Note: This review was originally published January 20, 2010
Release Date: December 2009
Nancy Drew has been quite the globetrotter in her years as detective, but one place she has yet to visit is Norkopping, Sweden – most likely because the crimes there (the ones that are fun to solve, anyway) are handled by Carol Reed, a twenty-something English girl with the same kind of perpetual inquisitiveness and resourcefulness that make Nancy such a super sleuth. In her latest outing, Carol is approached by her neighbor, Oscar, a retired doctor, who claims he saw a dead body while he was out for his morning walk. When he returned with the police, however, the body was gone – and the police think he was merely hallucinating. Insistent upon what he saw, he pleads for Carol to investigate.
There are numerous locations for Carol to explore on her quest for answers, all of which have been beautifully photographed and edited by the MDNA Games team of Mikael and Eleen Nyqvist. This is a great feature for detective games because it allows for you, the player, to immerse yourself in the experience by carefully surveying different environments and hunting for clues. Everything is fair play, with no pixel hunting necessary. A map feature lets you travel from location to location with beautiful and haunting interstitial music. The interface makes navigation in even large environments simple; arrows point you where you can go, and a magnifying glass indicates when there is something of interest to look at. At the top of the screen lies your inventory, which includes a notebook that lists your current objectives and an optional hint system for reaching those objectives. As you can tell, this game is straightforward in every possible way. It is easy to play, easy to navigate, and easy to understand, which makes gameplay genuinely enjoyable.
There are plenty of characters to interact with during the investigation. Conversations are conducted merely by selecting questions on Carol’s notepad, so you have no control over what to ask. Voice work is generally solid, but everybody enunciates so carefully that sometimes it is tedious to get through a few lines of dialogue, especially given that their facial expression also changes with each line (sometimes to no effect). Speaking slowly also takes away from the emotion that some lines could use. I was additionally surprised at how ready and willing to talk many of the suspects were. Maybe I am just used to the Nancy Drew games, where everybody is always asking chores of you before you can even find out their names, but everybody in Norkopping is very talkative, and when a murder investigation is the subject of conversation, that’s very rare.
Especially rare when you see how the plot begins to unravel. This is definitely one of the series’ darker mysteries, if not its darkest yet, and therefore elaborately constructed. I had a hard time in the beginning trying to follow how Carol was connecting the clues from one location to the next, as my own detective instincts were leading me in a different direction, but the storyline eventually becomes quite gripping and doesn’t beat you over the head with some of the back story and history needed to understand what is happening, unlike with some games. All of the clues are fairly placed, although you will definitely have to do some meticulous exploring to find what you need. I found that I had to search every location very thoroughly to make sure I collected every possible item that I might need later on, and there is a lot of backtracking to talk with suspects multiple times. The level of detail, from the impressive locations to the plot twists to the organic puzzles – most of which are based on the inventory items you collect throughout the game – is impressive for an independent project, and should most certainly be applauded.
If you have played one of these games before, then “The Black Circle” is exactly the kind of high quality point-and-click mystery game you have come to expect from MDNA games. If you are new to the series, this is as good a place as any to start. The Carol Reed Mysteries are independent productions that are fun and easy to play, well-crafted, engaging, and unique in their construction. I would recommend the series, and especially this latest adventure, to anybody looking for a good story-based mystery adventure.
Final Grade: A-