Staging a showdown between the Victorian era's greatest fictional hero and one of its greatest real-life villains is a fantastic idea for fiction. Unfortunately, the idea is so fantastic that it has been done many times before in movies and books. So Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper seems kind of passe on arrival despite being the first adventure game featuring the travails of the legendary detective in a deerstalker to hit the Xbox 360. Largely generic gameplay carried over from its 2009 PC predecessor doesn't help matters, either. Investigations range from morbid-yet-gripping examinations of Ripper murder victims in infamous places like Buck's Row and Mitre Square, to adventure-game cliches where Holmes shelves his detective skills to fix gas lines and sic cats on hookers, making for one uneven escapade through the London fog.
For better and worse, this is a pretty straight port of the PC game released almost a year ago. You take on the role of both Holmes and Watson in the late summer and fall of 1888, the season of Jack the Ripper in Whitechapel. The master detective and his chubby biographer hit the streets the day after the discovery of Mary Ann Nichols' body in Buck's Row and continue their investigations until the murderer is "identified" following the infamous butchery in Miller's Court. Everything rolls out as a typical adventure, with you alternating control of Holmes and Watson from either a first- or a third-person perspective as the story chugs along and gradually draws you in to Ripper fever. Gamepad controls are smart and intuitive to the point that you'll never miss a mouse-and-keyboard setup, and a lengthy list of achievements sees you earning an award every time you solve a puzzle. Storytelling takes a bit of a knock with the production values, though, because they lose atmosphere due to flat textures and overuse of character models. The game looks like something you might have played on the original Xbox, with cardboard stone walls and the streets either empty or dotted with a handful of bum and prostitute clones. Voice acting is another problem, with a few actors speaking all of the lines in the game. Most of the acting is reasonably well delivered, but it's still hard to take it seriously when you run into a bartender and a thug in the same room who are voiced by the same guy.
Adventure-game mechanics are just as hit-and-miss as the presentation. But when they hit, they really hit. Sherlock vs. Jack is superb when it sticks to the meat and potatoes of the actual Ripper crimes. Anyone who has ever read about the Ripper's brief and bloody reign of terror can't help but be excited to step into the shoes of Holmes and Watson at the murder scenes. You get to examine the body of Annie Chapman with Holmes' trusty magnifying glass less than an hour after her death, experiment with butcher knives to see what sort of weapon is being used in the murders, and even get caught up in the Leather Apron frenzy. It's all very macabre, especially when you examine bodies and determine how throats were cut, whether victims were lying down or standing, and the manner in which abdomens were sliced open. But it's all also quite truthful, if a bit linear, immersing you in the real murders and letting you deduce the answers to questions about what hand the killer used when cutting, how strong he was, his knowledge of anatomy, and so forth.
Where the game misses is with traditional adventure claptrap tossed in to pad things out. Along with playing detective at the Ripper crime scenes, Holmes and Watson roam around Whitechapel doing the delivery-boy shuffle. Everybody you run into wants a favor before helping you out, so you find yourself analyzing perfumes for a madam in a brothel, trapping a snake in a pet shop, stopping a gas leak to liberate a satchel of stolen jewels, tracking down a stolen cane, and so on. Most of these odd jobs don't fit with the Ripper case. It's as though they were dropped in from another file in Holmes' bulging casebook as a way to stretch the game with the odd slider puzzle and code-breaking challenge. Even after you finish the game, it's hard to remember why Holmes was messing around with the jewel thieves in the first place and what the deal was with that pet store. A couple of puzzles come off as absolutely ludicrous, like the one where you douse a slovenly, cat-hating prostitute with a cat-attracting perfume to create a distraction enabling Holmes to sneak into the police station. At least the item puzzles have enough internal logic that you can figure them out without resorting to a walk-through. They may seem like a great way to waste the skills of a mastermind like Holmes, but they have enough consistency that you can't get stuck if you're paying attention to your surroundings.
Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper is an uneven adventure that at times feels like two very different games--one a mesmerizing gorefest of a procedural crime drama that you can't put down, and the other a generic adventure that you've played a thousand times before. True crime fans will still have a blast, although the game could have been a lot better if it had stuck with its innovative investigations of the Ripper killings and not loaded the good stuff down with so many castoffs from adventure gaming's past.