Nancy Drew: The Secret of Shadow Ranch

A ghostly horse tramples all hope of a restful ranch vaction for you, as Nancy Drew. Based on the best-selling Nancy Drew book of all time.

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Genre: Mystery Adventure
Release Date: July 2004
Platform: PC

Note: Originally published 22 July 2004

Nancy Drew and the Puzzle of the Mysteriously Tedious Farm Chores

For the first hour or so, as I began playing Nancy Drew: The Secret of Shadow Ranch, the tenth digital outing for the perky teen sleuth from Her Interactive, I thought, “I really shouldn’t be allowed to review the games in this series anymore. I’ve lost all distance. Starting a new Nancy Drew game is like sinking down into a big, old, soft, friendly easy chair. I have such a good time playing them, and the development team does such a good job, and they’re such nice people . . . someone else should be writing about them.”

The game started promisingly enough.

It has a fun western setting on an old ranch in Arizona. It’s got the usual colorful (albeit small) group of characters. Speaking of colorful, the artwork employs a lovely pastel palette that’s very pleasing and appropriate for the western setting. It’s got good music, including some lively western swing (not enough of that in games!). The voice work is excellent. The art is dependable and effective as always. And the various bits of the story Nancy begins to uncover are actually terrific.

Unfortunately, I hit a real roadblock this time around. With what? The puzzles.

In the past I have praised this series for frequently creating puzzles that arose organically out of the situations Nancy finds herself in. I feel this was the most successful in the museum setting of The Secret of the Scarlet Hand.

This time around, however, the puzzles are a little too organic. Or, rather, a little too literal. Mostly based on farm chores, they quickly become . . . well, chores for the player as well.

If I Knew You Were Coming, I’d Have Baked a Cake. And Baked a Cake. And Baked a Cake. And Baked a Cake . . .

Nancy has to accomplish tasks such as pick vegetables, feed livestock, and bake a cake. What, those activities don’t sound incredibly fun? Well, they aren’t. What’s worse is that the clues are mediocre at best, so you end up having to do a lot of time-consuming trial and error, which means you end up having to listen to the same tedious “failure scenario” audio scenes over and over. And speaking of failure scenarios, is it really that realistic to think that you’d be sent packing for picking a slightly unripe tomato? Hmm.

It gets particularly bad when Nancy has to bake a cake. The game provides perfectly good instructions for the ingredients, but virtually no clues about dealing with the oven. This means that every time you get one of the variables wrong (pan size, oven temperature, baking time), you have to start over from scratch.

All computer and video game designers should work with the following two placards hanging visibly in their workplaces:

        GAMES ARE SUPPOSED TO BE FUN

        IS THE PART I’M WORKING ON NOW MAKING THE GAME MORE OR LESS FUN?

Is baking a virtual cake fun? Well, perhaps the question is debatable. But I can tell you with full confidence that baking a virtual cake eleven times most definitely isn’t fun.

The worst offender comes fairly late in the game, when Nancy is required to collect ten arrowheads from the various game environments. If, like me, you gasp in painful memory when you think about the dreaded “pick up the stars off of the ground” puzzle from Beyond Atlantis, then you’ll know what I mean when I say that looking for stuff on the ground isn’t fun. It’s particularly Not Fun when the entire game comes to a screeching halt if you can’t find the tenth one. It’s definitely Not Fun bouncing from location to location, painting the screen with your mouse pointer over the same patch of yellow ground for the fifteenth time. That’s work, not fun.

And this is a shame, because as I mentioned before, every other dependable element that has made the Nancy Drewseries so successful and enjoyable is here in the game. Someone just fell asleep at the wheel in the puzzle design department. I never thought I’d say this, but I can’t recommend this particular Nancy Drew game.

Final Grade: C

System Requirements:

    400Mhz Pentium
    64MB RAM
    300 MB hard drive space
    16-bit color graphics video card with at least 16MB of VRAM
    16-bit Window-compatible stereo sound card
    12X CD ROM
    Mouse and Speakers

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