When I started to play The Curse of Blackmoor Manor I wondered if there was anything new to say about Nancy Drew and her friends. This is, after all, the 11th game in a long running series. Then, I thought back to the beginning and how hard it must have been to get that first game released. I can imagine Her Interactive walking into a publisher’s office, ready to pitch their game concept to some guy, surrounded by marketing materials featuring blood, guts and plenty of swagger.
Her Interactive smiles and says, “We are developing a game based on the Nancy Drew books. What do you think?” Now, this publisher guy might have said, “I love it!! How much cash do you need?” But the truth is, he probably just looked at them blankly, and said “Say what -- Nancy who?” As we all know, this lack of enthusiasm didn’t stop them cold; they self-published those first few titles and shrewdly developed a standardized model for their production and game design. Good idea, as this formulaic approach maintained costs, simplified the design process and resulted in a steady stream of new titles. But does this result in good games? It sure does and after playing Blackmoor Manor, I would say the future looks bright for Her Interactive.
Now initially, nothing looks changed as you install the game. The standard Nancy Drew theme music starts up with the menu screen, you choose your skill level of gameplay and the classic slide show flashes by as Nancy dictates a letter to her pals about her latest case. Do I want this to change? Not really, it’s like watching The Simpsons’ annual Halloween show--it’s traditional, and why mess with what works. So far, it looks very typical, then “Wait a minute …what’s this.. a creepy looking cinematic? This is different.” I settle back into my chair and watch with new interest. I can’t say I was truly spooked, but it was a great visual and I definitely felt more enthusiastic about what lay ahead.
[Heading]A Dark and Stormy Night
Nancy’s new case begins on a dark night. A taxi lets you out at a forbidding estate, fronted by the large obligatory creaky iron gate. Of course, it swings open all by itself as you walk up the stone path to the impressive front door. Suddenly, something startles Nancy. You hear a raspy voice and a weird growl that is attached to a set of hellish red eyes. You say to yourself in a panic, “He knows my name!!” Okay, okay -- maybe it’s not quite THAT dramatic, but it was a very polished beginning and raised my hopes for a good game. The storyline starts out well. Blackmoor Manor is an old house set in an isolated spot on the English moors. A River Heights girl married the current heir to the Penvellyn estate and moved into the manor. Her mother is a neighbor of the Drew family and has asked Nancy to come check on her daughter. Linda has changed since her marriage to Hugh Penvellyn and doesn’t seem like her old self. After you arrive, you quickly figure out the household isn’t exactly full of happy campers. The Lord of the Manor is in Rome on some diplomatic mission for Queen and country. The new bride has taken to her room; well, she is specifically hiding behind the curtains of her canopy bed. She won’t come out, wails that she is cursed by some spectral woman in black and does seem to have some odd afflictions. Hugh’s aunt is in charge of the place and is exactly what you would expect to find in some creepy old house. She is a stern woman, whose only tender streak is for carnivorous plants. The twelve-year-old stepdaughter is a bit on the weird side and collects esoterica on such charming childhood delights as werewolves, witches and demons. Then there’s the rumored lost treasure and a small matter of a family curse. Legend has it that some family members may have been werewolves. Yes, no weird family history seems complete without them. If they threw in an odd uncle with a vampire hairline, I think the Penvellyns would be a perfect match for the Addams Family. The characters in the past games have been fairly normal, with one typically offbeat character thrown in for good measure. This time the entire crew seems a bit on the far side, which is a definite plus. I love the campy feel of this game and hope it is a sign of the future. At this point, Blackmoor and Nancy are looking very good.
[Heading]Bad Dreams in the Night
The graphics in this game are the best of the series. For one thing, I liked the more stylized renderings and animation quality of the characters. I rarely paid much attention to the facial animations in the past; however, in this game they seemed much more lifelike. Perhaps it was that they are more articulated and the lip-synching or voice capture is so well done. Then again, everything about the graphics in this game just seems better. The environments have this subtle jewel-toned glow to them. The lighting effects are abundant and add a subtle texture to everything you see. Finally, Blackmoor Manor is rich in visual texture. All the rooms are lavishly detailed with tapestries, ornately carved doorways, artwork and whatnots. You want eye candy in your games? Well this one has it, by the bagful. For those who complain of interesting environments that you can’t interact with, you also will be happy to hear you can get up close and friendly with all sorts of objects, whether they are task-related or just sitting there.
Now about those interactions, you need to be aware that Nancy is a bit of a twit at times. So be careful what you mess with as things can get a little nasty. Of course, getting Nancy fired or worse is not painful; there is a handy second-chance option and what’s the thrill of a Nancy Drew game if you can’t explore her less than perfect side? All right, I know I sound a bit sadistic, but so far the poor girl has burned down her hotel, gotten squished by an elevator, smacked by a roller coaster and electrified. So I figure, what’s a little mayhem between old friends.Continued on the next page...