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Adventure Gamers Awards
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.
Mishaps aside, the ambient music tracks and related sound effects add another great layer to this game. Oddly for such a creepy house, there was a definite shortage of actual spooks. I think Haunted Mansion was edgier, with odd things bumping through the night. But, then again this is not a haunted house, but a “cursed” one, so maybe ghosts are not part of the prime design. But it just looks so creepy; I guess I just want ghosts too. Regardless, the sounds and related cinematics are very good. Whether it is an eerie breeze brushing by as you try to make your way down an endless stone stairway, wild screams in the night or flies buzzing around some unfriendly plants in the Greenhouse, they were all appreciated. My only criticism is that I want more of them. What can I say, I am a greedy gamer. There is also another new in-game element that impressed. Each time you use the clock to switch to the next day, you are awakened at 3:15AM. Remember, this is a Halloween tale, so you aren’t summoned at that hour for anything pleasant. A spooky lady in black, a cursed beast or some other evil beastie might be waiting for you in the dark house. This all adds up to a devilish atmosphere and one tasty game.
[Heading]When the Story is A-mazing
Typically in the Nancy Drew games, the plot is stepped up quickly. There is a missing person, will or treasure paired with a haunted horse, carousel or house. You meet a set number of characters that are all key suspects for these odd events. You complete the tasks assigned to you and then go onto a new day. In Blackmoor however, there are some changes. First, in past games there was an alarm clock that played a big part in the gameplay. Some events, people and clues were only available at certain times during the day. To get to these quickly, you set the alarm for the time you wish to wake up. This device had its share of detractors and it vanished for the last few episodes. It’s back and bigger than ever in this game. I think the device is well used and saves a lot of frustration or perhaps boredom in having to wait a clock out, so I was glad to see its return.
But the new game aspect that truly surprised was the extreme non-linearity of the storyline. I have been somewhat conditioned to take care of whatever I find in an area of a Nancy Drew game as I come across it. After day one, I felt overworked and seriously lost. Then I realized there is one primary over-riding task and settled back in. Yes, this represents a departure for the series and I like it. Blackmoor is more demanding than the earlier games and is a surprising challenge. You have to complete one fairly intricate task at the end of the game, but there is no specific order in which to amass the component parts to this puzzle. There is a handy to-do checklist to keep you more or less on track and the individual tasks are not that hard to figure out. So, it is easy to relax into the gameplay and thoroughly enjoy yourself.
[Heading]Going on a Ghost Hunt
The puzzles in Blackmoor are a departure from the last few titles. In recent games, there have been a number of busy work type challenges; collect the bugs, harvest the veggies or make a cake. Yep, that’s right -- make a cake. I assume this was Her Interactive's effort to cater to the pre-teen girl that makes up a large share of their market. But apparently, they decided to return to more classic puzzle styling in Blackmoor. There was only one busy work task in the game and it was purely optional. The majority of the in-game challenges are classic mechanical or logic-based and these puzzles are liberally placed in every room and every available niche. Amazingly, despite the volume of challenges, they are well integrated, so Blackmoor remains firmly fixed in its storyline and never feels like a “puzzle” game. The sheer variety of puzzles, games and challenges give the gamer a decent length of playing time that isn’t stretched by tedious tasks or inane gameplay extenders. Even better, some of these puzzles are not that easy. For those who prefer a faster gameplay, if you look around this place there are some built-in cheats or hints to slide through the harder puzzles. There is also an “Easter Egg” that pops up in your inventory after you fool around with one particular “chattering” item. There was a similar pop up in Ghost Dogs used along a forest path to unlock a number of related “hidden extras.” So I am looking forward to a second walk around Blackmoor Manor just to find the hidden goodies.
[Heading]And the prize goes to…
Nancy Drew games will always be the “comfort food” of gaming to me. They are somewhat predictable, but provide a well crafted, good looking and entertaining gaming experience at a reasonable cost. Despite that rather basic assessment, I am very pleasantly surprised at how strongly the series is holding up. Rather than becoming stale, this game is solid proof that the series continues to show new vigor with each release. I would rank Blackmoor as the one of the best of them all, if not the best so far. The enhanced graphics, more open-ended game play, a return to solid puzzling and a well crafted family-friendly game plot make for a nice piece of gaming. In the end, Nancy Drew proves she still has a lot of surprises up her sleeve and I am looking forward to the next game in the series.