The Sherlock Holmes series of adventure games hasn't had the highest profile over its seven-year lifespan. In fact, we'd wager you haven't heard of the original Mystery of the Mummy or the more recent Sherlock Holmes vs. ArsÃ¨ne Lupin. If you're a H.P. Lovecraft fan, you may recall The Awakened, which pitted the famous detective against Cthulhu in an interesting mish-mash of literature. However, there must be enough people buying these games for Frogwares to keep making them, and to be honest we say good on 'em for sticking to it. Their latest game, Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper aims to tighten up the series' formula, as well as introducing some new ideas to really help you get inside Holmes' head as he tackles his greatest mystery yet. So is this latest adventure truly worthy of the detective's wit, or is it simply too elementary?
The first thing you'll notice about Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper is that it's dark. Very dark. We're not just talking about the setting of the game, which seems to be perpetually at dusk or night, but also the tone of the entire game. After all, the game pits the fictional Sherlock Holmes, created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, against the real-life serial killer known as 'Jack the Ripper' who terrorised London's Whitechapel district in the late 19th century. The game supposes what might have happened if Holmes had indeed been real and present for these murders, the first five of which, known as 'the canonical five' attributed to the killer, evolved in their depravity and violence with each murder. In real-life, the identity of Jack the Ripper remains unknown to this very day, so the story takes some liberties to give Holmes a fighting chance at catching the murderer.
It's actually a fantastic set-up for Holmes to get his teeth sunk into, and the game deftly manages to weave both Holmes and Watson around the historical events without directly contradicting them. There's also plenty of attention given to these central characters, so that they are actively affected by these events rather than just being present for them, in particular the usually unflappable Holmes is shaken to his core by the horror of Jack the Ripper's crimes. While past games in the series have dragged on, the pacing in Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper is terrific, and takes you through a time-span of about three months in ten hours or so. The game is also substantially gorier than any other game in the series, which is largely due to the nature of the mutilations incurred on Jack the Ripper's victims.
Interestingly, the game offers two main ways to play. The default setting is a first-person perspective, as seen in the last two games, which controls very similarly to any other first-person game and allows you more freedom to examine your environment. However, at any time you can switch to a third-person perspective, which switches the view to fixed cameras, much like those used for standard adventure games, also switching to a 'point and click' control-scheme for navigating Holmes around the place. Personally, we preferred the first-person, as it seemed to be much faster for running around, but traditionalists will certainly be very pleased with the third-person option.
Like most adventure games, you collect items in your inventory, combine them and then use them in applicable situations or give them to certain characters to progress in the story. And in that respect, the game is very linear indeed, as you will constantly be pushed in the one direction that the story wants you to take. However, since the story is quite strong we can accept this means of progression, and fortunately the game never leaves you in the dark about where you're supposed to go next or what you're supposed to do. Sometimes it can feel a little like it's holding your hand, and it can be entertaining hearing Holmes stress to the player how much he needs "to go to the brothel", but it gives the sense of being in constant pursuit of the murderer.
While Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper keeps some of the obscure puzzles seen in previous games, such as crazy combination locks and encoded messages, a lot of the puzzles revolve this time around actually solving murders. Using the new 'Deduction' feature, Holmes must gather as much information as he can about each victim, examining the corpse, the surroundings and eyewitness accounts, and then use them to draw conclusions on both the murder and the identity of the murderer. Deprived of pieces of evidence which usually help him, such as footprints at the scene of the crime, his deductions start off a little vague, such as 'the killer is right-handed', but as you progress through the game you begin to construct a real portrait of the killer, as well as identifying where he might live and his patterns and habits.
This is all done through a pin-board type interface, which Holmes can drag information he knows onto, and then link up certain points with their respective deductions with string. Throughout the game, Holmes also constructs several timelines surrounding each murder, which again asks the player to take into account everything they have learned so far. Thankfully, every conversation and document found is recorded in your inventory, and can be checked at any time by right-clicking. Another interesting inclusion is the 'Murder Re-Creation' feature, where Holmes and Watson attempt to recreate how the murder took place. It's very inventive, and criminally under-used as it shows up only once in the game.
However, as good as these puzzles are, a lot of the game is also spent carrying out what we'd like to term 'busy work'. That is, you'll need to gain an individual's trust, so you have to find an object for them, which can be found somewhere else but to obtain it you need to do something for another person, which requires you to win the favour of another person, and so on and so on. It gets a bit much at times, and considering some of it leads to dead ends in the investigations, it feels a little bit like simple filler in an otherwise fast moving game.
The graphics aren't necessarily anything to call home about, but they do the job. Character models are better than they previously have been, and the London presented here is reasonably detailed. It's odd where they've chosen to place this detail, as a man on the street may have a very interesting animation cycle of him fixing a wheel, while Holmes' animation seems to be strictly limited to two cycles, one of him waving his arms around, and the other with him crossing them. The music is nice, but largely forgettable and kept in the background. The voice acting ranges from respectable to laughable, although overall we must say the quality is up from other games in the series. Holmes in particular is a little spotty, as the actor can be a bit monotonous, and in instances when the character is required to 'act' as part of being a master of disguise, his performance is limited to say the least.
Nevertheless, Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper is undoubtedly the best entry in the series. It does justice to both the character of Sherlock Holmes and the actual horrific historical murders of Jack the Ripper, and makes for an interesting if gruesome investigation. With smart puzzles and gameplay that makes you feel that you are actively constructing a profile on a murderer, and solving one of history's greatest unsolved mysteries, the formula of the series is condensed into a very enjoyable package. Some presentation issues and a little too much busy work bring down the game slightly, but Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper is still worth a look for any adventure game fan, or anyone else interested in either famous character.