Nancy Drew: The Secret of Shadow Ranch review
This year, girl detective Nancy Drew is celebrating her 74th birthday with the release of her latest game The Secret of Shadow Ranch. 74 years of books, TV shows and games and she still isn’t a day over 18. How lucky can a girl get? With this new edition to her continually expanding library of games, Shadow Ranch continues to provide an enjoyable, if slightly flawed experience.
Until now, Her Interactive have always based their plots on the more recent Nancy Drew novels, this is the first time, however, that they have decided to delve into the original yellow spine books for a plot. The Secret of Shadow Ranch is the best selling book in the entire series and the story has been faithfully translated to the game setting.
While vacationing at Shadow Ranch, Nancy finds herself tied up in a mystery (as if she could ever avoid one). Many mishaps have been occurring and the ranch hands believe that a phantom horse is the cause; a horse that legend says was cursed by its former owner, who himself was hanged by the ranch owner. Nothing is ever quite as it seems, though, and over the course of her investigation, Nancy learns that a more sinister human element is behind the so-called “hauntings” of the phantom horse. Despite the interesting story and the success of the book from which it comes from, the execution failed to hook me as successfully as some of the other plots in the series.
When you begin a new game, you make the choice to play in either Junior or Senior detective mode. In Junior mode, you'll receive a great deal of hand holding throughout, whereas in Senior mode hints are only available when you absolutely need them. In keeping with the formula of past outings, each person Nancy meets soon becomes a suspect. Nancy engages in multiple choice style conversations with each in-game character, as well as several others over the phone; each providing her with equal parts hints and red herrings, leading to a final revelation of the true villain at the end.
The major factor that sets this title apart from its predecessors is the changes made to the interface. The player window has been opened up to fill most of the viewing area and the inventory is no longer accessed at the bottom of the screen, but through a separate window that is opened by clicking on the inventory icon. While I appreciate the larger game window, I did miss the convenience of having extremely easy access to my inventory items. I suppose however, that a larger game window and slightly less convenient inventory access, is a fair trade-off.
A few other new features that have been added include Nancy’s To Do list (available only to Junior detectives). It lets you know what tasks you have to accomplish and once they are finished, you manually check it off of the list. In addition to that, a journal is provided that automatically jots down important notes and keeps track of clues and suspects for you. Also, this time around Nancy’s cell phone comes with built-in Internet browsing and e-mail, in addition to its typical use of calling Nancy’s friends to gain hints.
Even with the interface changes and the few additions listed above, the gameplay remains largely unchanged and still quite easy to use. One feature that is a welcome mainstay in all of the Nancy Drew games is the “Second Chance” feature – something that definitely came in handy when I continually set the ranch on fire while trying to bake a cake.
As with the previous installments, there are several little mini-adventures to be had within the main adventure. Throughout her Ranch stay, Nancy plays around with arcade games, participates in horseback riding, lasso practice and barrel racing. These are things that help you at various points of the game later on, but they also add to the “fun” factor and actually serve as a welcome change of pace instead of an annoying divergence from the task at hand.
All of the previous games have had featured portions to complete that really didn’t further the plot, but added to the atmosphere of the location that the game takes place in--for example, learning about aquatic life in the sea-themed Danger on Deception Island. Shadow Ranch takes it a step further than the previous titles, and not to the greatest of success. In addition to learning about things common to Ranch life--like all of the different breeds of horses--you also must complete assigned chores everyday before you can go out and do the actual mystery solving. On the first day, I actually thought it was kind of cool picking vegetables and gathering eggs--something new and different for a game, but by the third day it just seems like too obvious of a ploy to try to expand the gameplay time.
I found the length of the game to be consistent with that of the others in the series. An experienced adventurer could finish it in 8 – 10 hours with some serious playing. However, for Novices and the pre-teen audience that this is geared towards, I’m sure it will take the 20 hours or more that the game box suggests. There is one puzzle in particular that involves magnets that will have even the experienced gamer a bit frustrated to solve.
Voice acting overall is well done and Nancy’s voice has continued to steadily grow on me. Sound effects as with every other game in the series are handled well, but this time there was a greater presence of music than before. Previously, with the exception of the main theme, music was used very sparingly and most scenes were left with atmospheric background sounds instead. In Shadow Ranch, music is used much more frequently with western-themed tunes adding some nice atmosphere to the scenery of the desert and life at the ranch.
The pre-rendered backgrounds in this series have always been good and this installment is no exception. Everything is crisp and well-detailed. 3D rendered characters are placed over the backgrounds and look about the same as they have in the last few games – not spectacular, but they get the job done.
Unfortunately, Shadow Ranch holds the unhappy distinction of being the only Nancy Drew game I have encountered technical glitches in. After each dialogue clip was played, it would start repeating it for a fraction of a second before moving on to the next piece of dialogue. Also, when selecting someone to call from the list of people in your cell phone directory, I had difficulty on getting it to highlight the correct name. It always seemed to highlight the one directly below the name I actually had my mouse on. I attribute these problems most likely to the new interface, as neither of these inconveniences have appeared before. Neither of these errors render the game unplayable, but they are negatives nonetheless. They are easily fixable and hopefully a patch will be released.
While Shadow Ranch is better than the lesser games in the series like Secrets Can Kill and The Scarlet Hand, it fails to reach the levels of the games that have become the benchmarks in the series where I’m concerned--Danger on Deception Island and Ghost Dogs of Moon Lake. It lacks a certain surprise factor that those games have pulled off so well and despite having an interesting premise for a plot, at times it comes off as flat and doesn’t live up to the potential that such an intriguing plot could have had. Still, here’s hoping that Nancy’s next adventure The Curse of Blackmoor Manor turns out to be as promising as the preview at the end of Shadow Ranch suggests!
Overall, a pretty solid edition to the Nancy Drew library of games--even if it doesn't stand up as well as some of the others.