Those of you checking out this review to find out if this is a fighting game involving historical and literary figures are going to be sorely disappointed. There will be no Abraham Lincoln vs. John Wilkes Booth. You cannot recreate presidential grudge matches and have Teddy Roosevelt face off against Taft. And you cannot attempt to change history and prevent the fight between Mel Gibson and his dignity.
Mel Gibson, pictured just before he tied up his dignity, shoved it in the trunk of his car,
and drove it into the Hudson River.
Unfortunately, that means there is no bar room brawl between Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes, and instead Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper is more a battle of wits, even if this is a one-sided battle as one of the teams doesn’t even realize they are in any sort of competition. This is an adventure game, where the primary focus is solving the infamous Jack the Ripper murders with the help of one of literature’s greatest detectives (other than Harriet the Spy). Sadly, the premise here is actually the most interesting aspect of the game, and while the story might keep you entertained for portions, as a whole this is an unfortunate combination of boring and bad.
The story revolves around the murders committed by Jack the Ripper in London during the 1800s. As no real detective has been able to solve the case, the police has started using fake ones, and identifying the murderer and stopping his crime spree has become the responsibility of Sherlock Holmes. (If he fails, I assume that Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys have next dibs.) All hope pretty much rests on his shoulders, as the London police force’s strategy for solving the crime seems to be siting around and waiting for the murderer to turn himself in. While historically this case went unsolved, what with forensic investigation at the time being limited to grabbing whatever you saw at the crime scene with your bare hands and rubbing it under your armpit, the game sort of takes its best guess as to who the real culprit was, and the story unfolds from there.
Judging from his workshop, my best guest was that the murderer was actually Sherlock Holmes.
Unfortunately, the work that went into researching the Jack the Ripper mythos didn’t really translate into a particularly gripping narrative. The story moves very slowly, and instead of chasing down Jack the Ripper, large portions of the plot focus on various errands you need to run to get people to talk to you. It would be like if in Godfather every other scene showed Marlon Brando mowing the lawn or fixing the dishwasher; the game seems determined to stop any momentum the story has by jumping out in front of its path and asking you to go find the drunken uncle of some prostitute before you can get on with the actual story. While this sort of narrative inevitably wants to draw out revelation of the killer’s identity in order to preserve the mystery and suspense, Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper does it by waving car keys in front of your face and asking you to go pick up a carton of milk. Jack the Ripper is making women into human jack-o-lanterns, but there never seems to be any real urgency to the investigation. It feels more like you’re investigating Jack the Jaywalker, and the game fails to provide the sense of tension necessary to make a murder mystery worthwhile.
While the story meanders around for most of the game, asking if you want to see it pull quarters out of people’s ears whenever you start asking too much about the murders, the last hour or so is pretty OK, and the game at least does a nice job unveiling the killer when it finally comes time to do so. People who are creepily into the mythos might get a kick out of it, and if you’ve read all the books and watched all the History Channel programs and have a collection of knives (for display purposes only, of course, although small animals around the neighborhood are starting to disappear and the neighborhood children all run inside when they see your car coming down the street), then you might find the story interesting. The basic premise here is at least promising, but the actual story is butchered worse than Jack the Ripper’s victims. The entire game is just the perfect example of how not to tell a story, with things like pacing and intrigue completely absent, presumably lying dead somewhere in a gutter by Jack’s hand. The killer is revealed as soon as he is introduced as a character, making this less of a murder mystery and more of a murder hey-it’s-that-guy-over-there.
“Hi! My name is Carl and I’m the murderer you’re looking for! …probably shouldn’t have said that last part.”
The game also wastes Watson and Holmes as characters, as they don’t really feel like the literary versions of themselves and are instead substituted by Generic Adventure Game Characters 1 and 2. It is like a couple of homeless people snuck into their closets and stole some of their clothes, so while they look like the characters, you can tell something is off once they start speaking and rummaging through your trash to collect all your leftovers. All of the characters in the game are just terribly bland, with the exception of a couple that decided to buck the trend by just being terrible. You really don’t have an attachment to any of these characters for the same reason you don’t form attachments to random people sitting with you on the bus. There are a couple of moments where they try to force some drama and backstory onto some minor characters, but it comes off all awkward and feels forced, like if someone tried to tell you the spoon you were using was suicidal because the fork had left him for a knife. There are bits and pieces of characterization every once in a while that are all right, but character development isn’t something I want sprinkled on lightly.
The actual gameplay is focused on the puzzles that you need to solve as you track down the killer. There is a wide variety here, ranging from classic sliding block puzzles to numerical locks to using documents to properly dress a mannequin. The puzzles appear rather sporadically, and sometimes it comes as a bit of a shock when one finally shows up. And not just to you—the puzzles themselves apparently haven’t been given time to doll themselves up and rehearse their lines before getting shoved out on stage and having to nervously dance around because they don’t know what they’re doing.
For example, there is one numerical lock puzzle that just stumbles into the room, vomits in the corner, and passes out in front of you, leaving the rest up to you. I had first thought that I needed to get all the numbers in the circles to equal each other, and then tried getting the numbers in ascending order. After some random guessing, it turned out what I actually wanted to do was get the numbers in descending order, something that was made evident to me only by examining the solution after I had accidentally solved it. This isn’t an example of good puzzle design, as at the very least you need to give the player some indication as to what they’re supposed to be doing. It would be like trying to teach kids how to play baseball by just handing them a glove, a ball, and a bat and then peering at them over a bush while one of them hits the others with the bat and the ball. There is another puzzle, too, that punishes the player unless he or she is a Civil War historian. For some reason I can’t imagine the overlap between gamers and Civil War aficionados to be large enough to have a puzzle specifically designed for them.
“OH YEAH? Well…well…WHAT KIND OF CAR DO YOU DRIVE? HUH? HURRRRRRRRRRK.”
Additionally, the puzzle quality itself is pretty subpar. Even when the game decided to clue me in on what it wanted me to do, the puzzles were never particularly fun, and there were only a handful that were entertaining and challenging. There were some clever ones, like one where you need to figure out a filing system through a series of notes left around an office, and another where you have to unlock a safe by matching certain symbols, but these are largely in the minority, and there are too many puzzles that don’t even require a modicum of thought. It also doesn’t feel like there are enough puzzles, as the game seems to prefer forcing you to go out on errands before letting you have any real fun.
A better title for this game would have been Sherlock Holmes vs. The Oh God Another Fetch Quest This Game Can’t Be Freaking Serious. Most of the time before the game will even let you tackle a puzzle, you’ll need to get the required paperwork to submit a request to solve the puzzle by way of three people scattered around town. Say, for example, you are confronted with a pipe puzzle where you need to redirect the flow of gas in a building so people stop suffocating and the landlord can stop stuffing their bodies down the laundry shoot and hoping people don’t ask why the hallways are getting so stinky. In most puzzle games, you would attack the problem by going into the room, fixing the pipes, and completing the puzzle. Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper decided that this isn’t enough hoops to jump through to get to the semblance of fun waiting at the end of the obstacle course. No, Holmes first needs to collect a mask that lets him get near it. But the individual who Holmes thinks has the mask actually loaned it to his brother, so you need to go talk to him, instead. But that guy is apparently a moron without fingers and dropped the mask in the snake cage, so you need to fish it out. But Sherlock Holmes, who isn’t afraid of big men with knives who do bad things to women, won’t stick his hand in the cage because it has been recently manicured, so you need to go get gloves and a hook. To open the cage. To get past the snake. To get the mask. To enter the room. TO SOLVE THE ONE STUPID PUZZLE THAT THE GAME SHOULD HAVE LET YOU SOLVE TEN MINUTES AGO. This isn’t an example I just made up off the top of my head; this is something that actually happens in the game. This is usually where I create an over-the-top example to illustrate my point, but I didn’t need to because the game had already done it for me.
After being told he needed to go back across town to talk to someone else for the fifth time,
Sherlock finally snaps.
This isn’t good gameplay. This is the game stalling the player because it knows it doesn’t have enough material otherwise. It is the equivalent of a stand-up comedian getting on stage and reading the menu for the bar he’s working at in between jokes. At best, this is a misguided attempt at some point-and-click adventure gameplay, but if it is, it has to be one of the worst executions of it I’ve seen in a game. There is one worthwhile portion at the very end of the game, but nearly all of the adventure segments prior to it involve someone telling you directly who you need to go talk to and what to get, which isn’t so much of a puzzle as it is a chore. There is nothing to solve, as the solution to all of these is “complete the errand you were just sent on and hope there isn’t another one waiting for you on the other end.” Early on in the game, after getting sent on four straight of these, Sherlock makes an offhanded comment that if this guy had another errand for you, he was going to murder Watson, which would be funny if I wasn’t exactly as bored as Holmes was by the whole experience. The developers should be proud—they’ve created a program so boring that the AI has become sentient solely to complain about how bored it is.
The other somewhat unique aspect of gameplay worth mentioning is the deduction boards that are interspersed throughout the story that need to be completed. During your investigation, you’ll acquire certain clues by investigating the crime scene, examining the body, or climbing on top of Watson and pretending to stab him while he plays along before going home and crying himself to sleep. When you find everything you need, you can deduce certain facts about the case, by looking at the information and then selecting what must be true from a group of three options. This works relatively well, but it isn’t particularly enthralling unless you are a huge fan of multiple choice tests, and if that is the case then please stay away from me at parties so I don’t have to listen about the time you had three “c” answers in a row. Some of the conclusions drawn would hold up in court about as well as a building made out of pretzels would hold up in a rain storm, and sometimes Holmes makes jumps that even Evel Knievel would scoff at. It really isn’t that much of a problem, because with only three options even if you do get stuck you can just cycle through the three until the game lets you proceed. Most of the time it is just completely mindless, and you need to figure out if the fact that a woman was beaten to a pulp indicates that the killer is a strong man, if he is a blind man, or if he is a highly educated ape that has escaped its training facility and is trying to wreck vengeance against the society that imprisoned it. It is really just a forgettable part of the gameplay, which is a shame because if executed properly it really could have worked well, considering Sherlock Holmes is the protagonist.
The visuals are a hot mess, and it looks like they just drunkenly got dressed and stumbled out of the house right before the game was to be released. The backgrounds are gray and boring, and while this fits with gloomy, rainy London, it doesn’t make it any better to look at. The characters all seem like they stepped out of a videogame time machine, as they look like they are from a game released 10 years ago and at times they take on the appearance of poorly made origami. The most disturbing character is the whale of a prostitute you encounter outside of the police station. When she makes you her proposition, do not look directly at the screen or you will go sterile. She isn’t murdered in the game, and I have to assume that is because Jack the Ripper doesn’t have access to the industrial strength pumpjack that would be necessary to puncture her layers of blubber.
That popping sound you hear is all of your sperm spontaneously dying.
It isn’t so bad that you can’t at least differentiate everything, and it doesn’t hurt the actual gameplay, so overall the problem is minimal. The voice acting is also below the average quality you see in games, which is already a pretty low standard for comparison. It is a bit bland at times, like the voice actors were falling asleep and had to be prodded by the director to get through the whole script. Dialogue is all disjointed at times, with weird pauses in between sentences. It just feels like they are just reading the lines instead of actually acting.
The game also has a variety of odd glitches. No one seems to know how to open doors, or at least they all have some sort of phobia involving doorknobs. Every time you direct a character to open a door, they run halfway across the screen, open the door with their Jedi powers by gesturing toward it, and then phase through to the room they want to get to. Sometimes selecting an item to look at will break Watson’s brain, and he’ll take off running at it like it was a new mustache trimmer. It isn’t unique to the characters you’re playing as; one time after talking to a kid, he took off running around in circles before darting offscreen. I wasn’t sure what exactly was going on, but at that point I was positive that kid was Jack the Ripper. The game is just full of these little errors, and while they don’t make the game bad or ruin it in any particularly significant way, it makes it look like this game was put together by a bunch of amateurs as practice for later games so they could iron out the kinks.
I wouldn’t say I was disappointed by Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper, but that’s only because one look at the back of the box should cause any hopes you had for the game to wither away and melt into a pool of pessimism. The premise is interesting, and there are a couple of notable puzzles, and the plot is at the very least passable. However, as a whole the game is a mess, and it’s hard to recommend this game to anyone unless they cosplay as Jack the Ripper or Sherlock Holmes, or some sort of unholy amalgamation named Sherlock the Ripper or Jack the Holmes that goes around solving crimes by stabbing people. The puzzles are not only poorly explained and overly simplistic, they are spread too thinly throughout the story, like a bald man trying to cover his entire head with his last three strands of hair. This game is not going to make a splash in the adventure game market, but it might perhaps generate a new genre where you go around doing everyone’s chores, and people can call it the “Attempt to Bore You With Videogames and Get You to Go Outside” genre. It is a shame that this game wasn’t executed better, as the premise alone was promising enough to trick me into buying it. Hopefully next time Sherlock Holmes battles a foe, it is something other than malaise.
Saw this at Target the other day. Thank god I didn’t get it!
“This isn’t good gameplay. This is the game stalling the player because it knows it doesn’t have enough material otherwise.”
I feel like that’s becoming a common symptom of games now–we expect a certain length in our games, and developers try to meet that by filling out what would otherwise be a great game with meaningless filler. Someday, we’ll all figure out that we’d rather have a great 10-hour game than a lousy 30-hour game.
Great article! I rented this game on gamefly thinking it would be an interesting look at the Jack the Ripper mystery but the thing the game did was bore me into playing something else.
Just wanted to say that this review made me laugh harder than anything in years. I read the whole thing aloud to my husband, who has been watching me pull my hair out over this game for weeks now. We howled. Every word of it is true.
For the record, there is a random glitch in the Xbox version that locks up the game at the mannequin puzzle. So if I want to proceed, I’ll have to start the game ALL. OVER. AGAIN. If I was guilty of eating live puppies for breakfast every morning for 17 years, I would feel the self-loathing necessary to restart the game. As it stands, I’m done.
I’m an old-school adventure gamer who grew up with Sierra and Lucasarts games. That background makes me a junkie who’s always jonesing for another perfect high that I can never find. Adventure Company games are almost always bad, and even games like “Grey Matter” turned into bitter disappointments. I wish I could get into other games, but I get stressed out if I lose a game of computer Solitaire, so console adventure/shooter hybrids such as Mass Effect or BioShock would cause a complete emotional meltdown. Thus, I am forever doomed to be stuck watching my husband play all sorts of awesome console games while I poke at dreadful crap like “Holmes The Ripper.”
Anyhow, this is a brilliant, spot-on review, and I thank you for the catharsis. I will look for more of your wonderful writing.