Mini-Review: Sherlock Holmes vs Jack the Ripper

Designed by Frogwares
(Official web site)

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Third in the weirdest adventure game series I can recall. Weird for one specific reason: each game so far has had a totally different tone. Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened was Lovecraftian horror: chasing down a murderous cult across Britain, Europe, and America, with an apocalyptic (well, nigh-apocalyptic) showdown in a storm-blasted lighthouse. Flashy, full of wild occult connections, occasional chase scenes even.

Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis switched antagonists entirely: from squamous Elder Things to Arsène Lupin, gentleman thief (a fictional contemporary of Conan Doyle's Holmes stories). This game took the form of a battle of wits: clues left in wry little notes and riddles, Holmes chasing the thief around London. It wasn't farce -- Lupin really was after the Crown Jewels, and he had a plan to get them. But it wasn't a cosmic struggle for the survival of humanity, either.

And now, Jack the Ripper. Another natural nemesis for the master detective; but on a completely different axis. And the game, once again, runs along completely different lines. No gentleman criminals here. The story is a murky tangle of racism, poverty, prostitution, and revenge, with plenty of syphilis and mutilation thrown in. Not the fantastical set-dressing of Lovecraft's cannibal cults; just straight-up human butchery.

The challenges, too, switch gears. You're not solving riddles, or even lining up the logic-puzzle-like suspect lists of the Lupin game. (Well, sometimes you are, but mostly not.) It's down-and-dirty police procedure. Which way did the knife cut, left or right, shallow or deep? Where did the blood splatter? Which witnesses reported a five-foot-nine shadow, and which five-foot-six? You re-enact murder scenes, dress up mannequins to test theories, and -- memorably -- hack up some hog corpses to try to figure out what kind of knife was used.

(The game isn't graphically bloody, but it doesn't skirt it by much. You are, after all, taking detailed physical evidence from human victims. The game departs from its usual realistic 3D, using stylized flat artwork for the corpses -- and for the pig heads. Nonetheless, it doesn't take much imagination to be revolted by these scenes. If you're suspectible, avoid this game.)

(The good news is, Watson finally has a walking animation. In other words, he no longer teleports from place to place when your back is turned. Forget the gore; Mysterious Teleporting Watson was absolutely the most unnerving thing about the first two games in this series.)

You run into the usual stock of evidence-collection, object-manipulation, and NPC-fetching puzzles. (And one arbitrary set of sliding blocks, sigh...) But this game also adds a large selection of evidence-collation puzzles -- again, the form of the police procedural. For example, after you've assembled a stock of information about when things happened, you enter a timeline scene: Holmes prompts you to place pins on a timeline, and then resolve inconsistencies. Locations are put together on a map; physical descriptions, as I noted, are laid out on mannequins. And all the facts you assemble go onto a big chart, with chains of conclusion leading to further deduction and, eventually, a narrowing profile of the Ripper.

All of these deduction scenes are interactive; they do a good job of pulling you into the act of tracking down a killer. Much better than cut scenes of Holmes monologuing. They follow, as far as I can tell, plausible forensic investigation. (Well, mostly. The perfume analysis bit is disappointingly and arbitrarily abstracted.) The scenes even have a depressingly realistic percentage of null results: half the time, you are tracking through a bunch of facts which turn out to exclude nothing and point to nobody.

What these interactions are not, unfortunately, are good puzzles. Most of them can be brute-forced. The deduction chart, in particular, lets you twiddle each node through its three options until the result lights up green. The designers try to make up for this with multi-stage deductions, but that just increases the number of guesses you have to make. It was always easier for me to grind through combinations of "left-handed... right-handed... taller, shorter..." than to think about the facts in the game world.

I'm not saying I have a better model here. Designing a good puzzle is hard; designing a puzzle around a realistic activity is hard. Doing both together is so hard that you can wind up tuning your entire game design to make it work once... if you're lucky. In trying to cover every aspect of an investigation, Holmes v. Ripper makes itself into more of an interactive movie interspersed with puzzles.

Mind you, there aren't enough good interactive movies out there. You should play this one, as long as you have a strong stomach.

But I have no idea what Frogwares will do with the next game. Their web site says it's in development...

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