Secret of the Silver Earring is a breath of fresh air. Too many adventure games of late have lamely aped the well-worn formula of the Myst games without capturing the true Myst mystique. The Secret of the Silver Earring doesn't rely on someone else's formula, but instead confidently does its own thing, albeit with mixed results. This adventure puts you in the shoes of the brilliant Sherlock Holmes and his indefatigable assistant, Dr. Watson, as they try to solve a startling murder. The game features interesting characters, an engaging plot, and beautiful graphics, yet it's an adventure with few puzzles and a mystery where you don't actually solve the mystery.
Secret of the Silver Earring takes you to England in 1897, where Holmes attends a gala hosted by an industry magnate, Sir Melvyn Bromsby. Bromsby is celebrating the return of his daughter, Lavinia, from school abroad, as well as her 18th birthday. Just as Bromsby takes the stage to deliver an address to the assembled businessmen, army officers, and ladies, a shot rings out. Bromsby falls dead instantly. As the startled throng rushes for the exits, Lavinia is left looking like the prime suspect.
Playing primarily as Holmes, and occasionally as Watson, you'll have to unravel an extremely tangled web of intrigue to find the murderer. This mostly entails questioning everyone in sight and looking for tiny clues. Both these tasks can leave something to be desired. Instead of questioning suspects and witnesses with finesse and guile, all you do is exhaust a preset series of dialogue choices. There's no true interaction here, which can make it feel like you're just along for the ride. Searching for clues can sometimes make looking for a needle in a whole row of haystacks seem easy by comparison. The game's environments are richly detailed, and you're expected to find little strands of hair or suspicious smudges in them. Real-life crime investigators might engage in the equivalent of pixel hunts, but this is a game, and games should be fun, not frustrating.
Happily, many clues are easier to spot, be it a book on a shelf or a letter in a lady's handbag. Every time Holmes or Watson finds one, makes an observation, or engages in a conversation, it's automatically recorded in a notebook. At the end of each of the game's five acts, you return to Holmes and Watson's famed 221b Baker Street lodgings and take a quiz. Yes, that's right: a quiz. Secret of the Silver Earring offers only a few conventional adventure game puzzles where you have to manipulate objects with inventory items or solve pattern recognition or math challenges. To take up the slack, the game's quizzes pose a series of questions that let you demonstrate how well you've been paying attention to the investigation so far. You have to answer "yes" or "no" to each question and choose the proper pieces of evidence, conversations, or observations to justify your answers. If you get all the questions right, the game proceeds. If not, you have to keep trying until you succeed. Unfortunately, the game doesn't tell you which answers are right or wrong, so if you fail the quiz, you can't know where you've failed.
While Holmes is famous for his mental prowess, Secret of the Silver Earring throws in a little action for a welcome change of pace from all the meticulous sleuthing. That's a good idea in theory, but not so hot in practice. The game's movement controls can be maddeningly unresponsive at times; you might click a destination, only to see Holmes just stand there or turn in circles. That's quite a burden when you have to make Holmes elude a night watchman and his dog by running around and hiding behind scenery. There's almost no room for error; your timing has to be spot on. Later in the game, it gets even worse when you have to run through a forest maze while a timer ticks down. If you don't make it in time, you lose the game. Word to the wise: save often.
With weaknesses like these, Secret of the Silver Earring surely doesn't sound too promising. You can't fully discount such faults, it's true, yet the game does have ample charms. The engaging story involves shady financial dealings, a notorious construction project in colonial India, a thug from the Far East, a tragedy among a traveling troupe of English actors visiting South America, and more. The game's depiction of late Victorian England is equally colorful if a bit dubious historically. For example, some of the women are dressed too revealingly for the era, and gentlemen barge into rooms without knocking or being announced by servants.
The broad cast of characters includes suspicious army officers, shady businessmen, overworked domestic help, drunken coachmen, arrogant actors, humble villagers, stalwart constables, and other interesting people. The major players are well realized and likable. Holmes gets to display his striking powers of deduction right off the bat by taking a few seemingly innocuous details and generating a thorough description of a stranger's character and social standing. You can almost hear an air of self-satisfaction in his explanation to Watson. Elementary, indeed. Watson is always busily taking notes and sometimes becoming a bit exasperated at Holmes' cool, detached demeanor. Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard shows up from time to time, too; he means well but tends to be rash and doesn't prove to be much of an investigator.
Generally top-notch voice acting helps bring the characters alive. Much of the game's dialogue could be considered stilted and tedious by modern standards, but the actors speak their lines with conviction and grace, helping evoke a bygone era. The game also boasts some of the best music you're likely to hear in a game, which makes it ironic that it's poorly implemented. You'll hear gorgeous chamber works by Dvoøák, Grieg, Schumann, and Tchaikovsky, yet the game plays the same little snippets over and over with little relation to the onscreen action.
Visually, Secret of the Silver Earring is outstanding, with sumptuously colored and beautifully lit environments. They're loaded with a wealth of fine detail, from ornate candelabras to fine old paintings to minutely patterned rugs. The game's characters don't fare as well, with some stilted animations, sloppy lip-synching, and clipping problems from time to time.
Drawbacks like that and the dearth of true puzzles hurt Secret of the Silver Earring, yet the entertaining story and characterizations make it reasonably easy to live with such faults. There's one much graver caveat with the game, though: You don't actually solve the mystery yourself. You can take an optional final quiz to test your theories about "whodunit," but either way the game ends with an extended cutscene in which you just sit and watch Holmes rather tediously explain the whole case from start to finish. It's fun to see his prodigious powers of reasoning at work, but shouldn't a game ultimately be about your powers of reasoning?