Jack the Ripper
Anticipation of a new game can often lead to heightened and even unreal expectations, especially for a game with a title like Jack the Ripper. But I can honestly say that I had few expectations, unreal or otherwise, regarding this game, as I managed to completely avoid any hype or discussion that may have surrounded it.
So with this in mind I must say that Jack the Ripper is a mixed bag. Although it has some merit it also has its disappointing aspects. I was disappointed because the graphics are so enticing making the gameworld real and tangible but there isn't actually a great deal to 'do' ... I kept wanting to interact with objects that looked interesting but they were mostly 'scenery'. Thus for much of the game only the 'important' items such as doors or characters actually come to 'life' whilst the rest of the world is untouchable.
This lack of interaction with the environment such as being able to select an object and get a description or a simple comment from your character sets up a tension in that you are effectively 'distanced' from the game world and at the same time tempted in by the fascinating graphics. And, because it fosters the belief that diligent searching is unrewarding and even unnecessary, it makes it easy to miss the few significant objects that are there to be found. To be fair, the few objects that you can pick up are reasonably easy to spot, but finding something then builds an expectation that there may be more to be found so you go back to diligent but generally fruitless searching again.
The lack of interaction (or more specifically, feedback) in Jack the Ripper also means that you never really get to learn much about your character beyond him being a naive 'rookie' reporter who hasn't been around long enough to acquire a cynical, hard-bitten attitude to life. In effect, in this first person perspective adventure game you are given a name, James (Jimmy) Palmer; a job, reporter; a youthful-sounding voice; and a caring attitude. Simply a 'shell' for you to inhabit. Although you get to see James briefly as he writes his story at the end of each day, there is certainly not enough 'meat' to his character to strongly identify with him and the opportunity to provide this through greater interaction with his environment or incidental remarks goes sadly begging.
Happily, there are a couple of other characters around that are 'fleshed out' a little more. Notably, Jason, the limping 'homeless' man who pops up from time to time with some words of philosophy, if not wisdom; and Paul, your newspaper colleague who sometimes has useful information to impart. And of course the lovely (and mysterious) Abigail, the 'Irish Nightingale' (whose songs are beautifully rendered by Djazia Satour) who packs a gun but gives it to you when she is perhaps most in need of it. She seems to care for you (Jimmy), but what does Jimmy think of her? Most other characters are caricatures but they do their job well. The irate editor obsessed with sensationalism and circulation figures, the police inspector who won't believe that Jack is back, the newspaper boy who bizarrely shouts the headlines in deserted alleys and the poor and vulnerable prostitutes with hearts of gold. Actual conversations are fairly limited (some sparse indeed) but generally sufficient to get you the information you need.
It is 1901 and you work for New York Today, a newspaper that is losing circulation to The Daily Illustrated following that paper's sensational linking of the brutal slaying of two prostitutes to the infamous Jack the Ripper. Coincidence? Copy cat? Or has Jack suddenly turned up in New York to continue his grisly antics? You, James Palmer, are assigned to cover the story. Your investigation will lead you to consider different suspects and as you get closer to the truth Jack turns up the heat to taunt you.
As you might expect, as a reporter your first steps involve talking to the police, visiting crime scenes, talking to people, etc. As you learn of a new location a pin marking it appears on your map but then you must drag the name of the location from your inventory onto the pin before you can go there. This rather unnecessary 'action' doesn't seem to have any meaningful logic behind it and is, perhaps, by giving you something to do, an 'admission' that the game lacks 'interactivity', especially in the early days of your investigation. Fortunately, there is more to do as you progress including a simple message to send in Morse code and a freezer to escape from to avoid certain death. The few puzzles fit seamlessly in to the story but they are fairly straightforward and shouldn't cause too much frustration.
The twelve days (and nights) of your investigation simply whiz by. You visit a couple of locations, talk to one or two people then return to the office to write up your story and the day ends. You then visit the locations at night, talk to one or two people, step outside, glance at the moon and before you know it the next day has begun. You soon learn that there is not a lot to interact with so you cease to look beyond the obvious. The story moves along as you are led from event to event, sometimes you are pulled along as the game takes the initiative and places the right person or object in your path. Thus there are no real obstacles to progress that a quick zap around the map won't fix.
I did get held up slightly in one location, a gentle timed puzzle in the freezer mentioned above, but only because of a cursor glitch. An active object ceased to respond when I clicked on it before I needed to. Restoring a saved game resolved this. I also noted several other minor cursor glitches such as having to use the map to 'escape' from a location, and there are some instances where you can be stymied by performing actions in the wrong order, so save often. Saving and loading is easy and sixteen save slots are provided so there is no excuse for not saving regularly.
I have already mentioned that the graphics are excellent and it bears repeating. The narrow streets are suitably dingy with dimly lit windows and rubbish strewn sidewalks. The sound effects are also good overall although more could have been done with the music. Watch rats scurry down alleyways and listen out for passing trains, maybe even see one rumble by. The raven's eye 'view' at the crime scenes is suitably shocking and dramatic too. It all works well up to a point, but I thought the game lacked a sense of 'menace' or panic that a potentially prowling Ripper might induce. Perhaps it was the lack of fog with a fleeting glimpse of a black-caped figure hurrying through the white-shrouded night.
On the other hand the Red Chapel music hall scenes with Abigail singing or with a flickering black and white 'movie' are deftly handled even down to allowing conversations while the show goes on. They are some of the best scenes of this type I've seen in an adventure game. Here it helps having the subtitles turned on but when you do it's obvious that the writer's English is a second language. Fortunately the dialogue doesn't follow the subtitles so the spoken word is generally fine. There were also a couple of in-game misspellings that jarred and perhaps should have been picked up before release, e.g. "Pinkertens" for Pinkertons and "Dictrict" for District on your map, as well as "Camberra" for Canberra as a telegram destination. I couldn't miss this last one.
Jack the Ripper is certainly more a story-based rather than an inventory or puzzle-based adventure game and as such the story itself is quite good although your journey through it gets a bit mechanical as you go back and forth between locations. Having said that I must admit that I didn't dislike the game. I found it to be easy to get into and very playable. At times even quite enjoyable. This may simply be all that you are looking for. The story flows quickly, and the puzzles certainly don't interfere with the pacing of the game. The ending is fairly abrupt and many questions are left unanswered, not least the recurring motif of the raven whose mournful cawing eerily punctuates the murder scenes and the final pronouncement of "Nevermore" is more confusing than enlightening. It did send me scurrying to find Poe's famous poem which I re-read but completely failed to spot a relevance to the Ripper story. Poe himself died long before the Ripper stalked London so I am none the wiser but I am grateful to this game for providing an excuse to read The Raven again.
Copyright © Gordon Aplin 2004.
All rights reserved.
Windows 98/ME/2000/XP, P III 500MHz (P IV 800MHz recommended), 64MB Ram (128 MB recommended), 16 x CD ROM Drive (24x recommended), 16 MB Direct3D compatible Video Card (32 MB recommended), DirectX 7 compatible Sound Card.