A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste
I love adventure games. In the early and mid ’90s, when I became more of an independent gamer (meaning I was starting to make some disposable income to actually spend on games as I wanted), PC adventure games were what I got heavily into. By chance I picked up a copy of Phantasmagoria at my on-base military PX, and that was it – I was instantly hooked and eventually worked my way through most of Sierra’s back catalog. Now, writing for AdventureGamers, I can see the adventuring genre, though more niche than it used to be, is still very much there and well represented – though mostly on home computers, with maybe some handheld devices thrown in. But console adventures are few and far between. And after forcing myself through Sherlock Holmes versus Jack the Ripper, it’s easy to see why.
This isn’t the first game in Frogwares’ Sherlock Holmes series of adventure games I’ve played. But something about this one – call it the overall flavor of the game – I found very unpalatable. Sad, really; a mash-up like this sounds, on the surface, to be a great combination that will lead to a memorable game. But it all ended up coming across as incredibly ugly and bland. Let me explain.
Since these two characters, fictional or not as they may be, actually did live in the same city during the same time, I suppose it’s a little odd that they’ve never been pitted against one another before. Or maybe they have and I’m just not hip to it?) So with all that potential for a gripping story, it’s too bad that the actual gameplay suffers as it does. It’s just not fun. As Holmes, or sometimes Watson, you cruise the streets of London, slowly gathering clues as you delve deeper into the Ripper murders. But for each nugget of actual case-related information, you have to accomplish other menial tasks for the citizens you run into. You want to question the doctor, but first you’ll need to finish an errand for him. The police will provide information, but only once you take care of some unrelated business for them. To get information on a suspect from the local brothel, you must blah blah blah. If Sir Arthur Conan Doyle could see his famous detective now, cleaning up London’s streets one unimportant chore after another.
So Holmes’s adventure is already far from glamorously romanticized, but even less appealing are the abhorrent depictions of his fellow Londoners. They are summarily the ugliest bunch of creatures I’ve had to lay eyes on in a video game, for as far back as I can recall! Warts, boils, big chins and noses, blotchy rashes, you name it. True, I don’t expect White Chapel was such a nice area, so the poor souls living there shouldn’t look like super models, but the level of ugliness – also present in the muddled, monochrome, bland architecture lining the roads – is pretty unprecedented. In contrast to games like Alice: Madness Returns and Dracula: Resurrection, the eyesores present here have nothing to do with graphics being stylish anymore.
But, you know, graphics are just graphics, and don’t amount to a hill of beans if the gameplay is solid. Or, in adventure games where story is king, I need a tightly woven, satisfying narrative to patch the rough spots. And this is where I had the biggest problem with SH vs JR. I’m no scholar on the subject – in fact, my knowledge is mostly limited to what I learned from the special feature documentary on my From Hell DVD, but I get that there are numerous equally likely (or unlikely, if you will) theories on who Jack the Ripper truly was. And unless there was a major criminological breakthrough in the case that I’m unaware of, it will never be fully solved. But of all the possible hypotheses behind the brutal slayings, I feelFrogwares went with the least exciting and attractive one, namely – MAJOR SPOILER HERE! – that the deeds were done by an enraged Hebrew butcher who’d had enough of the rampant anti-Semitism of the time. It just doesn’t make for an intense or satisfying conclusion, and simply doesn’t translate that well into an interactive game. I would have much preferred some dark, mystical force, a shadowy killer, a chase through dark alleys, mortal peril for our heroes. Instead, everything is kind of resolved by knocking on a door or two and throwing an accusation out there. It is, as they say, elementary, my dear Watson. Or, in a word:Meh.
And that word pretty much sums up what I walked away with here. It’s the closing of the year, and the final game tossed onto my annual ‘Beaten’ pile, and I can’t even feel that good about it. Except for breathing a big sigh of relief that it’s finally done. Ah, so there’s a bright side to it after all…