Mr. Bill's   Adventureland   ReviewHOME


Reviewed by  Laura MacDonald

If a game developer is seeking a riveting mystery scenario, real life supplies some of the best. And without a doubt, one of the greatest historical who-done-its of all times would have to be the macabre case of Jack the Ripper. This elusive killer has been the focal point of innumerable books, articles, and websites that dig deep into the 'Ripper Theory'. There have also been at least two prior adventure games crafted around the Ripper story and mystique. This newest Jack the Ripper game poses an intriguing question. Did Jack ply his evil trade in London only? What if the murders ceased in London merely because he fled to another place, another shore?

Be very afraid, Jack is back... or is he?

The game opens with a silent film. The sound of an old projector echoes in the background as the skyline of NYC flickers on your screen. The image shifts to a brief montage of images that hints of darker things to come. Then with a harsh cry and a mad flutter of wings, a Raven appears against this backdrop of flashing images. The menu screen appears and we soon find ourselves at the bustling offices of the 'New York Today'. Our alter ego is a reporter at this daily newspaper.

Palmer's the name and news is his game. Palmer has a brand new editor, Burr, whose sole ambition is to beat the competition for the hot stories of the day. Palmer's job is to get the story and get it first. Fortunately for Palmer, he is about to get the story of a lifetime. A brutal murder occurs in an area of NYC referred to as the 'Low Side'. As if the news business wasn't hectic enough, subsequent killings create a rapidly growing body count. It seems a serial killer is on the prowl.

Soon the facts add a more disturbing possibility. The evidence appears to link these killings to those that shocked London in the fall of 1888. The victims in both cases are ladies of the night, poor immigrant girls with no place else to turn. Their mangled bodies are hideously mutilated, but with cold surgical precision. Items * cough * are missing from their shattered forms. It has to be Jack the Ripper, but as Carter the NYC chief of police notes, " Why would a murderer, considered still at large by Scotland Yard, travel from London to New York City 13 years later and start his shenanigans again"?

Good question! And one of the many you will try to answer as you play through this game. Is it Jack? If not, then who... and if so, then why here, and why now?

East Side, West Side...

I thought that the game captured the essence of NYC in the late 19th century. The writers scored points for getting the dialect and dialogue right for that time period. The voice talent was very well chosen. You had the softly lilting tones of an Irish songbird, the street savvy accent of a native 'Low-Sider', the brogue of an Irish cop, the hard-boiled cadences of Burr your editor, and so on. Your friend and colleague Paul, among other characters, was exceptionally well done. There are wagons rumbling by, the ever-present shriek and clatter of the elevated trains, and a constant murmur of people in the streets. All served the mood of things as the game progressed.

The musical overlay was even better. The pieces associated with specific locales were well matched. Along with the orchestrated music, there were a variety of songs performed by Abi, the Irish songbird. You can hear her most nights at the Red Chapel, a popular cabaret in the Low Side district. During her nightly performances, you could walk around and talk with people as she finished out her song for the evening. Instead of a looping video, when she was done she would gracefully exit the stage. I liked to go there and just stand at the bar or center stage and listen to her. It felt so real to me at that point.

Jack the Ripper had a great cast of characters. Some were attractive, while others were definitely unsavory. One of the strongest aspects of this game was the variety and mix of well-developed characters. Add in the strength of the voice talent, the dialogue and well rendered facial animations, and you have the heart of a very good game. I do wish that some of the potential Ripper suspects had been interacted with more, as some were truly fascinating from the brief look into their character that I got. But you can't have everything.

All around the town...

The graphics were excellent. Adding to the shifting moods was the ambiance created by the range of settings, sounds, musical overlays, and moments of isolation. I did note the empty streets, the counter-intuitive lack of crowds that you would expect in NYC. But I also think that the game would not have achieved the desired level of unease and suspense with them there. At night the sounds of the city were notably absent. The silence, accompanied by intensified music and shadows, was the most compelling part of the game for me. There were a few spots that I actively avoided, and reluctantly returned to them only when I had to. Try playing this game late at night, with your headphones on. I dare you.

I think that if crowds of people had been populating the game, this level of edginess would not have been achieved. It was easy enough to believe that there was an evil entity so fearsome that even the hardened residents of the Low Side kept to well-lit places, and huddled inside their meager dwellings. The fact that public houses, like the Red Chapel and the Blue Velvet, were fairly well populated supported this sense of your surroundings. Would I have liked to see more hustle and bustle during the day? Probably. But I felt watched and haunted even then, because of the unexpected isolation, so it fit in with my mood while playing.

I will comment briefly on one notable omission, or perhaps design choice. Something about this game nagged at me. While I was playing I was engaged with the story, the various supporting characters, and the scent of the chase. But when I stopped playing, I didn't feel any real sense of the game. I felt oddly detached. Since I couldn't quite figure out what the cause of this was, it bugged me. Finally, while I was playing a preview copy of another game, it dawned on me what the root of this odd engaged, yet not engaged, feeling came from.

There are no cut scenes. Jack the Ripper is a story and character driven game. It has admirable graphics and ambiance. To me, what pulls you back to a game is a sense of having to see what happens, or to resolve a game challenge. To be grabbed this way, you have to feel invested. The use of cut scenes to supplement the plot and enhance character development has become a mainstay of most games, even hybrids, in recent years. In this case, they were oddly missing.

I suppose it betrays how susceptible I am as a gamer to such devices, but there it is. I like them. It is the story payoff for advancing the game and uncovering more of the mystery. More importantly, it enhances identification with my character when I see them in a small bit of interaction with another character, or with their environment. There are periodic in game flash points, where your character has a sort of jumbled vision of images, perhaps from within the mind of the killer. But they were too brief for me to really focus on.

So this design choice alienated me from my core persona, and prevented me from engaging fully in a way that I would prefer. Perhaps if I had interacted with a home base or apartment, something personal to the main character, that would have created more self-identification. But it wasn't there. Is this a poor design choice? A bit. It prevented me from attaching any identity to my own character, and left me only caring about the other people in the story.

Meeting challenges...

The story unfolds in a manner familiar to those who have played the Cameron Files series. Grounded in the practical challenges, you are a reporter and act as one. You find sources, question them, discover evidence and sleuth out leads. There may be keys to obtain, telegrams to code, documents to examine and compare, and so on. Which brings us to the puzzling or challenge aspect of this game. In short, those who love hands-on traditional puzzles, the more the better, and consider their inclusion essential to game enjoyment, will be disappointed.

I enjoy such games. But like many others, I also like a story driven game, with integrated challenges. If you agree, then you will find the game play easy to get absorbed in, with few opportunities to get deeply stuck. Not that these challenges are all simplistic... you just won't need calculations and hours of thinking to get past them. Is this a critical omission? No, not really. It's merely a design choice for this game. You either like it or you don't.

I do find fault with a challenge that had a slight 'timing' factor to it. This one also happens to be a more cumbersome challenge, featuring tasks to be performed. You have to access your inventory, move about the area, and carry items to and fro. One of the tasks involves accessing a room through a weighted door. The door rises up and then starts a slow progression down.

Now granted, you should notice the door closing and think perhaps you best be on the other side, even if you haven't figured out the full solution as to how to exit the scene. But it might not occur to you that you could get a 'Game Over' if you stayed too long in that back room. Up until that point, nothing in the game indicated such moments were possible, or even likely. Seasoned gamers might have saved before entering the room, as it did look a bit dicey. But casual gamers would not be conditioned to do this. Gameplay can go fast in some parts of the game, so you could end up having to retread a lot of ground when reverting to a prior save.

There did appear to be a built-in cheat, because your cursor picks up an exit arrow way up on top of the door. This too had a buggy aspect. If you did not reopen the door from the outside, which appears to reset the room, then you would find yourself unable to access other in-game materials needed to complete the challenge and escape. Many gamers might work their way through this, but others would probably just get increasingly stuck and frustrated.

If your intent is to create a story intensive game, with accessible puzzles, then it is inconsistent to have a 'Game Over' moment without an automatic restart, or perhaps a clue of the danger. Even a sign saying 'Door Can Not Be Opened From This Side', or a character comment, would have sufficed. It is a very creepy game, so heed your instincts. Save when it looks potentially hazardous until you scope out the situation, and you will be fine. It didn't ruin my enjoyment, but it is an annoying quirk that could have been avoided.

On the down side...

There have been varied accounts of various performance problems by reviewers. Some have had few if any problems, while others have railed about them. I myself got the early review copy and did encounter several. So I contacted the publisher and noted the problems I was having. They responded that a bad in-house burn had occurred, and sent me a new master copy overnight. I will say that it made all the difference. I pushed and prodded the game after that. I decided to do a full replay just to see if any of the glitches that I had run into were still there. Most were not.

There is one puzzle though that has a bug. In it you have to note the dates of the London and NYC murders on a calendar. You have two colored pencils for this purpose. If you back out of the puzzle to recheck the dates, when you return you cannot seem to lay down one pencil and pick up the other. There may be a work-around for this, and Gallilea has a solid history of working with gamers on their products, so perhaps it has already been addressed. But it is worth noting. This, coupled with a few other aspects of the game, took the game down a small notch for me.

So who was the Ripper?

You really expected me to answer that?

OK, perhaps the developers gave themselves a difficult goal when they decided to try their hand at the Ripper mystery. But I think they did it justice. The interface and gameplay was awkward in places, it could have used a round of testing to iron out all the kinks, and I do wish the main character had been as been detailed and real as the supporting cast. Ripper experts may have issues with the plot, but it was riveting and historically detailed enough for my pleasure. They managed to evoke particularly gruesome crimes without lavishing the blood splatters around, thereby making the game suitable for family play as well as adults. Not an easy task with such a story line.

This is a good game for the casual gamer. But even veterans, such as myself, will find much to enjoy in the dark alleyways and horse-trodden streets of New York. The atmosphere, great songs, believable characters, excellent voice work, and engrossing story all make Jack the Ripper well worth playing.

And make sure that you play it after dark, with the headphones on and the lights turned out. Come on... I dare you!

 2004  Laura MacDonald

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Developed (2004) by Galilea and published by The Adventure Company.

Rated:   T   for Teen 13+  (blood and gore, suggestive themes, violence)

Minimum System Requirements:  Windows

Where To Buy This Game:

Walkthroughs or Hints:

"MaGtRo's Walkthrough" available here!

Mr. Bill's   Adventureland
Copyright  March 2004
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