a sequel to Sherlock Holmes Chapter One, which I also haven’t played. I noticed a few dropped references that flew over my head but didn’t negatively impact my enjoyment.
Sherlock Holmes: The Case of the Story That Was Actually Good
Now that disclaimers are out of the way let’s talk story. As this is primarily an adventure game, the story is critical. Thankfully, it delivers handily. As in many Sherlock stories, Holmes and Watson’s interplay operates as the piece’s heart. They are portrayed as two rather staid British men, but you get a sense that they love and trust each other by the end. It’s well-trod ground, but they handle it well.
The investigations themselves are compelling, though relatively simple. The overarching mystery is clearly meant to be the focus. Most supporting characters and settings are fairly disposable, with a few notable exceptions. Many people Sherlock is trying to save don’t make it through to the end. That fits the setting, however, so I can’t complain too much about that.
By nature, Sherlock is a man of logic and rationality. So what happens when he can no longer trust his own mind? This foundation keeps the situation compelling as a seemingly minor case escalates to world-ending consequences.
I Have a Gripe on That Front, However
The marketing is open about the fact this is a mash-up of Sherlock and Lovecraft. You can’t even look at the Steam page without seeing ol’ tentacle ‘stash prominently displayed and a description that mentions Lovecraft in the first sentence. They have a game to sell, so they want to highlight the unique premise. I understand that.
That said, coming into this gaming knowing the twist from the start was a bit disappointing. It starts slow, so I was able to forget about it in the first hour or so. But as soon as things got a little weird, I expected Cthulhu around every corner.
I can only imagine how cool it would be to have Sherlock solving a case, then be surprised to realize that his careful reasoning was pointless in the face of the indifferent and arcane might of the old gods.
Sherlock Holmes: The Case of the Story Hampered By Gameplay
How does the gameplay restrict the story? We’ll get there. Let’s start with a discussion of how the game works.
As befits the world’s greatest detective, most puzzles involve searching rooms for clues and connecting them to come to conclusions. And that is where the game shines. It rewards careful combing of the crime scene but eschews pixel hunts for the most part.
But the mechanics at play took me a while to feel comfortable with. The first real investigation confused me for some time, and not at all due to the mystery. Instead, I’d missed a tutorial prompt. I didn’t realize I had to pin a specific bit of evidence in the interface to investigate further.
This is also how the inventory puzzles are handled, which takes some getting used to. In a usual adventure game, you click on something in your inventory, then click on what you want to use it on.
Here, you must find the object and investigate it. It then appears in your notebook, where you can “pin” it to the interface as you walk around. Finally, you interact with a point in the world to use it. You can also use the same pinning system to discuss various topics with random passersby for additional clues. It is a relatively small portion of the game but is required at many points to move forward.
Finally, you select evidence in Sherlock’s “Mind Palace” to make the connections. If you have the right clues and choose correctly, the conclusions will come to you. Once you get used to it, it is a very flexible system…but it could be more intuitive.
Which Brings Us Back to the Story
The real issue with this system is that all conclusions must logically follow from the evidence provided. In normal circumstances, that’s obvious and reasonable. But Sherlock is well past normal here. He’s meant to fight against a creature of such vast indifferent madness that they are ineffable. Completely incomprehensible. Mind shatteringly so. As mentioned above, the story does address this, and it does so well. But I can’t help but feel that they could have used Sherlock’s failing grip on sanity more effectively from a gameplay perspective.
The game almost hints that it will do something like this. Sherlock’s concentration vision lets him see hidden details in the world. When you find such a hidden spot, words float above it and provide extra info. As the game progresses, some of these points pop up in R’lyehian (the language the cultists speak). To the player, this is effectively nonsense, and it does a great job conveying that Sherlock is losing his mind. But even then, you still also get the info you needed.
The mind palace may look dark and sinister, but there is only ever one answer, and it always makes logical sense. The end goal of summoning Cthulhu might be completely mad, but the cult is otherwise a meticulous planner. There seem to be a few alternative choices you can make in the game, but none of them have to do with how the mystery progresses. Incorporating Sherlock’s mental state into his conclusions would have allowed a more interesting exploration of the theme as well as some replay value. (this is a good point, could you elaborate a bit or provide an example)
There are a Few Other Systems I Should Mention
There are a few sequences where Watson does some shooting, but they are mercifully quick. They were serviceable, though they could have been more exciting. I almost wish there had been more to it or that those sections were removed entirely.
The lockpicking is one of my favorite implementations of the trope and does an excellent job of visually explaining how lockpicking works. In a world where most developers just slap in Skyrim‘s version, it’s refreshing to see a different take.
In the throes of madness, Sherlock occasionally has a vision that requires solving puzzles involving the environment. They are not terribly complex, though I did get stuck on a couple for longer than I’d like to admit.
And there’s a boat. When I started the chapter in the swamp, I thought shaking the movement up was fantastic. By the end, though, it felt wasted. There are only a few places you can stop, and most are just dead ends. It’s just long stretches of water, a few useless detours, and then the one place you actually have to go. This is also true to a lesser extent with the larger hubs. Their size seems to promise more than the game actually delivers. London and New Orleans are sprawling locations, but they feel empty. When you are first introduced to them, you might reasonably expect to need to travel to dozens of locations. But once again, it’s a lot of water with very little useful land.
Sherlock Holmes: The Case of the Audio-Visual Portion of Our Presentation
I have nothing but effusive praise for the voice work here. The cast all perform admirably, with Greta and Watson as standouts. Holmes is also great, with just the right balance of pathos and detached smugness.
The game’s environments are, for the most part, appropriately dark and foreboding. The few moments in the sun are contrasted against some of the darkest content in the game. I don’t care much about perfect graphical fidelity, but I did stop now and then to enjoy the view.
The human characters are nothing special. They are not grotesque (beyond when they are meant to be, at least), but neither are they impressive.
The sound design, on the other hand, is excellent. The music is subtle but nervous. It really helped put me on edge for the experience.
Sherlock Holmes: The Case of Being Glad This is the Last Section, and I Can Be Done With This Bit
Once I got past the confusion I ran into with the mechanics, the game was tough but fair. I had puzzles stump me, but I never felt hopeless. Which, given the subject matter, seems almost a missed opportunity.
Still, it’s a remarkable achievement for a company in the position Frogwares found itself in over the past year. Overall, I enjoyed this game immensely. I’d unreservedly recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good character study or just likes a solid adventure/puzzler.
Ok, I Lied About That One Being the Last.
Just a couple of notes. First, as this is based on the works of Doyle and Lovecraft and set in Victorian times, some questionable ideas are espoused here. For the most part, the game goes out of its way to repudiate such views, like the man abusing his servant. But be aware they are there (the game warns you about this in its loading screens).
Second and far less important, the game is relatively short. It took about fourteen hours to complete, and I wasn’t exactly trying for a speed run. I in no way think this is a bad thing, however. The timeframe kept the story tight and meant the game did not outstay its welcome. The game releases April 11, 2023, so if you pick it up let me know what you think in the comment below!
So that was Sherlock Holmes The Awakened! If you enjoyed this write-up, please check out my review for Sailing Era! Totally different kind of game. No idea what the connection is there except I wrote it.