In 1888, a serial killer dubbed “Jack the Ripper” by the contemporary press horrifically murdered and mutilated a string of prostitutes in and around the area of Whitechapel, London. The killer was never caught, despite the efforts of the police, the media and volunteer organisations. But if nobody in real Victorian London could catch Jack the Ripper, could the era’s most famous fictional detective? This is the hypothetical question asked in Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper. The answer seems less than convincing than it should in Frogwares’ new adventure, which continues the series’ recent pattern of pairing up the investigator with literary – or in this case historical – characters. Nevertheless, whilst the team-up never brings quite the clash you might expect, the journey along the way still represents another solid entry in the series.
Perhaps the first issue to address in considering this game is its theme, which may seem tasteless or repellent to some players. After all, these were real murders, of the most horrible and senseless variety. The victims used in the game are based on their real-life counterparts, and apart from the clearly fictional details, the game does display a well-researched degree of historical accuracy, even using some of the (less horrific) crime scene photographs on the menu screens. Knowing this will let you make your first assessment of whether you are likely to appreciate this game – it does adhere to, and adhere accurately, the specifics of very nasty and real crimes.
Similarly, there is also no shying away from other unsavoury elements such as street prostitution, sexually transmitted diseases, and dismemberment. Yet despite the subject matter and dark, oppressive visuals, this game is neither particularly depressing in ambience nor gratuitously violent. As a concession to taste, in lieu of 3D models for the corpses, representative chalk outlines are used instead, and we never actually see the crimes committed. It’s probably the most restrained game one could construct about such an inherently disturbing situation.
Proceedings begin, as is customary, at 221B Baker Street, when Dr. Watson (Sherlock’s medically-minded companion, whom you’ll control periodically), suggests to a bored Holmes that they investigate the first murder in Whitechapel. Most of the game is set around this primary location of narrow, run-down streets, with occasional diversions elsewhere to follow up new leads. This important “hub” location is a triumph. The atmosphere feels convincingly historical, and the detailed 3D environment and claustrophobic, foggy alleyways are great fun to walk around, especially now that Frogwares have made two major improvements: London no longer feels deserted, with plenty of pedestrians milling around; and Watson has lost the power of teleportation – when playing as Sherlock, the good doctor follows you by walking rather than suddenly popping up out of nowhere, as in previous titles.
Another instantly noticeable addition is the option of controlling Holmes and Watson in third-person, using point-and-click controls to navigate, or in free-roaming first-person, using a direct control system similar to shooters. The modes can even be toggled back and forth freely throughout the game. I preferred the latter, not just because of my general preference for this perspective, but because the pathfinding is occasionally flawed when manoeuvring characters onscreen, with the protagonists sometimes colliding with pedestrians. Exploring a large world mainly through fixed camera angles that change suddenly can also be a little disorienting. Still, both are perfectly functional, and allowing the option for both is a very impressive bit of programming and a laudable feature.
Regardless of which method you choose, interaction with the world is simply handled with clickable hotspots, and cursors that change to reflect examination, interaction, and the like. The rest of the interface is stylish and very well constructed. Other screens you can switch to with a right-click are not just limited to the standard inventory, but also include maps, documents, a conversation log, and Holmes’ reports to summarise events, which are useful additions should you return to the game after a stretch away.
As well as the crime scenes in and around the Whitechapel streets, players will visit other, smaller locations: an impoverished medical clinic, a brothel, and an abandoned mansion to name a few. The game stays entirely in London, however, and the locations are not as varied or opulent as other titles in the series, sticking with the grittier, po-faced aesthetic. Some may find this dull, but I found the decision compensated for by the general presentation of the game, which is top-notch, with lavish, detailed textures, menus and character models. Occasionally the animation is a little stilted, especially facial movements, but make no mistake: Frogwares has put together a slick package, both technically and artistically.
It’s a pity, then, that the gameplay isn’t quite as stellar. You see, the crimes of Jack the Ripper weren’t exactly that complicated or mysterious – he was a lone psychopath who butchered helpless women who wouldn’t normally be missed, and happened to be active at a time when there was a flourishing newspaper industry. Furthermore, because his crimes were apparently motiveless atrocities, in reality there were no compelling clues or deeper conspiracies to reveal. In the words of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes, “The more featureless and commonplace a crime is, the more difficult it is to bring it home.” This makes it a little doubtful Sherlock would have ever taken such a case, since the reason why the Ripper was never caught was probably due less to the lack of a Holmesian genius on the team, and more to do with the simple lack of evidence and the seemingly random selection of victims from the ranks of London prostitutes.
As a result, the game needed to be “bulked up” with digressions, false leads, and tangentially related cases. In some instances, this is all well and good: a body-snatching case Watson stumbles on at a hospital provides an entertaining sub-plot with some good puzzles. In other instances, this tendency is frustrating. Why precisely, I was forced to ask myself at one point, would the real Holmes – or indeed anyone else – be trying to rate a box of perfumes for a brothel keeper via a series of jigsaw puzzles intended to metaphorically represent their scent composition? Whilst such tasks are generally fair and not particularly onerous, they rarely feel like they have anything to do with the case.Continued on the next page...