Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper
First posted on 07 November 2009. Last updated on 26 October 2012.
Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper is fifth installment of the successful sleuthing franchise from Frogwares. Despite a lack of imagination in naming the title, it sets our expectations in a precise way. We expect that we will take on the persona of the great detective. We will investigate, interrogate, and deduce. We will uncover the most unlikely of clues and come to heroic conclusions that will make think-tanks look like preschool. We will unmask one of the most infamous serial murderers in history where all others have failed. Above all, we will do it while practicing the violin and puffing at our pipes! The advertisement for the game says as much, albeit not as colorfully, though it uses the words "sinister" and "terrifying" to sweeten the pot. Our expectations are thus firmly set.
London. 1888. Holmes and his trusty assistant Dr. Watson are meandering around the detective's flat, just waiting to catch wind of an intriguing new case. Luckily for all concerned, the strange and brutal murder of a prostitute in Whitechapel peaks their interest. Holmes and Watson are immediately on the case, and also, on their own. By the time a second prostitute falls victim to the killer, the police make it clear to Holmes that they do not want him investigating the case, as it will make them appear as though they cannot do their jobs. Holmes makes it clear to the police that he has no intention of solving the case, whilst confiding to Watson his reasoning: the police are so inept that they simply hinder rather than help. This distrusting relationship seems to fly in the face of Holmes lore, where the police are generally cast as supplicants for Holmes' aid. It is a puzzling setup, until the grander reasoning comes to light at the end of the game, which is odd to say the least. Meanwhile, you simply have to grin and bear this curiosity in the narrative. The storyline is mainly fueled by the Ripper's nefarious deeds and your attempts to catch him, although you will end up returning a bag of stolen goods here and breaking up a body snatching ring there. There are few twists in the road, and you are ever mindful of your goal.
Compared to other contemporary adventures, the engine used for this game looks dated. The color palette is bland, the textures are muddy, and the character animation is stiff. On the plus side, running the game at the highest supported resolution with all graphics options maximized poses no slowdowns even on modest hardware. Conceding that a small developer needs not a state-of-the-art engine for an adventure game, there is plenty of room to bridge the gap with quality art direction. Sadly, the developer has done little to close this gap. All elements of the presentation, including ambient sounds, voice acting (notwithstanding the added annoyance that the subtitled text frequently diverges from the spoken word), and graphics, screams serviceable. In an adventure game where story and gameplay still rule, perhaps this will serve our purposes just fine. Maybe. Sometimes.
During the linear tale, you will alternate in controlling Watson and Holmes. The game dictates which character you are using at any given point, so you cannot switch arbitrarily between them. Movement schemes include a choice between point-and-click when in a third-person perspective and WASD when in a first-person perspective (the choice is up to you). Sweeping the bloody knife mouse cursor over the environment will uncover hotspots or items to investigate or interact with, respectively changing the said cursor to a magnifying glass or a hand. Although you have free reign to walk or run about the streets of London (that is, if you do not mind seeing how few character models there are and how often they are reused in the game), you are able to use your map to instantly transport to your destination. The game does not allow for much fumbling about. Generally, if you try to visit an area that does not fulfill your present goal, your attempt to travel there will be rebuffed.
Some critics have said that an adventure game is no more than a series of puzzles masquerading as a story. This may be a cynical view. However, as you play the game, this viewpoint will likely begin to creep up on you. It is seldom to see a game such as this, where you must be punished with the inane and mundane sufficiently before arriving at any fun and then resetting itself back to punishment mode.
The good parts of the game, incidentally not the majority, are all about finding the Ripper. When given crime scenes to investigate, deduction boards to work over, or murders to reconstruct, the game hums along nicely. You feel as if you are working a case, making progress, and above all, you feel involved. This action particularly comes on in the latter part of the story, when you are given a landslide of information and plenty of work to do to tie the investigation together.
The bad parts of the game, as in the majority, are rife with pointless exercises that suck away time. The game opens with an old standby fetch quest, where person A will give you information B if you go see person C to get item D, but of course person C wants you to go to person E to get item F before they will give you item D to get item G and so forth. Sadly, such analogy accurately reflects the tedium of this game. At first, you hope this nonsense stands as a tutorial section on how to navigate around and interact with the game, but alas this is not the case. There are plenty of senseless runarounds that lie in wait to tire the most patient of gamer.
The puzzles do not fare better. You will often be presented with puzzles that are usually simplistic and occasionally bizarre. Such moments provide the joys of sticking together interlocking blocks (think Lego), working mazes, and even a jigsaw puzzle. On the flip side, there are some puzzles so odd that I have found myself solving them before I really understand their goals. No matter what, there is not much in the way of challenge or amusement to any of them.
The game also includes painfully obvious inventory puzzles that generally tie in to even worse environmental puzzles. Since you are supposedly in Victorian London and not on some remote isle stranded alone in unexpected circumstances with only your wits and what may lie around to aid you, if you come in need of a ladder, it only makes sense that you can buy it at a local store in town. Instead, in this game, you are tasked not just once, but twice, to prowl around for useless junk off the street to fashion a helpful ladder. You also get to move a box to make steps to reach a watering can, make a seesaw to tip over barrel, and so on. These misplaced puzzles combined with the time wasting quests all speak of padding (and more padding) to make a short, good adventure to a long, questionable distraction.
Still, other elements detract from immersion in the game. The cast of characters often do not behave as they are expected. The police are incompetent. The pet store owner is unable to tend to his pets (so you have to do it for him). The bookstore clerk cannot index or find his books (so you have to do it for him). Particularly odd is Watson, supposedly a doctor, who becomes ill at the mere mention of a dead body (it is even insinuated he has never even seen a dead person), cannot recognize the symptoms of syphilis, and can neither identify medication nor a chemical solution that preserves organs.
As a matter of afterthought, what are we to gather from the disclaimer made at the end of the game credits that the developer involved in making the game is not responsible for any of the views expressed in it? If not Frogwares, who?
In all, Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper is a hard game to recommend. It is also a hard game to dismiss. With approximately 15 hours of play time, there is enough momentum built up toward the end that the forgiving gamer may be inclined to forget about all the time wasted in getting there. If you are a real puzzle fanatic or a big fan of this franchise, you will probably find enough entertainment to get you through. If, however, you demand a cohesive gaming experience that seems like a real adventure, you are advised to give this game a pass.