Reviewed: February 2, 2004
Released: January 29, 2004
French developer Galilea Multimedia brings us Jack the Ripper, a murder mystery set in New York City against the backdrop of the 1901 World Series.
A string of gory murders in the city's Low Side District have fueled dark rumors. Several prostitutes have been mutilated and brutally dismembered. The modus operandi seems eerily similar to that of Jack the Ripper, the elusive serial killer behind the savage Whitechapel murders in London's East End, 13 years previous. Your investigation of Jack's gruesome work draws you into a confrontation with a shady host of characters, each one a potential suspect.
Published by The Adventure Company, it's a run-of-the-mill adventure game which fails to bring anything new to the genre, and the anticlimactic finish is bound to ruffle a few feathers. Even adventure junkies will have a difficult time salvaging a worthwhile experience from this effort.
You play James Palmer, a meek and ineffectual "gosh golly" journalist who works for New York Today, a tabloid newspaper. Your editor, Mr. Bur, is a relentless, J. Jonah Jameson type whose sole interest is to sell papers. To him, the apparent emergence of Jack the Ripper in NYC is nothing more than a cash cow, a vehicle to steer the newspaper to prominence and blast its rival.
Sadly, you're no Spider-Man. You're not even Peter Parker. And that's the problem: Palmer has no abilities or quirks of any kind (unless being extra super nice is a unique ability). He's a hollow vessel. Beyond preset triggers and scripted events, it feels like your character has no impact whatsoever. You drift from one static area to the next, sift through clues, gather keys, solve an easy puzzle or two, and repeat. You get the sense that Palmer could have been swapped with a crime-fighting dog or a boxing kangaroo and that such a change would have necessitated only minor plot tweaks.
The remainder of the cast (Paul Island, sportswriter and your buddy at the paper; Abigail, an Irish songbird who performs at the Red Chapel cabaret; and police chief Abraham Carter, who's a little too eager to see the rumors of Jack the Ripper put to bed) provide some occasional sparks, but turn up too infrequently and have too little dialogue to make their presence felt.
The story is noteworthy, but not groundbreaking, and certainly not enough to keep the game afloat. Stretching over a period of 12 days in November, you'll have to round up essential clues every day and report back to the paper to write your daily feature. In doing so, you'll crawl like a rat through the scum and filth of New York's Low Side District, and rub elbows with NYC's undesirables; an all-star team of drug addicts, prostitutes, thugs, thieves and other assorted vermin.
Later, the person claiming to be Jack the Ripper begins sending you gory trophies (it turns out that Jack considers his savagery to be a form of "art," comparable to Michelangelo), and the story gathers a bit of momentum. But the promised "cat and mouse game" between Palmer and the Ripper never really materializes. Memorable moments are few and far between, and there's a lot of dead space.
The clues you gather paint a portrait of the figure known as Jack the Ripper, and are consistent with real world accounts: the Ripper was left-handed, most likely male, well educated, knowledgeable in medicine and the human anatomy, and ruthlessly efficient with a knife.
Characters are a bit vague when it comes to details. They'll point you in the approximate direction and provide little else. This clumsy, pin the tail on the donkey approach isn't much fun. I certainly don't need someone holding my hand and guiding me each step of the way, but there's a happy medium. I spent most of my time revisiting the same locales, my chin cupped in my palm, combing the screen for details. Carpal tunnel sufferers beware: Jack the Ripper demands an awful lot of mouse scrolling. You'll have to comb each scene for clues, which can be exhausting. Most clues are rendered in higher detail than the background, so they'll stand out and catch your eye. But your tennis game (I play tennis...honest) will suffer as a result of all that wrist action.
The interface is straightforward and will please dummies everywhere. Left-click to pick up or activate items and clues on-screen, or right-click to access your inventory. Your inventory screen allows access to all the essential clues you've gathered, so you can review them at any time. Your inventory screen also features a map, for hopping from location to location, and plot items, which you use periodically to access clues.
Although you can adjust the resolution up to 1024x768 and enable anti-aliasing, Jack the Ripper invariably looks grainy and unpolished. The pre-rendered locales are largely empty -- I can sympathize with the fear of being maimed by the titular villain, but "the city that never sleeps" seems remarkably barren.
Lighting effects and heavy shadows make up some of the lost ground, and are critical to the foreboding theme. The game also alternates between night and day when preset clues are uncovered. The change is dramatic enough to make you dread going out under cover of darkness. You'll feel more at ease when the sun is shining.
The game has a bit of style, if nothing else. The are some nifty cutscenes here and there, walls are slathered with period posters and artwork, and clues you gather are meticulously crafted and detailed. It's good stuff, but there just isn't enough of it to take your mind off the dull scenery.
Sometimes the gloom and doom theme goes a little too far, and the darkness becomes almost impenetrable. A brightness or gamma slider would have made an ideal addition. I had no choice in the end but to adjust the 3D color settings on my Radeon in order to navigate the game's less luminous sections.
Similarly, there's no option to adjust your monitor refresh rate, and the game automatically sets it to substandard levels. At 1024x768 resolution, my monitor can handle a refresh rate of 100 hertz, which is far more gentle on my eyes. It's an oversight that should have been corrected.
Voice acting is one of the few bright spots in an otherwise mediocre effort. The actors employ various dialects with authenticity and conviction: second generation Irish tinges, hints of the infamous New York drawl, and even a bit of Russian are thrown in for good measure. It adds some character to a city that seems sorely devoid of life and paints an accurate picture of New York's melting pot.
Music is subtle and scattered throughout various points in the game. The best pieces seep in at pivotal moments to underscore the drama unfolding on-screen. While visiting the Red Chapel cabaret, you can take a moment to listen to Abigail perform one of several numbers. It's marginally entertaining, at least, and a welcome break from the hollow gameplay.
Ambient sounds are a bit tinny, but they get the job done. Placed at just the right moment, the proper sound can be jarring and devilishly effective. There were more than a handful of moments when I wanted to wave the white flag and surrender my headphones in fear. Ambient loops, though, are a bit easy to detect: a horse carriage rolls by, a woman coughs, a bird chirps, footsteps echo down the alley, a dog barks, and repeat. If the game was more involving, minor shortcomings such as the ambient loops would go unnoticed. But when you spend the bulk of your time methodically scouring the screen for potential clues, annoyances such as this are bound to crop up.
Jack the Ripper is priced at $19.99, and is aimed at the value gamer. Unfortunately, it's as linear as they come, strictly point A to point B, and I see very little replay value. I was able to finish it in just over 15 hours, but much of that time involved tedious backtracking, and canvassing each scene with the mouse pointer in search of clues.
If you're in need of a jolt of fear, I'd be inclined to recommend The Adventure Company's own Dark Fall: The Journal over this one.
Like a bad movie you have to see through to the end, Jack the Ripper will keep you in your seat right up to the disappointing conclusion. It's unfortunate to see a figure of such notoriety, who's mystique has endured for over a century, employed with such unexceptional results.
Empty and ultimately forgettable, Jack the Ripper will be swept under the rug as The Adventure Company shifts gears and unveils their promising summer lineup. Adventure junkies are advised to save their cash for the recently announced Dark Fall sequel, or Microids' Syberia II.