Sherlock Holmes The Awakened Review
Creating a detective game infused with Lovecraftian horror seems like a good idea. After all, many of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories involve investigations and battles of the mind. We’ve actually seen the combination recently. Four years ago, the developers at Frogwares released The Sinking City which effectively mixed crime with Cthulhu. It was not their first attempt either. Way back in 2007, they released Sherlock Holmes The Awakened, involving the famous fictional detective and his dealings with a strange cult. Fast forward to 2023 and, with the help of €250,000 via Kickstarter, Frogwares have remade The Awakened for a modern audience. While the original was essentially a first-person point-and-click adventure, the remake is a third-person detective game in line with Sherlock Holmes Chapter One, sans combat or an open world. Although there are good parts to The Awakened, its unsatisfying story, tedious gameplay, and rigid solutions mean there is strong evidence to stay away.
After an introductory mystery involving the daily paper, Sherlock Holmes is asked to find a missing person near his home in London during 1882. With help from his faithful companion, Dr. Watson, Sherlock scours the area for clues. He finds signs of a struggle and drag marks, concluding that the person was abducted and that the trail leads to the Port of London. While exploring the warehouses around the Port, it becomes clear that others have been taken and transported elsewhere by boat. As Sherlock investigates each link in the chain, darker themes emerge. A bizarre cult is responsible and their actions are disturbing, with lashings of torture and sacrifice as they appease a tentacle-laden deity. Holmes must follow the darkness into a mental institution in Switzerland and through a grim swamp in New Orleans, as this is a case of global, nay cosmic, importance.
The story of the remake compares closely to the original. All major locations are visited in the same order and have a similar scope. Main characters return, although a few have switched gender. Watson and Holmes chat regularly, like in the original, and sometimes they make jokes that do not always land. The biggest change is that new Holmes struggles with his sanity, building off Chapter One. Given the Lovecraftian themes, this translates into him visiting strange alien landscapes and solving odd puzzles, like dying repeatedly to swinging blades in a specific order to open a magical door. These dream-like locations, and the visions in cutscenes, do not provide much horror or dread. They can actually be annoying because Holmes’ trademark logic crumbles under Cthulhu’s influence—the worst mental breaks put him out of commission, and you might control Dr. Watson briefly until Holmes regains his composure.
Because it is faithful to the original, most investigations link to the primary missing-persons case. But only the last in a long line of missing persons gets a proper resolution. While one can deduce what happened to the others, there is no opportunity to return to their families or friends and see the repercussions. Thus, the game lacks the regular crime-solving satisfaction that is often the hallmark of detective games. Even the ending, which is far sillier than the original because it involves Dr. Watson smashing crystals with laser beams, fails to put an adequate stamp on everything and leaves poor Holmes in limbo.
But to get to the end, many investigations must be solved and the first step is finding clues. Although Holmes has no magnifying glass, unlike the original, the process is roughly analogous. You interact with a spot, be it a dead body or a small area on the floor, and hover the cursor until you can zoom in. Most targets are obvious, but some are barely visible smudges that are tedious to locate. The strangest part of the clue-searching is that some objects need to be rotated, like when you find an ordinary key, even though there is nothing on the other side.
Annoyingly, you cannot locate some clues without first pinning evidence. This pinning might be combined with Holmes’s special concentration vision mode, like when you have to grab some buttons off a table to repair a doll for a crazy lady. Pinning is also used to ask strangers basic questions about where to find people or places. This pinning seems unnecessary considering the investigations are linear.
Major characters can reveal significant information about the case. Talking to them is usually fairly boring though, since there are not many dialogue choices. Some characters can be observed, letting Holmes enter creep-mode to analyze their clothing and features to deduce whether they are, for example, a corrupt official or an opportunistic thief, however this only changes a few lines of dialogue and is an arbitrary 50/50 choice.
For the big crime scenes, events must be recreated using Holmes’ powerful imagination. Somewhat like in The Sinking City, events comprise of 3 to 6 individual scenes that might have 2 to 5 variations, involving different weapons, actions, characters, etc. Your job is to select all the correct variations, based on the evidence, so Holmes can do his spiel to advance the case. While some are fun to reconstruct, like a brilliant one in a mansion during chapter five, it is annoying that every scrap of evidence must be found to unlock the right variations, even though other clues fill in the gaps.
When you’ve worked out what happened, it is time to use the mind palace to spell it out in big letters. The mind palace is a 2D mind-map that shows testimony and evidence in one spot. All you have to do is pick everything related to whatever question the game asks about the case. Sadly, using the mind palace is unintuitive and clunky. Finding the right combination is not hard, but like pinning, this step is regularly superfluous because you already know the answer.
Occasionally you need to confront individuals with the facts. This sounds like an interesting battle of wits, but it could not be further from the truth. In confrontations, you select three pieces of evidence and watch the confronted reveal the next clue. The evidence has to be exactly what the game wants from a random sample, so that letter you thought was important will get rejected, conversation over. But this is not a situation where Holmes can send an innocent to jail or fumble the case. Confrontations can and will be brute-forced with no penalty, turning a once-clever Holmes into a halfwit who keeps making the same accusations to amnesiacs.
So although you can regularly explain what happened, the game makes the player jump through the same unnecessary hoops. Since there are no varying outcomes, the stakes are low. It is impossible to solve investigations in a natural way, or make mistakes, or come at things from a different angle. This rigidity is probably the result of adapting a linear point-and-click puzzle game, even though many of the crime scenes were not present in the original.
At least the presentation is a solid improvement over the original. Character designs and models are fine, with many optional outfits for Holmes and Watson, if you want to play dress-up. Interestingly, Watson is about as useless as he was in the original, blocking movement through tight spaces. It is a pity the lip syncing of characters is not quite good enough to prevent distraction during conversations. As mentioned, many of the locations have been recreated with comparable scale. The levels generally look good, with some nice atmosphere, and the game runs smoothly at max settings. Unlike the open world in The Sinking City, this is a linear game, yet many levels are still too big and empty, with load screens for small interiors. Fortunately there is a fast-travel system to minimize the legwork.
Sherlock Holmes The Awakened is not a good detective game, despite the Lovecraftian themes. Although the story remains true to the original from 2007, the horror is ill-directed and the chain of events is unsatisfying. Exploring crime scenes and recreating events via imagination is both fun and tedious, as players must clumsily find all clues before progressing. Even using the mind palace and confronting others is rigid and unintuitive, with investigations that do not unfold naturally. Unless you are a massive fan of Chapter One, and would be happy with a linear follow-up, Sherlock Holmes The Awakened is a case best left unsolved.