I have spoken in the past of the Nancy Drew games by HeR Interactive and despite the continued contrivance of its puzzle design and placement, I do thoroughly enjoy every title in the series I have played so far. Mind you, I didn’t start at the beginning of the series but jumped in around the 16th entry, The White Wolf of Icicle Creek after I saw it on an episode of Game Grumps—I am now going back to the earlier titles.
The Nancy Drew adventures are usually light-hearted and even if there is something sinister afoot, it’s never scary or tense—except for those timed-puzzles, those are nerve-wracking. So my expectations when playing one is that I’ll just have a good time with puzzles and some nice if sometimes over the top voice acting.
But as proof of where your expectations can take you—which is something I explored on Monday—two of the latest Nancy Drew games I’ve played have seriously freaked me out. Not to the point I reach with truly terrifying horror experiences, where I quit the game after five minutes of fearful exploration, but enough to make me save the game before entering a room or going into a dark garden and move around carefully.
The Shadow over the Water and the Captive Curse are phenomenal adventure titles with nice stories, even if the culprits are ultimately not the greatest masterminds in the world, or even the most villainous.
What made them scary or intense for me? The fact I didn’t expect them to pull off the horror elements and atmosphere as well as they did.
In Nancy Drew: Shadow at the Water’s Edge, Nancy takes a trip to Japan to act as the English teacher for Japanese children, staying at a Ryokan, the classic Japanese Inn you see in media, with tatami floors and communal hot-spring baths. But the moment she arrives she witnesses other guests leaving, some annoyed and other scared out of their minds. The Ryokan has a reputation, and it’s that it’s haunted.
HeR Interactive managed to do something amazing in this title, which was incorporate the classic tropes of Japanese haunting horror into their game, making it not only a compelling experience but chilling at times. There’s the drowned ghost, dripping water and with long locks covering the stark-white putrid visage, the black eyes wide in constant shock and agony. There are also subtle hints of haunting, from noises and shadows wet footsteps appearing out of nowhere and leading to a solid wall. It’s good stuff and terrifically done.
Nancy Drew: The Captive Curse takes another approach, following early 20th century horror, with a monster stalking a German castle. You arrive to help the owner sort out the monster business, as the castle is a prime spot for tourist visits, except the monster sightings keep making people leave and turned the warm inhabitants into recluses.
You rarely meet the monsters in these HeR Interactive games but the atmosphere created in them, with gloomy surroundings, nice shadows and healthy doses of smoke create such apprehension in you that you almost hope for the monster to appear if only to relieve some of that tension if only because once you face the creature, it’s not as scary anymore. But if the creatures are merely shadows, they have power over you.
HeR Interactive proved they know how to do horror, they know just how much the monster reveal hurts the scare-factor. Take every haunting or monster film out there. If you can’t see the creatures, you’re dealing with just what your head can come up with and your imagination will often be scarier than anything the developers can come up with.
It’s such a fundamental aspect of horror, the fear of the unknown, but so many horror game developers do not grasp it, focusing on gruesome sights when subtlety is much more powerful. And it surprised me, and I’m not afraid to admit it, that HeR Interactive and Nancy-freaking-Drew delivered such a wonderfully chilling experience.
Also, the music and sound effects put you on edge faster and more effectively than anything visual in these Nancy Drew titles, and when you’re already nervous exploring the Ryokan or the German Castle, a sudden noise or turn for the sombre in the soundtrack will chill you to your bones. Those sudden disharmonious tones in Shadow at the Water’s Edge…man…
There are more games for me to play before I’m done with this series and I know a few of them have haunting or creature themes, so I’m curious to see if HeR Interactive’s designers and writers nail it every time or if it’s a skill they’ve honed over the years.
The only downside is that they now must scale a big wall to freak me out a gain: my expectations!