Review: Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper

Ripper, Take-Two’s 1996 FMV adventure chronicling the crimes of a Jack the Ripper copycat, was an engrossing adventure. Depending on how you played, the killer could be any one of four acquaintances you’d make throughout the game. Interestingly enough, it featured Christopher Walken in the lead role. It may have been a bit of a failed venture and it was tough to get running (at least for me), but it was at least somewhat related to the infamous crimes of Jack the Ripper, and that was enough for me.

It was with morbid curiosity that I checked into Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper, a game I had hoped could stand up to the former, even just a smidgeon. Unfortunately, my hopes were dashed. While this title aims to deliver a more historically accurate (read: stuffy) account of the infamous disemboweling harlot-killer, it succeeds only in being completely and utterly dull. Yes, it manages to turn gruesome murders into a subject that can’t even trump homework as a viable entertainment option. That, my friends, is a travesty.

It may not be completely obvious, but I do enjoy a good smattering of adventure titles, stemming from my childhood playing things like The Island of Dr. Quandary, Myst, and what-have-you, so I was drawn to this one like a moth to the flame. Its descriptions hinted at being able to investigate the crime scenes where each woman had been murdered, which flashed in my mind as gigantic buzz words: gory, creepy, disgusting, awesome. “Garish” and “cartoony” never sought to step into my line of thinking. Yet, as I played through Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper’s Xbox 360 port (previously a PC title), they quickly replaced the adjectives I had previously envisioned describing the game. And just as swiftly my enjoyment factor declined.

If it hadn’t been made painfully obvious already, you’re taking on the role of one Sherlock Holmes, the world’s finest detective, if you don’t count little Conan. Along with his sidekick and colleague Dr. Watson, he tackles a myriad of seemingly unsolvable crimes, or perhaps just the cases the police are too dim to work out (read: all of them.) This particular case is of course focused on “Jack,” dropping hookers left and right. Based on the historically accurate locations and victims throughout London, namely those concentrated around the Whitechapel area, this adventure is about as stuffy and archaic as games can get. Yeah, yeah, real sleuthing likely is never “exciting,” but is it ever this dull?

Fortunately, the mechanics aren’t too difficult. Let’s start with the basics. At any given time you may be in charge of either Holmes or Watson, who are controlled via the analog sticks in either first-person or third-person view. You may look around in first-person simply to pick out clues (marked as green magnifying glasses) or to make life a bit easier for yourself since apparently in 1800s London it was a travesty to move quicker than a snail when out an about on the trail of a killer. Yes, Holmes nor Watson ever break larghissimo for vivace or anything remotely resembling lively or quick. In the field, around London, and throughout the entire game walking is absolutely required. A good portion of the game’s location can be quickly accessed via map, but for those spots yet to be found? You’re on the Biped Express.

It seemed to me that switching to a first-person view may have sped up my walking speed a bit, but I couldn’t be certain. Because of this odd quirk, what could easily be a moderate-paced adventure unfolding at just the right length turns into a slow and torturous dredge that I could not bring myself to finish even for the sake of this review. No, I punched my time card at the three-quarters mark and threw that disc so far underneath my bed it may say hello to Dante in the near future.

Aside from the hellish amount of walking you’ll be doing, the only other bits of gameplay are lengthy conversations, clue/item gathering, awkward crime scene investigations complete with “re-enactments,” and puzzles that provide little or no explanation to solve. Conversations are simple enough. Often, you’ll speak with the citizens of various fine establishments to glean information or items to further your cause. Unfortunately, the content of said conversations are plagued with horrid faux-English and Cockney accents that smack of insincerity, not to mention bloated dialogue “options” that exist solely to advance the plot. It’s no picnic to sit and listen to characters yammer on and on, so being able to skip through with B and consult your journal later is a helpful time-saver. Holmes himself grates on the nerves like none other — Robert Downey, Jr. he’s not. And may Kratos have mercy on your soul should you venture toward a meandering Londonite. A “conversation” with those wandering AI characters yields little more than nonsensical statements that have nothing to do with the mission at hand. For instance, a simple “Pardon me, Miss,” might result in a heifer shouting “BUT NOT YET!” in your face. Or something to that effect. It’s a waste of time.

Gathering clues is as simple as holding down the left trigger and investigating the myriad magnifying glasses that pop up. Holmes will make an asinine investigation most of the time, such as the name of a street or what kind of footprints have been left in the dirt. Key clues are marked with green of course, and finding these should advance your plot whenever you’re in a pinch. Selecting a magnifying glass out of the several that appear onscreen is also quite awkward, and something that doesn’t work well with the Xbox 360 controller — much better suited to a mouse. Quite often you’ll select the wrong one (one you’ve already seen) and will have to listen to Holmes’ tired old spiel yet again. Not fun, nor practical.

After you complete enough walking back and forth between locations, gathering clues, squeezing blood out of a turnip by speaking to AI characters, and finding random items to aid you in discerning the killer’s identity, you’ll oft be “treated” to a puzzle or a crime scene investigation scene. Checking out the scene of the crime is relatively painless. A cartoonish, lame portrait of the victim appears and you’ll rely on the magnifying glasses yet again to pick out details to add to a “deduction board.” Several times over you’ll need to attempt to recreate the manner in which good ol’ Jack carved up the women of the night. As interesting as that sounds, guess what? It’s not. It’s like poorly written Holmes/Watson smut acted out via automatons. And about as fun.

It doesn’t help that most of the puzzles you’re forced to solve throughout are absolute trainwrecks. I understand that adventure gamers want a challenge with their adventure titles, especially with a detective of this caliber. But if there are going to be difficult puzzles, at the very least give us a hint or a nudge in the right direction rather than poor directions or comments from smug Holmes. Perhaps I am not intellectual enough to appreciate the intricacies of moving a lockpick every which way but the correct way without any sort of guidance. Yes. That must be it. Granted, most of the puzzles can most certainly be solved with a fair amount of guesswork, but to have a difficult puzzle impeding your progress is often one of the most annoying parts of a game you haven’t conquered yet. Would a hint system be so terrible, or at the very least a more detailed description of what in the name of Polly Nichols you’re supposed to be doing?

Fortunately, logic puzzles that appear in the form of the deduction board and the system Holmes and Watson use to determine the killer’s modus operandi offer some more challenging and easy to understand fun. They are the most interesting parts of the adventure in that you feel quite accomplished having deducted the “correct” answers via notes in your journal and previous conversations, and a part of the game that’s done well.

Do know, though, that the majority of your “adventure” is spent going back and forth from venues you’ve visited far too many times before and have little desire to actually return to. The incessant backtracking effortlessly rears its ugly head to further mangle this adventure. As previously stated you may travel from one area to another via map, but some require a bit of wandering to uncover, or unclear directions given to you from characters you’ve spoken to. And you already know how useful those street urchins are.

It also seems as though everyone in Whitechapel has a “mystery” of their own that needs solving, whether it be missing cat food, mysterious boarding house tenants, or what perfumes in a gift box are actually perfumes rather than evil, potent poisons. It’s incessant with those people. In order to make any progress you must ALWAYS backtrack, solve a miniature mystery for every bloody citizen in the town, and then, maybe, you might actually get on track with the investigation. I find it hard to believe that when such grisly mutilations are going on, Holmes needs to have an army of cats attack a portly prostitute in order to obtain a clue. Really?

Failing the game’s unfortunate terrible and boring gameplay, the graphics and sound aren’t up to snuff, either. I can get by with the stiff voice acting and the obnoxious ambient music, but hit detection misses the mark entirely. You may have Holmes walk up to a door, and ask him to open it up. Simple stuff, yes? How the game manages to have Holmes walk at least two feet away, AROUND the door and to the left, and then make a doorknob-opening motion is beyond me. I just can’t fathom how this is good game design. Not to mention the fact the characters move like robots when completing any task. It’s actually hilarious. I couldn’t for one moment take the game seriously, and you know what? You shouldn’t either.

I can’t speak for the PC edition of this title, but the Xbox 360 port is a complete bust. It has its shining moments in the logic puzzles that you must rely on your own wits to solve, and the historically accurate information, but the rest of the game is so dull and without personality that I have to wonder why you would pick it up over something with more meat and a little more gusto. I’m sure you’d have much more fun simply reading up on Jack the Ripper lore or LARPing with your friends. This is about as dull as it gets, and that’s a shame. I was hoping for something much more, especially from a man of Holmes’ caliber.

Perhaps he’s getting a little absent-minded in his spiritual old age. He has to be. The doorknob is over there. On the door.

Pass on this one, folks.

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