A lot of the time, Jack the Ripper is a game that doesn't feel much like a game. While it's technically a point-and-click adventure, it offers little in the way of substantial gameplay, with just a few very simple puzzles and no real action. Jack the Ripper is really more of an interactive story, where you move the linear plot along by repeatedly visiting a handful of small locations and talking to the same few people over and over. Sadly, major bugs can get in the way of progressing through the game's gripping story, and then to add insult to injury, the game finishes with a totally unsatisfying ending.
In Jack the Ripper, you play as a young reporter who's covering a series of brutal murders in the slums of New York City in 1901. Most people believe the gruesome deeds are the work of Jack the Ripper, who's supposedly fled to the US and resumed his serial killing. The real Jack the Ripper killings have gripped people's imaginations for over a century while exposing the dark underbelly of Victorian England. In this game, you'll have to explore the seedy side of New York, acquiring tips from vagrants and prostitutes, getting tangled up with Chinese opium dealers, and cutting deals with shady underworld figures.
This detective story is filled with clichéd characters: the newspaper boss who wants a sensationalistic scoop above all else, a police chief who seems to be stonewalling you, a hooker with a heart of gold, and so on. Fortunately, the writing rises well above average gaming fare and manages to make the most of these clichés. The characters you encounter feel reasonably nuanced and seem to have their own motivations and fears. If the dialogue at times sounds a bit too modern, it still brings the characters to life, whether the brash madam of a brothel, an Irish-American singer who makes a meager living in a cabaret, or your pal at the newspaper who helps you out from time to time. You can really start to care about these characters--or at least find them interesting.
You'll work through clever plot twists and intriguing leads that will keep you guessing all the while. The game makes the murders personal, too: When the killer gets wind of your newspaper stories about the murders, he develops a special interest in creeping you out when he's not butchering prostitutes. On top of that, you get to know some of the potential victims and will start wondering if one of them is next in line. Sadly, the story suffers from a serious plot hole and some very awkward and unexpected transitions from day to night as the tale progresses. Far worse, the ending is about as unsatisfying as you can imagine. We won't spoil it for you, but suffice it to say, you'll likely feel really cheated.
On top of that, there's really not much to do in Jack the Ripper. You mainly just talk to the same group of characters (choosing from three conversation topics at most), occasionally receive an inventory item like a key, and visit about a dozen little locales. Usually the only decisions you make are where to go next and whom to talk to next, and usually that's clear from the context. Outside of manipulating a few objects, like a telegraph machine, you'll encounter only a few puzzles in the whole game, and they're mostly very simple. If you run into difficulty, it's probably just from overlooking a few small but vital objects. At least the puzzles are directly relevant to the story and sometimes let you compare and analyze some of the evidence yourself, which is a fun touch.
You play Jack the Ripper from a first-person perspective, viewing the world with a 360-degree rotating camera. To move or interact with things, you use a straightforward point-and-click interface with a context-sensitive cursor. It's simple to learn, though prone to quirks and bugs: Sometimes the movement cursor won't appear when you can move to an area or will appear when you can't. In fact, the game as a whole could have used a lot more quality testing: Sometimes characters will repeat the same dialogue over and over, events will reoccur in exactly the same way whenever you reenter a building, animations won't start, or characters will totally freeze up. Twice, major bugs prevented us from proceeding; we had to restart from saved games and work forward again to bypass them.
The game's camera system is also a little screwy: When you move the mouse just a bit, the screen will often compress and expand ever so slightly, as if it were made of jelly. It's disconcerting, though it doesn't affect the gameplay. The visuals themselves look pretty impressive. It's true that the character models are very blocky, the animations stiff or unrealistic, and the lip-synching prone to disjunctions with the dialogue. But the gameworld itself is finely detailed, with period posters and signs, antique slot machines, a gaudy brothel lined with bric-a-brac and racy paintings, and other memorable touches. The backgrounds tend to look pretty blurry, though, and you'll find one big artistic failing common to most adventure games: Areas that should be filled with people are mostly deserted. Jack the Ripper on the loose or not, you'd expect New York's streets to be bustling in the daytime and not to look like deserted wastelands. For that matter, the few people you do see are usually in the exact same position day after day.
Jack the Ripper's audio likewise falls well short of excellence but still works fine overall. The ambient sounds are a bit too sparse, and some voice-over accents sound dubious at best. Still, many of the voice-over actors bring their characters to life by really acting instead of just reading their lines, as in so many games. The catchy music is another highlight: You'll get to hear your Irish singer friend perform a number of her cabaret tunes for admiring crowds. They range from foot-stomping folksy numbers to melancholy songs that suit the mood of the game well.
Jack the Ripper is an ironic game, to say the least. It turns the usual gaming trend on its head: The developers spent a lot of time creating a really engaging story, but they hardly put any substantial gameplay into the game. Even by the standards of adventure games, there's little to do here. Nonetheless, it would be easy to recommend this game to fans of mystery stories, but then there are all the bugs to deal with and the grossly disappointing ending that makes you feel like you've wasted your time. Jack the Ripper has a great premise--but poor execution.