Apparently, if you ask Frogwares, one Sherlock Holmes game a year isn’t enough to satiate the gaming public’s consulting detective desires. That’s why, despite their console release The Testament of Sherlock Holmes already having seen release, Frogwares (through their sub-studio Waterlily) have seen fit to introduce the eccentric investigator to Nintendo’s latest handheld, in Sherlock Holmes: The Mystery of the Frozen City. Following in the vein of 2010’s Sherlock Holmes and the Mystery of Osborne House, Frozen City is a cross between a generic touch-based puzzle game and a point-and-click adventure, with a very Professor Layton-esque aesthetic and interface.
London is struck by a mysterious ice storm, devouring the entire city in snow and frost. Within about twenty seconds, it is revealed that the source of the miserable weather is a “weather machine” created by an eccentric scientist which has gone out of control. and must be righted by Holmes in order to restore London to its normal weather… which, in retrospect, is miserable anyway. As London’s best private detective, you make your way around various locations in an effort to return natural weather to the city.
The environments you’ll encounter in Frozen City are all beautifully hand-drawn and creatively designed, down to the finest detail. Disappointingly, it’s not uncommon to come across an object that appears to have been blown up from a low resolution image, or backdrops that seem to be oddly coloured. Locations are rendered on the upper screen, and you have to change your perspective with the directional pad or the cursor to ensure that you miss nothing.
The fact that the action takes place on the upper screen is a good idea in theory, however the result is a horribly inaccurate interface system that makes Frozen City more of a chore than a video game. Even though the environments are shown on the 3D screen, everything is interacted with on the touch screen, which is slightly smaller in size. You have to touch the location on the lower screen that an item would be at if the upper screen was transposed to the lower screen. However, due to the different sizes of the screens and the fact that the actual display on the bottom screen is just a place-holder compass, this becomes very frustrating very quickly.
After getting fed up with this control system, you’ll likely find yourself simply leaving the stylus on the screen so that the cursor is shown on the upper screen, and just moving it without removing it. This strategy, however, is hampered by the corner touch buttons. Each corner of the touch screen is home to a button that will activate even if the stylus is simply dragged over it. As a result, you’ll end up opening menus far more often than you might intend to, and don’t even think about interacting with items in the corners of the upper screen.
Most of the environments look very nice, but far too often they wind up being a clusterfuck of colour and items, making it nearly impossible to discern what can be interacted with and what’s just there for decoration. In these situations, I resorted to simply scribbling the stylus across the screen until the cursor on the upper screen changed to a hand. More than once, however, expect to be totally stuck, only to discover that you missed picking up a scrap of paper hidden behind a pole in a previous room that you could only discover by changing your view perspective.
Strangely, however, Frozen City seems to be fully aware of the difficulties that its control mechanism might cause, and even compensates for some of them. On the map screen, which splits up your current location into a number of rooms, an exclamation mark indicates that there is still something left to be done in a specific room. Enter that room and press the question mark button on the top-right of the touch screen, and your view will be centred on the object you are yet to interact with. This hint button does need charging up, but in normal play I didn’t encounter a single situation where I had to kill time to charge it up.
We’ve gone over the flaws in the point-and-click aspect of Frozen City, now let’s focus on the flaws in the puzzle aspect. Frozen City follows what I’ve come to call the “Layton formula”. It’s framework is that of a point-and-click, but the main meat of the game is the puzzles. Here, the puzzles strangely oscillate between extremely easy and extremely hard, with the only underlying constant being guesswork. In the first half hour alone, you’ll be subjected to an frustrating block-fitting puzzle in the form of organising a toolbox, and a five second puzzle in which you have to arrange a series of different sized cogs to form a chain. There’s not even a semblance of a difficulty curve to the puzzles.
If I’m going to start comparing it to a Layton game, I’d like to note that the puzzles are far fewer than they ever were in one of the Professor’s adventures. Additionally, while Layton makes no real attempt to blend the puzzles and the plot, in Frozen City the puzzles feel a little bit shoehorned in, likely due to the fact that there’s no warning when one might show up, and that every puzzle seems to be lukewarmly inter-related to the overall plot of the game. It’s a puzzle game, you don’t need explanation or reason to include a puzzle.
Many puzzles require you first collect various external items from around the surrounding rooms before you can complete them. For example, in the second section, before attempting a puzzle that involves a model of the solar system, you must first collect the model’s versions of Mars, Venus, and Earth, a task which itself requires a number of puzzles to be solved.
Despite its shortcomings, Sherlock Holmes: The Mystery of the Frozen City has a large number of things going for it. Aesthetically, it’s one of the best games on the 3DS thus far, with stand-out visual and sound design (ignoring the low-resolution problems for a second). Perhaps taking a page from its 3DS puzzle/adventure bretherin, every character in Holmes’ London is memorable in their own right. For a puzzle game, however, the puzzle aspect is disappointingly mediocre, and the user interface is appalling. Frozen City presents a charming world that is let down by a horde of issues in virtually every other aspect of the game.
Select Start Media was provided with a review copy of Sherlock Holmes: The Mystery of the Frozen City by Focus Home Interactive. The platform it was reviewed on was the Nintendo 3DS.