Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened – Hands-On Preview
If the last entry in the series is anything to go by, the Sherlock Holmes games are on an upward trajectory. So even though the next game by develop Frogwares is technically a step backward (into their back catalogue), I have high hopes for this next title – but I’m also a little concerned. Following a successful Kickstarter, the team are delving back into 2006’s Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened – a critically acclaimed mash-up between the world of Sherlock Holmes and the horrors of H. P. Lovecraft, one which has the renowned detective delving into the Cthulu Mythos. It’s an exciting (an undoubtedly spooky) pairing, but mixing with the world of Lovecraft means leaning into some psychological horror tropes that make me nervous every time I see them appear in a game world. I understand their place and their context, but I entered into this hands-on preview with trepidation, and I’m going to do the same with the full game.
For those who played Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One, the gameplay is quite similar. This particular incarnation of the detective is one still in his early days of work, and of his friendship with the man who would eventually become his closest companion – Dr. John Watson. Together, the two are attempting to find a groove in their working relationship, and the reworked story of The Awakening is set to explore this further. Among other things, this is one of the major differences from the 2006 version of the game – the story is being reimagined as a continuation from the studio’s last title, so we can expect some more overlap. I particularly liked this version of Sherlock in the previous game – he shows more empathy and compassion than representations of him typically do, and the game gave me as a player the option to make him more sympathetic to causes I cared about. Though it was rooted in a past full of prejudices and injustices, I could take small actions to show his disapproval of that world. In this now-sequel, I particularly hope that I’ll be able to do it again.
The premise of The Awakened is heavily based in its Lovecraftian roots. The chapter I played in my hands-on preview was titled ‘Mountains of Madness’, a classic Lovecraftian name. It shows Sherlock using disguises and trickery (and a little help from Watson) to gain access to a psychiatric facility high up in the Swiss Alps so that he can investigate some mysterious kidnappings. At this facility, unsurprisingly, he finds that patients are not receiving the treatment they deserve, and that all is not as it seems.
Without trying to spoil too much about the overarching plot, the patients are being treated as video games often show them being treated when they attend mental health facilities. Yes, in the past there were horrific things done to those who were mentally ill, and ‘treatment’ is not the word that can be used for most of the unjustifiable acts that were committed against them. And yes, the concept of insanity and warped reality as a source of fear is a very Lovecraftian concept, and it isn’t surprising here. But I also just… kind of wish it wasn’t. Until we can see that mental health care has come a long way since the days of strapping people to chairs, I’d be far happier if there were less games that used ‘asylums’ as horror settings. But this was just one chapter. Maybe the game will address this concern, as it did with some of the societal views of the last game’s setting. It’s impossible to know until the full game arrives.
As a detective game, and specifically a Sherlock Holmes game, it looks like The Awakened is going to deliver. It’s designed to force you to think like a real detective, making your own deductions and not relying on the game to hold your hand. As I picked up evidence, talked to witnesses, or recreated crime scenes, I began to form my own hypotheses and I did enjoy the way the game encouraged me to piece things together. It seems like Frogwares have finally nailed these mechanics, and I’m excited to engage with them again. Though it’s problematic, the Lovecraftian setting also allows for some generally creepy moments, with a talking doll making violent threats and making me question whether or not I’ll be able to comfortably play this game alone at night. I hope so. I hope it leans into the mystery and unease of Lovecraft and away from outdated stereotypes.
Though I obviously have some concerns, I am interested to see what the developers do with The Awakened, given they are essentially rebuilding it from the ground up and editing large chunks of the story. Everything except the basic information of the cases themselves is supposed to change, so even those who played the game after its original release are going to find a whole lot of new things to discover in this new version. I hope they’re good things, and I hope that this new character direction for Sherlock Holmes helps this game to navigate the more problematic elements of its premise. It’s set to release in the first half of this year, and I’ll be diving in when it does.