Xbox One, PS4, PC, Nintendo Switch, PS5, Xbox Series X
April 11, 2023
Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened is the kind of game that makes you wonder if the current model for reviewing games is working. It’s the tenth game in Frogwares’ Sherlock Holmes series, but as Frogwares is a Ukrainian developer, it’s the first game they made since the country was invaded by Russia in February 2022. Looking at their social media presence over the last year has been heartbreaking and heartwarming in equal measure. Posts about the devastation caused by the war, including the tragic loss of a former colleague, and posts about their hope and perseverance, were regularly paired with updates about the game they’re making.
Most modern game reviews treat games as apolitical creatures unrelated to their developers, but I don’t know how to do that here. It’s remarkable that a complete game of this scale was made in less than a year, let alone during a war. It’s important to remember that human beings are more important than the games they make. It shouldn’t matter if the game is “good” or not, just the fact that it was made is an achievement on its own. But as you’re about to find out, Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened is a fantastic detective game, one of the best Frogwares has made. Let’s get into it.
As mentioned, Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened is the tenth game in the series, but it’s also a ground-up remake of their 2007 game of the same name, as well as a direct sequel to its predecessor, 2021’s Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One. After a string of games about a middle-aged Sherlock Holmes, as he has been portrayed in most films and TV shows, Chapter One rebooted the series to star him aged 20. This new Sherlock Holmes is younger and more impressionable. He is prone to making mistakes and letting his emotions get the better of him. This characterisation continues in the new Awakened, as it shows his first major collaboration with his new housemate, Dr John Watson.
The game’s marketing implies that it’s full of dark, gloomy, horrific scenes involving a cult that worships Lovecraftian god Cthulhu. Don’t worry, it is, but you don’t get there until the second half of The Awakened’s 8 chapters. The first few chapters are a wonderful slow burn, with our detectives solving increasingly larger, seemingly unrelated cases that slowly reveal a conspiracy running through them. Unlike the most recent games, The Awakened does a great job connecting each chapter’s standalone cases together into one large mystery. Each chapter contains a couple of optional side cases, and I was surprised to find that some of these cases also tie into the overarching narrative, so they’re worth your time to explore and find out.
While the previous game had a massive open world, The Awakened is much smaller in scope, and is better for it. Each chapter takes place in a small yet detailed explorable area, where you are free to go off the beaten path. Optional cases aren’t marked on the map, so it’s up to you to find them. In fact, nothing is marked on the map, not even your current location. The only information that gets added are fast travel points once you find them yourself. This makes it so you’re not just following a marker on a minimap, you need to pay attention to your surroundings. The locations can be overwhelming at first, but aren’t very big, so the map system is a great way to appreciate them. Instead of currency, The Awakened awards you points whenever you find a clue or make progress in a case, with each point milestone granting new outfits, concept art, or collectibles. With points maxing out at 1500-odd, I only got around 800 when I finished the game, encouraging me to replay chapters to see what I missed.
Being a shorter game than its immediate predecessors, The Awakened brings back a streamlined version of the series’ trademark deduction system, where it’s up to you to DIY together the clues you’ve discovered. Now, deduction takes the form of Questions that must be answered for each case. Clues are now colour coded, and each Question shows how many of each colour must be correctly chosen to answer it. It’s a brilliant way to figure cases out since you won’t know if you’ve chosen any correct clues until you’ve filled every slot in a Question. This means that, unlike previous games, some clues in The Awakened are red herrings that lead to nothing, but you still get reward points for finding them, so they’re not wasted.
As expected, the writing here is stellar. Frogwares has been helming this series for 20 years now, and their imagination is crisper than ever. Despite being a remake of, and following roughly the same beats as the 2007 game, the new Awakened feels like a totally different experience. This is not just because it’s a third-person adventure game with different mechanics, but because of Sherlock Holmes himself. Much like the previous games Devil’s Daughter and Chapter One, The Awakened consistently focuses on Sherlock’s mental state, and that the horrific things he sees during these cases begin to affect him in the long term. This is the darkest game Frogwares has made in a while, even darker than their other Lovecraft-inspired title, 2019’s The Sinking City.
“Human beings are more important than the games they make.”
Sherlock’s mental state deteriorates throughout the story, as he starts to see strange visions that may be hallucinations or something more unnatural, disrupting both his ability to solve the case and his relationship with Watson. This is Sherlock Holmes before he learns to keep his cool at all times, and it shows. The game is full of extreme violence, including realistic depictions of the kinds of racial violence people of colour endured in the 1880s. Most of it happens offscreen and is left to your imagination, but the couple of times you see it, it’s harrowing.
It’s interesting then, that the game’s mechanics seem to, perhaps deliberately, avoid stressing you out. Gone are the time-based set pieces from Devil’s Daughter and the third-person combat from Chapter One. Quick-time events from the recent games return, but they’re much slower-paced and more forgiving than before. The previous games threw conceptually interesting minigames (with hit-or-miss controls) at you all the time, and there’s far less of that here. Each chapter introduces new mechanics and puzzles, but at worst they’ll be dead ends until you figure out what to do. The game remains absolutely pleasant to play throughout, so even as the story snowballs towards grim territory, you’ll still have a fun time.
The one place where I feel The Awakened falters is in its final chapters. Similar to many games in many genres, the game noticeably picks up the pace towards the end, giving you fewer things to do and not setting up certain beats enough. The ending didn’t answer as many questions as I would’ve liked, and is more perplexing than I expected, but still tells a complete story. Despite my gripes, the story is told with complete confidence, which I hope continues in a sequel (or ten).
- Outstanding writing
- Satisfying deduction system
- A thrilling story
- A story for fans of Sherlock Holmes and HP Lovecraft
- A rushed final chapter
Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened is smaller than the game it’s a sequel to. It had to be, due to painful real-world events that affect the developer to this day. But by streamlining mechanics and sticking to what they do best, Frogwares delivers a refreshingly focused experience. Despite its gruesome subject matter, the game is a joy to play, taking care not to cause anxiety through gameplay. This is a masterful detective game, giving you the tools to figure out complicated mysteries on your own. The final chapters may leave certain things open-ended, but that only raises hopes that Frogwares can make another fantastic game next time. Based on their past work, I know they can.