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The Backseat Game Designer: The Rest of The Secret of Shadow Ranch Review

This is the addendum to my Nancy Drew Game Review in which I put all my opinions that contain spoilers. If you haven't finished playing Secret of Shadow Ranch yet, you don't want to read this page. Please go back to the regular review site, where I promise to tell you everything you need to decide whether or not to play this game without giving away any of its plot.

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These Backseat Game Designers pages are primarily a place for me to put all my game commentary that was too revealing for the regular reviews, as well as a place to tell everyone exactly how *I* would have done the game so much better. Hey, who knows, maybe the Nancy Drew design team'll read this page and be inspired to put a few more puzzles and a few less repetitive chores in their next title. Ah, well, maybe it'll amuse my friends, anyway. Here's all the news about Secret of Shadow Ranch that's fit to print, just not on the no-spoiler review site.

Personal Reactions

This was my least favorite of the Nancy Drew games so far. For one thing, though it was based on a classic Nancy Drew novel, the novel's plot was so watered down for gameplay purposes that it ended up being far less dramatically interesting than previous games. For another, the fake-ghost-animal plotline was nearly identical to the one in Ghost Dogs of Moon Lake, so to anyone who's been playing the series through in order, it can't help feeling rehashed. The "protagonists," Bess and George's aunt and uncle, are rude and annoying, which made the game's linearity particularly glaring since I had no desire to obey their orders or side with them over other NPC's. And the gameplay is really slow and boring-- you're hours into the game before anything even vaguely interesting happens. Instead, 75% of Phantom Horse revolves around completing tedious and pointless-seeming chores for the ranch owners like pixel-hunting for little sticks and ripe vegetables-- multiple times. There's no interest to any of this. "I need to pick these vegetables for the Rawleys' dinner because until I do, the stable hand won't let me ride a horse so that I can deliver a letter the Rawleys want me to" sucks as character motivation. "I need to figure out which bin contains chicken chow because I don't have the conversational option to ask the employee who's standing right in front of me" sucks as a puzzle rationale. And "I need to not make any mistakes because otherwise the Rawleys and their servants will yell at me" sucks as suspense. If I had seen a game on the shelf advertised as being about feeding animals, collecting eggs and vegetables, and splitting wood, I wouldn't have bought it. I'm pretty annoyed that the Nancy Drew label tricked me into buying this one.

That said, it wasn't a bad game, just not up to the quality of previous games in this series. Like other Nancy Drew games, Secret of Shadow Ranch was a well-designed and well-playtested game with no bugs or broken puzzles, lovely graphics, and very good voice acting. This series is intended for 10-14 year olds, but most of them are fun for adults to play either with or without their children in tow. I just wish this particular game had a lot more "Let's explore a spooky location and try to unravel an interesting mystery" and a lot less "Let's read boring love letters from cliched Western-romance heroes in between doing farm chores." Most of the earlier games in this series have been a lot more interesting than this one, and I would definitely not recommend Secret of Shadow Ranch as an entry point to the Nancy Drew games..

Plot Holes

I guess the upside to having such a rudimentary plot is that there's no room in it for holes or loose ends. The only thing I was left wondering at the end was why Nancy still wanted to help Uncle Ed and Aunt Bet after they were so obnoxious to her (seriously, I know Arizonans have a bad reputation for being rude, and after living there for three years I acknowledge that it isn't entirely unwarranted; but no one I met there would have invited a teenage family friend out to visit for a vacation, then demanded that she spend hours doing all their housework for them, refused to give her any instructions, and screamed at her and threw her out of the house if she did anything wrong. Sheesh.)

But though the game itself held together well, there was one glaring error in the ending cutscene. Nancy exposits that the Rawleys have decided to give half the treasure to Dave and stop being such jerks to Mary. It's nice to see a little character development on their part, especially since they started the game out so thoroughly unlikeable; but the treasure was never the Rawleys' to give away. It wasn't found on their land! That was just a red herring from earlier in the game. In reality, the treasure turned out to have been hidden on the other side of the map, far from the Rawley's ranch, up in the cliff dwellings. So the Rawleys had nothing to do with the treasure at all; if anything, it should have been Nancy nicely agreeing to give them a little bit of the gold, not them parceling it out to other people.

Secret of Shadow Ranch Game Advances

Things other adventure games should learn from the Nancy Drew games:

1) First and foremost is the excellent "Second Chance" function, which allows a gamer to automatically reload the game from a point just before making a fatal error. Any adventure game that includes instant-death scenarios and/or timed challenges ought to have a feature similar to this one--it saves time and frustration and allows gamers to concentrate on the game better, maybe even to appreciate being sucker-punched now and again.

2) The implementation wasn't great, but for a game aimed at beginning players (which this one is), calling Bess and George and the Hardy Boys on the phone was a good idea for an innovative in-game optional hint system.

3) Nancy Drew really makes a great graphic adventure heroine in general. Too many adventure games hand you characters who either act so inept it's hard to believe they'd be on an adventure in the first place, or else act so blase about it that it's hard to believe they haven't already got a knife in their inventory. Nancy Drew is a character who's both experienced enough with mysteries that you buy her plunging into trouble as soon as she notices some, but at the same time young enough to be a little wide-eyed at each new scenario and still have to go pixel-hunting around for a flashlight.

4) One nice feature of the Nancy Drew games is an epilogue video at the end which not only reviews the crime and its solution, but tells what happens to the NPC's in the game after Nancy solves the crime. Since the characters in these games are generally well-written and many of them have a subplot Nancy has had the chance to learn more about, it is satisfying to see some resolution for them at the end. (It woiuld be even more satisfying if the player's choices affected these resolutions at all, but one can't have everything.)

5) Shadow Ranch in particular included the interesting feature of awarding the player a nickname at the end of the game based on his or her playstyle ("Snoopy" for someone who coaxed all the optional dialogue out of the suspects, "Windy" for someone who spent a lot of time on the cellphone, etc.) This is a nice way of recognizing the player's contribution to the story... not quite as nice as being able to guess the identity of the villain correctly or incorrectly in Stay Tuned For Danger, which I'd like to see the series use more often, but still a welcome addition.

Advice from the Backseat Game Designer

In my game review, I gave Secret of Shadow Ranch a 6 out of 10 (rating: pretty good). So, what would have taken this game to the next level? Well, the easiest place to start would have been improving the interface. A smoothly functioning interface is always a plus for any adventure game, but the Nancy Drew games would benefit even more than most, since it would make the game more viable for younger kids or kids with short attention spans. Disappointingly, Shadow Ranch actually introduced a few unfortunate new flaws into the interface, making the inventory and savegame mechanisms take extra clicks to navigate (this was particularly unpleasant for the inventory, which must be accessed repeatedly-- and then you actually have to re-open the inventory screen and click on an empty box to PUT AWAY an object once you're done with it, too!) The long travel animation that pops up every time Nancy needs to talk to Mary should have been skippable with the escape key; so, for that matter, should dialogue passages. It's LONG past time for the Nancy Drew games to start using a clickable map to get back to areas you've already visited once. And pixel-hunting for objects may be annoying (especially when it is relied on excessively, as it is in this game,) but pixel-hunting for the little movement arrows that will let you move out of the screen is simply bad game design.

But Secret of Shadow Ranch suffers from more serious problems than that. Most fundamentally, it was boring. Unlike previous Nancy Drew games, I simply wasn't interested in finding out who the villain was. The game did nothing to make me care. The treasure didn't rightly belong to the Rawleys any more than Shorty, and all three of them are completely unlikeable people, so why bother? If Tex or Dave had turned out to be the culprit instead of Shorty, so what? It wouldn't have changed anything. There's no reason for Nancy to be involved here, no reason for her to stay involved, no reason for her to care about the outcome. There's certainly no reason for her or the player to throw themselves into stupid tasks like finding the only five sticks on the ranch for Shorty or fixing the Rawley's baskets for them. The number of mundane chores that need to be done in this game is stultifying, and it really detracts from the enjoyment of the actual puzzles.

To be a better game, Secret of Shadow Ranch would have needed to be substantially changed. Less dull chores, for starters, and none of them repeated multiple times. If there had to be a certain number of ranch-hand chores, then they should have been done for the ranch of one of Uncle Ed's neighbors, in exchange for some information or a plot object Nancy had a reason to want, not just because the Rawleys ordered her to! The plot should have started immediately, not dawdled along meaninglessly for hours yakking on the telephone and doing chores before anything pertinent happened. Ghost Dogs of Moon Lake, too, contained many irritating chores and had the problem of no crime being committed until the game was half over, but in that game at least the chores were done in exchange for objects Nancy needed in order to explore an underground speakeasy she'd discovered, so it was something the player felt motivated to complete; and though the attempted murder didn't happen for a long time, at least the game kicked off with the spooky ghost dog cutscene to pique the player's curiosity. At the bare minimum, Secret of Shadow Ranch should have done as much. Adding some urgency to the plot would have helped even more-- maybe Uncle Ed could have fallen into a crevice after seeing the horse and broken his leg instead of going off to the hospital with a snakebite, for example, and all Nancy knew was that he had disappeared while off in the desert, so she felt the need to figure out where he'd gone and find him. She could have come across some information about the sheriff's family and the possible motivations of the ranch hands along the way, and by then the player would be interested. Perhaps the treasure could have held some importance-- the ranch could have been on the verge of shutting down, and finding the treasure could have been the thing that would keep it going (thus rewarding everyone but the greedy Shorty.) There are hundreds of possibilities but the bottom line is, a mystery plot doesn't succeed unless the reader/player cares about the outcome. Make it matter who did it, make it matter if the perp is caught or not, and, optimally, make it matter what Nancy does about it.

Best of all, the game could even have given Nancy the option to TRUST one or more of the ranch hands. I liked Dave better than the Rawleys and thought he deserved the treasure more than any of the other NPC's, so I wanted to tell him what Nancy had found under the stairs using the information he gave her. Unfortunately this was not an option. I can see how it might have been complicated if a player had really wanted to tell Shorty too much, but surely a way for her to win the game anyway could have been devised and her nickname could have just been "Gullible" or something of that sort.

So in a nutshell: not a bad game, but it could have been much better.

Best Puzzle: Opening the chests with the square holes was a good one-- I appreciated the red herring of the birds on the triangular chest and the directions their beaks were pointing (that had me stumped for a while.)
Lamest Puzzle: Probably building a fire. Not only was it a stupid, pointless task, and not only was the pixel-hunting made especially objectionable by the fact that you couldn't see the sticks on the ground unless you had entered each screen from the correct direction, but the game refused to tell you how many sticks you needed to find; you just need to keep coming back and trying them till Nancy informs you you have enough, and that's a pain with the new inventory system.
Best Plot Twist: There were no plot twists in this game. I enjoyed reading the old sheriff's unexpectedly poignant diary, though.
Lamest Plot Twist: There were none, really. Unless you count Bess and George being stranded in airports by increasingly stupid contrivances of fate.
High Point: Getting Mary to admit she was in love with Tex. Yeah, it was kind of hokey and Mary wasn't a very well-developed character or anything, but I really appreciate when optional tidbits of extra character information are hidden in the game for gamers who question NPC's well enough.
Low Point: Getting kicked off the ranch for picking an unripe piece of fruit. And then finding myself questioning why this was a failure, exactly, since Nancy didn't yet have any reason to WANT to stay on the ranch.

Follow this link to read my thoughts about the Secret of Shadow Ranch plot and characters.

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