This review is spoiler-free, but does contain information about gameplay and playable characters. We played Assassin’s Creed Syndicate: Jack the Ripper on PlayStation 4.
The first big story DLC for Assassin’s Creed Syndicate was released on December 15. Jack the Ripper focuses on what else but the serial killer who has gone down in legend as a sadistic, brutal murderer who was never caught or identified.
The armchair detective culture that has sprung up around the Ripper has always made me a little uncomfortable. It’s understandable given the high profile and sensationalism of his crimes, but it can also be grating. All too often, he’s spoken of almost reverently, as if he were more James Moriarty than Ted Bundy.
Jack the Ripper is a catchy name for a person who targeted women sex workers. Going into Jack the Ripper, I was most concerned about whether these women would be treated with respect, and whether this would be another story that made Jack the Ripper look cool.
Instead, the Jack the Ripper DLC hits like a punch to the gut, and left me feeling emotional, and more in love with Syndicate’s characters than ever.
Jack the Ripper picks up 20 years after Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. As promised in the trailers, the playable protagonist is Evie Frye. Evie has returned to England after receiving a message from her brother Jacob, who she hasn’t seen for years. She finds London nothing like it was at the end of Syndicate. Jack the Ripper has taken over the gangs, there is murder and mayhem in the streets, and Jacob Frye is… gone.
The other playable character is Jack the Ripper.
Starting off the DLC as Jack elicited a visceral “oh, shit,” from me. Jack and Evie play a fraught game of cat and mouse over the course of the story, as Evie investigates the murders and tries to find Jack.
If what you wanted from this DLC is a more history-focused look at the Ripper murders and who could have done it, that’s not the story that’s being told here. The Ripper DLC continues the story of Evie and Jacob Frye, and gives us glimpses into what their lives were like in the 20 years between these games. The identity of the Ripper isn’t as important as how his actions affect the characters.
For me, that didn’t make the investigation less interesting. I’m here for Evie Frye all the way.
The Ripper DLC introduces some new gameplay mechanics based on fear and non-lethal methods. Also, it’s freaking hard.
Evie is equipped with loud, colorful fear bombs that, if used effectively, will send enemies screaming. She also has spikes that she can use to pin enemies to the ground, further terrorizing their comrades. There’s also a new attack-this one very lethal-called a Brutal Takedown. Brutal Takedowns are tricky. You can only perform them when you’re undetected, but successfully pulling one off will kill one enemy and usually send the others running in a panic.
Jack has all these same tools (plus a horrible scream!), but his Brutal Takedowns are different. Evie performs a Brutal Takedown quickly and efficiently, with you rapidly tapping the attack button. Jack’s are prolonged and horrible. A series of prompts urge you to hammer that attack button, with intermittent swipes of the left joystick.
It’s not quick and easy, and it’s not fun, and I love that.
Playing as Jack left me feeling emotionally drained. His sequences are punctuated by moments of intentional visual glitches; the screen will shudder and fuzz out, and scratchy writing flashes up on the screen. The controller will vibrate along with these visual cues.
Nothing about playing as Jack is comfortable for the player. And more importantly, the game doesn’t ask you to recreate his crimes. When you do kill as Jack, you’re more often than not being asked to do something that will come back to haunt you when you return to playing as Evie.
When I finished the DLC I felt completely worn-out. I didn’t want to kill anyone anymore. I opened up Syndicate’s base game and found that even in good old London of 20 years ago, I couldn’t bring myself to commit violence.
Believe me when I say this is a compliment. It speaks to the emotional resonance of the gameplay in the DLC.
Playing as Evie is far more satisfying in a way that long-time fans of the series will recognize. Like I said above, Evie is brutal and efficient. Each enemy has a fear indicator, and when it turns red they’ll run away from you screaming. I can barely describe how awesome it is to be playing as a 40-year-old woman, and to brutally incapacitate someone and see a crowd of people flee from you in terror.
It was such a role reversal of who usually has the power to be intimidating in stories. Evie’s sequences kept me on edge, equally enthralled and made anxious by the power I had.
I need to drop a compliment in here for Bear McCreary’s soundtrack. One of the recurring motifs in the music is the sound of a heartbeat. Usually we associate heartbeats with fear for our protagonist. Think of the horror movie where the character is hiding from the villain, and their heart is pounding in their chest. In Jack the Ripper, these heartbeats played as Evie beats the crap out of the people helping Jack the Ripper. That didn’t make it any less anxiety-inducing for me; it kept me tense even when all the power was in my hands.
There is a wealth of side missions, similar to the conquest missions in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. The Bounty Hunts make a return, along with several new mission types.
One of these is called “Walk of Shame” and I think it’s a great example of how the DLC stays conscious of its delicate subject matter. In the Walk of Shame missions, Evie is tasked with tracking down clients who abuse sex workers. You have to catch and arrest the abuser and march him through the streets of London while he is shamed and berated, before delivering him to the police.
I love that a game about hunting down the Western world’s most famous misogynist murderer, you are encouraged to take the time to stop the men who don’t look like monsters, but who still hurt women.
Another mission type has you going into brothels and killing or driving away other men working for Jack, who want to kill the sex workers. In these missions, the sex workers will actually be attacked and die if you screw up. This is something I have a lot of complicated feelings about, which I’m still working through. On the one hand, it’s uncomfortable to gamify the lives of sex workers when in real life their existence is already so devalued.
And on the other hand, making the protection of sex workers a priority is valuable, I think. And putting their lives in the hand of woman character, one who never degrades sex work itself, is also really great and refreshing. I think there’s a lot of rich conversations to be had about what it means to include subject matter like this in a game.
The only place where I felt the general sensitivity of the story really stumbled was in a sequence in Lambeth Asylum, where you have to fight some of the inmates. The general atmosphere of the sequence is very “Batman vs. Scarecrow,” which in a way is awesome because Evie Frye is freaking Batman. On the other hand, the inmates weren’t treated with the same respect that was given to the sex workers that I had to protect.
I tried my best to avoid them, but if one of them spotted me I often had no choice but to fight and kill them (non-lethal methods only go so far). I would have liked the game to acknowledge that even though in that position Evie is up against a pack of men who want to kill her, she’s also a trained Assassin fighting a bunch of prisoners who have been dealing with (no doubt) sub-standard Victorian mental healthcare.
As you can tell, this game is heavy. Playing it was a lot of emotional work, but it was satisfying to dedicate a solid four hours to saving and protecting women. Since that’s such a big theme of the game, I’m thrilled that Evie was the protagonist we experience it through.
It’s really a landmark thing to have a game about a middle-aged woman fighting her way to justice. She was a great character from the beginning, and with Jack the Ripper we see how much she’s grown. If anything, this DLC emphasized how much I really care about the Frye twins. I want to see what happened to them in between Syndicate and this DLC, and I want to see what happens after.
Jack the Ripper also highlights how important it is that the base game was so optimistic. I got so attached to these characters, and so invested in their happiness. So when all that is taken away in Jack the Ripper, I really felt it. If you enjoyed Syndicate, Jack the Ripper is definitely a vital follow-up.
Reviews From Around the Web:
Alexa Ray Corriea, Gamespot.com - Worth Playing
“I strongly recommend giving the Jack the Ripper DLC a go. It’s a lovely ode to the story of Jacob and Evie, and gives the game’s strongest character more time in the spotlight.”