Sherlock Holmes: Secret of the Silver Earring Review

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's books about the English detective Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick Dr. Watson have been the subject of numerous computer games over the years. While some of those have almost duplicated actual cases from Doyle's books, this newest entry, Secret of the Silver Earring (Case of the Silver Earring in Europe), uses those characters in a brand new work of fiction.

Holmes and Watson are requested to attend a reception being held at the astute Bromsby Sherringford Hall manor. The detective duo arrive and survey the scene in the huge ballroom. Sherlock shows off his deductive talents as he and Watson look over the guests, who include numerous dignitaries and debutantes. Their host, Sir Bromsby, an older and dignified looking man, finally appears and approaches the podium to welcome his guests. Only a few words escape his lips before the deafening sound of a gunshot pierces the quiet room. Sir Bromsby lies on the floor dead. All eyes dart to the direction of the shot where Lavinia, Bromsby's daughter, stands in shock and dismay amidst a puff of smoke. Sherlock immediately takes control, ordering Dr. Watson outside to secure the area. Meanwhile he will investigate inside the manor. A mystery is afoot!

Installation and start-up ran flawlessly and presented no problems on my Pentium 4, Windows XP system. I happen to have one of the two brands of video cards supported, however. Prospective buyers should read the system requirements carefully before purchase.

Overall, the point-and-click interface is easy to understand and you're up and running in no time. Various cursors become active as you explore -- a small square portrait for conversing, two footprints for movement and various others. A right-click opens the inventory and journal screen, which stays hidden at the bottom of the screen until you do so. Inventory objects have titles, although you are not able to zoom in for a larger view. Some objects can be manipulated within inventory by using a "pop-up" command menu (read, unpack etc.). It is also possible to combine some objects together.

Saved games are slightly limited, with the date and time as well as a snapshot of your actual location are the only things to identify each save. This may be ideal for multi-lingual releases, but I miss being able to name my saved games.

As the game begins, Sherlock Holmes can be seen in third-person perspective as players take charge of his actions. Interrogating the staff and guests as well as searching the rooms of the manor for clues and evidence are the order of the day. As information is learned, logs are kept in a Journal for reference later. The use of Sherlock's legendary magnifying glass plus a test tube and tape measure are the keys to finding and picking up all pieces of evidence. Alternately, players can switch to Watson outside the house who is questioning everyone waiting in the courtyard. When both men are finished their respective tasks, they rejoin and decide to review their findings back at Baker Street. This sequence happens frequently throughout the rest of the game.

The artists have rendered the scenery and characters very well in Silver Earring. Everything looks natural and lifelike in 2D hand-drawn style. The major complaint I have with the graphics concerns camera angles. When Sherlock moves through a door, for instance, his view is changed so that he is facing in a new direction. While this is similar to "real life", the player can become disoriented and this can tend to get a player lost. On the other hand, objects of interest blend in well without becoming lost in the backgrounds and are fairly easy to spot for interaction. Inventory objects are realistic and easy to identify from their pictures.

Overall, there are very few sound effects to hear in this game. You will hear the footsteps while the characters walk, but little else. Many more could have been included -- the sound of a key falling from its hiding place, for instance. However, sounds within puzzles (and other instances when hearing something is important to the plot) were done very well. Music was varied throughout the game -- fast and slow tempos. All of the music blended well into the background and added the appropriate "feeling" to the setting and actions being performed.

The actors and actresses who voiced the characters did a brilliant job with their parts. All seemed natural to the person they were portraying, speaking with the appropriate tone of voice, inflection and emotion.

Lip-synching started out good in the beginning but faultered terribly as the game progressed. It is impossible to "read their lips" and some discussions are in hushed tones making it difficult to hear. Luckily there is an option to turn on the subtitles, which helps greatly -- especially during one of Sherlock's long, embellished monologues.

The original story in this "whodunnit" is interesting and keeps the player guessing. I can't say that the story kept me glued to the computer, however. The plot does unfold gradually as the "days" (chapters) progress and keeps you guessing until the last chapter. There are dozens of different non-player characters to meet as new places become available. An in-game quiz at the end of each chapter helps to organize all of the documents, items and conversations. So as to not overwhelm players with the volume of information gathered, the Quiz is an informative way to summarize everything from the preceeding chapter.

While the written dialogues for the majority of the characters were good, Sherlock Holmes comes off as a stuffy, dull Englishman and a pompous know-it-all. He may have been that, but his character, as portrayed in this game, is very unlikeable. His unnecessary rudeness towards his friend and partner, Dr. Watson, irritated me. I remember one time when Watson retorted back, "Really Holmes. You go too far!" Bravo! If I were Watson, I would have quit that job long ago!

Players familiar with Frogwares' previous game, Journey to the Center of the Earth, might recall problems with that game's interface. Some of those issues plague this game also. The ones I encountered included missing or erratic "movement" cursors, inconsistencies with the use of Sherlock's magnifying glass, and various problems moving characters around obstacles in a room. (One other irritation shared with JTTCOTE .. if a door is locked, why does the character always say that it's "closed"? We can certainly see that it is not open ...)

The game has other quirks worth mentioning also. For one, triggers for the end of a chapter are numerous. The player must click on each and every clickable spot before they can move on. This includes everything from looking at wall art to what seems like an insignificant furnishing. Because of this, players get stuck more often than necessary -- mostly because they've forgotten to look at one object, which may or may not be important.

However, in their effort to make it impossible for a player to miss something before being able to advance, the programmers made a major mistake. An object only available during the 1st day is essential in the 4th -- and it is possible to finish Day 1 without it. So, players who fail to pick it up earlier must restart the game -- either from the beginning or from a very early saved game!

Silver Earring is not a puzzle-intensive game, but its traditional inventory-based puzzles are good and blend in well with the storyline. Even if they are variations of puzzles found in other games, they felt fresh and new. Some required you to really put on your thinking cap. Clues for some of the normal puzzles are a bit far-fetched at times, in my opinion (i.e. a "Noah's Ark" puzzle which relied upon hidden pictures within line-drawn art ... or deciphering the "code" for an unusual slide--type safe combination).

Some of the puzzles do border on action. Players must find the only "happy spots" while positioning Holmes in at least 3 segments (i.e. avoiding guards between point A and point B and one timed "maze" section.).

Frogwares is a young development house which has brought us two worthy additions to the adventure genre -- Journey to the Center of the Earth and this game. Their first game, Mystery of the Mummy, got poor reviews and was a learning experience for them. It is nice to see their growth and progress, but they still have much more to learn.

The fact that the programmers limited their customers to those owning specific video cards and the unwaivering linearity of the gameplay are the major reasons for my mediocre score. They are aware of the problems and have "saved game" files for problematic areas available on the Frogwares' web site, but releasing a game patch would be the most ideal solution. Between you and me, I wouldn't hold my breath.

Despite its flaws and idiosyncracies, Sherlock Holmes: Silver Earring is a fairly decent game.

-- Jeanne Muse