a review of Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack The Ripper
a videogame developed by frogwares
and published by focus home interactive
for Microsoft Windows and the microsoft xbox 360
text by Brandon Parker
As a 2009 adventure game with The Adventure Company logo on it, you might be inclined to think Sherlock Holmes versus Jack the Ripper is a lifeless, plastic and prerendered shrine to prehistoric adventure game conventions designed for some non-existent retirement community demographic, and worth a 9/10 on Adventure Gamers Dot Com for no action sequences and an error free startup — when it is actually half the shot of epinephrine to the heart the adventure genre needed when it crashed in surgery a decade ago, and half exactly what you thought it was to begin with. So good guess.
This game actually belongs alongside classic titles like Conquest of the Longbow and Gabriel Knight 2, games from a now long-forgotten golden renaissance type of age, when games were researched not by watching shitty action movies over and over, but by reading books, possibly from a library though that is unconfirmed.
This, here, is half your more traditional adventure type game and half an actual detective game. By detective game I don’t mean occassionally turning on X-Ray crime vision and following the neon trail to giant clue hotspot in between beating a mess of guys to death or tense and exciting quick time events to turn on the water faucet. I mean actual detective work here.
Let me paint a picture for you. At the first crime scene, in a scenario sure to excite many A.C. Doyle fans, Watson lays motionless on the ground while you control Holmes, who is straddling him and making all kinds of choking and slashing motions. You can change their position — are they standing up, laying down, against the wall, are you slashing his throat left-to-right or right-to-left, using your free hand to cover his mouth or crush his throat, et-cetera — all in an effort to recreate the original crime, according to the known facts.
And that ain’t the half of it. Throughout the game, you do all sorts of experiments, slashing up pig heads and dressing up dummies. There’s a part where Holmes and Watson each play the killer and the police who discovered the body. They test to see if, with the light from the cops’ lantern, it was still dark enough for the killer to be hiding nearby at the time. Standing there as Watson holding that lantern, you kind of can’t help but imagine being the real police man at the time, and it’s kind of damned creepy.
After an investigation, Holmes and Watson will head back to Baker Street and sit around smoking their pipes, working up what is called the “deduction board.” This is where you put all your work together and figure out what facts you’ve actually learned or can deduce from the experiments or clues you’ve found.
A lot of the investigation sequences aren’t difficult, like just moving Watson around in the dark with a lantern; they could practically play themselves. Hell, in another game they’d probably be cutscenes. And the deduction board isn’t really possible to get wrong. It’s basically a multiple question test where none of the answers will turn “green” until you pick the right ones. But I don’t care, I love this kind of shit. Better than shitty adventure game puzzles, which brings us to the rest of the game.
In between the detective work is the adventure game puzzling where Holmes and Watson run around London, building McGuyver like devices out of discarded piles of old shit. The worst example comes late in the game. You need to get in a building, but there’s a guy in the front room who won’t let you in. Classic adventure game puzzle set up right there. Only instead of just giving the guy some documents or something to get past him like in Gabriel Knight 2, you sneak in a back window, but then the way back out gets blocked, so you’ve got to cause a distraction in the back rooms to lure the guy out of the front. As the walkthrough says:
Cellar: Go down to the cellar and open the cellar window. See that the barrel blocks the exit.
Take the bucket from the floor in front of the stairs; the hook on the floor beside the potatoes at left and the clothesline hanging on the lantern shelf by the stairs.
Utility room: Go back up to the utility room.
Look up the ceiling. Use the hook on the loose wires.
Use the clothesline on the hook.
Use the other end of the clothesline (click it in inventory) on the post of the hutch at the dark corner.
Take cans from crate right of door. In inventory combine cans and bucket.
Use the bucket and tin cans on the short end of the clothesline hanging from the ceiling.
Use candlestick on the clothesline tied at dark corner left of the hutch.
Use match on candlestick. Quickly hide next door in administration.
Watch as Holmes exits the club.
No, you watch as I exit this bullshit game. Ridiculous.
Gabriel Knight 3 would probably be the closest comparison to this game, actually, which, now just listen here, as terrible as a lot of its puzzles were, actually did some fairly progressive things, too. Practically the best parts of the game could be completely missed if you didn’t do it at the right times. Listening in on conversations, breaking into rooms, fingerprint collecting, building profiles on suspects, secret handshakes, that shit was all optional. Disguising yourself as a man without a mustache, first step: build a mustache, yeah that shit was mandatory. These game designers, I just don’t know what goes through their minds half the time.
In Gabriel Knight 3 I had my head buried in a walkthrough not even a half hour into it, and you know once you take that road there’s hardly ever any going back. At least in Holmes v. Ripper, I managed to somehow click my way through that Escape the Synagogue puzzle. I don’t think I ever got so stuck that I needed a walkthrough, though I did have to consult Wikipedia and my brother for some Civil War business. You know how it is when you’re trying to bust in a guy’s trunk and it’s one of those real tricky ones where the locks only open by setting the correct flags, dates and regiment symbols from specific Civil War battles. Man I hate those.
You’d think somebody would have designed an adventure game based around an in-game browser with a homepage of Wikipedia already. But then, you just know once word got around about it people would find out about the entries that are critical to progress and then vandalize the hell out of them, because that’s just the kind of world we live in.
I can see why they thought they had to have those adventure puzzing parts in there, that the game might be too easy with only the detective parts. The puzzling would help if it was better done, but I think a game could be made with only the detectiving too. I mean, why not, isn’t that what the original intended purpose of the Wii and that “casual” bullshit was supposed to be all about? Not minigame collections and regular games with constant tutorials, just something more relaxed without being insulting, I think, maybe even educational. But what do I know. I think you could make an Uncharted game where you just climb around and explore dangerous environments, with no gunplay, so I must be a fucking **** or something.
As for being educational, as far as I can tell, this is an impressively historically accurate game, other than the fact that you’re running around as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. While I was playing I was continously alt+tabbing out to check the “Jack the Ripper Casebook” website (your number one resource for prostitute slayings, syphilis, photographs, police reports, etc.) and it seems they get all the details right. If there’s some real expert out there who can see otherwise. let me hear about it because I’d like to know what they got wrong or cheated on to make it fit into the game.
Obviously the game can’t deal with every Ripper suspect there was; they pick a couple well known and not so well known ones and fit them into the story of the game. And it all fits together well, except for a couple parts at the end. For example, I don’t know what the hell is going on there when Holmes stumbles across the last murder.
I might be remembering wrong, but I think you’re looking for a guy and on the way to go talk to him, Holmes decides to stumble around in some sort of psychic dream haze or some shit and all the sudden he’s at the Mary Kelly scene for no reason, like they wanted you to get to reach the last murder scene before the police found it but couldn’t think up a good way for it to happen. Atmospherically and mood-wise and whatnot it’s an impressive scene — it just makes no sense after all the detective work and logical flow of events that’s come before.
Now that I think about it, they don’t deal with the fact that her door was locked from the inside, I don’t think, unless they’re trying to say Holmes did it on the way out, which would be a copout after their attention to the real life details from everything else. That whole scene is kind of weird.
The rest of the game though seems to stick to the details. And if you’ve ever tried reading the Casebook website before it goes something like this:
“The left arm was placed across the left breast. The legs were drawn up, the feet resting on the ground, and the knees turned outwards. The face was swollen and turned on the right side. The tongue protruded between the front teeth, but not beyond the lips. The tongue was evidently much swollen. The front teeth were perfect as far as the first molar, top and bottom and very fine teeth they were. The body was terribly mutilated…the stiffness of the limbs was not marked, but was evidently commencing.”
Yeah, I’m evidently commencing to fall asleep here. How about a damn diagram or two here or something. What this game does is put it all in a context for you, where you can understand and maybe learn something from it. Just in case early twentieth century hand written police and autopsy reports or the customs of the day were a little unclear or dry for you.
After playing the game I actually wanted to go on that Casebook site and argue with a lady who tried saying that Elizabeth Stride wasn’t a Ripper kill. But what was I supposed to say, “Watson and I deduced otherwise, jackass”? They’ve probably been reading books on the subject for years. But then she came out and said her whole reasoning was that it didn’t fit with her idea of him being this real slick cat who could outsmart the law. Which I think Holmes would agree is not very fucking scientific.
What is it with these serial killer guys anyway? I’m no fan of them, but I am a supporter of outlaw values. I recently got robbed from beyond the grave trying to get ahold of a copy of The Alvin Karpis Story, by Alvin Karpis. Apparently if you want to hear the story of a guy who just happened to earn his living through armed robbery and kidnapping, and may have comitted a few acts of self defence against badge and gun wearing attackers, well then you have to go through a rare used book store in god damn Australia and pay a brewery CEO’s ransom.
Here, if I’d just been a regular person who wanted to read all the graphic details of some maniac’s random murder of a stranger, I could have just payed a dollar plus shipping, or waited until ten true crime novels equal one used copy of Vice City in the barter system of some post-civilization future.
Just try talking to somebody about a thief guy. Well, first they won’t know what you’re talking about, and second, once you clarify the matter for them they’ll be all, “HEH, YEAH. I JUST WISH THEY’D TRY AND ROB ME,” while not so subtly fondling both their concealed firearm and erection. Bring up a serial killer, though, and you’re more likely to hear “Yeah, that guy’s cool and all but I always prefered Richard Rapemurder The Grassy Knoll Limb Nibbler best, just as a personal preference. Very creative guy.”
I mean, I don’t get it. One guy wants to just retire to an island the rest of his life as early as possible, and do whatever he wants. The other guy is going around killing people who never bothered him, because his dog or whatever told him to.
A psychological examination of women who enjoy the idea of a guy out there brutally penetrating women in the dark with a knife, and men who have an apoplectic fit at the thought of another guy out there wanting to come and take their shit, is beyond the scope of this review, I think. I’ll just say that I saw the pictures of Mary Kelley’s murder on that casebook site and that is a gruesome fucking business. No slick outlaw worth idolizing had anything to do with that sick shit. Fuck this Jack the Ripper guy.
But good game. Pretty much the Eiji Yoshikawa’s Musashi or James Carlos Blake’s Handsome Harry of adventure games here. Should be a lock-in for a Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Journalism into the Ripper Murders through the medium of Interactive Sherlock Holmes Fan Fiction.