Nancy Drew - Shadow at the Water's Edge

On a working vacation in Japan, Nancy stays at a traditional family ryokan in Kyoto that appears to be haunted by a vengeful ghost

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Genre: Detective/Mystery
Release Date: October 19, 2010
Platform: PC (reviewed), Mac 

Note: Originally published 22 December 2010
 
What I most admired about Nancy Drew after reading The Whispering Statue, my first foray into the teen sleuth’s escapades, was that for a young woman, she was especially crafty and resourceful. She donned disguises, devised clever ruses, engineered daring escapes from villains, and assembled clues with ease. These characteristics were what made many of her early PC adventures so entertaining, for who does not enjoy an opportunity to spy on strangers, hack into a computer, or explore a hidden passageway? Many fans, myself included, felt that this key element of the series, and of Nancy herself, was absent from recent installments in Her Interactive’s wildly successful and award-winning series, in which the young detective was relegated primarily to tedious chores and errands. Luckily, this is another mystery that has been solved, for Shadow at the Water’s Edge marks a welcome return to the core of what initially made this series so popular.

In this latest installment, Nancy travels with her loyal companions Bess and George to Japan, where she is staying at the Ryokan Hiei, a traditional Japanese inn, teaching ESL during the day and, so she hopes, relaxing and exploring at night. But this particular establishment is, of course, haunted, and soon Nancy is the only guest who has not been scared away. It’s up to you to figure out who is behind the spectral sabotage and bring him or her to justice. As good as the storyline is, it does play on a theme that many other entries in the series have already recycled: a haunted place, a suspicious death, a hidden room, etc. This game isn’t so much scary as creepy; it is unnerving to walk around the ryokan at night, when the game takes place. There are a few encounters that should freak you out, but a lot of elements go unexplained, and we have seen this kind of plot before, in a different location and with different characters. There’s nothing wrong with creating a scary mystery, but the general plot is getting a little tired at this point.

What makes this game such a treat, and what shines through its execution, is that it is the product of impeccable planning and plotting. Unlike some previous installments, especially this summer’s Trail of the Twister, it is obvious that this title was very carefully crafted. It is longer than most games, with more tasks to accomplish and plot lines to unravel, and every detail and every clue play a role in the game. Each book you read, each item you pick up, each conversation you overhear – it all plays into the mystery, so you get the feeling that you are working hard to solve something that is actually worthy of your time and your intelligence. As usual, Nancy does a few favors for some of the characters, although this time I did not find myself wishing she were not so much of a pushover. These favors are balanced with plenty of actual detective work – snooping, decoding messages, prying information out of comical informants over the phone. And all of the hallmarks of the series are present: witty, engaging characters with realistic expressions and movements; an interesting script; and great educational value. The scenery is beautiful, and I wish that there had been more of it to explore. Kevin Manthei’s music, which has never been anything but perfect, is, if possible, even better than usual. It is just the right combination of cultural and creepy.

Thankfully, most of the puzzles are, finally, connected to the mystery and not just busy work or extraneous tasks. The difficulty range varies. We have to remember that the series targets an audience ages ten and older, so some of the arcade games and food preparation activities that so frequently appear in the games, while tiring to me and probably many other adults, are engaging for kids. There were also some moments where it was difficult to figure out what to do next, and I got stuck at one point waiting for the game to trigger something that I was powerless to affect. And, if we’re going to nitpick, there were some pronunciation discrepancies and lots of punctuation mistakes in the dialogue. Not that it’s a big deal, but if Her Interactive is really working to perfect their formula, as I expect they are, these are things to keep in mind.

The biggest caveat I have for this game is that it features Sudoku and nonograms. While the nonograms are not, thankfully, like the notorious one from the final act of The Mystery of the Mummy, they are certainly not for people like me who hate number puzzles and still use their fingers to count things. If you love numbers, you’ll sink your teeth right in. If not, have somebody help you out, or just get a walkthrough. They are not for everyone, but they should not ruin your gaming experience.

With twenty-three games and counting, it is only natural that there should be a few duds along the way as Her Interactive experiments with its tried and true formula. This latest release, however, is promising. It shows a lot of effort, especially with thoughtful puzzles instead of chores, but maintains the elements that have made its most successful predecessors so praiseworthy. Hopefully, this is the dawn of a new era in River Heights – or wherever Nancy Drew’s travels take her next!

To sum it up, as Nancy’s new Japanese friends may have written, in a Haiku:

    Old is new again
    No more chores – solid sleuthing
    Future looking good

Final Grade: A-

System Requirements (PC):

    Windows® XP/Vista/7
    1 GHz or greater Pentium or equivalent class CPU
    256 MB of RAM
    1 GB or more of Hard Drive space
    32 MB DirectX 9.0 compatible video card
    16 bit DirectX compatible sound card
    24X CD-ROM drive, mouse, and speakers

System Requirements (Mac):

    Mac OS X 10.5.8 Leopard/10.6.4 Snow Leopard
    Intel GMA 950 Processor
    512MB RAM
    1.1GB hard drive space
    ATI X1600/Nvidia 7300 video card
    CD-ROM drive

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