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The Backseat Game Designer: The Rest of The Last Train to Blue Moon Canyon 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 Last Train to Blue Moon Canyon 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 Last Train to Blue Moon Canyon that's fit to print, just not on the no-spoiler review site.

Personal Reactions

This entry in the Nancy Drew series was sort of a mixed bag. On the one hand, it was one of the least exciting of the ND mysteries-- no crime is committed until the final cutscene of the game, and in fact, nothing happens in the plot at all until then except for a couple of not-especially-interesting red herrings. On the other hand, many of the puzzles were really good, there were very few tedious chores, and the game introduced a serious breath of fresh air by giving the Hardy Boys a more interesting role-- rather than just dispensing hints to Nancy over the telephone, they were interactive NPC's who moved around and scouted out information on their own. (Frank even had to solve a puzzle at one point-- the game perspective shifted so that the player could solve it on his behalf.) So as storytelling goes, this is a mediocre game that does not (unlike some of the games in this series) suck you into its plot or convey a suspenseful feeling; in terms of the game design though, Blue Moon Canyon was an above-average installment in an already well-crafted series.

Plot Holes

1) Why did Jake Hurley die in that mine in the first place? Sure, the entrance was blocked by that cave-in, but he'd gone to all the trouble of creating and labeling that back-door exit via the mine cart, so he must have known how to use it to get outside!

2) Why did his engineer mysteriously drop dead immediately thereafter? Was this really just a random coincidence? If so, that's pretty lame, after the way it was played up as a creepy mystery through most of the game.

3) Is pulling the emergency brake on a private train even a crime? Nancy certainly didn't seem to think so, since she didn't reveal what Tino had done in the end (usually she's a real stickler for that kind of thing.) So what was Tino trying to accomplish by convincing everyone John had pulled the brake? This subplot would have made a lot more sense if John was flirting with Lori and making Tino jealous or something.

Last Train to Blue Moon Canyon Game Advances

Things other adventure games should learn from Last Train to Blue Moon Canyon:

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 on the phone is 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) The later Nancy Drew games include the interesting feature of awarding the player a special nickname at the end of the game based on his or her playstyle ("The Happy Wanderer" for someone who sees everything there is to see in the game, "Full Throttle" for someone who solves puzzles especially quickly, 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.

5) Blue Moon Canyon in particular took the interesting step of allowing the player to control more than one character (Nancy and, briefly, Frank.) Hopefully later games will expand on this idea and allow us to do more switching over to the Hardy Boys or Bess and George to solve puzzles from their end.

Advice from the Backseat Game Designer

In my game review, I gave Last Train to Blue Moon Canyon 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 this would make the game more viable for younger kids or kids with short attention spans. Unfortunately, the movement interface is rather awkward in these games, requiring you to constantly pixel-hunt around for movement arrows in small and out-of-the-way places. It's often not clear whether you CAN get into a given corner and just haven't found the tiny hotspot to do this yet, or whether there's just no close-up of that corner available. The inventory and savegame mechanisms are easier to navigate, but annoying and time-wasting (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.) And please, Her Interactive, I'm begging you on my knees here: MAKE TRAVEL ANIMATIONS AND LINES OF DIALOGUE SKIPPABLE WITH THE ESCAPE KEY! I simply can't comprehend this omission; 95% of professional graphic adventure games today include this sensible and time-saving feature, yet the Nancy Drew series seems to stubbornly resist it. I'm starting to suspect it's because these games are rather short and they're trying to artificially increase the play time. That's almost always a bad idea in the long run. I'd rather play 6 hours of a tight, exciting game that doesn't waste my time than 12 hours of a dull, tedious game that does.

More substantively, Last Train to Blue Moon Canyon suffers from really terrible plot pacing. The game starts out with a potentially exciting event-- the mysterious disappearance of a Paris Hilton-like heiress-- but two puzzles later and you've solved that mystery already, and it turns out to have been a pointless red herring anyway. Then you're given a new mystery to unravel, but it's nothing more engrossing than "figure out where this hidden mine is because the not-so-missing heiress like rilly rilly wants to know." Just when you've forced yourelf to care about this enough to get into solving all the nifty puzzles scattered around the train, suddenly you're interrupted by another pointless investigation into who pulled the emergency brake, which, surprise surprise, turns out to have been another harmless prank that really didn't need investigating. There's no crime, no threat, and no action in this game until the ending cutscene, and even that is not suspenseful in the slightest. Like previous, much more exciting games in this series, Last Train to Blue Moon Canyon should have maintained a single story arc from start to finish, instead of starting with a weak subplot and then starting the main plotline afterwards. The game should have attracted the player's attention to the main plot with some mysterious events from the very beginning (perhaps a preview of those piezoelectic effects, or an apparent attempt on Nancy's life-- almost anything would have been an improvement.)

Because the puzzles were interesting and the gameplay was not weighted down by boring chores like delivering mail or picking lint off the heiress' coat for her, Last Train to Blue Moon Canyon ended up being a satisfying game despite these flaws. But to be a really good game, a mystery adventure needs to evoke some suspense, and this one didn't. And to be a really terrific one, there needs to be some way for the player to solve the mystery-- not just the puzzles. Blue Moon Canyon boiled down to solving all the puzzles and then watching the ending cutscene to learn who the villain was; there are no clues, no evidence, no slip-ups during interrogations to mull over. Even in the Nancy Drew novels, there were usually enough clues for the reader to make some of his or her own deductions about the solution. When a computer game comes out less interactive than a novel, you know it's time to work on putting a little more player input into the game design.

Best Puzzle: The mechanism of the scale puzzle took me an unexpectedly long time to figure out, but once I did, I realized that it was completely logical, and it fell into place right away. That's a successful puzzle in my book.
Lamest Puzzle: The games in the taffy shop. Annoyingly, both were completely random; though the horse-race one was made up to look as though it followed some mathematical pattern, it did not.
Best Plot Twist: There really wasn't a plot in this game at all. The only plot twist was in the final cutscene, and it was only so-so.
Lamest Plot Twist: There really wasn't a main plot, but the red herrings in the subplots were pretty stupid, particularly Tino randomly trying to frame John for something nonsensical.
High Point: Getting to switch over to Frank to solve his puzzle. I thought he was going to do that part of the game without me, and I was surprised and delighted to see that the game just let me play as Frank for a few minutes instead.
Low Point: The maze at the end. It's just irritating to present you with a maze and give you clues that will let you work your way swiftly through it to the end, and then when you get there, inform you that you have to go back and explore all the dead ends anyway before you can end the game. Well, what use were the navigational clues, then? I would have wasted less time if I hadn't solved them!

Follow this link to read my thoughts about the Last Train to Blue Moon Canyon plot and characters.

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