IGN Review of Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper
Sherlock Holmes of one of the first anti-heroes of the modern age; a drug-doing, woman-avoiding, police-confounding misanthrope who spends half his time locked in his room and the other half collaring criminals. Since 2002, European developer Frogwares has been building a franchise on Holmes' odd but undeniable appeal. Its latest installment, Sherlock Holmes Versus Jack the Ripper, pits the world's greatest (fictional) detective against one of history's most infamous (real) serial killers.
The story starts at 221 Baker Street where Holmes and Watson get wind of a police investigation into the murder of a Whitechapel prostitute. Holmes' lack of faith in the local police prompts him and his cohort Watson to catch the murderer themselves. The game starts with you alternately controlling either Holmes or Watson. You can choose between third-person and first-person view/movement schemes and can toggle between them. Both are useful because while third-person is more fun and allows you to view Holmes and Watson's interactions more clearly, first-person makes searching for clues easier. Both views are uncluttered by the user interface; in fact, you won't be bothered by UI at all.
At the heart of most point-and-click adventures, especially those of the mystery variety, is information gathering. You'll accompany Holmes and Watson as they walk the seedy streets of Whitechapel looking for clues at the pub, the brothel, the clinic, the police station, and the shops. It takes ingenuity getting information out of police, reluctant witnesses, and various neighborhood nut-jobs, and sometimes that means going undercover. In the books Holmes is known as a superb actor and in the game he almost lives up to this. I say "almost" because although in the game he pulls off a convincing pauper's outfit, he strangely keeps the upper crust accent. How many beggars do you know who say, "My good man, might I have a word with you?"
Anyway, while Holmes' acting chops might need work, his investigatory skills are sharper than ever. The deductive aspect of the game is the most fun. Holmes and Watson go over crime scenes with magnifying glasses, do murder scene re-enactments, and make diagrams, timelines, and logic maps of all collected evidence. These activities take the form of puzzles, often of the classic lock-picking or message-decoding type. They're written so entertainingly into the fiction though, you won't mind their familiarity. On occasion, the object of a puzzle is somewhat vague but the good news is you can generally solve these puzzles just by clicking on them for a few minutes. One in particular that comes to mind--a combination lock puzzle--completely baffled me. Yeah, I solved it alright, but I still don't get it.
In spite of these little hiccups, adventure fans will no doubt love the wide range of crime-solving activities available to them and Sherlock Holmes fans will enjoy themselves even more. As mentioned before, the game starts at Holmes' legendary residence, 221 Baker Street, where the detective "keeps his cigars in the coal-scuttle, his tobacco in the toe end of a Persian slipper, and his unanswered correspondence transfixed by a jack-knife into the very centre of his wooden mantelpiece." The art team has recreated these literary references to aspects of Holmes' residence in loving detail and, in a neat little touch, made it so that items gathered during the investigation appear there, increasingly cluttering up the dining room table. The script too pays loving homage to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous consulting detective's methods (his use of a gang of street urchins called the Baker Street Irregulars) and arrogance.
I wondered how Frogwares would handle one aspect of Holmes' personality, namely his drug use. The game has a Teen rating, so it looks like it chose to omit the drug theme entirely but in all other aspects, it was fearless. Let's face it; Jack the Ripper isn't exactly a bedtime story. With its references to prostitution, venereal disease, brutal violence, and racial tensions, I couldn't imagine how the story could be handled without an M rating. Surprisingly, the game does a great job of telling the story without pulling any punches. It handles the many tough aspects of the case maturely, including the squalid living conditions of the victims and the various disturbing theories regarding the Ripper's identity. It also takes the high road in terms of violence which is implied but never shown.
I appreciate good art and good writing but what I appreciate almost as much is player help and feedback. I may not need it, but as the saying goes, "I'd rather have it and not need it." In the game, you can light up all the interactive places on the screen, thus sparing yourself an hour long pixel hunt. In addition, the game often prompts you regarding your next move so you won't waste time revisiting places that won't help your cause. Best of all, your inventory map allows you to warp to any previously visited location. While there are many good things to say about the game, every silver lining has a little London cloud.
On occasion, the puzzles are beset by a vague rule set that makes it difficult to tell what you're meant to do. Only one that I remember--the combination lock on a big trunk--was completely baffling and never made sense even when I solved it. The voiceover too is also strange. Many of the bit parts appear to be played by actual British actors while the main roles of Holmes and Watson sound like Americans doing bad accents. The worst offenses are committed by the actor they hired to play the lead street urchin.
Other minor issues appear in animation, pathfinding, and general stylistic cohesiveness. First, the animation. When Holmes and Watson talk to someone, they walk up and do a robot-like pivot in order to face them that looks pretty awful. Related to this weird mech-pivot is the clumsy pathfinding which becomes very annoying when Holmes and Watson get stuck on objects or each another. (Are you kidding me? The greatest detective in English literature can't find his way around his mustachioed assistant?) Oh and finally, this game had one of the artsy endings I've ever seen and I don't mean that in a good way. After telling a very straightforward story, the dev team decided to make the climactic sequence look like something directed by a film school undergraduate. Full of herky-jerky edits and missing VO, I couldn't tell if the look was due to a style choice or a series of bugs.
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