Wax House: The Legend of Jack the Ripper
You could be forgiven for thinking The Void was the only VR game in town, since we’ve covered it so much lately. In truth, VR is fully hitting the mainstream in a variety of ways, including films, haunted houses, escape rooms, and now Wax House: The Legend of Jack the Ripper. A blend of familiar elements, put together in a new way, this attraction from HollowZone Immersive enters a growing market with a compelling theme, just in time for Halloween season.
Wax House is its own thing. It’s not exactly a walkthrough, since you have actions to take. Nor is it an escape room, which it resembles at times. Instead, it aspires to be a kind of investigation quest. Paraphrasing from their own description:
Experience the latest in virtual reality technology in Wax House: The Legend of Jack The Ripper. The brand new multi-sensory VR experience places you and up to three friends inside one of history’s greatest mysteries. You will be transported to London to uncover clues to unlock the secrets of Wax House throughout the over 30-minute VR haunted house.
Roam freely through 3,000 square feet of virtual space exploring the old abandoned wax museum to try and finally solve the century-old question of who was Jack The Ripper. Don’t miss out on Southern California’s newest and most technologically advanced haunt this Halloween season.
The new concept makes the experience feel fresh and keeps you on your toes. Clues and objects abound throughout the experience. Without knowing what will be important, you try to pay attention to everything. In the finale, your observations are put to the test and you get a chance to prove how good of a detective you are.
Considering the small team, much of the production of The Legend of Jack The Ripper is impressive. Something they do better than The Void is the “onboarding” area, before you begin the VR itself. They have a neat fabricated 1888 London street facade that continues into the introductory/instructional space. Some creative projected media keeps the 1800’s vibe and establishes a fun atmosphere during the backstory. There was a good amount of information, maybe more than is easy to remember by the time the VR begins. Theming is pricey and often overlooked, but it makes a big difference. Especially compared to the rather sterile lobby of The Void, Wax House wins for showmanship.
Once we started walking the streets of Whitechapel, we were mostly impressed with the look and feel. The graphical quality and overall effectiveness of the visuals were solid. The Wax House setting is moody and atmospheric. The freeroaming VR also worked well, and while the Vive Pro and backpack computers are off-the-shelf products, the HollowZone developer had to synchronize all our game-states and deploy the system in a larger space than is officially supported. Kudos there. They also pulled off a pretty cool simulated elevator ride with the use of a floating floor and some ButtKickers.
Unfortunately, despite the solid execution of the core concept, the actual story was hard to follow and the goals were unclear. There was overlapping dialogue at multiple points, some of which was too low to hear. If that wasn’t enough, there was also music and our own discussions with each other. This meant 4 different audio streams competing for attention. It is possible there were clues for the puzzles in those audio cues, but if so, we missed all of them. There were several pages to read in the VR world, which my friend had a hard time with. He also has some trouble with 3D movies, so that might just be him.
The biggest challenge was simply knowing what to do. There was not much instruction beyond “find the clues.” We found a lot of artifacts but had no idea what to do with them. It was tough to tell if we were making progress or when a room was “clear” and we should move on. Even when we thought we knew what to do, we did not get positive feedback to confirm our actions. So we didn’t know if we had completed the task or were just wasting time. I think everything was supposed to help us solve the mystery of Jack The Ripper’s identity, but we saw a lot of objects and writings without any of them being a clear clue or having a definite purpose.
It can be tough to manipulate small items in VR, and there were many. Some seemed crucial and some seemed like simple decoration, but we didn’t know how to distinguish between them, so we tried to keep track of them all. Carrying and organizing a multitude of objects such as flowers and diary pages proved challenging. Especially because each of us could carry only one item at a time. Perhaps the designer comes from real-world escape rooms, where organizing props and papers is much easier, and tried to use the same methods.
So Close, But…
The final drawback was almost a positive. Each of us were given a unique prop, with its own tracking hardware so it interacted seamlessly with Whitechapel. I had a lantern; my companions had a watch and crystal ball. The lantern illuminated the gloomy rooms, but was never necessary. The dim light was enough without it. The crystal ball revealed spectral writings, but seemingly at random. The clock showed how much time was left in each section, but we didn’t need it. Whenever time was up, a voice told us to move on. So knowing how much time was left felt unimportant. A hypothetical 4th player would get a map showing where all people were in each level, which sounded fun! I don’t know if that’s only for a 4th player, but we all agreed it would have been vastly preferable to the useless watch. If they have discretion in handing out props, they should always save the watch for last. Better yet, if they came up with ways to make the props useful, the experience would improve greatly.
There is good stuff in Wax House. The technology is great, the theme is intriguing, and the aesthetic hits the right notes. HollowZone needs to refine the gameplay though. For the props, here are some ideas: Make one section so dark that the lantern is required, and let it reveal an important clue. Make it clear WHEN the crystal ball absorbs energy from objects and what to do with the revealed words. Giving these props purpose would also give the players direction. Wax House had been open less than a week when we saw it, and maybe it didn’t get quite enough testing. The Santa Clarita site is the first location. HollowZone is showing it at an industry convention later this year and has plans to expand.
As a first attempt at gaming, themed entertainment, and VR all at the same time, it shows potential. I hope story changes like the kind I’m proposing can be implemented on the fly and don’t need to be baked in from the start. If they’re interested, I would be happy to consult with them to help smooth out the rough patches! As it exists currently, it’s still fun to do. It’s got quality technology and graphics, creepy moments, a fiendish finale, and the best pre-show for any VR experience that I’ve yet seen. I’m glad to have it in the roster of immersive Halloween attractions in Southern California.
Wax House: The Legend of Jack The Ripper is now open, select days through Halloween night, October 31.More information, including tickets, are available at their website here. Additional reporting for this review was done by Sean Phillips.