Reviews: Nancy Drew - Message in a Haunted Mansion
In a house full of trap doors, secret tunnels, breaking glass and suspicious fires, one misstep and Nancy won't stand a ghost of a chance
Developer: Her Interactive
Release Date: November 2000
Note: Originally published in 2000
Her Interactive, the software company with my favorite slogan in the business ("For girls who aren't afraid of a mouse") has done it again with this solid entry in their excellent Nancy Drew series.
As in the first two games, Secrets Can Kill and Stay Tuned for Danger, Message in a Haunted Mansion (MHM) drops our intrepid teenage sleuth into a new situation fraught with mystery, intrigue, and danger, and only Nancy can unravel the whole mess.
This time around, Nancy is helping out Rose, a friend who's renovating an old Victorian mansion in San Francisco with the intention of opening it as a bed and breakfast. Unfortunately, she's been plagued by problems from the start—lack of money and a suspicious series of accidents, and even worse, it appears the mansion might be haunted!
The other characters include Abby, a mantra-chanting, pseudoscience-spouting medium; Louis, a Victorian antiques expert who's being perhaps a bit too helpful with the restoration, and Charlie, the cute but inexperienced handyman with a secret.
As Nancy, the player interviews these characters and explores the mansion from top to bottom in order to solve the mystery.
There are two main reasons to play this game. The first is the pitch-perfect "Nancy Drew" atmosphere. As in the previous games, Her Interactive has wonderfully captured the feeling of being in one of the classic Nancy Drew books (or movies, for that matter). True to the spirit of the original series, just because everything is very ... well, mild doesn't mean it's not also intriguing, interesting, and scary. There's a lot of San Francisco cultural history packed into the game as well.
The second reason is the look of the drop-dead gorgeous prerendered graphics. They are seriously yummy, sports fans. The designers at Her Interactive have done their homework in researching old San Francisco Victorians and have pulled out all the stops. There's not a square inch of this mansion that's not gorgeous, from Nancy's elaborately oriental-themed bedroom to the stuffy portraits on the walls to the overstuffed Queen Anne furniture. In one particular room there were two chairs—one deep red, the other a vibrant green—that made me want to crawl into my monitor and curl up with them (with a Nancy Drew book, of course).
Of course, not everything in the mansion is what it seems. There is much to discover, from secret rooms behind trick bookcases to tricky staircase banisters to long-forgotten attics. The mansion becomes as important a character in the story as any of the human participants.
The result of all this excellent work is that you truly get that nostalgic, magical "Nancy Drew" feeling as you tool around the house working on the mystery. This is Her Interactive's biggest achievement, because in a series like this, tone is everything.
Unfortunately, not every other aspect of gamebuilding comes as naturally to Her Interactive. Just as in the previous games, MHM is seriously marred by voice acting that's plain unprofessional. The person reading—and I do mean reading—Rose's lines is abysmal, and it really damages the game. Come on, folks, you know how to hire great artists, why won't you do the same with actors? I know lots of good actors who will work for peanuts; call me, I'll have your people get in touch with their people.
The second title in the series, Stay Tuned for Danger, used a time manipulation device. You could use a clock in the house to move time forward. I wasn't crazy about the device then. But MHM leans much more heavily on the clock gimmick. You're forever readjusting Nancy's alarm clock, making the time pass quickly so you can have the characters where you want them. The problem with this mechanism is that the programming in the game can't quite keep track of everything you've done, and this can lead to some dead ends in the game. At one point, about halfway through the game, I realized I had missed a couple of important conversations and cutscenes, and nothing I could do could trigger those events. I had to start the game over and manipulate the clock in the way the game wanted me to in order to have those events happen and move the game forward. Unfortunately, this made the game unplayable without a walkthrough, which is a shame for a Nancy Drew game.
Still, its virtues definitely outweigh its shortcomings, and I recommend the game for its breezy, nostalgic atmosphere and superior graphics. I do keep hoping, however, that Her Interactive will tackle the weak points in their games with the same artistry and dedication with which they approach the strong elements. If they manage to do that they could have a truly great game on their hands.
Final Grade: B-
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166 MHz Pentium
16 MB RAM
130 MB available hard disk space
16-bit color graphics video card
8X CD-ROM drive
16-bit Windows-compatible stereo sound card
Mouse and speakers