Review: Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper (PC)

Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper
Genre: Adventure
Developer: Frogwares
Publisher: The Adventure Company
Release Date: 05/26/09


Okay, so, uh, I like Batman plenty, and I think he’s a fantastic character, but I don’t care if DC copyrighted the nickname for him or not, he’s not the World’s Greatest Detective. Sherlock Holmes is. Born from the mind of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the late 1800’s, Holmes has solved some of the most complex cases known to man, and is one of the most easily identifiable detectives in the world, period. Frogwares seems to like the good detective a bit, and as such has been developing games based around him for nearly a decade at this point, starting with The Mystery of the Mummy and progressing along until they hit upon what has to be one of the most awesome concepts for a video game ever: Sherlock Holmes versus Cthulhu cultists. Dubbed Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened, the game was largely a fantastic adventure game, thanks to its interesting concept, first-person viewpoint, and solid characterization of Holmes himself, and the stage was set for great things. Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis continued the trend of mashing up Holmes with interesting antagonists, this time Arsene Lupin as his opponent, though some obtuse puzzles hurt the experience and, frankly, Lupin simply wasn’t notable enough a character in many English-speaking countries to carry the weight of being the villain of the piece, especially when compared to the prior game. Frogwares doesn’t seem to be done mining the crossover concept just yet, however, as they’ve come up with yet another interesting concept: putting Holmes up against one of England’s most notorious serial killers, Jack the Ripper himself. Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper is, indeed, a fictional fantasy match, and the results mostly deliver, thanks to some solid game mechanics and a strong adherence to historical fact, though the game isn’t without its problems.

So, many of you probably already know a little something about the titular murderer of the game, but if not, Jack the Ripper was a serial killer who primarily murdered prostitutes in the Whitechapel area of England, which could politely be called a slum at that point, though I’m told it hasn’t improved much since then. Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper starts out around the time of the first murder, in August of 1888, when Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson are informed of the murder of a prostitute, and Holmes opts to investigate out of a sense of professional curiosity. You alternate between Holmes and Watson throughout the game as they work to uncover the identity of Jack the Ripper and bring his crime spree to an end, and for the most part, the game handles the case and its particulars well. Aside from Holmes, Watson, and the Baker Street Irregulars, most of the characters who pop up in the game are either factual characters or based in fact, so the various policemen, victims and suspects you’ll meet throughout the game are mostly the real deal. The plot unfolds believably, alternating between illustrating the particulars of the grisly crimes committed by Jack and dealing with the reactions of the various people in and around Whitechapel, and the plot feels significant and powerful the further you progress into the game.

It’s also worth noting that Holmes and Watson come off in a way that feels appropriate, as Holmes is presented as somewhat of a disassociated genius who does the right thing but isn’t especially moral about it, while Watson comes off as being fairly intelligent and capable as both a doctor and a detective, something that is lacking from some versions of the character. Some of the plot points are little more than diversions that don’t add much to the core case, of course, but these plot elements still work in context, as the area of Whitechapel is run down and decrepit, and it stands to reason that the people within wouldn’t be willing to part with vital information or items for free. The game also actually commits to a definitive declaration of who the authors believe Jack the Ripper to be instead of copping out, and while the assessment of the authors is no more valid than anyone else’s at this point, it is, again, at least based in fact, so good on them.

Visually, Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper looks pretty fantastic. The game uses a 3D game world and 2D hand-drawn menus which work well together, as the menus are well designed and look good, and the 3D world is clean and artistically pleasing. The character models look good and animate well, and the environments look authentic to the time period. The menu screens look as they should, inventory items look appropriate and the various documents and such you’ll look over are easy on the eyes and legible. The game isn’t the most impressive on the PC, mind you, but what’s here looks very nice. The audio consists entirely of Victorian-era period music, and fits the mood of the game perfectly. The sound effects are mostly quite fitting, and the ambient noise of the locations you visit, when applicable, makes the experience feel quite immersive and lively. The voice acting is mostly solid across the game as well, as the voice actors for Holmes and Watson have fit into their roles nicely and most of the other voice actors are generally solid, though there are a few voice actors who are kind of unpleasant (such as the Baker Street Irregulars), though their voice acted parts in the game are often kept to a minimum.

Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper generally plays like an adventure game, and as such, anyone who is familiar with how the genre works will be right at home. You’ll have a general task in mind as you move through whatever locale you’re in, and you’ll have to talk to people, pick up and use items, solve puzzles and draw conclusions as you progress. You can choose to play the game either from first-person or third-person perspective, with the former being the method Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened and Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis used, and the latter being the method employed by prior Frogwares games, depending on if you’re more of an FPS fan or a classic adventure game fan. Either way, the game functionally works the same: you’ll wander through the environment, and any time you can interact with something, an icon will appear over it, depending on what you can do with it. People will have speech bubbles appear over their mouths, interesting locations will have a magnifying glass pop up over them, items that can be used or taken will have a hand pop up over them, and so on. You’ll essentially have to talk to people, examine locations, and take or use items as the situation dictates to accomplish whatever short-term goals need doing to ultimately resolve your long-term goals throughout the course of the game, and again, fans of adventure games will pretty much be prepared for that up front.

Most of the game mechanics are fairly simple to understand. Moving around is a simple matter of using the assigned keys in first-person view or clicking what you want to interact with in third-person view. Talking to people usually involves clicking on them directly or using an item on them, then exhausting the various conversation options that come up. Using items is a simple matter of switching to whatever item you need, with the keyboard or the mouse wheel, then clicking on whatever you need to use the item on. You can also access your inventory and information menus at the press of any one of a number of buttons, depending on what you need at the moment. From the menus, you can combine items together, look over conversations you’ve had, review documents you’ve collected, and review information relevant to the case at any time. You can also access the map, which will highlight important locations that you can instantly travel to with a click of the mouse, making travel between locations a snap. For the most part, these elements are quite intuitive, and you’ll figure them out in no time flat.

Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper also presents you with a few interesting gameplay twists in the form of puzzles and deduction sessions. Now, the puzzle sections will hardly be surprising to genre fans: you’ll be given some sort of logic puzzle and you’ll have to solve it before continuing on. The puzzles are quite diverse in the game; one puzzle will see you sliding blocks to remove a trinket from under the floor, while another will see you sliding magnets through a maze where you can’t touch the walls, while another still will see you decoding a locked jar lid using a heart diagram (no, really), and while some of the puzzles feel a bit out of place, most of the puzzles in the game fit in well enough that they’re not unwelcome. The deduction sessions, however, are where the game really feels like a detective story. There are actually two types of deduction sessions, one that appears at crime scenes and another that appears while reviewing the facts. The crime scene deduction sessions are split into two parts: investigation, where you poke around the scene, and deduction, where you look over the facts and come to a conclusion. Investigating the scene involves reviewing the area, looking for clues, examining evidence and, more often than not, looking over the corpse of the deceased. Deduction involves taking the facts and arranging them in order, then using the evidence to deduce the particulars of the crime. You might, for example, note that a laceration was made from left to right, and that the victim was muffled with the killer’s left hand, which may in turn allow you to deduce that the killer is right handed, which in turn puts you closer to solving the case. Once you’ve returned to 221B Baker Street, Holmes and Watson will then attempt to resolve the motives of the case. In this instance, you’ll be given several motives and some observations to place alongside them. That done, you’ll then have to choose if they’re viable or implausible, which then dictates the focal points of the next series of events. These sections of the game are quite interesting and work well with the detective story experience, and they’re spaced out enough to be fresh whenever they pop up.

That all said, the game does have a few notable flaws, some of which are genre specific, while others are specific to the game. Addressing the genre-specific issues first, Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper is unfortunately typical of most adventure games in that it’s quite linear and, once you’ve run through its ten hour campaign, you’ll have no reason to return to it. Now, in fairness, the game is only a mere twenty dollars, and as a nearly ten hour game it’s easy to say that you’ll more than get your money’s worth from it, but once you’ve completed it, you’ll have little reason to return. The game is, as mentioned, also linear to a fault, meaning there’s no variation to the story, but it ALSO means that there’s really no chance of failure; you either get the right answer or you try again until you do, the end. Now, in fairness, the game is really about the experience, and failure or dying isn’t a necessity, but SOME sort of variety might have been nice to make the game feel like it wasn’t holding your hand all the way to the end.

Regarding game-specific issues, several of the puzzles in the game feel completely out of place, and several others are incredibly obtuse in their design. The out-of-place puzzles are sadly common in the genre, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea to make the player perform a sliding block puzzle to remove a trinket from under a floorboard when simply giving the player the item would have sufficed. There are a few puzzles like this, where there’s no real reason for the puzzle to be there and yet it is, and the only logical conclusion for this sort of thing is that the developers wanted to extend the length of the game a bit, which feels like cheating. The obtuse puzzles, on the other hand, are just bizarre, not because of the puzzles themselves but because of how they WORK. For instance, the first puzzle you get is one of those puzzles where you’re given a series of numbers, pressing a button shifts the position of several of them at once and you have to line the numbers up in order, which is fine. However, the game doesn’t TELL you the correct order, leaving you to figure out if the number one should be on the top, in the bottom left, or what have you, which is annoying. This only gets worse, unfortunately, as one out of every five puzzles simply will not make sense because the game gives you no indication of how to make it work, and this is perplexing because the deduction sections come with little hint windows built in, so why not do the same for the puzzles? Why do I have to guess that I need to hook up the blowtorch to the gas main and weld the pipes shut? It makes sense, sure, but only after cogitating for ten minutes. There’s a difference between feeling smart because you SOLVED a puzzle and being frustrated because you had to figure out how the puzzle even WORKS, and the game has too many of the latter puzzles in it, too often. There are also several instances where you’ll have to do something for someone that feels less like “something that needs doing” and more like busywork, and again, this feels like artificial game lengthening for the sake of padding the experience. Unfortunately, the game also doesn’t do a lot that the prior two games in this series didn’t do, and while the concept is fresh and some of the mechanics are brand-new for this game, many are reused from the last two titles, which is understandable, if unfortunate.

I’ve also heard tell of some minor crash bugs when trying to save the game, but I never experienced them, so all I can say is that this is a possibility. I can tell you that the game remained stable when I Alt-Tabbed my way to Photoshop when I was grabbing screenshots, and considering how many games DON’T do that, that’s pretty impressive.

Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper is a solid and enjoyable piece of “What If?” detective fiction that should appease fans of Sherlock Holmes, adventure games and detective stories quite a bit, though it may be a bit awkward and drawn out to be for everyone. The story is very solid, the presentation is quite nice, and the gameplay is simple to learn and work with. Both control schemes work perfectly fine, the various puzzles in the game are mostly easy enough to understand and solve, and the deduction scenes are outright fantastic and enjoyable. However, the game is exceptionally linear and failure is impossible, making multiple playthroughs unlikely, the game is a little bit reminiscent of its predecessors, and several of the puzzles in the game are either out of place or incredibly befuddling mechanically, leaving you either annoyed or confused. If you can accept the linearity for the low price and you can deal with or ignore the occasional out-of-place or confusing puzzle, Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper is well worth its asking price, as it’s a solid, well crafted tale about the greatest fictional detective ever hunting down one of the most brutal serial killers ever, and it’s worth playing for the experience alone, if nothing else.

The Scores:
Story: GREAT
Graphics: GREAT
Sound: GREAT
Control/Gameplay: GREAT
Replayability: BAD
Balance: ABOVE AVERAGE
Originality: ABOVE AVERAGE
Addictiveness: GOOD
Appeal: ABOVE AVERAGE
Miscellaneous: GREAT

FINAL SCORE: GOOD GAME!

Short Attention Span Summary:
Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper is a solid, well-crafted tale about two British icons, one heroic and one villainous, and their fictional clash in Victorian England that’s well worth checking out if you can look past a few problems. The story is strong, the presentation is quite nice, and the gameplay is user-friendly for both fans and neophytes to understand. Both the first and third-person control schemes work just fine, and there are plenty of brain-teasing puzzles and interesting deduction sections to work through on your way to catching the killer, which should keep your interest for a bit. However, the game is excessively linear and doesn’t punish you in the least for failure, several of the puzzles either don’t fit well into the game or are mechanically befuddling, and the game borrows a fair bit from its predecessors, which might hurt your opinion of the game a bit. For twenty dollars, however, the game is well worth the asking price if you like adventure games, mysteries or Sherlock Holmes, and fans of any of the above can will have a blast with Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper, without a doubt.

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