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Lora's Adventure Game Reviews: Nancy Drew Series

Nancy Drew Series (Release date: 2000-2010)
Series of simple first-person point-and-click adventures starring the famous girl detective, aimed at young teens but potentially enjoyable for older players as well.

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Highlights: Interesting characters, well-written dialogue, fun exploration Lowlights: Poor interface, games are short and very easy

Usually I dislike reviewing multiple games under the same rubric. I mean, you don't PLAY them all at the same time, you don't even BUY them all at the same time, so why would you want to see them generically reviewed? In this case, though, there are more than 20 of these Nancy Drew games--all using the same engine, the same interface, the same gameplay conventions--and while not interchangeable exactly, they are extremely comparable. In each game, young detective Nancy Drew is deposited into an interesting, well-drawn location containing 10-15 rooms, four NPC's, a couple of secret passages, and a slider puzzle or two. Something mysterious occurs, and Nancy has to overcome an aggravating 1st-person point-and-click interface to determine which NPC is the culprit. They're basic, they're fun, they're short, they're aimed at the 10-14 year old set (Nancy, though theoretically a college student, sounds and acts like a young teen) and they're nicely reminiscent of the Infocom games I used to play at that age, only more colorful and a whole lot easier.

So, yes, I could review each one individually, but then there would be a block of twenty Nancy Drew games sitting in the middle of my review page together, all with the same rating, all saying pretty much the same thing. That's not to say the plots are all the same, because they're not--each one has had a lot of thought put into it, and there are interesting and well-developed NPC's in every one of them that I've played so far. But the games--the stuff I talk about in reviews--are all the same. These are well-written, nice-looking games marred by the same unpleasant interface, the same lack of interactivity, and a difficulty level that's only going to challenge adult gamers once or twice per game. The flaws and strengths are all the same; only the plot details change. And no one wants a game reviewer to ruin mystery games by revealing specific details like those anyway.

Style: The Nancy Drew games are first-person puzzle-adventure games with a rudimentary point-and-click interface. The stories are whodunnit mysteries. Gameplay is extremely forgiving--there are one or two timed challenges in each game, and a few chances for Nancy to die or fail in her quest, but by using a special "Second Chance" button you can automatically replay any scene you messed up, so there's no real way to lose these games or paint yourself into a corner.

Series: There are at least 21 different Nancy Drew games in the series, and by the time you read this review, there may well be more. Except for the very first one (whose 'puzzles' consist of encoded messages posted on every wall telling Nancy exactly what's going to happen later in the plot), quality is extremely consistent from game to game. There is no plot interdependency, and the games can be played in any order. If you'd like to try just one of these games out to see if you're going to like the series, I recommend Curse of Blackmoor Manor for older/more advanced players, and The Haunted Carousel for younger/less advanced players. Blackmoor Manor is probably the most difficult game in the series and The Haunted Carousel is one of the easiest, and both have interesting mysteries, creepy settings, really interesting characters/suspects to interact with, and a low amount of gameplay tedium. Two of my other favorite games in the series are The Final Scene and Secret of the Scarlet Hand. Any of these four games would make a great introduction to the series.

Finding Nancy Drew: You can buy the first five Nancy Drew games bundled together in this 75th Anniversary Edition, which is an excellent bargain and a good introduction to the series. Other worthwhile compilations are Double Dare (including games #6 and #7), Double Dare 2 (including games #8 and #9), Ultimate Dare (including games #10, #11, #12, and #13), Double Dare 5 (including games #14 and #15), and Double Dare 6 (including games #16 and #17). The last four games (as of this writing) must be purchased separately and are therefore more expensive (especially considering how short these games are), so I'd recommend playing the other titles first, but if you (or your kid) loves them, here are the last four as well: The Phantom of Venice, The Haunting of Castle Malloy, Ransom of the Seven Ships, and Warnings at Waverly Academy.

Getting Nancy Drew to Work: I haven't encountered any problems running any of these games on XP. Most games released before about 2007 will not work properly on Vista, and in this case that includes the first 13 Nancy Drew games. Nancy Drew #14, Danger By Design, is the first game in the series you can be confident of getting to work on Vista. That said, some of the older Nancy Drew games can be coaxed to work on Vista anyway by using XP compatability mode and/or changing the default folder path.

Hints For Nancy Drew Games: I have a page of Nancy Drew hints up online covering the first five Nancy Drew games, with general gameplay suggestions and low-spoiler walkthroughs that include no puzzle solutions. If you're looking for a puzzle spoiler, there is a really good hints page at UHS which reveals only one solution at a time, so you won't accidentally learn the answers to future puzzles while scanning for the one you're stuck on.

Pitfalls In Nancy Drew: No significant ones. Subtitles are available, no real manual dexterity is required.

Game Length: Very short--about 8 hours per game for an adult player, and most of that is used up fussing around with the cranky movement interface. A 12-year-old may take significantly longer to get through them.

Age-Appropriateness: The Nancy Drew games are rated E (for everyone 6 and up) and are perfectly suited for kids, containing no sex, violence, bad language, or anything else objectionable. The interface is too badly designed for younger kids to struggle through without adult assistance, though; I wouldn't give it to a kid younger than 10 unless they have preternatural patience.

Lora's Nancy Drew Review: (Pretty Good)

Plot and Quests: The plot of each Nancy Drew game is well-written and relatively consistent, providing enough clues that you can figure out the mystery on your own. Unfortunately, they're also a little on the formulaic side--with only four suspects per game, each of whom has one motive and one plot arc, you often end up knowing whodunnit as soon as they're introduced.
Puzzles and Mental Challenges: There are several puzzles in each game, including at least one slider puzzle and (bafflingly) at least one whose solution is totally randomized, so that you just have to keep entering numbers in a different order until one of them works. Except for the random ones, puzzle quality is good, if not terribly difficult. Unfortunately, the mystery investigations themselves have such a low challenge level that you'll definitely feel like you're playing a kids' game most of the time.
Characters: The NPC's are a strength of the Nancy Drew games--nearly all of them are interesting individuals with believable motives, their lines are well-written, and the voice acting is good. Nancy herself is neutral enough not to get between you and the game much (the 1st-person perspective helps in this regard), though her wholesomely spunky middle-school yammering--and especially that of her boy-crazy friends Bess and George--can really get on the nerves of players older than 16 or so.
Gameworld: Each of these games is set in a very small environment, consisting of only a dozen or so rooms (though they seem a little larger at first because it takes so many clicks to move around each room.) They're well-designed areas, but not really big or broad enough to feel invested in. Puzzles are not very well-integrated or logical (it's amazing how every building Nancy visits uses slider puzzles as door locks,) but it's easy to suspend your disbelief.
Gameplay: The gameplay of the Nancy Drew games can be repetitively boring. 90% of your job is to wander around listening to NPCs over and over again until the next unrelated game event is triggered ('conversations' are all basically NPC monologues, since they give you the exact same information no matter what conversational choices you make.)
Interface: The Nancy Drew games use a movement interface that's a throwback to the original Myst (clunky movement cursors that you frequently have to pixel-hunt for, and don't always have consistent effects; total lack of movement shortcuts, even though there are so few rooms that selecting them from a map would have been trivial to implement.) The inventory window is too tiny for you to see your whole inventory, and clumsy to use. The "second chance" feature is brilliantly done, though.
Ambience (Graphics, Sound, etc.): These games are very well-drawn and the writing and voice-acting is good. The locations are evocative enough to encourage exploration and snoopiness, but the lack of interactivity keeps the experience from being an immersive one.

Lora's Recommendations: I recommend Nancy Drew for kids age 10-14, or for younger kids if you're willing to play it with them. Though they're marketed to girls, these are action-oriented mystery games and my sons like them quite a bit. For adult players, the games become harder to recommend due to how short and easy they are. I could recommend them for new gamers as an introduction to the adventure game genre, and if you're an adventure game fan who finds some Nancy Drew games in a bargain bin for a few bucks apiece, you could do a lot worse than picking them up.

If You Loved Nancy Drew: You may enjoy Curse of Monkey Island or Sam and Max Hit the Road, both of which are fun adventure games aimed at the same age bracket as the Nancy Drew games. If you liked the Nancy Drew games but wonder what's out there for older players, Syberia and The Longest Journey are two excellent choices.

For more detailed critiques of the Nancy Drew games involving spoilers, plot holes, and impacts they could have on the adventure-game genre, please see my Backseat Game Designer page. Happy gaming!

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