In the last couple of years, a company called Frogwares has been putting out some budget-level, yet interesting, PC games concerning Sherlock Holmes. As Holmes is my second-favorite fictional character (with Stephen Maturin being No. 1), I’ve played three of these – Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened (Sherlock against Cthulhu!), Sherlock Holmes vs. Arsene Lupin (self-explanatory), and the one I want to talk about right now, Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper.
Many authors after Doyle have pitted Holmes against the Ripper, with mixed results. It’s a promising plan, given that Holmes was consulting during the time of the murders (they would have happened in the fall right after Hound of the Baskervilles), though problematic, given that Jack’s identity is one of the great unsolved mysteries of English crime. If Sherlock worked on the case, he would have to fail by definition.
Frogwares does a really good job of getting around this limitation by allowing the player, through Holmes and Watson, to solve the case yet not affect history whatsoever. I will not reveal the exact mechanism, save to say that it is very clever, and that it allows Holmes and Watson to parallel the Yard’s investigation, visit all of the five canonical murder scenes (including having Holmes discover one of the bodies, no less), and unambigously identify the killer (who is one of the possible historical suspects, if an obscure one) without anything becoming public, breaking the timeline of the canonical Holmes stories, allowing Holmes to fail, or bending the known facts about the murders. In other words, it works either for a budding Baker Street Irregular or a Ripperologist.
The gameplay itself is an improvement over the previous two games in several ways. One, the difficulty of the various puzzles has been reduced to a manageable level; the ending of the Arsene Lupin game, in particular, was incredibly difficult, even fiendishly so, and The Awakening was hardly less demanding. Two, there is far less pixel-hunting; the interface is vastly improved. Three, the new ‘deduction board’ feature really helped me feel like Sherlock working his way through seemingly unconnected factoids; I hope they make another game using it.
On the downside, it is a $20 game, and its graphics engine is aged and often unnecessarily slow. But the voice acting and writing is generally superb, especially for the gently bickering interplay between Holmes and Watson. Holmes is just the right amount of unflappable, and Watson is just the right amount of earnest. The game’s makers seem to have a soft spot for Watson, as he seems a bit brighter and more energetic in these games than Doyle’s stories, possibly through the conceit of letting the player control him.
When I have some time, I want to go back and play some of Frogware’s older Holmes games, which include The Mystery of the Mummy and The Secret of the Silver Earring. The first of these does not seem to include Watson, alas, and is less a mystery than a set of puzzles, but the second seems to be a precursor to the format that The Awakened and games after it took.