Genre: Point-And-Click Adventure
Release date: May 19, 2015
Nancy Drew isn’t new to the mystery-solving business; by her 32nd game, she’s seen just about every type of kooky character, head-scratching puzzle and nefarious deed that the world can throw at an eternally teenaged sleuth. That’s what makes it especially impressive that Her Interactive’s newest installment, Nancy Drew: Sea of Darkness manages to feel fresh and lively, throwing new questions and obstacles at the snoop who’s seen it all. Veteran fans will be satiated and newcomers piqued by this chilly, devious case.
The classic Nancy Drew formula is in play here: our girl is summoned to a foreign land to investigate a mysterious happening that is linked to a missing treasure. This time we’re talking about Iceland, a local man’s sudden disappearance and a ship’s precious gold cargo (unseen for centuries, naturally). Called to the rural town of Skipbrot by treasure-hunter-by-trade Dagny Silva, Nancy is tasked with locating the woman’s business partner, who’s either skipped town or been kidnapped after restoring the historical ship Heerlijkheid. You’d think someone who makes a living finding lost things wouldn't need a hand, but Nancy's been called onto the scene for far less.
The plot is also spiced up by the history of the town itself. A tiny fishing village of 300, Skipbrot is rural and guarded against outsiders. This means Nancy is treated with suspicion, but so is the long-term visitor Dagny and even Soren, who was born in another small town ten miles away yet is regarded as an interloper. The commentary on small-town life could be true of any place but makes the game feel more robustly built from the inside out, as though this is a world Nancy is entering rather than one that’s been built up around her existence.
At first I wasn’t sold on any of the characters - they seemed as frosty and unyielding as the arctic tundra Nancy traverses on her snowmobile. But they begin to thaw out, revealing sad backstories and fraught feelings. The series is at its best when perpetually recurring plots like quests for hidden treasure are infused with real emotional suffering, and this game doesn’t hold any punches when it comes to alienation, broken romances and tragic loss. The games are sometimes guilty of making the suspects only as dimensional as their motives (and unfortunately this felt true of the culprit in particular) but there are still moments of good humor and quirkiness to be found.
The real standouts are Nancy’s phone friends, there to provide guidance and distraction from the knotty problems at hand. Nancy’s boyfriend Ned is on deck as usual, creating plenty of side-drama on his frequent international phone calls. No spoilers here, but he’s looking to take things to a new level with Nancy, and it’s up to you to decide whether there’s room in her life for anything besides an unyielding quest for the truth. Best of all, though, is Alex Linh Trang, a quirky intern working on her maritime psychology degree who’s always willing to provide a helping hand and some solid advice on distracting a suspect or two. Overall the characters are emotive, well-performed, and diverse enough to tell a compelling story.
One of the game’s greatest pleasures is wandering the eternally dark town (you are extremely far north, after all) and looking at the aurora borealis over the tops of roofs, a light snow drifting down around you. The graphics are crisp and immersive, and the sound - one of the most important yet most overlooked elements in a game - is well-designed, convincing, and funny. The music sets a nice backdrop without intruding into the experience, and the theme song of the game, which is interwoven with the plot, recurs in different instrumental versions in the background, a charming effect.
Since I’ve never been to Iceland I can’t comment on the authenticity of the location, but if feels like a vast improvement on the sparse settings in Nancy’s last mystery, Labyrinth of Lies, which made all of Greece feel as though it were trapped in a museum - removed and curated, sealed behind glass. Iceland could be tinkered with and touched.
Though puzzles are rarely the make-or-break element of a game for me, I was pleased to find that the ones in Sea of Darkness are some of the best Her Interactive has created in a long while. There is an excellent variety and the rules and instructions for each are generally clear, which has been a frequent problem for me in the past, especially in time-sensitive endgame situations. There are word puzzles, logic puzzles, spatial puzzles and even a music puzzle that was, unbelievably, fun (I don’t know how many times I’ve been taught basic piano skills in a video game, but it’s too many for how little real-world competency I’ve retained). Sure, the puzzles often defy logic (how is Nancy the first person in centuries to happen upon this fairly basic cipher?) but you’ll have a good time with them.
With so many cases behind her, it’s hard not to view Nancy Drew through a post-mortem lens. She’s seen more than most of us will in a lifetime yet remains eighteen, somehow both jaded expert and curious novice. What’s amazing is that she can still surprise us. Her Interactive’s most genius move was in forcing Nancy to confront more than just the case at hand, but also what it means to be a girl encumbered by ties she doesn’t always want. The love of her friends and family will always be something that can be used against her, a draw that compels her back home whether she wants to return to normalcy or keep shining light on shifting shadows. But maybe the stability of people like Ned give Nancy the inner resources to keep looking into the dark abyss and confronting what she finds there. I’m glad the series still asks these questions.
+ Nancy must decide her priorities
+ Top-notch puzzles
+ Immersive Icelandic setting
- Flat characters
- Disappointing culprit