Frogwares' Sherlock Holmes series turns to the seedy and impoverished East districts of London in Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper, which begins with the discovery of a hideous murder on Buck's Row Street of a prostitute who worked the area. After a bit of persuasion, Watson convinces Holmes that they should look into the matter. It's been over a year since I played Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis, the third game in the adventures series, and, unfortunately, I found this installment somewhat unsatisfying compared to the former. The primary drawbacks include a lack of urgency and often trite and tedious puzzles that have little to do with the storyline.
An unknown killer is on the loose, and the police don't have any solid leads. They chase after the wrong people and just seem to run around in circles, as the bodies start to pile up. Not only is a killer butchering helpless "women of the night" and living nearby, he's also trying to pin it on the large Jewish community in the area; tensions are high but not only from fear. This is definitely a job for Holmes and Watson, though the pair only get involved unofficially in this case. Even when it is discovered by the police that they are poking around, Whitechapel's finest ask the famous detective to leave, stating that they have everything under control, though that couldn't be further from the truth.
One of the things I like most about this series is the sense of realism. The environment seems somewhat realistic, but, more importantly, a chunk of the story is based on reality. If you do a little digging, you'll discover that several of the facts on the crimes themselves are accurate, and some images in-game are taken from 1888 London newspapers, such as the headshots of the actual victims. As you most likely already know, the so-called "Jack the Ripper" did once terrorize the streets of Whitechapel, but the killer was never found. Add the famous fictional Sherlock Holmes detective and his sidekick Dr. Watson, some characters, motives, and suspects, and you have the potential for a great game.
If you're unfamiliar with the Sherlock Holmes games by Frogwares, they play like a standard free-roaming (with barriers) adventure game where, you control both Holmes and Watson at different points throughout. Two new interface items have been added with this installment. They include the deduction board and the timeline, and there's also a new third-person perspective available. The deduction board is used in order to put clues together in order to arrive at a conclusion. For example, after examining a crime scene and taking note of which direction a fatal wound was dealt, along with a few other clues, you'll be able to deduce what hand the killer used. The timeline is simply used in order to determine when the crimes took place. Eyewitness accounts vary quite a bit, but after comparing a few you can arrive at a logical time frame. While the previous game only allowed you to play in the first-person perspective, Jack the Ripper introduces the option of switching to third-person. After looking back at my Nemesis review, I remembered that I had an issue with the game's view – it felt too zoomed in and just a bit difficult to control because of this. It seems to be the same way with this title, but a solution is to go to third-person, so this complaint kind of goes away this time around… but I certainly have other issues.
Throwing Random Puzzles into a Game doesn't Make it an Adventure
I really enjoy the adventure genre, but one thing that really irks me is this whole puzzle thing. Sure, a puzzle here or there is fine as long as it goes along with the story, but fiddling around in the floorboards of a bar for a necklace that takes 32 actions to free, according to the walkthrough that I immediately pulled up when presented with this puzzle, so that you can win someone's trust is absolutely ridiculous. There are lots of puzzles in Jack the Ripper that just seem completely irrelevant and got me thinking, "would Sherlock Holmes really be doing this?". The other thing that got to me is that your inventory is almost always close to empty. I would think the great detective would carry a skeleton key or at least a few tools around instead of having to fix a wooden cart in order to roll it down a hill in order to climb up into a broken window. Why has the adventure genre gone in this direction? It seems like every corner you turn there's some meticulous and completely unrealistic "puzzle" that you have to solve. In Jack the Ripper, these puzzles slay the sense of urgency and tension as quickly as the killer does people.
As far as I can tell, the quality of the graphics in Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper is identical to Nemesis. It’s not bad, but some improvements could certainly be made here and there. Animations are pretty stiff, and dialog doesn't always match up with the characters’ mouths, especially towards the end of the game. I also think that some more variety could be used when it comes to the character and building models, which are often repeated with and some from the previous games. I do like how Frogwares captured the time period and think that they channeled the rough and gritty side of London quite well. Because the murders are committed at night, you'll often be heading over to investigate and reenact the crimes after dark. It's clear that the entire Whitechapel area is very poor, as nearly every townsman you come across is ragged and dirty. You'll see people sleeping in the streets, people carrying bottles around with them, prostitutes roaming about, and the buildings themselves look run-down and dirty. The weather never seems to be cooperative, either, as there is always an overcast and some fog.
Sound is also basically the same as the previous installment. The voice-acting of the main characters is largely fine for the most part, but once you start talking to other characters, the quality degrades rapidly. The clicking and popping noises that I heard in Nemesis are gone in Jack the Ripper, so whether that was a problem on my end or a problem with the game, it seems to be fixed this time around. Orchestral music plays from time to time, and I think it fits the setting and works well.
The honest truth with Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper is that I got bored very quickly and was frustrated by many of the often secretarial and impractical puzzles. I think it could have been so much better if Frogwares would have at least kept up the sense of urgency. There was at least a couple of times where Holmes would explain to Watson that they needed to return to their headquarters on Baker Street in order to think things over for a couple of days, immediately deflating the tension. This is a $20 game and does come off as being more than just your average value title, though. Unfortunately, I would only recommend this to the adventure gamers that love puzzles and believe fans of the series will probably be disappointed.