Genre: Mystery Adventure
Release Date: August 12, 2002
Note: Originally published 20 August 2002
Irrepressible, thy name is Nancy Drew. Through countless books, movies, television series, board games, and now computer games, the plucky sleuth is always ready to dive into a new mystery. Nancy Drew: Secret of the Scarlet Hand is Her Interactive's sixth PC adventure for Nancy, and it's without question the best of the series.
In this series of games, Her Interactive has wisely chosen the first-person format, which makes the player feel more like she (or he) is actually Nancy Drew (1). The games have been mostly targeted to older girls so far, and have consistently been solid and entertaining, if modest and short (and nothing wrong with either, in my book).
All of the games in the series have featured beautifully photorealistic pre-rendered environments for Nancy to investigate. And all of them create a lovely, intriguing atmosphere that is decidedly on-target for the franchise.
The talented folks at Her Interactive seem to have been a bit more ambitious this time around, however, because the new game is superior to the others in several key areas.
"DREW. NANCY DREW."
First of all, voice acting. I've consistently complained (in a loving way, of course) about the fairly flat level of vocal work in the series. Secret of the Scarlet Hand represents a leap forward in this department. The characters consistently have more personality and are more believable. This is particularly evident with the several characters that Nancy meets only on the telephone. A lot of important sleuthing in the game takes place during conversations on the phone, and there are several very well-drawn and enjoyable folks that Nancy gets to interact with in this way.
BIGGER BARS FOR BETTER BARGAINS
Even more significantly, the core adventure game elements of puzzle and story have been deepened for this outing. The game feels about thirty percent longer than the earlier episodes, giving more opportunity for storytelling and puzzle-solving.
Also, the setting of the game - a small Washington, DC museum - is absolutely ideal for what makes an adventure game tick. This setting, and specifically the Maya exhibit the museum is about to open, pays off puzzle-wise in two ways. First, the entire show in the museum is set up as an educationally interactive experience for the patrons. The show consists of several levels, each of which unlocks only after you solve a series of puzzles on the previous level. This gives the designers a chance to have a lot of fun with different puzzle types. There are quizzes, board games, and even - a Nancy Drew first - a real-time rendered 3D sequence! Okay, it's a maze, but still, it's kind of cool!
The second way the museum setting pays off in the puzzle department is it creates many opportunities for very organic situational puzzles. Nancy has to break into computers, rifle through notebooks, repair exhibits, hack a CB radio, etc. In fact, early in the game, Nancy is working off a list of tasks she's supposed to accomplish. When each task is completed she can cross it off of the list. Tantalizing shades of RPG game play . . .
A real-time maze? Hmm . . . A "quest" list? Hmm . . . The game is full of little touches like that that really perk up the player's interest.
A QUESTION OF CHARACTER
The characters are more solid this time around. It's a motley collection of interestingly flawed folks, each of whom may or may not be on the level with Nancy. I particularly liked Nancy's boss, the museum's chief administrator. She's a woman in a tight spot, the circumstances of which are actually quite believable.
Visually, the characters are improved as well. They're varied and interesting. And for the first time in the series, the "hunk" character is actually, well, a hunk.
Two character elements in the game I particularly liked. First, for a big chunk of the game, almost all of the characters are offstage, and Nancy has the museum (seemingly, at least) entirely to herself. This was a bit of a daring game design decision, but the game makers really pull it off. The other is the fact that one of the most interesting characters in the game is never seen or heard - he's the young man Nancy is replacing in the internship. Perhaps I'm prejudiced, however. It turns out the kid has great tastes in game websites...
AMNESIA? THERE GOES MY CAREER!
Nancy's story isn't limited to the museum. Using the handy Washington Metro, she tears around town with ease, visiting several locations connected to the main story.
Perhaps the most entertaining challenge Nancy has to face in the game is the daunting project of helping to reconstruct another character's memory. After a suspicious "accident" at the museum, a vital figure in the story has the key to the mystery locked in his head, and it's up to Nancy to help uncover it.
One other excellent sequence has Nancy locked in a very creepy enclosed space armed only with a small flashlight. The player has to navigate with only a small area of the screen visible as Nancy moves the light around. It's quite effective.
I have only two mild qualms about the game. First, the game menus are still clunky, clunky, clunky. It takes waaaaay too many keystrokes to save a game and get back to playing. Also, I still wish the Nancy Drew games could involve the player having to actually make a choice about who the culprit is, á la Clue. Actually, the second game in the series, "Stay Tuned for Danger," attempted this. I'm not suggesting some random shuffled-choice bad guy (which truly ruined the end of the otherwise excellent mystery adventure Ripper), but some choice the player has to declare the perpetrator in some meaningful way. It's a small dream, but it's my dream...
This is very minor quibbling, however. From start to finish, this is a dandy of a game. Lovers of adventure games who've maybe stayed away from this series because they think these games are "for kids" might want to take this opportunity to check out what Her Interactive is doing. This isn't just an excellent Nancy Drew game, it's an excellent adventure game, period.
(1) Okay, it's true. I feel like Nancy Drew almost all of the time. Even when I'm playing Diablo.
Final Grade: A