Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper review
Adventure Gamers Awards
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.
The examinations of the crime scenes stick fairly close to the real events, which means that Holmes – and the player – must make trapeze-like manoeuvres of reasoning that don’t really feel like the methods of a character famous for near-scientifically rigorous deduction. Wildly inconsistent witness reports are smoothed over into representing the same man by speculative discussions of lighting conditions. Holmes makes definitive conclusions about the knife the killer wields by doing tests using a selection of only four blades. The re-enactments are presented with a certain gloomy flare – for example, to test the knives, Holmes and Watson borrow an abandoned butcher’s shop and perform the tests on pigs’ heads. The solutions, however, seem to be more based on dubious speculation about the real case rather than inventing more definitive clues for Holmes to discover.
To that end, Frogwares designed a very competent user interface to represent abstract thought. The most prominent of these is the “deduction” board, in which the player must select deductions from a list of three options based on observations made at the scene, which are then combined together to draw secondary deductions, and finally, conclusions. It’s a solid mechanic for making you think about the case, and it pushes the player into drawing the developer’s intended conclusions. There are other abstract interfaces too, such as timelines that require you to place events in order to determine when a murder occurred. A lot of this isn’t really a challenge and could all be handled with simple dialogue, but that would remove some of the fun of “doing it yourself”.
Unlike previous Sherlock games, there are no points at which you are asked to type answers to questions. This makes the game easier, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. At its best, the typed response mechanic functions as a “gate” that not only checks whether the player has been following the plot carefully, but allows you to make a Holmes’-style deduction unaided. Here even trial-and-error can lead you to the correct answers. Still, the deduction-based gameplay is quite unlike anything else on the market these days, and it serves the function of really involving you in solving crimes and trying to triangulate your efforts with Holmes’, which is an entertaining process.
As well as the investigation sections, which mix these deduction-themed exercises with hotspot searches for evidence (a press of the space bar highlights all examinable objects, which removes any potential frustration), there are a mixture of other puzzles. Many are inventory-based, and often involve constructing some device to solve a physical problem, or giving items to non-playable characters. These generally feel less arbitrary than some of the full-screen code-cracking exercises peppered throughout (everyone in Victorian London, apparently, used their own idiosyncratic system of locks) or the other zoomed-in, often abstract mechanical puzzles. An electric lift, for example, requires you to join dots together on a grid using cardinal lines; these are supposed to represent wires and circuits, but once again it does rather feel as if the developers are just throwing unconnected puzzles at you occasionally that have nothing to do with Jack the Ripper. Although the game is a reasonable length overall, that’s partly because it has been extended by using these distractions. At least the puzzles are often enjoyable on their own merits, and normally fairly easy to solve. In fact, you are generally told very specifically where to go and what to do, often making movement between locations totally linear. This does keep the game moving, but it makes you feel funnelled down a very specific interpretation of the events.
The game is also a little lacking in the audio department. The soundscapes of Whitechapel and the classical music are pleasant, but they may sound rather familiar from past games in the series. The voice acting and dialogue scripting, too, leave a bit to be desired. Whilst Holmes’ and Watson’s voices are good, it sometimes sounds like the actors have been given their lines without direction. Holmes, for example, disguises himself as a workman at one point, but doesn’t change his voice in conversations, except for a couple of sentences in which his chimbly-sweep impression sounds bizarrely out of place. On a similar note, the voice of the urchin from the Baker Street Irregulars, Holmes’ network of child informers, is remarkably strange and painful. He sounds like an American stage-school child given an intolerable mockney script and two minutes to prepare.
Adding to the problems, the rest of the writing is pretty unconvincing as well. Frogwares are good at putting together – or in this case, retelling – a decent story, but some of the script is incredibly anachronistic. I have my doubts that Doyle’s Sherlock would ever exclaim “Lookie here!”, for example. The game also produces newspaper reports using modern fonts, and dozens of other silly errors or misplaced elements that pull you directly out of the experience, not least that the written subtitles often fail to match perfectly with the dialogue. There is, for instance, an ocean of difference between a “black fellow” and a “fellow on the black-market”.
The characters you meet, fortunately, are varied and often interesting, such as the stoic doctor at the clinic, the Jewish tradesmen (who sporadically found themselves scapegoats for the murders), and of course the prostitutes. Holmes and Watson themselves are clearly well-researched, and fit the essence of the characters described by Doyle, even if a detail or two may seem a little jarring. There’s even an especially nice reference to another Holmes’ story right at the end, which raised a smile.
To Frogwares’ credit, their version of the killer’s identity does seem plausible, and omits the sort of wild fantasy found in other Ripper-themed fiction. Still, this game is a case of one step forward, two steps back for the series. Whilst major improvements have been made over past entries – the excellent graphics, the two control options – the new theme doesn’t entirely gel. It might sound like a good match to pair up the most notorious villain of the Victorian era with the most famous literary detective, but it just doesn’t fit with the series’ gameplay smoothly, and is strangely limited in terms of plot, feeling very prosaic and small-scale. Even with some of the unnecessary digressions, the main investigation is definitely enjoyable, however, and well worth playing if you like the series or the characters involved here. Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper is an unexpectedly sedentary and thoughtful game, and it’s far from bloody awful, if not quite the ripping good yarn it could have been.