Sherlock Holmes: Volume Two, or more properly, the “pompous British detective simulator”, offers three more cases for you to solve, which are claimed to be “officially licensed” by the estate of Arthur Conan Doyle. This sounds like it could be a great game, especially since it allows you to match wits with one of the greatest fictitious detectives of all time, and carries the stamp of approval from his creator(‘s family). Unfortunately, the same issues from the first game still exist, and essentially this is the same game with new mysteries. Believe me when I say that’s a problem.
The gameplay is pretty simple, and works like a point-and-click computer adventure – fitting, since this is a PC port. When you select one of the three cases to start, you’re given some very vague information about a murder (all three are homicide cases) in an introductory video. You’re then sent off to go to work. You have the London directory at your service, so you can find a name in it and pay them a visit, or send your young spies after them to do some recon. You have access to back-issues of the London Times for your perusal, some of which factor into the story at hand (more on that later). Finally, you have your notepad full of useful contact names, such as an inspector at Scotland Yard, a chemical expert, a political expert, etc. Your goal is to solve the case in the least number of interviews as possible, after which you will see Holmes’ score and his explanation of the solution. So far, this is sounding good, right?
Here’s where it derails. You never actually do any detective work at all. Anytime you select a location to visit, you’re presented with a grainy video of the results of your find, most commonly in the form of Watson conducting an interview. You don’t get to select the questions during this interview either, nor the main purpose of questioning these people in the first place. You’re simply shown a clip with the direction of the questions, and the information you’re given, predetermined. Winning the game is completely dependent on talking to the right people and making huge deductive leaps on the side. Then there are a number of glaring gameplay flaws that add up to make one huge mess.
First of all, one of the mysteries requires you to start by looking in “today’s issue of the Times”. When you click on the issues you have, “today’s issue” is actually in the middle of the list. This means Holmes has newspapers from the future – and you thought he was just a good detective! The game also doesn’t tell you what “today’s” date is, so if you didn’t have the manual, then you’d have to search through every paper, hoping you find the right one, and then the right obscure clue. Next, you can simply click down the list of every expert on your team. Quite often, you’ll make a huge jump in the plot. The game just assumes you know how you got there. For example, I was picking names in my list at random, looking for information on the first clue I had been given. The game gave me a clip where Watson was talking to some unknown person’s mother, asking the whereabouts of the unknown person, as casually as if they were childhood chums. I had never heard this name mentioned before. This person was indeed related to the case, but I didn’t even know who they were, even by the time the interview had ended. I had jumped about four interviews ahead, and missed the ones that introduced this character.
This means that there is a definite way ICOM meant for you to play the game, and yet they don’t provide restrictions on that – helpful or otherwise. Why not simply make that information unavailable until the player has retrieved the prerequisite info first? I can appreciate that they’re trying to give you freedom to conduct the investigation as you wish, but you can tell there is a definite linear sequence of events here that is expected to take place. Yet the game also freely allows you to jump around within that sequence. The result is that the whole thing doesn’t make sense. It’s nice that they’re making an effort not to spoon-feed you the plot, and want to put emphasis on making connections yourself. However, the game needs to either have a free investigation, or enforce a more linear sequence. As this game shows, it just doesn’t work if you try to have both.
When you think you’ve figured it all out, you take the case to trial where the judge will ask you multiple choice questions about the murder. This is always interesting, as none of the clips you will see through the whole game will ever clearly explain any part of the plot. It is nice that the game actually forces you to make Holmes-like deductions instead of being a pure “find-the-evidence” romp, but it also means that the judge will ask you questions about aspects of the case that you probably have never thought of or heard about. If you give the incorrect answer, the judge tells you flatly that no, that’s wrong. It’s not something in-character like “well Holmes, the evidence doesn’t support that”, it’s “no, that’s wrong.” If you select the right answer, the judge praises you and explains that part of the plot for you. Hey judge, one question: who’s the fucking detective here? If you already know everything, what the hell am I here for? Go arrest somebody, ASS!
The intent of the game appears to be to stumble through your first few attempts at solving a mystery, then to go back and trim the fat of your investigation until you get a nice, lean, concise path that matches Holmes’ score. Maybe this will be attractive to some people. To me, the mystery is lost by then, and the game definitely does not give you enough clues to come close to Holmes’ score your first time through, unless you’re an absolute genius. But hell, even Holmes is just reading the solution from his future-edition of the Times. It just comes off as bad game-making, as your first time through a mystery should be your most enjoyable, since it’s all fresh. This game treats it like a practice run.
Think about a Genesis game, and then look at this game, and you’ll realize that it was impressive at the time to have three full mysteries and a plethora of video and audio in one game. The video is even more grainy that the usual Sega CD fare, to the point that it’s difficult to make out faces and actions, but the audio is CD quality and fully matched with the video and narrated. Think of the impact it would have had on a crowd that, up until that time, saw the platformer as video gaming’s greatest achievement. (I’m cheating a bit since I was there, but yes, these games were revolutionary at the time.) Too bad the game royally blows, and I feel sorry for the first-generation Sega CDers who got tricked into buying this.
Go watch a good episode of Law and Order and try and guess who the criminal is. Notice how you’re encouraged to draw your own conclusions, but you’re not actually controlling the investigation. The show herds you in the right direction by showing you only what it wants to, and what it decides is relevant to the case. Now halfway through it, turn off the TV, go eat a sandwich, and come back. Try and figure out what the hell is going on, and what happened while you were away. By the end of the show you’ll have a good idea of what this game is like, and you’ll walk away feeling better than you would have if you had tried to play it.
3 FMV mysteries to solve, giving you the chance to try to be as clever as Holmes.
Can unintentionally skip ahead in plot, entire “investigation” just series of video clips