Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper Review

In mid- to late-1888, the city of London was terrorized by a series of murders -- murders so gruesome that their very description turned the strongest of stomachs. So similar were they, that the police attributed them all to a single individual -- a serial killer who became known as Jack the Ripper. To this day, the archives of the London Metropolitan Police overflow with documents, tips, letters, and other references to the murders. Yet Jack the Ripper was never identified, nor apprehended. In late November, the murders stopped as suddenly as they had started, with no explanation.

1888 was also a busy year for Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective; and he was well known to the London Police, having assisted in solving almost two dozen cases by this time. So who better to investigate this latest horror than the great detective, and his trusty companion, Dr. John Watson!

Frogwares Game Development Studio has created the fifth in a series of Sherlock Holmes adventure/mystery/puzzle games -- Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper (SHJR). And from the outset, this game immediately differentiates itself from anything that has come before. First and foremost, it provides a mix that is seldom seen elsewhere -- one of the most popular and well-known characters in the annals of fiction placed into one of the most notorious real-life situations ever encountered by law enforcement. At first glance, this would seem quite a challenge: either the real-life drama could overwhelm the fictional character, or the fictitious nature of the hero could, in some way, belittle the significance of a real-life horror. Incredibly, Frogwares has pulled it off with complete success, melding the two into a story -- and game -- so believable that, from the very outset, it grabs the player's attention, and doesn't let go until the very end.

As the game begins, the newspapers have been talking about a murder in the Whitechapel area of London -- a seamy, destitute section of the city, rife with poverty, prostitution, and crime. It is a particularly vicious murder, and immediately attracts Holmes' attention. So he proposes that Watson accompany him to begin investigating the situation. The game is afoot -- in more ways than one!

SHJR focuses on two main areas: London in general, and the Whitechapel district in particular. A number of features of the game each deserve their own accolades, but I must begin with the geography. I don't believe that I have ever played a game that so faithfully represented any particular location as does SHJR. As part of my review of the game, I did extensive research into the Ripper murders, the police records, even photographs of various locations. And I can attest that the designers of this game outdid themselves in accurately reproducing the various sites, buildings, and landscapes. Frogwares games are already known for their excellent high-detailed artwork, but SHJR outshines everything else to date.

The game is simple to install, and has very little learning curve. What makes it even more interesting is that the game can be played in either the first- or third-person -- and switched back and forth at will, with a single key-click. Sometimes one vantage point is better, sometimes the other. But in either case, the intricate backgrounds and artwork, along with numerous 3D rendered characters, provide an unanticipated level of realism to a game already based on fact.

And the game isn't just "based on fact," with some developer's "artistic license" then expanding upon the original situation, stretching it and convoluting it until the original is no longer even recognizable. Every minute of the game is laden with details, details, and more details -- every one of which synchronizes with information still available today. Every crime committed was described down to the clothes the victim wore, the position in which their bodies lay, even what they were holding in their hands or had in their pockets at the time of the murder! The characters that are encountered and interviewed in the game are the actual characters who played critical roles in the original investigations of the Ripper murders. Shopkeepers, PCs (Police Constables), and other characters are mentioned by name.

Many of these characters can be interacted with -- in fact, must be interacted with -- during the course of the investigation. And in these close-ups of rendered characters, the level of detail is astounding. But what is equally impressive is that, as Holmes and Watson traverse the streets of London, there are not simply one or two other characters around, but throngs! In many scenes, the streets are quite crowded -- and every one of the characters is moving around: walking, talking to others, playing, selling flowers, and so on. The scenes are abuzz with activity. And every single character can be interacted with -- even if only to approach them and have the game decide that there's nothing to talk to this person about. The level of character interaction is an order of magnitude above any of the previous Sherlock Holmes games -- or most other games, for that matter. And the voicings and mannerisms are executed excellently, as well.

The busyness of the streets described above is accompanied by sounds of horses, carriages, hawkers, children playing, dogs barking, a baby crying, and so on. Other background sounds are quite realistic -- doors squeaking or shutting, stairs creaking, an empty bucket dropped, gas escaping from a vent, and much more. The overall effect is to create a wonderfully immersive environment.

The game covers the five "canonical" Ripper murders. (There is much literature discussing which murders should actually be attributed to Jack the Ripper. Some say there were more; others say less. The "canonical five" are the best-known, and most likely to be attributable to the same individual.) Being a Sherlock Holmes mystery, much of the game is spent inspecting the scenes of the crimes, and talking with eyewitnesses. In each case, Holmes and Watson hear of the crime shortly after it has been committed. Upon visiting the scene of each crime, there are several activities that the player must engage in, as Holmes carries out his trademark deductive reasoning. First, there is the gathering of clues. Using the ever-present magnifying glass to more clearly identify clues, they are gathered in a "Deductions" folder. Once all possible clues have been found and defined, Holmes takes Watson (and the player) to a "story board" where the clues must be interwoven with each other to make deductions, answer questions, and provide additional information. And in certain cases, the story board also includes a timeline on which the player must place a number of events -- based on conversations, documents, and other testimony provided by the various characters. Only when this deductive reasoning has been successfully completed will the game continue.

There are a number of features that I always look for in adventure games; and in virtually all cases, something is lacking. I did not find that in SHJR. There is a map that greatly simplifies moving from place to place. Every dialogue that takes place in the game is saved, and can be reviewed later. All documents are placed in a Documents folder; all Reports have their own folder. Deductions may also be reviewed at any point later in the game. The inventory is simple to use, and provides the ability to combine items required to create a needed tool or object that cannot be found elsewhere. Game saves are quick and simple, and unlimited. Scrolling through dozens of game saves was quite easy. Options for game configuration are not limited to one or two choices. There are more than 20 different A/V parameters that can be adjusted for an optimum gaming experience. And all keyboard shortcut keys can be redefined by the user.

Speaking of keyboard keys, there are two ways to control the characters' movements. In the third-person mode, the game uses a standard point-and-click interface to indicate where the character should move. In the first-person mode, movement is through a combination of the "WASD" keyboard keys (for directional movement) and the mouse (for panning). Early on, I figured that I would skip the "WASD" keys (I'm more of a mouse person), and use the third-person mode only. Within 5 minutes, I found that I was using the first-person mode almost exclusively, as it provided a better view of the scenes (and more flexible character manipulation), and I had no problems at all with the keyboard-plus-mouse interface. (In fact, I discovered that approach resulted in faster system response.)

There is one aspect of the game design with which many adventurers will be familiar. Frequently, Holmes visits a character to ask for information, or obtain some other clue to the murders. Although the person could answer him directly, invariably the response is "I'll be glad to help you with that -- if you will first help me with a little problem." Then Holmes or Watson are sent off on a mission to solve this character's problem, so that he will then divulge the information that they need.

One of the pitfalls that the game manages to avoid is the mindless trekking back-and-forth that so many similar mystery games evoke. Perhaps due to the ease of travel via the map, or just the fact that the game is designed better, I never felt frustrated or annoyed at excessive or unnecessary travel.

Naturally, a game that is so dependent on story development, as SHJR is, tends to be quite linear. And it is important to go into the game with that mindset. There is not a lot of freedom of exploration. (If you try to move somewhere you shouldn't, you will be prevented from doing so.) It is critical to follow the clues of the game -- and sometimes these are overly obvious. Activity in one area will almost invariably end with either Holmes or Watson saying "We must go directly to the clinic," or "It is time to return to Baker Street," or "I think we should pay a visit to the cobbler." These are more than just gentle hints. In these situations, you will not be able to go anywhere else. So while there is often a feeling of being "herded" through the game, it is a necessary element to its successful development.

A similar comment applies to the many conversations carried on with other characters. The game interface uses a common paradigm of putting statements on the screen and allowing you to "speak" to the character by clicking on one of the statements. However, in the vast majority of cases, there is only one option. So progressing the game is little more than clicking on the one option available, rather than making a logical choice that actually may change game play. Yet I never found this to be a detriment, once I played with the mentality of advancing the story smoothly, rather than trying to be a renegade explorer. When all is said and done, it is the story that is the most important element of this game. And the developers at Frogwares have woven one of the best -- and most detailed -- mystery game stories that I have ever encountered.

The puzzles in the game are a combination of inventory and logic puzzles. As would be expected, there is a lot of gathering of objects that are required to perform certain tasks -- keys to unlock doors, objects required to solve some puzzle, tools to assist in some activity. The inventory puzzles are fairly intuitive; rarely did I wonder "Why did that work?" Direct logic puzzles appear at various places in the game -- puzzles that are numerical, image based, even linguistic. Most of the logic puzzles have very definite paths to solve them. Some of the puzzles reset randomly each time they are encountered, prohibiting a "fixed" solution, which increases the challenge. One or two require a limited bit of trial-and-error manipulation. But all are solvable, with the proper clues and logic. And all fit well into the story line.

Naturally, a setting such as SHJR begs the question "How do you end a game which is based on a mystery that, historically, has never been solved?" I would love to say more about the ending -- but it would involve significant spoilers. What I will say is that the ending of the game provides an unexpected twist, a startling revelation, a fantastic denoument, and yet a cohesiveness that says "That is the perfect ending to this game; nothing else would have satisfied!"

As may be expected, providing the highest level of video and audio processing requires a reasonably good hardware system. (See sidebar for details.) As is the case with the previous two Sherlock Holmes games from Frogwares, SHJR uses the Ageia PhysX graphics accelerator. For systems that do not have a PhysX hardware accelerator, a software emulator is installed along with the game.

SHJR is rated "T" (Teen). I wholeheartedly support that rating. The game does a good job of shielding the player from the most gruesome parts of the murder investigation. However, they simply cannot be avoided entirely. Blood, gore, disembowelment, and general mayhem are prevalent; and many topics of conversation must, by the nature of the crimes, deal with the issues of prostitution, female anatomy, and venereal disease. However, given those issues, I must say that Frogwares did a superlative job in keeping them at an academic level -- never sensationalizing any of it -- although I still would not recommend the game for young children.

SHJR is a game that will provide many hours of outstanding story, adventure, deduction, and puzzle-solving. I highly recommend it for its quality, design, imagination, innovation, and technology.

-- Frank D. Nicodem, Jr.