Review: Sherlock Holmes vs Jack the Ripper
February 8, 2010, Author: Brian Gourlay
It’s one hell of a contest we have lined up for you tonight folks. In the Blue corner we have Sherlock Holmes, the legendary detective with an ego matched only by the level of his analytical intellect. In the Red (and lots of it) corner; Jack the Ripper, the mysterious perpetrator of one of the most gruesome unsolved killing sprees in history. Quite a match up I’m sure you’ll agree, and I was fairly excited to be given the opportunity to see these two heavyweights slug it out on either side of the law, constantly trying to stay one step ahead of the other.
With Frogware’s release of Sherlock Holmes versus Jack the Ripper on Xbox 360 and PC that opportunity was presented to the masses, so I grabbed it with both hands, eager to start my investigation into the gruesome Whitechapel murders. I began my investigation hoping to uncover a gem of a game that allowed detailed investigation and quests that really got the brain juices flowing, but was quietly cautious of the possibility that this clash of the titans could be more on the level of Freddy versus Jason, Victorian style.
So does a bit of digging into the murders yield positive results? Read on to find out if this mystery is better left unsolved.
An ‘elementary’ story
The context of this game is pretty well summarised in the title really. Sherlock Holmes versus Jack the Ripper takes you through the pretty accurately recreated series of events surrounding the Whitechapel murders, with a tiny bit of artistic license being applied in the form of the inclusion of the entirely fictional Sherlock Holmes, becoming part of the investigation as he does. An interesting twist and getting the world’s greatest detective involved in one of history’s most famous unsolved murder cases is surely a winning concept.
Which it would have been, if it wasn’t brought tumbling down by some laughable production values and headache-inducing pacing issues. The story itself is an intriguing one, which is really what you’d expect considering you’re trying to unmask the infamous Ripper. However, there are large sections of the game where you’re too busy performing meaningless tasks to make any significant progress in your investigation. So much so that I often found myself struggling through some of the more tedious sections based on nothing more than a blind faith that a juicy revelation would be round the corner. The good news is that they usually are, but they’re also usually over in a flash and then it’s right back to the dull plateau of meaningless procrastination until someone else shows up dead. The story really suffers because of the painfully slow, dripping approach to plot progression, which only marginally improves as the story goes on.
The dialogue is passable, although certainly not enough to really drive the story on in an effective way. Maybe my opinion has been spoiled after watching the utterly awesome Robert Downey Jr completely devour the role in the recent Guy Ritchie flick, but I found it all to be very polite, cautious and a bit bland as a result. This isn’t helped by the voice acting, which really can be diabolical at times. The script does the job admirably though, it conveys most of the information that you need to progress pretty well, even if it would have benefited from being a bit less business like.
Since you’re taking on the role of Sherlock Holmes, you’d quite rightly expect to spend the majority of the game getting your hands dirty with some rigorous clue finding, forensic analysis and interrogation in order to come to conclusions about the nature of each murder. This is true to an extent, but considering the stature of the man, Holmes spends a hell of a long time running tedious errands for people he’s just met, which really takes away the urgency of conducting a vigilante murder investigation. Most sections of the game begin with you being given a single lead to follow, such as another murder taking place or an eye witness making themselves known. What follows however is an ever spiralling set of grunt work in order to get a tiny titbit of information:
“What’s that Holmes? A prostitute has been gruesomely killed, disembowelled and partially eaten? How awful! I hope you catch the blighter that did it! Now that I think about it, I did see a suspicious looking character shifting around the murder scene last night, I’ll tell you his name… if you nip down to the shop and get me a carton of milk and a packet of fags, here’s some cash and I want change. On your way, Legendary Detective.”
The people of Whitechapel are mindbogglingly reluctant to be separated from any useful information they may have, and as a result I occasionally found that I wanted to commit a few atrocities myself by the time I could actually visit a murder scene.
Once you’re given the opportunity to conduct some proper investigation however, things do start to perk up a bit. Taking a slow, methodical approach in order to gather all of the clues and examining bodies (which are represented through cartoonish representations to lower the gore levels) to determine how they died is an interesting and different experience to most games, but it’s when you have to combine the facts you’ve gathered in order to reach logical conclusions that the grey matter gets a proper workout. These sections involve all of the clues being placed on your deduction board, with certain clues combining together to present you with a choice of deductions to make such as “No blood on the ground therefore she was stabbed while standing up”. It’s a satisfying process seeing all of the conclusions come together to build up a more complete picture of how the murder took place, although it’s sometimes a bit too easy to reach the correct conclusions solely through trial and error.
As the game progresses however more and more clues start to fill up the board which means you really need to think if you want to solve the case properly. I particularly liked how referring back to some of the previous conversations you’ve had and notes you’ve taken in your journal really does go a long way to solving some of the mysteries, as applying a level of patience to the abundance of information you retrieve makes a big difference. Unfortunately these sections are fairly brief and more often than not merely punctuate lengthy sections of tedium. After making a breakthrough in the case I more often than not found myself having to regress back to helping an aging brothel Madame find an elusive bottle of perfume, hardly befitting of Professor Holmes.
I think playing the game in from a first person perspective is the best way to play the game, as it allows for a much more hands on exploration of crime scenes, but it also acts to the detriment of the game as a whole. Maybe it’s just me, but I often had to remind myself that Sherlock Holmes versus Jack the Ripper is an action adventure, a ported point and click game, which seems oddly out of place from a first person perspective. However, even when I had grasped the concept I still found myself aimlessly wandering about the street of London far too much due to the lack of any effective mission tracking.
Not only that; outside of the investigation/deduction sections of the game, there’s very little to do other than tread along a linear path of people to trigger dialogue with, exhausting your options and then moving on. In fact, up until the first murder scene (which came in after about an hour) I think I progressed solely through the use of the left analog stick and the A button.
Dial ‘M’ for mediocre
The main area of intrigue for me with Sherlock Holmes versus Jack the Ripper was being able to investigate my way through an interesting story. Despite the plot being presented at a disorganised and confusing pace, it is interesting and keeps you guessing right up until the end. Unfortunately the impact of the story, as well as the dialogue, is let down by some bland character models, plain awful animation and lip synching that wouldn’t look out of place in a low budget anime. The poor presentation is especially apparent while conversing with Whitechapel’s many inhabitants, as it appears that every character can only manage one repetitive body movement while their lips haphazardly flutter in a motion that looks vaguely like speech. Even if Holmes is making a groundbreaking discovery or deduction, it’s almost impossible to take him (or anyone else for that matter) seriously as he continuously waves one arm from left to right for an entire conversation.
While the character animations are particularly bad, they’re not the only graphical issue that arose during my investigation. In fact, it’s difficult to pinpoint a particular standalone issue, since everything from the textures of the environments to the detail in the character faces and the atmospheric lighting is incredibly dull and lifeless. I can appreciate that Whitechapel wasn’t exactly the most vibrant area of London at the time and it has to be said that there are a few nice touches of detail when you step indoors to some of London’s many points of interest, but it’s just all so… boring. Lifeless characters march along the dimly lit streets wearing different shades of beige, while an impenetrable fog of war prevents your perspective from extending any more than a hundred yards in front of you. There’s really nothing to invoke your senses, no eye candy to briefly cast your eyes upon, and as a result I found myself shifting through each location as quickly as I could. In fact, I often used the fast travel feature to try to move about as quickly as possible, solely due to the overwhelming fear of my eyes suddenly imploding due a lack of stimulation.
Elementary school acting
It’s not just the subpar quality of the visual presentation that saps away the cinematic lifeblood of the plot however; I often found myself cringing like I was watching my uncle try to dance at a wedding every time one of the characters opened their mouths. The voice acting isn’t terrible, and certainly not as bad as the character animations, but most of the time it’s very awkward and could have benefitted greatly from some polishing up. Holmes himself is pleasant enough to listen to, even if he always sounds out of breath, but it doesn’t take long for it to become clear why I’ve never heard the dulcet tones of any of the other voice actors before. Dr Watson comes across as too polite and enthusiastic, even when he’s supposed to be getting riled up at Holmes antics and The Ripper himself achieves a pantomime level of moustache twisting melodrama.
It also appears that Frogware have sacrificed some of the atmospheric sounds in favour of sharpening the clarity of the voices. It’s particularly noticeable with Holmes, as some of the background noise drops in volume or outright disappears whenever he has something to say. The worst of it is, they’re at the top end of the spectrum, thanks to the hilariously bad performances of the stock NPC’s.
Several characters are voiced by the same actor who either do a terrible job of disguising their voice, or just don’t even bother to hide it. That’s not the problem in itself (Oblivion kind of got away with it after all), but the actors are just so finger nails on a blackboard irritating that you’ll want to skip the conversations as soon as you’ve got the information you need. The handy inclusion of textual dialogue logs in your inventory means you can skip all the way through without having to listen to a hammily acted peep, but it’s merely a workaround to what is a damningly poor aural experience that, especially when combined with the graphics, hampered my enjoyment of the story as a whole almost to the extent of completely ruining it.
Considering how much of a slow, plodding start Sherlock Holmes versus Jack the Ripper makes I was surprisingly optimistic as a progressed, thinking that a bit more digging would unearth some hidden nuggets of brilliance that were previously invisible to me. I was wrong. This game is just plain bad; an open and shut case.
When I actually got to experience some of the things that I had initially made the mistake of assuming would make up the bulk of the game (such as actually conducting an investigation) it did an admirable job of sating my desire to properly put my noggin to use. Unfortunately these moments only combine to form a small minority of the game, with the cement binding these moments together being extremely flimsy and almost bringing the whole thing crashing down upon itself. Unless you’re desperate to see this tale out (which admittedly is intriguing in parts) to it’s slightly odd conclusion then it’s probably best that you leave this particular investigation to someone else.