Sherlock Holmes needs little introduction - he is one of the most well known characters in English language literature, and the progenitor of the modern mystery novel. Created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1887, the famed detective and his sidekick Dr. Watson have appeared in nearly sixty official stories, along with numerous television, radio and movie adaptations. The riddle-solving nature of the mysteries makes perfect sense as adventure games, as he's also appeared at least a dozen different computer and video game titles. The first was a 1984 text adventure, simply entitled Sherlock, but later games included Sherlock: The Riddle of the Crown Jewels, developed by Infocom, and 221B Baker Street, which was actually a computerized board game.
ICOM Simulations created the Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective series, a trio of products focused heavily on full motion video with only the barest of gameplay elements, and are probably the most well-known, due to their publication on both the Sega CD and Turbografx-16 CD platforms. European developer Frogwares published six different Sherlock Holmes games between 2002 and 2009, and shows little intention of slowing down.
But while it's not exactly the most popular, the best adaptations of Doyle's works remain part of a small sub-series called The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes. Developed by Mythos Software and published by Electronic Arts in the mid-'90s, these two adventure games (not to be confused with The Lost Cases of Sherlock Holmes, which is casual game nonsense) do the best job of bringing 19th century Victorian England to life, not only in its atmosphere and characterizations, but also to its consistently excellent writing and faithful plotting, both of which would fit in excellently in the official canon.
Sarah Carroway, a promising young actress, is brutally murdered outside of her dressing room. Inspector Lestrade and the incompetents at Scotland Yard are quick to implicate the famed Jack the Ripper. Sherlock Holmes, on the other hand, knows better, for the murder weapon cut like a serrated scalpel, not the clean, surgical kind commonly associated with the serial killer. As Holmes and Watson delve further into the case, they learn that Sarah's sister, herself a famed singer, has mysteriously gone missing. None of this is coincidence, and it sets off a mystery far deeper than appearances suggests, which has our heroes exploring pubs, billiard halls, psychics, taxidermists, zoos, and both the highs and lows of Victorian-era London, all while overcoming the tangles of troublesome police bureaucracy.
At first glance, The Case of the Serrated Scalpel is not an attractive game. The backgrounds are murky, the character sprites blurry and indistinct, and the music is irritating at best. And while the game was released on CD-ROM, the speech in the PC version is relegated to a mere three scenes, with the rest being text only. The interface, not much of a departure from LucasArts', is also clumsy, especially when it comes to item manipulation.
Standard adventure game puzzles would seem out of place in a Sherlock Holmes game, and such instances are mostly reduced to simple, silly things like stacking boxes or cleaning windows. Instead, the crux of progress relies on thorough investigation, which unfortunately translates into judicious pixel hunting and flat-out tenacity. Although your inventory will be overflowing by the end of the game, most objects are just used as clues to open up other items or locations, rather than used in puzzles. If you ever get stuck, a majority of the time, it will be because you forgot to look at a specific item, or neglected a line of questioning. The investigation is not entirely linear, as you can explore a few of its threads independently of each other, until they all come colliding together in the end. There is a simple minigame of darts, which is easy despite bringing the pace to a screeching halt, since you need to play (and win) four times to continue, but otherwise there is not a whole lot of challenge.
Sometimes it even appears that the story is simply on auto-pilot. A couple of items need to be analyzed on Holmes' lab table, but much of the scientific work is done automatically. And watching Holmes make incredible deductions out of the tiniest details - in one case, calling out the myriad actions that expose a purportedly blind salesman as a fraud - is always amazing, but perhaps better care could have been taken to involve the player more. Watson goes severely underutilized, acting as an occasional consul and a distraction for some annoying puzzles, although he also holds the game's extremely detailed journal, which transcribes every line of dialogue (there are many), which can be searched and even exported into a text file.
But the whole product is saved by one of the most important aspects of any adventure game - the writing. The style is extraordinarily faithful to Doyle's own, and while it is stuffy in the same way many Sherlock Holmes adaptations are, the dialogue remains both authentic and engaging. Perhaps more important is the exquisite attention to detail in the background descriptions. Rarely content with a single line of text, many hotspots are accompanied by a paragraph of descriptive text, some of which are historically informative, while others are drolly humorous. Looking at Holmes' violin will give you a history of its origin and maker. A set of hurling sticks recounts "a mysterious Afghan game in which large groups of men ride donkeys over a great distance for the purpose of capturing the stuffed head of an albino goat." A Monet painting is criticized as if it were illustrated by someone with cataracts.
There are other touches of authenticity for the fans, of course. Holmes often relies on Wiggins and the Baker Street Irregulars, and will need to contend with Inspector Lestrade, amongst some of Scotland Yard's other not-so-finest. There's even a guest appearance by Sherlock's faithful dog Toby. And at its core, it's still an extremely compelling mystery, with enough twists and turns without dragging on too long. There are no doubt flaws in its design, but as identified as part of Electronic Arts' "Interactive Stories" line, it's quite engrossing.
In 1994, The Case of the Serrated Scalpel was ported to the 3DO, with some enhancements not found in the PC release. Here, the dialogue portraits are replaced with live digitized actors reading off the lines. The costumes are decent enough and acting is alright, about on quality with a PBS production. It is a bit disjointed, because the actors are contained in their little windows and don't interact with each other outside them, but it does make the characters livelier. The narrative and descriptive text remain unvoiced and the rest of the graphics are identical, outside of some text design changes to accommodate the television screen.
The classy Diogenes Club has been rollicked by a devastating explosion. Scotland Yard is quick to blame it on a simple accidental gas leak, but Holmes is certain that it was quite deliberate. He's also got a personal stake in this mystery - the owner of the club is none other than his older brother Mycroft, who was seriously injured in the blast and has been rendered a muttering lunatic. As expected, these mysteries are never simple, as Holmes and Watson learn of a secret formula that has been stolen from the Ministry of Defence, which is all somehow connected to a string of murders where the victims are signed with a rose tattoo. It's an extremely long, expansive game with dozens of characters and numerous locations, substantially outlasting its predecessor. There are also more historical figures to question and London landmarks to visit ? you get to meet Kaiser Wilhelm II and Queen Victoria, and see places like Cleopatra's Needle, Kensington Palace and Spitalfields.
The second of The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes series is a gigantic technical improvement over its predecessor. The characters are all digitized versions of live actors, complete with extremely smooth animations. It runs in SVGA, and looks similar to Sanctuary Woods' The Riddle of Master Lu, although there's no actual full motion video. The backgrounds are reasonably modeled CG renditions of Victorian London, which somehow manages to avoid the artificial look commonly associated with the technique, and there are occasional authentic photos of the era that preface each location. All of the dialogue is fully voiced, although they're missing the portraits that were in the 3DO version of the first game. The interface has been pared down so the visuals are full screen, with a right click bringing up a context sensitive menu. The unfortunate downside to all of this is that it's painfully slow. The first game was hardly expedient either, but in an attempt to look realistic, the characters walk too slowly, or wait for animations to finish before continuing on.
It still suffers from some pacing issues as well. Case of the Rose Tattoo acknowledges some of the issues of its predecessor, and tries to integrate the player into observing the locations before the solutions are provided to them. There's even more pixel hunting, and you'll spend a lot of time trying actions and dialogue trees until you stumble upon the necessary triggers to let you continue. For example, there are at least a few scenes where the intent is clear, but the game won't let you proceed until you've talked to numerous characters, fully examined the area, and then talked to them some more, by which point maybe the essential dialogue option will pop up. The dart minigame returns, as does the lab table to analyze items, although this segment is slightly more difficult, as you have to use the proper chemicals this time around. There are also times where you play as Watson, although functionally he is no different than Holmes.
While it's a more involving game, it's involving in the most of the wrong ways, making parts of the investigation tedious, as it feels like you're spending the whole time simply getting permission slips to search crime scenes or convince butlers to talk to suspects. The pacing in the beginning sections is awful, especially when you need to sneak past a grumpy hospital matron on two separate occasions, each with two different solutions. Thankfully things pick up after the first few hours, and the labyrinthine twists and turns become just as compelling as any true Holmes novel. The writing is still excellent, with even more dialogue than before (sometimes to an excessive level), and more colorful item descriptions, often with interesting trivia. For example, a "chesterfield", a type of couch, was apparently named after one of the late Earls of Chesterfield, who, lacking in any real motivation, found his comforts in fashion and furniture.
Case of the Rose Tattoo is slow going, and it's hard to recommend over its predecessor, which kept a quicker pace without getting too dull. It definitely requires some patience, as well as even more dogged thoroughness, but there's still an enjoyable mystery lying beneath it all.