December 2015, during the last Steam Sale of the year, I purchased the Nancy Drew adventure game collection after watching the stars of the GameGrumps YouTube series play one of the games—at least for a few episodes until they gave up—and as a fan of adventure games and just getting into Let’s Plays, I decided to buy the collection and perhaps do a few playthroughs on the games in the series.
I decided to start not at the beginning of the long-running Her Interactive game series, but with the sixteenth game and the same the Grumps were playing, Nancy Drew: The White Wolf of Icicle Creek, set in a ski lodge in Alberta, Canada. Nancy’s there to deal with some suspicious accidents involving the dwindling number of guests at the lodge. There is also a dangerous bomber around the place and even a dangerous white wolf, which you can often hear howling in the distance.
As of writing, I have finished two games in the series and am now playing the third (or 18th in the series), the Phantom of Venice and with two of the games I’ve already noticed the series’ strengths but also some of its glaring faults.
The Nancy Drew adventure games have fantastic puzzles and they’re varied. Very few are actually inventory puzzles, focusing more on wordplay, symbol matching, cryptography even logic. Sadly, there’s also an annoying amount of mini-games. This is the first series in a long time to have made me grab pen and paper to write some of the clues. At their best, the puzzles are brainteasers, and you’re likely to miss a clue or two just because the games hide them very well.
But the reasons behind the placement and even creation of these challenges are incredibly contrived. In White Wolf, they try to convince you that the lodge’s builder, an outdoorsman called Trapper Dan, also created some mechanical marvels and hid his secrets behind a series of mechanisms spanning the entire mountain, from his lodge to a plutonium mine under the property, with an entrance located miles away. And to give you an excuse to use the trained wolf in the game—which in itself has some pretty forced explanations—they even tell you the Trapper had a pig trained to do some puzzling for it.
The follow-up, Nancy Drew: Legend of the Crystal Skull, ups the contrivance by several grades, putting you in the mansion of a Dentist turned model maker turned Graveyard Administrator. The mansion has puzzles and strange contraptions in every room and everything revolves around collecting the late Dentist’s glass eyes—which somehow made it to these hiding places despite characters telling you he liked changing his glass eye for any of those others on a daily basis—and even the dead and their headstones have puzzle hints and clues.
Yes, contrived puzzle background (and design) is contrived.
That is the series’ biggest failing, how they force all these elements together. Nothing ever feels natural. A puzzle somewhere doesn’t feel organic, but one of those “we need a puzzle here,” kind of thing that has in the past lead us to some horrible puzzling in games. It’s the main reason behind that awful cat hair puzzle in Gabriel Knight 3. Nancy Drew never gets to such a level of badness…though the level of contrivance with the final ‘key’ to the crypt in Crystal Skull comes dangerously close.
Lani Minella voices Nancy and is perhaps the only convincing voice acting in the games. Not all of them are bad but most sound unconvincing most of the time…though the worst so far has to be Mrs. Rutherford in Phantom of Venice. Her voice was enough for me to leave the room until the scene ended.
Speaking of scenes, there’s no skipping in these games. This annoys me like you wouldn’t believe considering I read the subtitles far quicker than the actors speak. There’s no fast travelling either, in a game that constantly forces you to go back and forth between locations placed at opposite ends of the “world map,” so to speak. Phantom of Venice does bring in a map, but it’s in itself another puzzle of figuring out where you need to go in a network of places around Venice to reach your destination.
Finally, the games—at least so far—force you to redo minigames and secondary activities too often. For example, in White Wolf there’s a little girl you can have snowball fights with and if you beat her enough she gives you warm packs to help you stave off the cold around the mountains. But where other games would assume the girl gave you enough of them so you never have to worry about their quantity, in Nancy Drew you’ll have to fight the girl over and over to collect more, just in case. Something similar happens in Legend of the Crystal Skull but it’s with a tree and a minigame where you kill off some wasps to collect some fruit, a minigame that makes it back for Phantom of Venice.
The Nancy Drew games are really cool adventure games with some really tough puzzles, but only if you can look past the contrived nature of these challenges as well as the often-ridiculous stories that tie different elements and characters together with the some of the thinnest and weakest plot threads I have ever seen.
But they’re still freaking fun, and I’m going to continue playing them and maybe do a series on one of them!