Mini-Review: Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis / Sherlock Holmes vs Arsène Lupin

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Review written by Andrew Plotkin

I played Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened last year, but never got around to a review. Now I've played Nemesis, which gives me an excuse to patch my gap -- the two games play very similarly. But their tones are rather different.

Awakened led Holmes to investigate various dank backwaters of the world, in which a shadowy cult was conducting revolting work. This led to rituals, unspeakable runes, forbidden knowledge, squamousness and rugosity, and all the eventual trappings of H. P. Lovecraft.

The Nemesis, in contrast, is Arsène Lupin. This is, of course, the famous gentleman thief, whose stories (written by Maurice Leblanc) were appearing in the same era as Conan Doyle's detective. I say "of course" because you probably haven't heard of him. Although if you're an anime fan, you're probably slapping your forehead and saying "Ah! The grandfather of Lupin III!" If you still have no idea what I'm talking about, imagine a French guy in a top hat, stealing things and being cool. That's all you need.

So there's nothing unspeakable here. (Although a few plot straws from Awakened are still smouldering on the back burner, if I may knot a metaphor.) The Great Thief challenges the Great Detective, and that means a game. You lead Holmes around London, on a trail of clues and puzzles that were quite deliberately left for him. Nemesis, in other words, has the form of a puzzle scavenger hunt rather than a mystery story.

This isn't as much difference as all that. Every adventure game is secretly a puzzle scavenger hunt; that's the conceit that we agree to ignore. But Nemesis gets to ignore it in your face, because an egotistical thief leaving clues is an even better excuse than a mad pharaoh building traps in his pyramid. Sure, the tone of chasing a raffish dandy with his jokes and riddles is the antithesis of rugoseness and squamosity. Watson isn't going to get any new nightmares from this one. But the actual sorts of puzzles you encounter in the two games are similar.

You have your basic Holmesian detectivation. In these scenes, you wander around and keep an eye out for footprints, smears of mud, scattered hairs, scraps of paper -- the usual suspects. Anything that's out of place. When you find one, you get to pore over it with the old magnifying glass: same search, different scale. In some cases you can gather samples; in others, you can measure marks with your measuring tape. Now, the gathering and measuring is basically gesture-fluff. The tools are obvious, so the game is all in seeing relevant details. But it's good gesture-fluff. It's fun, it lets you feel like a detective, and there are never so many tools that the scene gets tedious. (Well, not in Nemesis. I think there was some tool overload in Awakened, but I don't remember the details and obviously the designers got over it.)

The problem with these scenes is that the clues are always plot milestones. You have to find every one to proceed with the game. And it's not possible to play one of these games without missing at least one clue. Which means, you'll get stuck. It just happens. Being a Great Detective is a lot harder than being a Pretty Good Detective Most Of The Time.

Object-combination puzzles and funny-machine puzzles allow for experimentation. You can come close and see some sort of result; failure can give you information. Search puzzles are not like that. Either you're standing near the hotspot and looking in the right direction, or you're not. If you're not, you have no idea what to try to get unstuck. So keep the walkthough handy, and don't feel embarrassed about hitting it.

(Actually, I can imagine ways for the game to nudge you. Say, if you walk within ten feet of a clue three times without noticing it, the game drops a voiceover hint: "I sense something near here." "Is that something there on the ground?" Great Detectives have hunches like that. It would open up an avenue for brute-force solving, but I think it wouldn't spoil the experience, as long as the hints were phrased to narrow the area of your search -- rather than solving the puzzle for you.)

Speaking of object-combination puzzles and funny-machine puzzles, you will find plenty of those too. And symbol-association puzzles, and even classic logic puzzles, of which Nemesis works in an impressive variety. (I'd say that the raffish puzzle-leaving thief is to blame for those, but it seems they're just as likely to show up in the regular business of London. Imagine N guards with N characteristics assigned to N lockers...)

The best I can say for the puzzles is that they cover a huge range. The worst I can say is that they cover a huge range of obscurity. Some are easy, some are hard, some are overspecified, some are underclued. Some are even badly implemented, or inconsistently implemented. As a designer I accept that it's really hard to regulate difficulty across so many puzzles. As a player, I say the result is kind of annoying anyway. Once again, I got stuck in several places, and I think you will get stuck too. Not necessarily in the same places, of course.

Unfortunately, the hazard of getting stuck on a poor puzzle -- and then looking up the answer, to find that it is a poor puzzle -- is that you lose some faith in the game. (Being a Great Designer is a lot harder than being a Pretty Good Designer Most Of The Time...) I enjoyed some of the puzzles in Nemesis, and I found some routine, and I disliked some. Which left me with an overall poor impression of the game, because the more I stumbled the less patience I had. It's not exactly fair; but there it is.

And that brings me to the final puzzle -- no, actually, it doesn't yet. First, the query puzzles. And second, the dialogue.

Query puzzles are a trick I first saw in Agon. (Which, come to think of it, is where I first described the search-puzzle problem. Ah, 2003.) Holmes turns to you -- "you" being Watson, in these scenes -- and asks you what you think of the latest riddle, set of clues, what have you. Then an input box pops up. Type the answer, a word or so, and the game proceeds. If you have no idea what's going on, the game lets you pop out of the query (right-click, which I had trouble finding at first) and look through your in-game notebooks for background information.

I praised this query trick in Agon because it sidesteps the whole design problem of proving you know the answer. If the clue points to the locale of Lupin's next crime, you can't just wander randomly around the game map; you have to type the name. If the point is to notice that a message contains hidden information, you don't need a contrived scene in which that information is useful; you merely type it and add a clue to your web of deduction.

(Mind you, there is a game map. While you can't wander around it randomly, you can click landmarks randomly and be refused entry. This sometimes undercuts the queries -- particularly if you deduce ahead of the game. At one point I had figured out the next theft target long before the plot wanted me to. The map wouldn't let me go there; I had to run a gauntlet of research and queries. In another case, I was typing the wrong answer to a query, because the game was expecting me to follow its step-by-step logic, and I was again a step ahead.)

Agon used the query model to separate your solving the puzzle from the protagonist's solving. You do the work, and then the protagonist has his moment of insight and moves on with the plot; which makes for better pacing. In the Holmes games, of course, this separation is built in: Holmes is always a step ahead of Watson. Cue Conan-Doylian banter. Unless, again, the player is ahead of Holmes, and then the pacing doesn't work so well.

Speaking of banter. These games have a lot of NPCs, and a lot of dialogue. Unusually for modern adventure games, they don't have too much dialogue. The dialogue sets up each scene and carries the game plot, but each bit is short and hits its mark; they're spread around between characters and across the game action. No verbose boulders of backstory rolled across you for hours on end. Plus, it's well-translated and well-spoken -- attributes which I no longer take for granted.

This is not to say there are no down-sides. The script leans way, way too heavily on cod-Sherlockian boilerplate. "The game is afoot" a dozen times a day; "elementary" erupts like attacks of hiccups. Famous lines are strewn randomly. (I can cope with one more reminder that the tobacco is in the Persian slipper; but, really, do we have to hear again about "the woman"?)

And while the NPCs you meet are many and varied, and mostly amusing, some wind up sending you to the dread land of the fetch-quest. Yes, it's just another kind of puzzle, but one which I'd rather kept to its bare minimum. Adventure games have enough trouble interweaving their puzzles with their plots, without dropping those plots for three irrelevant chores per chapter.

(Even the Sam&Max series, the current zenith of That Sort of Game, makes an effort to keep the quests both funny, in that Sam&Max over-the-top way, and ultimately relevant to the current storyline. In Nemesis, Holmes winds up making dog-food and then finding the maidservant's dolls. Sadly, it isn't as salacious as I'm making it sound.)

I am left with the final puzzle -- about which I don't know what to think.

I shouldn't say the final puzzle, really. It's the puzzle that sets up the final chapter of the game. It's the "now everything changes" line: no more clues and riddles; Holmes vs Lupin in earnest. And it's the puzzle where (not to spoil anything) you have to jump out of the framework and think about what's really going on.

I love this trick. I try to do this in my games, and I sometimes succeed, and I am most pleased with myself when I do. But in Nemesis, the trick did not succeed... for me. I tried a random answer, which was wrong; then I tried the decoy answer, which was wrong; then I tried another random answer, which seemed like it might not be entirely wrong, and it turned out to be right. So you can credit my subconscious mind for being clever -- but I really hadn't worked through the logic, and I didn't understand why I was right until the Holmes-explains-everything speech. And then I crossed out the "totally unprompted final twist" that I had written in my review notes. It did make sense, but I got stuck in Watson's shoes -- enlightenment after the fact.

So I didn't have the ideal experience, and whose fault was that? It can easily be mine; I never gave Nemesis credit for having layers, and so I never looked for them. It's equally easy to blame the designers, for not putting in enough clues. Or maybe I should just say that I'm good at puzzles but lousy at mysteries. (Which is true: mystery novels always outmaneuver me.) And maybe I should shut up and take my lumps; I've read dozens of comments like these about the games that I write.

I'll leave that to you, but I can point at one angle which felt wrong. When you give a wrong answer in that critical puzzle, you do not get immediate feedback. Instead, you get a rather long cut-scene which at first seems like you're on the right track; then you slowly realize that you're not; and then the game ends (and resets you to the puzzle point). Narratively, this makes perfect sense -- you're waiting for Lupin in the wrong place. Design-wise, it's plausible -- failing a crucial puzzle should have some cost, although the framework should (and does) let you try again.

But it went wrong for me in a couple of ways. First, there's a line in the bad-ending cut-scene which I completely misinterpreted -- I thought it was a good sign, and so the "you lose" screen a minute later left me disgruntled. And second, the good-choice cut-scene is insufficiently different from the bad-choice one. So when I hit that, I thought it was a bad sign -- and a minute later I was into the final chapter, and that left me disgruntled too. And finally, of course, boredom is a dangerous cost to inflict. Repeating scenes, even for game-appropriate reasons, can amplify the no-fun factor for any player who is running into trouble.

These are very fine hairs to dissect, and perhaps too personal a reaction for the designers to address. I'm sure some players hit the desired moment of insight, and any change that rescues my game might perhaps ruin theirs.

Nonetheless, I found Nemesis less good than it should have been, and that is a sad review no matter how you slice it. The reasons for my negativity were many and perhaps picayune, but they added up. And the same is true of Awakened (although that had a much more traditional final-chapter puzzle blowout.) To counterbalance that, I will say that both games have a great many good points; they're big, plotty, puzzly, visually rich, and (mostly) well-written. So what are you going to do? Play them, I guess.

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