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The Backseat Game Designer: The Rest of The Nancy Drew: Treasure in the Royal Tower 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 Treasure in the Royal Tower 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 twists and turns in their next title. Ah, well, maybe it'll amuse my friends, anyway. Here's all the news about Treasure in the Royal Tower that's fit to print, just not on the no-spoiler review site.

Personal Reactions

These Nancy Drew titles don't quite hit any of the niches I was hoping they'd hit. They're E-rated, but the controls are too hard for my young sons to work themselves (including timed sequences, instant-death scenarios, and fussy navigation arrows.) They've got puzzles, but most of them are too easy for adult gamers. And they've got interesting, funny characters, but, well, you know whodunnit as soon as they're introduced just from the game design. In this installment, as soon as you meet the four suspects and realize only three of them have story arcs of their own, it's obvious the fourth must be a diamond thief; there just wouldn't be a game otherwise. And to add insult to injury, no matter how carefully or thoroughly you investigate, your character will never realize who the villain must be and will always be shocked by the revelation and totally unprepared for the final confrontation. It can leave you wondering why you bothered investigating at all.

So I don't think I would have bought these games for myself, but I still had a pretty good time playing them together with my kids due to their bug-free, violence-free gameplay. These would make good games for a 10-14 year old--they reminded me pleasantly of some of the old Infocom games I used to play in that age range.

Plot Holes

Royal Tower has a good plot that holds together quite well, but a couple of holes did stand out:

1) Why did Lisa shut down the elevator in the beginning of the game? This makes no sense from the perspective of her motive; in fact, I assumed Jacques had done that (to get under the elevator to do his sawing thing) until Lisa sort of randomly copped to it in the endgame.

2) It doesn't make sense why Lisa locked Nancy out of the building, either. She wanted Nancy to find the green amulet, both to implicate Dexter and also so that Nancy could solve the puzzle Lisa couldn't get past. So why lock her outside? I assumed at that point she was trying to kill Nancy, and it was confusing and weak when it turned out she intended Nancy to survive all along and was just 'keeping her on her toes' or whatever.

3) This is probably way too nitpicky for a game that asks you to believe that solving slider puzzles can make staircases pop out of the wall, but it's completely unbelievable that a tower could have been taken completely apart and rebuilt stone for stone without anyone finding the pedastal with the gigantic diamond on it hidden beneath the flagstones.

Treasure in the Royal Tower Game Advances

Things other adventure games should learn from Treasure in the Royal Tower:

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, George and Ned 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.)

Advice from the Backseat Game Designer

In my game review, I gave Treasure in the Royal Tower a 6 out of 10 (rating: pretty good). So, what would have taken this game to the next level? Well, the most obvious 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. The movement interface, in particular, appears to be unchanged from the one in Myst (which came out more than ten years ago, for those keeping score), and its frustrating datedness is definitely keeping at least some kids from playing these games, because my sons were unable to get it to work for them. Pixel-hunting around for the one tiny little spot that will give you a movement arrow is never any fun, lines of dialogue should ALWAYS be easily skippable, and saving a game should be a one or two-click affair. Movement shortcuts would have helped a lot too. Certainly, wandering around the dead ends and random niches in the castle was atmospheric, but once you've spent 25 clicks walking all the way down the long hallway from Nancy's bedroom once, you don't really need to do it the next twenty times Nancy needs to get somewhere. Not counting the secret areas in the elevator shaft and Queen's Tower, there were really only ten meaningful rooms in this castle, so it's inexplicable why there wasn't some kind of clickable map or movement shortcut pulldown-menu for moving between them once the player's discovered them. The inventory in Treasure in the Royal Tower could also have been improved; the viewscreen was too small and frequently cluttered with useless objects. Then there's the telephone--for some unknown reason, though this game is set in the modern era, Nancy does not have a cellphone, so every time you want or need to make a call you have to walk her all the way back to her bedroom, zoom in on the phone, and then manually dial the 11-digit telephone number. Simply making this a drop-down menu from a cellphone would have saved a lot of tedium in and of itself.

But to be a really GOOD game, Treasure in the Royal Tower would have needed to be more interactive. Nancy's conversational choices are irrelevant--it doesn't matter how well or poorly you interrogate anyone, or even how thoroughly you explore. It would have been nice if the decisions you make, or the thoroughness with which you explore, could have made a difference in the game. Finding Lisa's fake passports, for example, does not leave Nancy with the option of acting suspiciously towards her--she automatically believes Lisa's dumb excuse, and is still shocked at the end to find that she almost became FRIENDS with a THIEF! After the blue amulet turns up in the dotty professor's room and the green one in Dexter's workroom, there's not even the option to confront either of them about it, much less make a choice whether to trust them or not (making it completely moot that they were being set up, by the way.) The most basic of Myst-like interactivity would have made a huge difference here--making the player choose between trusting Lisa or Dexter, for example, or between giving the journal to Jacques or Hotchkiss for translation. The end result would still be the same, but the game and its outcome would have been that much more exciting. Better still, right before the final endgame, the player could have to CHOOSE who they thought the villain was, and then find out if they were right or not. Nancy Drew: Treasure in the Royal Tower was a basic, par-for-the-course graphic adventure game, but to be more than that, it would have needed to involve the player a lot more.

Ah well. My kids got a five-pack of these games as a present, and they can't play them alone, so I suppose I'll see if any of the other titles in this series achieve that goal.

Best Puzzle: The checkerboard where the three colored checkers had to be maneuvered onto the correctly colored square. That was an innovative twist on the usual slider concept, and I enjoyed puzzling it out.
Lamest Puzzle: The sliding bars on the door to the Queen's Tower were completely random and a waste of time.
Best Plot Twist: The entire subplot with Dexter and his father was very affecting.
Lamest Plot Twist: Trying to avoid freezing to death in the snow. Nancy's on a ski trip, and she seriously didn't bring a hat or mittens with her?
High Point: Figuring out how to get into the secret passage below the elevator. That was vintage adventure gaming right there.
Low Point: Having to listen to Lisa. She sounded like the mean Girl Scout who picks on the third-grade protagonist in some after-school special about grade-school cliques. She's supposed to be a photojournalist turned international thief; she's drawn as an adult woman with breasts; why is she voiced like a nine-year-old? It was HIGHLY distracting and kept me from being able to enjoy her as a villain.

Follow this link to read my thoughts about the Treasure in the Royal Tower plot and characters.

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