A good Sherlock Holmes mystery is always entertaining. Not necessarily because of the mystery itself, but because of that famed detective—particularly his unique skillsets and how he uses them.
The gamemakers behind the unrated point-and-click mystery game Whispers of a Machine recognize that fact and take a, uh, stab at giving gamers a sci-fi twist on some entertaining Holmesian skills.
Labeled as a “Sci-Fi Nordic Noir,” Whispers of a Machine sets its stage in a futuristic world that is scarred and recovering from a past “event” that separated mankind from their computers, machines and everything else that might have once been driven by artificial intelligence. We’re not told what that apocalyptic tipping point was, but anything smarter than a pencil sharpener is definitely illegal these days.
That doesn’t mean every techy tool has been tossed, though. There’s still a nano-fluid substance dubbed Blue that’s available to a rare few, like say, a detective. When injected, it infuses the user’s brain and gives him or her some special cybernetic abilities.
A young female homicide detective named Vera Englund, for instance, is injected with the stuff and given the ability to scan her environment for fingerprints and DNA signatures. It also allows her to sense an interviewee’s fluctuating heartbeat and gives her an extra rip-that-locked-door-open burst of strength whenever the need might arise.
All those augmented detective boosts come in handy once Vera is sent out by the federal Central Bureau to investigate an unsolved murder in a small Nordic outpost called Nordsund. In fact, just after Vera steps off the steam train that got her there, the murder she was sent to investigate quickly turns into two, and then three. So she finds herself in a race against the clock to piece together the mystery of these seemingly unrelated killings, and then to stop the murderer (or murderers) before anyone else dies.
With that setup, it’s fairly easy to see what lies before you and Vera. This is a traditional point-and-click adventure that lets you roam throughout Nordsund’s shops and boarding houses, its school and the clinic, its junkyard and gardens, and anyplace else within the outpost. Along the way, you can talk with anyone you meet and interact with anything you can click on.
That alone would make for an interesting game of exploration and logical deduction. But Whispers of a Machine tosses in a couple more twists to heighten its gameplay enjoyability. For one thing, it turns out that Blue produces some unexpected side effects in Vera. It causes her to see a hallucination of her dead husband, whom she knows really isn’t there. Still, she can’t help but talk to him—real or not. This gives gamers a taste of Vera’s own past and a separate personal mystery to try to figure out.
Over the course of the story, that nano-fluid also lets Vera unlock other new personalized abilities—based solely on how you play her and the tack you take in your investigations. The choices you make push Vera’s personality in one of three directions: assertive, analytical or empathetic. And that chosen tendency will drive Vera’s giftedness.
Depending upon which personality trait she embraces, Vera might be enabled to take on someone else’s appearance, or temporarily wipe someone’s memory. She might learn to turn invisible or be able to turn on a disabled old machine with a touch. The choices you make playing Vera automatically unlock new skills in the course of her day, allowing you to drive her investigation forward and solve the mystery’s puzzles with your preferred style.
All of those added boosts make this game stand out and give it an unexpected appeal. And the well-composed story unfolds compellingly, too. But the story side of things is where we find some gaming stumbles, too.
The murderous crime scenes themselves never get too graphic: 2D bodies are seen on the floor and naked on autopsy tables, but they’re stylistically vague and undefined. But there are some graphic content elements in the mix here. For one thing, Vera’s conversations expose gamers to some unexpected, and frankly, completely unnecessary raw language. Printed dialogue uses of f- and s-words, misuses of Jesus’ name and other crudities are off-putting.
The game’s murders can potentially be off-putting as well. Without giving too much away, the story wades into a struggle between ideologies, the tug and pull of different belief systems, involving everything from Christian faith, to the idea of evolution, to human reflections on the human intellect and the supposedly godlike properties of AI. One of the involved organizations here is a self-described Christian church; one of its members references some of Leo Tolstoy’s thoughts on mankind.
All of that could have made for an interesting and potentially thought-provoking discussion about technology and things of faith. But the game never really digs beneath the surface of these themes, and the end result is ultimately ambiguous and dissatisfying.
For all its strengths, then, Whispers of a Machine stumbles under the weight of its weaknesses. Are there enough problems here to keep you away from the clue-gathering hunt? Well, I’ll let you deduce that, detective.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.