Sherlock Holmes The Awakened: Plays and Feels Like an Old-fashioned Expansion Pack
Due to the war in their native Ukraine, Frogwares has temporarily scaled back their ambitions for the Sherlock Holmes series, luckily without sacrificing too much of the quality.
Remember back when developers still released expansion packs and quick sequels? As in, the gameplay mechanics and the engine of a previous installment was used as a base for interesting new adventures, instead of the same game being put on extended life support thanks to a seemingly endless supply of microtransactions? The upcoming Sherlock Holmes The Awakened reminds me of these happier times, though the circumstances forcing Ukrainian developer Frogwares to go down this route are anything but happy.
After the Russian invasion, Frogwares decided to make a less ambitious project instead of a full blown sequel to their latest open world detective game, Sherlock Holmes Chapter One. Impressively enough, now, not even a year later, Sherlock Holmes The Awakened is nearing release, and we got the chance to explore an hour of this full-blown remake of their 2007 PC game of the same name.
The Awakened is a horror-filled Lovecraftian mystery, but none of that was really explained during the demo that begins in Chapter 3 with Holmes' trusted sidekick John Watson arriving at the Edelweiss Institute - a mental asylum, located deep within the Swiss Alps, where the air is clean and no one can hear the screams emerging from the cellar. Watson quickly gains entry thanks to his fine manners and medical credentials, but then Holmes comes barging in disguised as - and this is truly brilliant - an American detective! The only thing the staff hates more than non-Europeans are probably nosy detectives, so Holmes quickly gets sedated and thrown into a holding cell.
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So far the game has stayed pretty true to the original script, but that is about to change. While the original used classical inventory puzzles, this modern reimagining retains all of Sherlock's more modern tools from his recent games. If you haven't played these, then let's just say he now is pretty much Batman. This means that all information is now stored in a handy notebook, clues can be "scanned" through a special vision (that fits well with the eagle-eyed character and avoids unnecessary time-wasting) and at times you will even have to reconstruct crime scenes to get the next lead.
In terms of changes, I noticed very few compared with the previous game. Reconstructions now have a much more intuitive interface, so you'll have to rely less on guesswork when piecing together what happened at a crime scene. On the other hand, confrontations, where you'll have to present the right evidence to obtain information, felt less intuitive than I remembered, and I kept getting rejected by a young ventriloquist and her doll (more on that later).
This is also why I initially referred to Sherlock Holmes The Awakened as an expansion pack. From animations and character models to gameplay mechanics right down to the menus, it all feels and plays very much like Sherlock Holmes Chapter One. But to be honest that is fine. I would much rather have more of the same, instead of no more Sherlock Holmes - especially considering the development circumstances.
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That being said, as I play further through the demo, I do start to wonder if Sherlock Holmes The Awakened was the right fit for the current gameplay foundation. While it's nice that puzzle solutions no longer require mental gymnastics fitting of an 18th century mental asylum, using the Mind Palace, usually reserved for assembling the larger picture, to assemble a blow dart that I used to take out a guard didn't feel quite right - especially since I didn't even come up with the idea myself. So while I enjoyed my short time with the game, I do worry how many of the mechanics really fit this more linear adventure.
Another new element that feels a bit shoehorned in is Sherlock himself. In the original game he was a classical British gentleman with dry wit and rather stiff manners. Building on from Chapter One, The Awakened now features a younger, more agile Holmes more in line with recent interpretations from the likes of Robert Downey Jr.
I have already mentioned his rather flamboyant introduction, and at the end of the demo, after having gained a guard uniform and found evidence of wrongdoing at the hospital, I had to present evidence to a young improved patient - or rather her talking doll, which constantly belittled me while the camera jumped around in an exaggerated, 70s horror fashion. Of course, humour and horror can go hand in hand. But I'm still unsure whether it will be the case here since I wasn't the least bit scared during my playthrough - and I guess that's an emotion worth aiming for when holed up in an insane asylum run by psychopathic nuns worshiping Cthulhu or something of that order.
At this point it will probably come as no surprise that The Awakened looks very much Sherlock Holmes Chapter One though a bit worse in some areas such as the character models being a bit glossy and having quite frankly terrible lip syncing (something that might reasonably be expected to have improved in the final release). I didn't mind it much though as this stiffness actually instilled some of the horror and unease that made the developer's previous Lovecraftian themed game, The Sinking City, so memorable.
Having played around an hour, even if it's a little rough around the edges, I'm pretty confident that The Awakened will appeal to those who enjoyed the developer's previous Sherlock Holmes games. Heck, it might even draw in some new players thanks to the Lovecraftian premise. But as to whether it will actually improve on the previous games, I'm still not sure. Mixing the old and the new, utilising gameplay mechanics not designed for this particular type of story is - not unlike wearing certain old-fashioned costumes for a modern Halloween party - quite a gamble. We'll see if it pays off when Sherlock Holmes The Awakened releases "early in 2023."