Sherlock Holmes The Awakened review: a creepy Lovecraftian jaunt for Frogwares fans
Friends with tentacles
Frogwares are in a bit of a tight spot at the moment, being as they are a Ukranian studio. If I was trying to make video games in a warzone and: a) my last game was a big sexy prequel to my long running Sherlock Holmes series; b) the one before that was a Lovecraftian detective game with pretty recent assets; and c) my back catalogue contained a Lovecraft-themed Sherlock Holmes mystery, then I'd probably do what they've done with Sherlock Holmes The Awakened. Which is to remake the old Lovecraft-themed Sherlock Holmes game, but with new assets.
It's also got new puzzles and areas, and a slightly rewritten story to account for this being a sequel to Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One. It's a smaller, less ambitious game than Chapter One with some jank knocking around, and I wouldn't recommend it if you're not a fan of the series, but you know what? I think there's a glimmer of greatness in the very fact of its constraints.
It's one for the fans, this, as the Holmes and Watson here are the sexy young models who aren't quite on bestie terms yet, and as a direct sequel to Chapter One there are references to catch (my favourite being Watson ribbing Holmes for the latter's old habit of rolling only one shirt sleeve up). The idea is that this is the case that cements Holmes and Watson as an actual crime fighting duo rather than roommates, and what begins as a jaunt to find a missing
servant slave, if we're honest, leads to the discovery of a big weird cult brainwashing the poor and funded by the rich. It's a journey that'll take the absolute boys Haitch and Dubs from London to Switzerland to New Orleans and back again.
Like any good video game characters, Holmes and Watson travel via static conversational cutscenes in identical train or ship carriages. John Watson believes in the supernatural, more specifically God (emotional, a fool!), and Sherlock Holmes does not (cool, rational), so Holmes can cement his arc in this game early on by being like "ho ho, Watson, but you believe in the supernatural because you are a cretinous boob, ho ho." It's obvious, but Frogwares are short on time to do character development, godammit, and it's still fun when Holmes starts having Great Old One adjacent hallucinations and, as a consequence, becomes more wild-eyed and less shaven over time.
These hallucinatory sequences occur at a few pivotal points, wherein Holmes suddenly finds himself in a nether-realm and has to solve puzzles by deliberately walking into swinging blades or memorising an invisible bridge path through a mirror, and so on. These are less fun than the real world puzzles, which involve walking around examining crime scenes, using a concentration mode akin to Batman's detective vision, and putting clues together to form conclusions. The game helps you along by recording the evidence you've found and tagging it with icons to tell you if you need to ask someone about it, explore the crime scene more, or take to the streets to canvas locals.
This is all stuff you'll recognise from Frogwares' stable, and it's a finicky, clicky approach to detectoring that I enjoy - but in this case it's a stripped back version. You'll have to cross-reference information in Holmes's archive, but it only happens a couple of times and you can do it straight from the menu rather than hauling ass across town to a specific building. You need to ask people for directions, but you don't have to change your facial hair and put on a grubby shirt to do it. The locations are smaller, so the signposting is easier to follow. These are all improvements! I often think that Frogwares' vaulting ambition is what spreads their games thin. In The Awakened the rainy London streets and the sunny alleys of New Orleans (complete with borderline local accents) feel more dense. The game feels more focused in general, even if it's by necessity.
There are problems with it, too. There are a few pop-in textures, Watson stands directly in your way quite a bit, the animation isn't quite as good so Holmes and Watson will lead you deeper into the uncanny valley than you might like, and you'll have no side quests to divert you from the main be-tentacled one. This central mystery isn't really that great, and seems predicated more on the team just kind of having a thing for Cthulhu cults than whether that makes for a good Holmes adventure. Even with the rewrites I found it more fun to focus on the task at hand than the larger picture. The denouement to the whole thing is actually kind of dire. I think it's impressive nonetheless, given the circumstances in which it was made, but it behoves me to tell you it isn't perfect.
It's the second game in a row that I've reviewed and said I wouldn't recommend it unless you're a fan, but given The Awakened was Kickstarted (with some fund-raising incentives that I'm not really on board with to boot) I'm preaching to the converted. In as much as you, like me, might want to see Frogwares continue, both to exist and to keep making their weirdo Sherlock Holmes games, you should check The Awakened out.