Jack the Ripper

Review by Scout
March 2004

One winter I attended several dinner parties given by a woman intent on forming a salon. Twice a month she would invite various mucky-mucks of the local creative community to sit at her table, eat her food, drink her wine and be their eccentric if amusing selves. (I was a friend of one of these arty up-and-comers and was invited as a space filler to even out the boy/girl ratio ... hey, it was free food and the wine was really good.) Though the hostess attracted an interesting cast of characters, she herself had little to say. Or, rather, she had a lot to say, but none of it was particularly interesting—not that that slowed her down. About halfway through the meal she would launch into a monologue, pressing her point home in a slow, plodding, utterly lackluster style. Invariably, someone would grow bored and try to derail her. As others joined in the mutiny, the chatter grew louder, the jokes dirtier, the topics all over the map. For a while it looked like we had earned a reprieve. The conversation was fun again, moving fluidly like good conversation (and good games ...) should. But the hostess would wait patiently, and when the inevitable silence fell over the table, she would pick up exactly where she had left off, trudging inexorably to the bitter end. Realizing we were bested, we would give up, sit quietly and take our medicine, washed down with lots of the hostess's wine. I had forgotten all about these parties until recently, when I had the opportunity to play the new Jack the Ripper game by Galilea.

Good old Jack the Ripper. Eighteen eighty-eight, the Whitechapel district of London, fog, serial killer, glittering blades, weird letters, Scotland Yard, wild theories, city under siege, case never solved. The theme has been a goldmine for the book and movie industries and has been used at least twice before in adventure games, in GameTek's 1996 game Jack the Ripper and Take 2 Interactive's 1997 Ripper.

The newest Ripper offering, by Galilea by way of Microids and the Adventure Company, is reset in New York City of 1902. A killer is on the loose in the Low Side district of Manhattan, slicing and dicing young women just like the Jack of yore. You play as James Palmer, a young, inexperienced reporter for New York Today. As the game begins, the editor waves the competition's paper in James's face. A young woman has been found dead in an alley, carved up a la Ripper, but what's far, far worse, the competition has scooped New York Today, outselling them ten to one. The editor wants James on the case and orders him to file a column daily until the killer is caught. James grabs his notebook, pencil and a map and heads off to the scene of the crime and then to the police station.

When James finds someone he can talk to, the cursor changes into a cartoon conversation bubble. One click and a notebook appears in the upper left of the screen with the topic headings "Mission" and "Community." Click on Mission, and you'll hear a comment about the Ripper case. Click on Community and learn how the case is affecting the neighborhood. Other than a few halfhearted puzzles, this is pretty much the extent of gameplay. You wander the Low Side until you find a character to talk to, dutifully click through the notebook and that is that. Off to find the next lowlife.

I guess this was much like a reporter's day in 1901 New York. Without phones, faxes and computers, it was shoe leather and a curious mind, lots of wandering and persistent questioning, prying tidbits of information from the source before moving on. No doubt, realism is what this game is about, with varying degrees of success.

Absolute fidelity to real life is not my idea of fun. A lot of real life is just chores. Good entertainment needs dramatic resonance, well-constructed scenes with emotional impact, scenes that draw the player in, engage the mind and the heart. Think Black Dahlia, Gabriel Knight 3, Pandora Directive. All investigation-based games with riveting gameplay and engaging characters. In contrast, the gameplay in Jack the Ripper was like walking the aisles of a grocery store with a shopping list, except instead of baked beans and toilet cleaner, you're looking for the next dancehall girl or bouncer or hawker. Once you've made the rounds and found all of the characters there are to be found, you return to your desk and write your daily column. This advances the game to the next time slot, where basically you start the whole process over again. This, more or less, describes the bulk of the gameplay.

Right-clicking the mouse brings up a game map that grows more detailed as the murders mount. One interesting feature is that you have to pin location labels to the map manually before they became active. The labels appear in your inventory when you complete a slug of dialogue or click on an object. Beware, though, this isn't consistent, and once I was stuck near the end because a location labeled itself in an entirely different way. It took a while for me to realize the location was already on the map, and this resulted in some needless frustration.

As I mentioned, there are next to no puzzles in this game, and what few there are are for the most part easy. Lack of pithy puzzling in an adventure game isn't necessarily a bad thing if there is something else to pick up the slack and enliven the adventurer's journey, but in this case the dialogue, which was the main deal, wasn't up to the task. It was serviceable enough and on occasion approached good, especially in the scenes between James and a pub singer and James and an enigmatic tramp. It wasn't that the voice actors were bad. They weren't. It was just that the dialogue did not entertain. For one, it was utterly humorless and lacking in wit. Jack the Ripper wasn't supposed to be funny, obviously. Still, bits of humor, like a pinch of seasoning, can make the most sober game more tasty, making the horror more horrific, the darkness darker. For another, the exchanges often seemed flat, and at times the characters' conversations sounded almost tone-deaf, as when, after whiny, clueless James Palmer has inadvertently helped to bring down a local gang, a young prostitute gushingly refers to him as her Dark Angel. Now this could (and probably should) have been played for laughs, but it wasn't. When another character, a sports writer, bemoans the fact that a pickpocket has swiped his World Series opener ticket, James doesn't even register what should have been at least a minor emotional beat. This isn't a throwaway line—it is there for a reason—but James just forges ahead with whatever it was he is talking about, ignoring his friend's distress. Stuff like this adds up, eventually dragging the tone down and dulling what little luster this game started out with.

There's a strange lack of interactivity in Jack the Ripper. Though you wander through some spiffy-looking environments, you can do next to nothing with them. This is a pity, because the visuals of the 1901 Low Side Manhattan were excellent. Rendered mostly in browns and taupes, with just hints of primary reds and blues, they have a real power. There are garbage and clutter and distressed walls and squeaking rats and laundry flapping on lines. The slant of the sun on a back alley, the dull glint of moonlight on a rail track, the threadbare quality of a gambling den—it is all really impressive to look at, but unfortunately that is all you can do. That interesting doorway? Just wallpaper. Those battered barrels standing against that stained wall? Space filler. Those hobo shacks, those alluring passages leading into the mist? Don't even think about it. For the most part, I navigated via a balky cursor, plodding along through the untouchable scenery, growing more and more disgruntled because there was no way to interact with my environment. By the end of the game I felt twinges of dread at the very thought of returning to this dead, empty world.

And were the slums of New York at the turn of the century really such an unpopulated place? I'm guessing there were money issues at Galilea when it came to filling up this game with NPCs. They managed it occasionally, putting butts in seats at a brothel and a theater/pub you are required to frequent, though even in this regard I have a complaint. I lost track of how many times I entered one specific interior to see the same board-stiff NPCs sitting at the same table, night after night after night. Sure, this isn't anything new. A lot of lower-budget games are strapped with this problem. Fine, but in a game where realism seems to be paramount, it didn't seem very real. Having seen the streets, I wanted to see the crowds, the press of bodies, in at least in one or two scenes if not the entire game. But time and time again, day or night, I was confronted with empty alleys, empty streets, vacant rooms.

This was brought into stark relief and made even more annoying by the presence of a lush, multileveled soundtrack. Here, finally, were the crowds, but they existed only as disembodied voices, swelling applause from the next room, murmurs from the next alley, and the occasional deliciously creepy footsteps. It was as if the denizens were invisible ghosts that only I couldn't see. Often, even the sound effect were missing, making it seem as if entire streets and buildings had emptied out just moments before my arrival on the scene.

As you progress through the game, you accumulate documents and sketches and maps and letters, which are stored in a handy notebook for instant reference. Several of these documents lead you down different paths of investigation in your quest to find out who is killing the ladies of the night in the Low Side and whether he is really Jack the Ripper. You acquire the services of the Pinkerten [sic] Agency, with their 1901 state-of-the-art forensic, communications and archival resources. You get to roam some pretty spooky places down in old Low Side, though again most of the premises are off-limits to you.

You learn a bit about the original Whitechapel case in the course of your sleuthing, and diehard Ripper fans will be on familiar ground here. The developers came up with some mildly interesting ways to prove and/or disprove the various leads they throw at you, none of which I can really go into in detail about. These strategies were realistic and logical, if not exactly satisfying. More than once, an avenue of investigation seemed to end abruptly after a confusing cutscene. Much of this felt like a first draft to me, as if someone had reached over the developers' shoulders and snatched the game away just as they were getting it right. In the end, for all the realism and attention to detail, the game felt undone, green, uncooked, the puzzles halfhearted, the dialogue lackluster, the plot, though intriguing at times, finally confusing. Had this game been given even another six months, who knows what might have been achieved. Maybe at least this player would have been able to understand the odd raven/Poe motif that wove in and out of the game for no apparent reason.

There seemed to be a lot of bugs, too. I encountered inventory items reappearing after I had disposed of them, a slot machine going wacky on me, cursor clicks teleporting me several screens away from where I wanted to go, ten-second lag times when entering and leaving the inventory screen, corrupted, unusable game saves and, on the second play-through, a nasty game-stopping bug where I needed to get into a pub to deliver a calling card and the proprietor simply wouldn't answer the door. I finally had to skip ahead via a save from my first play-through. All this makes me think this game was released before its time.

As the game ground on, I, like a bored dinner guest, found myself growing distracted, goofing on the oddly elongated arms on many of the characters, the strange body language, the funny, touching facial expressions, the odd decisions the sound mixer made. I retreated into the art, I guess, because at least there something was happening. And like a boring dinner party, as the game wrapped up I found myself relieved that it was finally ending. Except ... well, the game did indeed stop, but as for a satisfactory ending ... you can decide for yourself. It had to be one of the bigger head-scratchers I've come upon lately, and I can only think (with a shudder) that it was some kind of setup for a sequel.

As for the woman and her dinner parties, I remember asking my friend later what had happened to her dreams of a brilliant salon. He replied that everyone eventually stopped going and that as far as he knew, the woman was still sitting at the end of her table talking to an empty room. I can likewise imagine James Palmer still out there in the Low Side, wandering the streets forever with his pad and paper, knocking on doors that will never open, staring up at buildings he'll never enter, listening to the murmur of the crowds always one street away, frowning and wondering where everybody went. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Galilea
Publisher: The Adventure Company
Release Date: January 2004

Available for: Windows

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System Requirements

Windows 98/ME/2000/XP
500 MHz CPU (800 MHz recommended)
64 MB RAM (128 MB recommended)
16X CD-ROM drive (24X recommended)
16 MB DirectX compatible video card (32 MB recommended)
DirectX 7 compatible sound card
1.6 GB free hard disk space

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