[6 July 2009]
While it is notable that Arthur Conan Doyle never took on a Jack the Ripper story in his own Sherlock Holmes novels, it’s not surprising; for Doyle to place the murderer in his books would be to enhance the profile of a vicious killer who may well have still been alive (occasionally, Doyle himself is even placed among the suspects). To have Holmes solve the murder and name a real person might have been death for his target, regardless of actual guilt, given Doyle’s skill at having Holmes present a convincing argument for his findings. To name a fictional person as the killer would have been insulting, however, given the freshness of the killings at the time of Doyle’s writing and to have the killings go unsolved even at the conclusion of a Sherlock Holmes investigation might have been blasphemy. The situation was too loaded—it’s no wonder Doyle didn’t want to touch this real-life horror with a 221-foot pole.
Still, right around the time that mankind could be assured that Jack the Ripper was truly dead and that any killings that might ape his “style” were surely perpetrated by imitators, authors and filmmakers decided to address the omission of Sherlock vs. Jack in the Sherlock Holmes canon. The most notorious of these takes, The Last Sherlock Holmes Story, dares to make Holmes himself the killer while Murder By Decree, a film that appeared a mere year after The Last Sherlock Holmes Story, advances the story of a royal conspiracy. Despite claims to the contrary (including one by author Patricia Cornwell), the Ripper story hasn’t been solved, which makes it prime fodder for such fictionalization. It’s the rare “based on a true story” tale that doesn’t have a predetermined ending.
It is all of this backstory that makes Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper such an interesting play experience. For an adventure game to work as an immersive experience, it has to draw the player into its world; for such an experience to be effective when so much of it is drawn from either real-life experience or a well-known body of fiction, attention to detail is paramount. Happily for adventure game fans, it seems Frogwares has done its homework.
Part of this probably has something to do with the fact that Frogwares had published five other Sherlock Holmes games before Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper, all of them similarly-structured adventures, each of which has been tweaked to offer a unique experience without alienating fans of the genre. In between the Sherlock Holmes games, Frogwares has published other adventures like last year’s Dracula: Origin that are similar in feel and in mechanics, allowing them to further gauge the delicate balance between story, exploration, and puzzle solving. It’s as if Frogwares is dedicating itself to slowly formulating the perfect Sherlock Holmes adventure game.
How close are they? From a story standpoint, they’re pretty damn close—it’s been a long time since a game truly compelled me to continue on simply through creating the desire to uncover more of its narrative. The voice acting is mostly spot-on (though the stereotypical Jewish accent on a few characters is awkward and a little troubling). Sherlock Holmes is kind of an ass, and Jack the Ripper himself proves a worthy opponent for our protagonist. That the story can present such a convincing case for the identity of the murderer himself through documents that for the most part actually exist suggests an impressive amount of thought that went into the story; that it even goes so far as to explain in-game why it is that Watson (as stand in for Doyle) had never chronicled this particular Sherlock Holmes adventure goes way above and beyond the recommended call of duty. The murders themselves are treated with due respect, and the horror of those murders push even the stoic, sarcastic, and eminently logical Holmes to the brink of sanity. The story of this game is masterfully handled, and it was a joy to experience.
That joy, however, served to cover up another less desirable aspect of the game: It’s awfully easy as far as adventure games go. While one is often given the option to explore the whole of Whitechapel, there is rarely a question of where the player needs to go next. Assembling the inventory items tends to be a matter of simplistic trial and error, and one often can’t leave a given location before all of the items are found and all of the puzzles in that location has been solved. It keeps the player from wandering aimlessly, which is good, but the puzzles are so straightforward as to be almost occasionally insulting. There is but one point in the game where the difficulty ratchets itself up to an almost ludicrous level, until you realize that there are enough hits to allow random clicking to solve it for you. It’s as if Holmes’ brilliance has rubbed off on the player and only the most obscure puzzles present any level of difficulty.
Still, this seems a minor quibble in a beautifully executed game. Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper is not only a well-told story, but it’s an adventure that both veterans and rookies of the genre will be able to enjoy. Given Holmes’ opposition, it should be well understood that the game’s not a laugh riot, but this is one of that rare breed of adventure games that simply doesn’t need humor to succeed—it simply begs to be played, and while as an adventure game its appeal ceases once it ends, it’s the type of game that will have you thinking about it long after you’ve finished it. Telltale may be reviving the genre through big names like Sam & Max, Wallace & Gromit, and Monkey Island, but it’s Frogwares that may have delivered the most memorable adventure of the year.