Sherlock Holmes The Awakened Review: A love letter to Holmes and Lovecraft

Earlier this month, Frogwares released their reimagining of Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened. This was my most anticipated game of 2023, and I’ve been following it ever since the Kickstarter project for its development began. Frogwares’ Holmes series is one of the most underrated game franchises out there, and I have been a fan of them for years. So yeah, this is going to be an extremely biased review.

Despite being a huge fan of Frogwares’ Holmes games, I have actually never played the original Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened. As such, this review will not serve as a comparison of the two but rather just my thoughts on this reimagining as a game of its own and as a sequel to Sherlock Holmes Chapter One.

Being a sequel to Chapter One and a Frogwares’ Holmes game in general, the gameplay is about what you’d expect from them. You will be tasked to walk around areas to find and examine clues, recreate crime scenes by cycling through images in Holmes’ mind, and of course piece together evidence in your mind palace to form thought threads to solve the mystery. Solving mysteries with these mechanics is yet again one of the best gameplay loops I have ever experienced in a mystery game. Every action you take in this game makes you feel like Sherlock Holmes, not because you know the answers to every mystery, but because you can find the ways to solve them all.

The game lacks the open world of Frogwares’ previous two games, but the area design in this game is immaculate. While I never got lost in Chapter One’s Cordona, there are several areas that I would have difficulty placing on a map if you quizzed me about them. The smaller and more thought-out areas of The Awakened in comparison are designed in a way where every single corner feels unique, and I never got lost.

Keeping up with Frogwares tradition of rejecting modern game design standards like automatic quest markers, the area maps in this game never show you where you’re currently standing. Instead, you’ll be shown what the area looks like and will need to deduce for where Holmes currently is. One would think this removed convenience would be annoying, but I loved this non-conventional design choice as it made me think much more about my surroundings, an attribute that greatly helps a Holmes game. 

While the base gameplay mechanics are the same as Frogwares’ other works, many have been refined and reworked. For example, The crime scene recreation mechanic first seen in Chapter One has had its UI reworked so you can see how many images you’re cycling through when recreating a scene and if you get one wrong the game actually labels which one you’ve gotten wrong as opposed to sending you on a guessing game. Compared to Sherlock Holmes Chapter One, where I was constantly getting lost during these segments, I was able to clear most crime scene recreations in The Awakened with relative ease.

Another central mechanic from both The Sinking City and Chapter One to get streamlined is searching your archive. Because The Awakened lacks the open world of those games, you no longer need to walk across town to solve clues that require research. Instead, you’ll be able to access your archives directly from the evidence menu. This small change makes searching through the archives significantly less of a pain when you’re required to do it, even if it does come at the cost of losing some of the immersion the other games with this mechanic had.

Frogwares is a developer that I have always respected for their willingness to rework flawed systems from previous games even when they could get away with not touching them at all. This reworking of crime scene recreation isn’t the only example of this. The flawed and out of place gun gameplay from Sherlock Holmes Chapter One has been completely removed, and the game also features a boat segment that controls leagues better than the boats in The Sinking City. More game companies can learn a lot from this small Ukrainian dev team.

The one gameplay change I can definitively say I wasn’t a fan of is the changes made to Holmes’ Mind Palace. In previous games, this mechanic would have to repeatedly connect two thoughts in Holmes’ head to form new thoughts and then continue to connect them until you got to choose the conclusion to your case. This mechanic was almost identical to Logic in the Ace Attorney Investigations series, and I absolutely loved it.

The reworked Mind Palace

Sadly, The Awakened has streamlined Holmes’ mind palace, separating thoughts into various categories such as testimonies, observations, and files and telling you how many of those thoughts you need to select to form only a single connection for each Mind Palace deduction. It’s still immensely satisfying to successfully form these thoughts, but I find this more simplistic approach to be very inferior to how it was handled in previous games.

Unfortunately, the game is riddled with a few technical issues. I feel bad talking about them as the studio that developed this game is literally in the middle of a war zone and was liable to lose power or worse at any point in development, but I must bring them up as they could affect your experience. On three separate occasions in the game’s second chapter I experienced crashes as the game would transition from gameplay to cutscene and on another occasion in the game’s first chapter I walked out of bounds and could not return to the actual gameplay area. None of these issues caused me to lose progress as the game has a very frequent autosave system, but I can easily see them causing others grief. Especially the crashes, which force you to reboot the whole game.

Not as fatal as a crash, but this window does not exist

Despite these technical issues and the unfavorable change to the Mind Palace, though, I still found Sherlock Holmes The Awakened’s mystery solving gameplay to be some of the best I have ever played. Every second I was playing this game, I was fully immersed and invested in Frogwares’ world and was craving for more. It may only be April currently, but I have very few doubts in my mind that this will be the best video game of 2023 by a longshot. 

Now that I have expressed my thoughts on the gameplay, I would now like to spend a few paragraphs talking about the game’s plot. I will try my best to avoid spoilers. However, some details may be unavoidable to speak about. So consider this your official spoiler warning.

When purchasing this game, I expected it to be more akin to Frogwares’ classic Holmes games but with the gameplay and character design of Chapter One. Instead, I got a full-on sequel to Chapter One complete with that game’s absolutely fantastic characterization of Sherlock Holmes himself. This change turns the game’s premise from a simple Holmes meets Lovecraft story into a grand character exploration of Frogwares’ Holmes and the long-lasting effects that the climax of Chapter One had on his psyche. 

One of this game’s greatest features is how, several times throughout the game, you will switch perspectives and play several sections as Sherlock’s partner Dr. Watson. Watson doesn’t play any differently from Holmes aside from having no crime recreation segments but plot and character wise these sections do wonders for the game. Shockingly, these segments were only added in as a Kickstarter stretch goal. I can not imagine this story about Holmes fearing that he’s losing his sanity working nearly as well without these Watson sections. Seeing our famed protagonist become a shivering mess in the corner of a cave or stare out his window playing violin for hours shows us Holmes’ weakness in ways that are impossible while controlling him.

Throughout the game, a constant question is raised on if any of the Lovecraftian elements are actually real or if Holmes himself is beginning to collapse under his mental health issues. This ambiguity doesn’t just make for a strong narrative centered around Holmes and Watson’s relationship, but it also enhances the game’s Lovecraftian elements.

Too often in gaming are the stories of HP Lovecraft used solely for cool imagery or interesting monster designs, with maybe an occasional nod to the idea of a character going mad from what they’re seeing. Frogwares themselves have fallen down this trend in the past when they added unnecessary combat mechanics to The Sinking City. The Awakened using the Lovecraftian imagery to create a sense of ambiguity about a story of someone struggling with their mental health is a much much stronger use of the source material than a typical video game story about stopping a cult from stopping Cthulhu, even if that is still part of this game’s premise.

The Awakened’s story is simultaneously one of the greatest uses of Sherlock Holmes in a video game as well as one of few games to truly get across the paranoia aspect of Lovecraft’s stories. These combined elements create one of the best modern video game tales that I heavily encourage you to experience for yourself. 

Every aspect of this game is amazing. As I said before, it would take a genuine miracle of game design for me not to call this my game of the year come December. I have been telling everyone I know to try out Frogwares’ Holmes games for years, and today, I shall repeat that message. Play these games if you are a fan of mysteries. They are one of the best small developers in the business and deserve to have their art experienced.

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