Finally the game had arrived! Ever since Frogwares announced that it would develop and produce a game entitled Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper, I had been waiting with the proverbial 'bated breath'. Since I am a long-time fan of Sherlock Holmes, have long been interested in all the varied mysteries surrounding the tale of Jack the Ripper, and have enjoyed all of the other Holmes games from Frogwares, I had not felt such anticipation for a game since I first played Myst and learned that there would be a game called Riven. When the game finally arrived, I played it for ridiculously long periods of time, eventually completed it, and then simply leaned back and said "Wow". This is a game that was actually worth all the time and the significant amount of trouble that it took. Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper is by far the best of the Holmes’ games, and may be the second best game that I have ever played (URU still exists).
The story itself is not at all unique. It is an old-fashioned 'Who Dun It?' that most gamers have all read or played a hundred times. What makes this game special is that the player is allowed to play a game wherein the world’s most famous detective (Sherlock Holmes) attempts to discover the identity of and put an end to one of the world’s most infamous serial killers (Jack the Ripper). The game covers a time span of slightly over two months. The player is directly involved as Holmes finds and evaluates clues, and eventually watches in some amazement as Holmes actually solves a crime that has remained unsolved for well over a century. The value here is not in the story so much, but in the process of solving these mysterious crimes.
The game is contained on one disk, and that disk must be in the computer in order to operate the game. The interface is simple and yet contains a huge collection of variables. The gamer has the option of playing in either first or third person, and the point of view can be easily changed at any point in the game by hitting a particular key. As in a few of the other Holmes games, the gamer usually plays as Dr. Watson but at times plays as the character of Sherlock Holmes. The game decides when this change occurs, but politely puts up a little flag at the beginning of each scene telling a player who he is for this particular section of the game. I found this little detail to be extremely helpful since I tended to play the game in third person. Movement is accomplished by a simple point and click process. The cursor changes to little feet to indicate possible direction of travel, a hand to indicate that an action can be taken, and a magnifying glass indicates where something can (and should) be examined closely. A left click makes the character walk, and a double click will make him run. These directions change slightly but easily if the gamer opts for first person gameplay. Subtitles can be turned on or off in either point of view. This is a fairly linear game, and the player may well grow weary of hearing "There’s no reason to go there" when he attempts to go to locations that the game doesn't want him to.
The opening menu offers lots of options. You can choose new game, resume game, load, save, controls, credits, options, or exit. There seemed to be endless slots for saved games here. I used about twenty and had no problems. I should note that I probably could have played the game with no saves, since at every startup I could simply click on the 'Resume' button and the game returned me to where I had previously stopped. Once the game begins the player can always return to this menu with the escape key. The controls menu allows a gamer to reset the controls to his liking, but I didn’t bother with this section and can’t comment on the process. The options menu allows for a great many possible alterations. A player can adjust video settings, graphic settings, and sound changes. And each of these sections has its own large list of possible alterations from the default settings. There are, quite simply, a great many adjustments available. Given some problems I had with the operation of the game, I was forced to set everything to where it demanded the least of my computer, but this did not affect my enjoyment at all.
The inventory is a rather huge one. It contains a goodly number of slots for the various items that Holmes and Watson acquire along the way. There are also separate icons for documents and records, one for reports and notes, and a fourth which contains a complete collection of the dialogues that have taken place. There is also one of those wonderful maps that allow a person to go directly to a place rather than having to walk there all the time. (In honesty, the streets scenes were so lively and interesting that I found myself using this feature much less than I normally would.) As the game proceeds, there appear in the inventory two other icons that are used when Holmes and Watson are evaluating evidence and working at their deductions. Please be assured that I may have missed a few things. There is a large amount of material in the inventory and the player will use that material a great deal. He will often have to go back and reread or simply check to see what was said to whom, and who did what, as he solves the case. The huge amount of material makes it very important to note that while all of this may seem vague and overly complex to read or write about, it functions easily, logically, and smoothly. The massive amount of available material also makes it unnecessary to takes notes. I had no difficulty utilizing any of, and sometimes all of, this 'stuff ' as the game went along.
All in all, the interface is quite effective. It allows for lot of variables and provides a lot of usable and necessary material without ever being frustratingly complex. I was impressed.
Since this facet of game development seems to have become a characteristic of Frogwares games, it was not surprising to find that the graphics in Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper were quite marvelous. There was, however, something rather different here. In the last few Holmes games, the city of London was seen in all its Victorian glory. It was clean and pretty, and the streets were virtually empty. In this game the opposite is true. Whitechaple and its environs are grungy, dirty, ill-lit and depressing. They are the back streets of the city, and are peopled with a huge number of sleazy, drunken, nasty looking types. Watson and even Holmes seem at times to be concerned about their own personal safety, and it looks as though they should be. The atmosphere is wonderfully dingy, and this gloomy appearance, combined with very effective lighting effects, creates an almost perfect atmosphere for a tale about a crazed and evil killer who preys on downtrodden prostitutes. The only exception to this situation is at 221B Baker Street. Here Holmes and Watson are at home with the usual red flocked wall paper, the references to Mrs. Hudson, and all the other details that Conan Doyle once provided for Holmes and Watson. The contrast of the detectives at home and when on the hunt in London’s horribly mean streets makes the graphics even more effective.
The characters need to be noted too, because they are so important to this game. There are a great many people with whom either Holmes or Watson interacts, and the people are, without exception, quite well presented and unique from one another. There are policemen, prostitutes, drunks, businessmen, Jewish tradesmen, and several others kinds of folks. They all speak in different and completely acceptable British voices. They have varied and effective accents. They look and act like real people. If there is a problem, it is that there are simply far too many of them. While in the other Holmes games the streets have been rather sparsely populated, here there are dozens of people, and neither Holmes, Watson, nor the player is sure to whom he should speak.
The music had little impact for me. Holmes plays his violin rather often when he and Watson are at home. It should be noted that that his skill has improved significantly from his ...Silver Earring days. Other than that, there seemed little of import about the music. However, the sounds and background noises are simply excellent. A great deal of the game finds Holmes and Watson investigating dark, dank, gloomy, creepy places during the wee hours of the morning. And the constant creaks, groans, bumps and thuds help create an effectively tense and fearful mood throughout the game. The 'things that go bump in the night' seemed always to be dangerously close to our heroes.
The voice acting was as good as it gets in an adventure game. Holmes was again perfectly arrogant and rather snide when dealing with everyone, including Watson. Watson was again firm, stalwart, and plenty smart, while remaining rather less smart than Holmes. The two characters were precisely what Conan Doyle wanted them to be. The other dozens of characters were, as mentioned, unique, and each voice was well acted. There were no throw-ins or wasted voices here. Again, the Frogwares people are wise enough to realize that in a story such as this, where there is a lot of conversation, real actors are needed to create real characters. Those well-acted characters exist in this game.
The puzzles too are well planned and effective. There are a great many inventory-type puzzles where the player has to find, combine, and then use various items to reach the next point or find a piece of evidence. Holmes again has his magnifying glass and his tape measure. There are also a few slider puzzles and a few combinations and codes. There are a couple of torn up letters that must be reassembled, and there are lots and lots of documents and articles to read. There are also a few unique puzzles that are thoroughly entertaining, but which don’t really fit into any of the usual categories. There is one math and map puzzle that drove me to distraction for about two days. There were no timed puzzles and there were no places where the player could die. These puzzles range greatly in difficulty. Several are extremely simple, while a few of them are so difficult as to be of the profanity-inducing variety. The truly pleasant thing about them is that every puzzle is perfectly fit into the context of the story. There are several times when the method to solve a problem is not at all obvious, but the problem always seems to fit what either Holmes or Watson is attempting to accomplish.
There is also a new and intriguing wrinkle in this game that I really enjoyed. There are several points in the game when Holmes and Watson must return to Baker Street, peruse all the evidence that they have thus far acquired, and make some deductions. This is done by utilizing a new 'deduction board' that allows the gamer to organize and order all of the materials and then make connections to other pieces of evidence. It felt and looked as though Holmes was actually solving the crime. I found the entire process to be rather complex and intriguing while being great fun. I also have a feeling that this is almost exactly what real detectives must go through to solve their cases. This 'deduction board' and the eventual 'conclusions reached' are entertaining and effective additions to the entire concept of adventure gaming. I will even go so far as to predict that these two devices will be copied by other gaming companies rather quickly. They really add to any detective-formatted game.
That is nearly all that I feel I need to say about this excellent game. Virtually everything about it is thoroughly entertaining. However, I do have a warning, a minor irritation to mention, and one rather large complaint. The minor irritation was that whereas the streets of London were virtually empty in the other Holmes games, here these same streets are peopled with all types of characters. Further, it is possible to talk to each and every person in the game. This means that the gamer can waste a lot of time simply talking to all kinds of people who have nothing to offer that will help in solving the mystery. It can get a bit tedious.
The warning is that this is very much an adult game. Jack the Ripper murders prostitutes. In searching for clues to discover the identity of the murderer, Holmes, Watson and the player learn a lot about the business and the dangers of prostitution. Clients, payments, processes and diseases are discussed rather often and sometimes rather graphically. The game is clearly rated T (Teen), but many of these discussions are probably not discussions even for older children!
My big complaint is that the game really ran very poorly. I admit that my computer has only the minimums requirements for the game, but it does have them. That being the case, I was constantly frustrated by the fact that the game never operated very well. It took forever to install, and every time I traveled from one location to another there was a wait of several (sometimes as many as five) minutes for the scene to establish itself. Once I was in an area, the gameplay and the verbiage functioned without difficulty, but there was a great deal of 'down' time throughout the game. And when it came time to exit the game, there was an even longer pause. I often needed ten or more minutes for the game to shut itself off and give me back my computer. There were also several times when the game simply locked up and was completely unresponsive. When that occurred, I had to turn the computer off, reboot everything, waste more time restarting the game again, and then load from an earlier save. Everything I had accomplished from the recent start to the 'lockup' was lost. Obviously I began to save quite often. Note that when things worked, the game was simply wonderful. It’s just that it always took a long time for the game to work, and it sometimes simply stopped working.
Perhaps the biggest surprise in this game is that I liked it so much even though I had serious problems keeping it running. It should be noted that this could have been my fault, because these Frogwares games have often been fairly slow to load, and there is not a lot of web discussion indicating that other players had problems with ... Jack the Ripper. Also note that the game is quite simply huge. There are lots of things to find and use, lots of different types of puzzles to solve, lots of characters with whom to have conversations, lots of places to visit, and lots of conclusions to reach. The simple size of the game makes a long playing time mandatory. The characters seem to be exactly what Conan Doyle meant them to be, and the graphics are gloomily impressive. All in all, even with the technical difficulties I had, Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper is one of the most enjoyable adventure games I have ever played. Try it, enjoy it, and like me you will finish the game and immediately say, "Wow, what is the next Holmes game and when is it being released?" It really is that good.
© July 2009 Mark Hasley
Developed (2009) by Frogwares and published by The Adventure Company .
Rated: T for Teen 13+ (mild blood, mild language, sexual themes, use of alcohol and tobacco, violence)
Minimum System Requirements:
PC: AMD Athlon® XP 1900+ / Intel Celeron® 2.0 or higher Processor; Windows XP SP2 / Vista; 512 MB RAM; 4x DVD-ROM Drive; 128 MB DirectX® 9 Compatible Video Card; DirectX® 9 Compatible Sound Card; 3 GB of Free Hard Drive Space; DirectX® 9 or higher (included on disc); Keyboard, Mouse and Speakers
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