On the grimy, cobbled streets of 1880s London a series of vicious and lurid murders takes place. Five prostitutes are mutilated and letters are published in the burgeoning tabloid press, one signed Jack the Ripper and another addressed From Hell. Amid massive media coverage the legend of the Whitechapel murders grips the world and the infamy of Jack the Ripper is born.
As a premise for a video game Jack the Ripper holds a lot of promise. It would be a Victorian noir piece, dark and violent, but also complex and enthralling. However, Actual Crimes: Jack the Ripper isn’t that game. It’s a simple little hidden object picture finder, with a few old fashioned puzzles thrown in, and the ultimate reward of learning a little bit about the first serial killer to hold a city in fear and capture the world’s attention.
Once you have paid your $8.45 and downloaded the latest PSP/PS3 compatible game from PlayStation Minis, you follow the investigation of Assistant Chief Constable Melville Macnaghten as he re-examines the evidence uncovered by Scotland Yard’s Detective Inspector Frederick Abberline in the previous year’s unsuccessful pursuit of the Ripper. Macnaghten, with the aid of Professor Sir Francis Galton (despite the lot of them sounding like the cast list from some new Blackadder series) use the newly discovered techniques of fingerprinting and blood typing to discover who, out the Abberline’s five main suspects, was truly Jack the Ripper.
The gameplay itself is very simple. After a bit of text from Macnaghten and Galton introducing the historical context of your investigation, you are presented with a simple picture of Macnaghten’s office and a list of items to find. The list includes one of two things needed specifically for the story, such as a case file or a significant piece of evidence, along with a few other random objects that change in subsequent play throughs. Then it’s up to you to move the pointer around the screen and click on the items to find them.
There are plenty of different scenes to search as you progress through the five different murders. Each of the five murders leads through a number of different locations, eventually leading to evidence implicating one of the five different murder suspects. While advertised as 3D environments, they’re not really, unless you consider that some forceps might be hidden behind a teapot or a cameo might be just visible through the window of Buckingham Palace. That, aside from some occasional rudimentary rain or circling bird animations, is it as far as the graphics go.
Once you have found all the things that need finding at the end of each murder investigation, developers Virtual Playground change it up and you get to play an end-of-level mini game. These include matching cards, working out lock or key combinations, or putting pictures back together. It’s the sort of thing that used to keep us all absorbed playing Reader Rabbit ten or fifteen years ago.
In the end fans of Reader Rabbit ages 6-7 might be the audience the gameplay is intended for. That is if the game wasn’t based around the brutal and horrific murder of five London prostitutes. However, that’s not really a problem as there is nothing explicit or disturbing in the graphics or descriptions at all. And, despite pictures packed with a ton of miscellaneous objects, and an increasingly long list of things to find, the game wouldn’t even be a challenge for a six-year-old. Just mashing the x button as you move the cursor around the picture (even if you don’t know what forceps or cameos look like) will usually get the job done.
In the harder Detective mode things do get a bit trickier as you have a time limit to clear each location, and mashing x is disabled. But even in Detective mode ten or eleven-year-olds, while enjoying the Where’s Wally-ness of it all, wouldn’t find it much of a challenge.
Actual Crimes: Jack the Ripper is simple fun for pre-teens (that is, pre-teens that are into macabre Victorian murders). The part about the game I enjoyed most (and this is something I never thought I would say about a video game) was the simple breakdown of the cases’ historical facts. The background information is presented well, nicely enhanced with a moody and appropriate soundtrack, and the summing up at the end provides plenty of food for thought as to who really was the infamous Ripper. Was he an insane country gent, a barber, a doctor or royalty? That is if he ever really existed, given that the events took place 120 years ago, in a time where there were a lot of prostitutes, a lot of murders and the beginnings of the English tabloid press looking for a sensational story to sell papers. Once all the evidence is collected, you decide.