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This is what stuff looked like 120 years ago

Sherlock Holmes Vs Jack The Ripper

The videogame world has been blessed through time with some truly remarkable and enjoyable ‘versus’ titles, from the inspired Capcom Vs. SNK to the chilling horror series Aliens Versus Predator (which receives another entry next month). Literature and history fans have to be particularly intrigued at the clash of minds that Frogwares has served up with their latest effort, yet another entry in the ‘versus’ collection: the mighty powers of deduction of super sleuth Sherlock Holmes versus the cold, calculating madness of Jack The Ripper.

Frogwares is responsible for the recent series of Sherlock Holmes adventure games, which began with Mystery of the Mummy back in 2002. While these games certainly have their moments, an abundance of dull dialogue and laborious hotspot-seeking makes them more work than pleasure. Perhaps hoping to rejuvenate the franchise, Frogwares has delved deep into the real-life case of the Whitechapel murders for Sherlock Holmes Vs Jack The Ripper and the resulting blend of fact and fiction certainly has to be admired.

Holmes and his trustworthy sidekick Watson find themselves caught up in the grisly investigation after the body of local prostitute Mary Ann Nichols is discovered, sliced apart in a dingy back alley. The player controls both Holmes and Watson in turn as the pair try to ingratiate themselves with the Whitechapel police and help track down the killer. Control in the previous Frogwares games was a third-person point-and-click affair, and while this viewpoint has been retained for Sherlock Holmes Vs Jack The Ripper, the developers have also built in a first-person perspective that can be swapped to at any time. This works like a standard FPS, except a click of the mouse has you talking to the nearest bystander instead of blowing their brains out with a railgun. The choice is a very welcome addition and works well.

The developers have been very faithful to the Ripper case, which could be a good or a bad thing depending on your viewpoint. Jack fans will likely delight at the chance to delve into the case first-hand, but the unfortunate drawback is a diminished sense of suspense. There’s been so many films, books and shows about the case that pretty much anyone with eyeballs knows how many victims he claimed, and the nature of the murders.

However, this isn’t Sherlock Holmes Vs Jack The Ripper’s biggest problem. Sadly, the main issue with this title is the gameplay, as it was with previous instalments. Despite being on the trail of a deadly psychopath, Holmes and Watson spend a ridiculous amount of time running errands for random characters. Want an important clue from a busy copper? Well, first you’ll have to find his briefcase for him. A local innkeeper offers to help, but only if you sort out a tramp that’s driving business away. The tramp will clear off if you buy him a bottle of Special Brew, but the shopkeeper will only sell you one if you help him sell a consignment of illegal porn mags.

That might be slightly exaggerated, but these little favour runs really do make up a large part of Sherlock Holmes Vs Jack The Ripper’s gameplay. The occasional puzzle breaks things up a little, but these are often either illogical or poorly explained, which leads to a lot of trial-and-error prodding and fiddling. Even worse, the game is completely linear. Miss a single hotspot, and you won’t be able to progress until you find it. Luckily Frogwares has added a useful hint feature to ease frustration, which allows players to reveal all hotspots by pressing the space bar.

Thankfully there’s another gameplay element that’s a lot more successful, and that’s the crime scene investigations. That’s right, Sherlock Holmes doesn’t just fetch groceries for old ladies and chase away tramps, he also dabbles in a spot of occasional detective work. As the bodies roll in, Holmes and Watson get the chance to examine each crime scene in turn and deduce exactly how the victim was murdered, which helps to build a physical and psychological profile of the killer.

The crime scene investigations come in two parts - finding evidence, and deduction. Discovering evidence is simply a case of clicking on every hotspot, and examining the body. Interestingly, despite the graphic nature of the killings and Watson’s horrified commentary on how organs have been removed from the bodies, Frogwares decided to cut down on gore by replacing corpses with cartoon and model representations. Once you’ve found all of the hotspots, you can then complete a ‘deduction board’ by linking together the evidence and coming to a conclusion. For example, if blood spurts are quite low on a wall, you can deduce that the victim was lying down when her throat was slit.

These sections are more entertaining than the rest of Sherlock Holmes Vs Jack The Ripper, but still not perfect. Like the endless errands, the crime scene investigations rely on every hotspot being found, and also the deduction board is infuriatingly simple to complete. You can screw up your conclusions as much as you like, with no penalty - the game will wait patiently for you to get it right. Perhaps some kind of score incentive would have encouraged the player to spend more time pondering the evidence, but as it is you can simply try every option until something works.

At least late 19th Century London has been well recreated, with plenty of dark, dingy and dirty streets to explore. Streets inhabited by drunks, harlets and thugs (anyone from Croydon will immediately be right at home). The atmosphere is definitely impressive, with a mixture of tolling bells, disgruntled dogs and shrieking children surrounding you as you navigate the environments. Plenty of random characters inhabit the city, adding to the realism, although the vast majority will simply give a generic one-sentence reply if you try and talk with them. The graphics engine does its job well, although in fairness everything at a distance is usually shrouded in fog. System requirements ask for nothing more than a base Celeron or Athlon processor and half a gig of memory.

I badly wanted to enjoy Sherlock Holmes Vs Jack The Ripper, but the linear and boring gameplay outside of the actual murder investigation is just too much of a turn-off. Here’s hoping that Frogwares can finally trim the fat from the detective’s next adventure.

Aha! So it was some dude with a knife what did it!