Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis

Posted by Joseph Howse.
First posted on 12 November 2008. Last updated on 26 February 2015.
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Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis
The National Gallery looks different after Lupin's redecorating job.
Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis
Holmes finds many uses for objects from the Tower of London's Weapons Room, albeit not for lethal purposes.
Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis
Lestrade feels confident (again) that his policemen are ready for Lupin.
Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis
All eyes are on Holmes!
Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis
Holmes kneels over an unconscious watchman.

"Holmes meets Cthulu" is last year's scenario. "Holmes meets Lupin" is the sequel. Maybe you are stressed after your previous adventure with the lobotomized cultists. Do you want to relax by exploring Victorian London's museums and palaces while attempting to catch France's greatest burglar in the act?

As the follow-up to the horror mystery Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened, Frogwares Game Development Studio presents the decidedly more lighthearted game—Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis (also known as Sherlock Holmes versus Arsène Lupin). Predominately, the latest sequel in the developer's own Sherlock Holmes series maintains its precursors' high standards, with stunningly lifelike production qualities and long puzzles that integrate well into the atmosphere of the game. Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis is, thus, an impressive game, even if it creates some incongruities in terms of mood. This jolly, innocent caper is not much like an Arthur Conan Doyle mystery, yet it is fun and it bears far closer resemblance to the Arsène Lupin novels and short stories by Maurice Leblanc.

Leblanc's character, the aristocratic cat burglar Lupin, dates back to the serial called Arsène Lupin Gentleman Burglar (1905). Despite his criminal acts, Lupin is an idealized character—chivalrous, ingenious, and (as revealed in twist endings) often motivated by patriotism or altruism rather than selfishness. Among Lupin's recurring adversaries is the great English detective "Herlock Sholmès", whom Leblanc portrays as an absurd and conniving blunderer. For example, in Leblanc's novel The Hollow Needle (1909), Sholmès discovers Lupin's hideout merely by following Lupin's former nursemaid. In an armed confrontation, Sholmès then accidently shoots and kills Lupin's wife instead of Lupin. Thus, the idea of pitting Holmes against Lupin is almost as old as the character Lupin himself. However, none of Leblanc's "Sholmès" pastiche is part of the plotline that the developer unveils in the game; instead, the game offers an original mystery, which presents itself as the sole encounter between Holmes and Lupin.

At 221B Baker Street, the game opens with Holmes and Watson reading an unexpected piece of mail. A challenge, written in flowery language, has come from the infamous Lupin, who wants Holmes to attempt to catch him in the act of stealing England's national treasures. A series of riddles leads to the scene of an impending theft, followed by another—but can Holmes, Watson and Lestrade act quickly enough to keep this story out of the papers and save the nation from an utter humiliation that may expose its weaknesses to the whole world?

The game is released in both CD-ROM and DVD-ROM versions. The package includes a game manual. The game offers about 30 hours of play.

Most of the writers and English voice actors from Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened return in Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis. This is good news because the lines and voices have excellent comic timing and an authentic, historical yet conversational sound. Watson, unfortunately, does not get his finest hour in the script for this game. Despite his gutsy role in Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened (wielding an elephant gun against Louisianan maniacs and such), the former army doctor spends most of the time complaining about lack of food and sleep—and ultimately doing more harm than good in the investigation. A third playable character, Lestrade, turns out to be an entertaining addition to the team, with an edgy yet nasal voice. Various minor characters from royal guards to drunks in pubs are idiosyncratic Londoners, often with the hint of deeper personal stories beyond the game. Lupin in person is mild-mannered—or downright meek—and the script also casts an important historical figure in an unexpected light. This use of counter typecasting makes the pastiche even more fanciful.

The game uses first-person perspective, with real-time 3D rendering for scenes as well as characters. The game's locations include astonishingly realistic reproductions of several tourist attractions in London. At the National Gallery, for instance, the player has the chance to stroll amid several collections and hear commentary on the paintings from the active character—first Holmes and later Lestrade. Other locations feature beautifully detailed and intriguing sets of everything from Victorian dolls to Medieval weaponry to artifacts of Antiquity. Many of the game's areas are vast just for the sake of realism and immersion; the scenery, as well as the characters' fully voiced descriptions of it, goes far beyond merely the puzzles' requirements. Tourism is definitely part of the enjoyment here.

The character art is equally impressive, standing up well to close inspection. You can, for instance, go toe to toe with Great Britain's Prime Minister and examine his furrowed brow as he quizzically returns your gaze with his baggy, grayish eyes. A great deal of lifelike animation (such as the Prime Minister fidgeting with his pencil and notepad) adorns the cut scenes and the real-time gameplay alike.

Nonetheless, there is a particular detail of the 3D design that I find bothersome: the field of view is unnaturally narrow. To view an entire painting, for instance, the player must often move the character several meters back from the wall. Moreover, since narrowed field of view amplifies the viewer's sense of motion (try turning around while looking through binoculars), this feature may have an effect on gamers who are prone to motion sickness when playing 3D games.

String music, mostly light and soothing, sets the mood in this game. The tunes are initially pleasant but become rather monotonous, since each major area of the game has only a single, short musical piece that loops over and over. The sound effects are mostly standard fare—clunking footsteps, rattling doorknobs—without much background ambiance. The playback of sound effects (including footsteps) suffers from fairly frequent glitches, in the form of loud pops or cracks. All told, the music and sound effects are the least polished aspect of the production.

For its interface, Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis (like Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened) features an intuitive 3D adaptation of generic point-and-click concepts. The mouse rotates the character's perspective, and an icon (hand, gears, or eye) appears over any nearby hotspot. The arrow keys or WASD keys make the character walk. There is a standard inventory interface as well as screens for jump maps and various kinds of automated notes. Each screen has its own hotkey, and the controls are remappable. The main interface, in short, is very clean.

Unlike Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened, Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis has no puzzles that make special use of the movement interface. The character never needs to crawl (even though the controls still allow it), and walk commands are no longer the means for pushing crates and such. The puzzles are organized like several separate scavenger hunts (which happen to be good excuses to explore the beautifully recreated tourist sites of London). Holmes and Watson receive riddles from Lupin, and must follow each of these clues to find the location of the next clue. Along the way, the hunt sometimes takes detours as Holmes, Watson, and Lestrade attempt to overcome unexpected obstacles or exploit apparent weaknesses in Lupin's plan.

At every site, the player faces numerous inventory puzzles. Most of the game's locations also feature pattern matching puzzles as well as information puzzles that require the player to read documents or make observations somewhere first and then apply the findings elsewhere. Consistently, the puzzles make good use of the environment, and vice versa. A set of cartoonish, modern paintings, which Lupin "exchanges" for British classics, is enchanting just as artwork but also has an ulterior purpose. A barracks—full of sweaty knit socks, letters from home, and souvenirs from balloon rides—has a great sense of time and place but moreover much of its junk makes Holmes hum, "This may prove useful."

A few puzzles require the player to type in an answer (or, alternatively, click in an answer on the in-game virtual keyboard). Unfortunately, the text parser and many of the related puzzles are very rudimentary. For example, early in the game, the player is aware Watson and Holmes are looking for some kind of painting related to the Battle of Trafalgar, Britain's most decisive naval victory in the Napoleonic Wars. However, based loosely on clues from Lupin, the player must type in an answer to the question, "What does the painting based on the Battle of Trafalgar depict?" The game wants the name of some kind of object—but only in the singular, not in the plural, and not the historical name of the specific object in question, just the name of the kind of object. The words "a" and "the" also invalidate the answer. Text parser games have been around since the mid 1970s, so it is surprising to see such underdeveloped parser puzzles here.

Even if some puzzles are obtuse, others are simply delightful. Many are designed with an eye and ear for the absurd—showing, in part, the influence of Leblanc's Lupin shining through. (Like the spy thrillers of later generations, Leblanc's work contains farfetched gadgetry and disguises, which are of course fare for adventure gaming too.) For example, in Buckingham Palace, Holmes must turn his powers of deduction to the task of reconstructing the contents of the dog's breakfast. At other times, the player must type in the identity of someone whose disguise has fooled certain characters. The answer is the same each time. (It's Princess Rosella! No, wait...) Sometimes, the absurdity—the sense of playing the stooge while knowing where and perhaps even how Lupin is planning to strike—is so great that the game seems to be leading the player around by the nose. On the other hand, that is precisely what Leblanc's Lupin does with his adversaries.

Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis is in many ways an outstanding adventure, featuring state-of-the-art graphics, an immersive 3D game environment, colorful voice acting, many funny lines and scenarios, and an unusually long game. Parts of the game are so engrossing that the experience really is like visiting London's landmarks. The developer has also pulled off the task of adapting Leblanc's hero without adapting Leblanc's trashing of Holmes. Sure, parts of the game are silly, but the wit of Holmes, not Sholmès, still rings loud.

A couple of design facets, however, have fallen by the wayside in an otherwise lavish game. The music and sound effects lack diversity, and suffer from glitches. The text parser puzzles are an unfortunately rigid implementation of an old tradition that thrives on open-endedness.

What is your favorite flavor of Holmes? That is an important factor that will greatly determine your level of enjoyment of the game. Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis falls in the "comic caper" section of the spectrum of Holmes pastiches (just as Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened falls in the "weird menace" section). The game is, of course, not dark realism—or social commentary on murder and malice—of the kind that gives Doyle's Holmes his chilling edge. (For dark realism, Mythos Software's Holmesian adventure game, The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes - Case of the Rose Tattoo, brilliantly weaves its tangled web of mystery amid both the seedy and the filthy rich sides of late Victorian London.) The light mood of Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis is worth emphasizing simply because it is not very clear from the game's advertising. (After all, a tagline on the North American packaging is "Darkness descends upon the city of London".)

A fun trip through sparkling renditions of London's landmarks, stuffed to the brim with tantalizing clues around every turn, Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis is great for art and mystery fans who may want something more playful and relaxing than squalor and murder.

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