"Aside from the first case, which is complete filler in my opinion, the sixteen mysteries presented here are genuinely interesting. Examples include a man who takes off in a hot air balloon and crash lands after a dagger somehow finds its way into his back, a man who collapses in botanical gardens after suffering from a potentially fatal bee sting, a jewel theft on a speeding train and so forth."
I've been reading Sherlock Holmes mysteries for twenty years now and the clever sleuth's adventures remain every bit as endearing today as they were when I first enjoyed them in elementary school. Legacy Interactive is clearly trying to capitalize on that timeless appeal with its recent release, The Lost Cases of Sherlock Holmes for PC. The title sells itself as an assortment of missed adventures that fill in the gaps of a distinguished fictional career, but is there anything here that's really worth experiencing? If you're the right sort of gamer... yes.
First the really good news: many of the familiar efforts are on hand. Mostly they're the usual references you'd expect from a half-hearted attempt to emulate Holmes tales (such as use of the word 'elementary' and mention of Baker Street) but the writers didn't stop there. Watson mentions his time in Afghanistan--an interesting detail about his character that some people tend to forget despite its significance--and the characters such as Lestrade, Mycroft and others make their appearances in the appropriate manner. About the only missing staple is a little help from the Baker Street irregulars, but I suppose we can't have everything.
Aside from the first case, which is complete filler in my opinion, the sixteen mysteries presented here are genuinely interesting. Examples include a man who takes off in a hot air balloon and crash lands after a dagger somehow finds its way into his back, a man who collapses in botanical gardens after suffering from a potentially fatal bee sting, a jewel theft on a speeding train and so forth. Much of it has been done in other fiction since Doyle wrote his famous tales (you may recognize scenarios if you've read much Agatha Christie, for example, or if you've enjoyed a lot of crime drama on television), but it does feel appropriate and occasionally inventive.
Even so, The Lost Cases of Sherlock Holmes isn't really about plot. The mysteries might be intriguing, but their bare-bones presentation works against them. You'll see character sketches between bits, with Holmes and Watson plastered over simple background images. Most stories unfold through the use of static portraits that have been humorously animated to simulate conversation (like a sketch on “The Tonight Show” where they paste moving lips over a still photograph, only not quite in synch). The voice acting fares better, but there's not enough of it for the characters involved to develop beyond a single dimension.
With the requisite trappings in place, The Lost Cases of Sherlock Holmes next finds a formula and (for the most part) sticks to it for the remainder of the experience. Stages follow a general path that's not terribly dissimilar from Doyle's short stories: someone comes to Holmes for assistance, he accompanies them to the scene of the crime, he looks for hidden clues, then eliminates suspects until the person remaining is the guilty party. Everything unfolds within a time limit of anywhere from 25 to 35 minutes in an effort to add intensity, but you're unlikely to run out of time unless you suck. I never even came close and that's saying something.
Most of your time with the game is spent searching for those all-important clues. You do this by staring at cluttered portraits of various destinations within the London environment and pointing either to objects that don't match (between two near-identical portraits) or to items that satisfy a certain criteria on a checklist. If you've tried many casual games in recent years, you'll recognize this as a fairly common style of play.
Whether you're visiting the scene of a séance where a ghostly devil creature recently appeared or heading to a museum to see why a priceless jade statue was smashed, you can expect to encounter all sorts of debris and junk along the way. For example, you might have to pinpoint four ankh symbols, or five playing cards while ignoring piles of ropes, scattered champagne glasses and clothing. A limited number of 'hints' (emphasis added because they flat out point you to the objects you've missed) are also available if you get stuck, so there's really no excuse for failure.
The quality of the portraits you must examine is decent, but they seemed the slightest bit muddy on my monitor. Even when I chose the option to magnify things (you can pass a circular patch over everything to enhance it, which is actually pretty cool), none of the images had the crystal-clear quality of similar content in rival games such as Dream Day: First Home. The color palette here isn't nearly as vibrant, either. It gets the job done and nicely portrays a rather generic London at the entrance to the 20th century (the mysteries all unfold slightly before “The Final Problem” took place) but nothing advances beyond that.
Mini-games interspersed throughout the scavenger hunts break up the monotony rather nicely, at least some of the time. Occasionally, they're just additional search and find sequences, but more commonly they'll ask you to perform some simple task such as arranging torn scraps of paper or playing a memory game to tap out a certain song or Morse Code sequence). There are actually numerous diversions, none terribly demanding but most quite engaging. One special standout has you assemble a family tree based on clues. It's fun figuring out who was the father and who was the cousin, but the developers wisely limited the diversion to just the one occurrence. A lot of what you'll see here is fun once but wouldn't hold up to repeated sessions.
When you've finally scavenged the available environments enough, cases wrap up with another enjoyable mini-game. You'll see cards arranged with the portraits of potential evil-doers and you must categorize them according to certain criteria that appear on 'X' and 'Y' axis. Practically, this means that you might slide a picture of a nanny into a space because of her profession, then realize that she's not quite the right match because she doesn't also have freckles. The number of cards to consider grows with subsequent campaigns and eventually you have to really pay attention to get things right. You're also rewarded with more points based on how quickly you solve everything.
The game's scoring system might suggest that The Lost Cases of Sherlock Holmes has good replay value, but that's not really true. Once you solve the cases--an endeavor that will likely consume around 5 or 6 hours total--there's little reason to return. Caps are concealed in each stage and you unlock a mini-game if you find them all, but there's not much challenge to be had in either part of that equation. Re-visiting familiar locales doesn't switch things up enough to keep them fresh, either. This ultimately means that what you get for your $20 is worthwhile if you like both Sherlock Holmes and the odd bit of casual gaming, but definitely won't set your world on fire if either of those two points doesn't apply.
Will you buy the game or not? The decision is surely elementary.
Staff review by Jason Venter (July 14, 2008)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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