Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis
Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis is Frogware’s fourth game in a series of new adventures following the escapades of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous character. Following their successful series of mystery adventure games, Nemesis throws the usual scenario out of the window in favour of a more interesting concept. Instead of simply blundering into a crime scene or being summoned by Inspector Lestrade, Holmes is challenged to solve a crime before it occurs by the very perpetrator, a man who is his equal in both skill and literature, the notorious French anti-hero and master cat-burglar Arsène Lupin. It’s a given that Frogware assumed that most gamers wouldn’t have heard of this most French of characters, but on the continent he is held in much the same regard and with the same fondness as the British have for Doyle’s mastermind of deduction. This is all the more evident when you know that outside the UK and USA the game is known as Sherlock Holmes versus Arsène Lupin.
The mischievous Gentleman-Thief sends a letter to Holmes, making plain that he intends to steal a host of treasured items from under his very nose and in doing so ridicule England forever. He also sends a riddle that forms the first puzzle of the game. Through this, the sleuthing duo of Holmes and the ever-present Watson set off on a trail that takes them around many of the major historical (and tourist) sites of Victorian London. Like previous incarnations of the series, the game is presented in a first person view atypical to the genre. While this seems cumbersome and at times limiting, it does afford the game much more immersion than the traditional point and click games, or more recent 3D affairs usually invoked in the third person, such as Broken Sword: The Angel of Death. This system does add the issue that it’s far easier to overlook the clues, which only flag up when looked at directly from very nearby, but otherwise it works very well, especially with the accessible map that lets you instantly revisit at any previous location. Experiencing the game in first person obviously helps it feel more immersing; as you wander around the locations, you get a real sense of the places and their real-world groundings.
Bizarrely, the Victorian setting and style makes the game massively reminiscent of the classic Thief series, with the medieval splendour of the Tower of London and the opulent British Museum really invoking these feelings. It hardly feels enough to say that the game is utterly gorgeous; the detail that has gone into the art and design of Nemesis will impress even the most picky gamer. The character models are well built and animated, which is a great credit to the game, as they act in very human ways (quite literally warts and all at some points!) In fact, Frogware have gone out of their way to create an elaborately constructed world, filled with characters that are vividly drawn, if not particularly well acted. While Holmes and Watson are both voiced with fairly sturdy interpretations, amusingly, in recreating the characters so vividly from the source material, they’ve also kept most of the character flaws that make them irritating at times. Holmes is almost sarcastically aloof and self-absorbed throughout the adventure, while Watson remains the blustering, long-suffering gentleman to the very end. On the other side, the voice acting for many of the supporting characters lands between being either completely over the top or utterly unsuited to the models used, which is not to say that it’s unwelcome, but the audio design in general lacks the sort of lustre that the game’s look holds.
Above all though this is an adventure game and the proof of the gaming is in the playing, which in this case means working through the puzzles. Frogware are pretty adept at this and after three previous games they’ve got most of it down to a fine art, although there is still some room for improvement. The puzzles take many forms throughout the game, from simple riddles and wordplay to arranging visual jigsaws and even mathematical enigmas. What is irksome is that there are definitely moments in which previous knowledge of Holmes’ stories and Victorian London is expected in order to progress. It’s one thing to give a player an anagram and a book on a topic and expect them to figure it out, but quite another to assume that they’ll already know that Holmes is a cocaine addict and, with no prompting, make a huge leap of logic to work out that he probably has some hidden somewhere in his home, especially since it is never referenced outright, and the oblique manner, befitting a family game, doesn’t lend itself to helping you work it out. Such problematic moments however are relatively few and the remainder of the puzzles are varied and logical enough to keep things consistently fresh. The game also helps keep the weight of background material in check by making sure you only have the items and locations pertinent to the current puzzle available. Instead of the old Monkey Island system of carrying over a thousand items and never knowing whether or not the potato rubbed on the flannel would work on the magic branch (but trying anyway), you have a streamlined system of a few items, clues and conversations in the menu, which remain fairly obvious until you reach the point in the plot.
Nemesis is one of the few games bold enough to tell you upfront that you’ll need a pen and paper, because note-taking may well be essential. A fair comment but a little rude, especially since the game could easily have provided an in-game menu option to type out your notes. But that aside, the solving is kept fairly real-world and the moment things look insoluble it’s usually because you’ve missed a clue or because the answer is far simpler than you realise. The only point of real annoyance is the conceit that often some item will be required from another location and you frequently find yourself frustrated when Holmes sends you off on a minor, yet essential, errand away from the meat of a puzzle. For example, twice in the first ten minutes Watson is sent to hire a handsome cab. This is hardly the stuff of Conan Doyle and it serves little purpose other than making you traverse the maps and giving you small fragments of plot and dialogue. It’s a minor quibble, and in keeping with the literary basis, yet still seems a tad contrived.
Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis is certainly a great addition for the currently somewhat parched adventure game genre, one that’ll entertain both fans of the books and players who love to stretch their minds, keeping them busy for a while. Casual players will also have a damn sight more fun with it than many other recent offerings; let’s just hope that Frogware can iron out the last of the creases and give us a truly earth shattering edition with the next instalment in the series.