Nancy Drew: Secret of the Old Clock review
Some women age impeccably. It is anyone's guess how old they are. They look good no matter what their age. This can certainly be said for Nancy Drew, who, after years of slogging through mysteries and logging long hours uncovering secrets, is celebrating her 75th birthday this year. Over the years, Nancy has happily made friends with generation after generation of girls, helping many of them while away numerous happy afternoons spent curled up under a tree, in a comfy chair, or on the beach meticulously piecing their way to the end of one good mystery after another.
Along the way, the Nancy archetype -- loyal friend, clever puzzle solver, intrepid adventuress -- has evolved with the times. In the '70s, she was the fieldstone that Velma from Scooby Doo was built upon. For the new century, she has become the inspiration that characters like Veronica Mars have been created around. Though Nancy would never crack wise like Veronica -- she is still a single strand of pearls girl at heart -- she has managed to weather 75 years of changing tastes, demographics, and technology. It seems only fitting that that her latest incarnation is as video game vixen; the star performer of her own successful game series and number one VIP in Her Interactive's stable. Not bad for a teenager who just aspires to be one of the girls.
In Nancy Drew: Secret of the Old Clock, the twelfth game in the august Nancy Drew series, Her Interactive has decided to go back to their roots, or more specifically, Nancy's roots. ND: SOC is based on the very first Nancy Drew book of the same name, though it actually incorporates a number of plot points from the first four books in the series. Set in 1930, Nancy is called in to help out a friend of a friend, 17 year-old Emily Crandall, who has just inherited the Lilac Inn, where our spunky Nancy soon finds that things are not smelling very sweet for Emily.
It seems that Emily is really struggling to juggle the emotional loss of her mother and the practical predicament of running an Inn that she had little experience with before. Add to this the fact that Emily seems to be hearing voices and is surrounded by the requisite cast of unpredictable characters, and Nancy knows she has come the right way to uncover a mystery.
Right away I was welcomed to the game with a splashy new introduction, complete with animated cutscene. I know Her Interactive started using this sort of opening in the previous game, but this is my first experience with it and I have to say this idea is a winner. One of the nice features of the new introduction is asking the player if they have played an adventure game before. If not, it offers you a number of game tips and a tutorial. I did the driving tutorial and was glad that I did, as the inclusion of Nancy's roadster in this game is new and took me a few minutes to get the hang of. The player can choose to drive the roadster with either their mouse or the keyboard. For newbies and Junior detectives, this is a great way to get acquainted with some of the basic features that seasoned adventure gamers already have a handle on. For beginning roadsters (such as your author), it also provides an opportunity to get some miles under your belt before you are required to scoot all over the town of Titusville.
The game's interface also sports a couple of new tricks that many will appreciate. As you will be required to run a number of errands for people -- darn, that Nancy just can't say no to anyone -- you are going to need to know where you are going. Thus, the game provides you with a built-in map of Titusville so that you can quickly find the bank, or more importantly, the gas station. I would suggest locating this right away, because after an extensive fatherly diatribe from Carson Drew about watching the gas gauge and avoiding potholes, you realize you will need to use it quite often. Let's just say that the roadster may look cool, but it goes through gas faster than some small countries.
Another feature that is not new, but which I am sure most detectives will be happy to have, is a notebook where essential clues are stored. What I really like about this is that in Junior mode it provides players with a 'To Do' list. It's a great feature for those who may get bogged down by the non-linearity of this game. If they need even more help, they can contact Carson Drew for a gentle fatherly prod in the right direction, or stalwart hint providers Bess and George.
The thing I like the best about this game's interface is the large game window, first used in the tenth game of the series. Because of the increased size, instead of using only about three quarters of the screen for the game environment, you now use just about the whole window. The inventory has been removed and now exists as a small icon that can be accessed at the bottom of the screen. Also, dialogue that used to take up a significant chunk of space on the screen has been reduced in size so that it takes up less than a quarter of the screen. This is a huge improvement for maneuvering your way around the game. In older games, the point & click navigation could get finicky working in such a tight space. This often resulted in players having to place the mouse on the very periphery of the environment to prod their first-person alter ego to move the right way.
In a lot of adventure games, puzzles start out easy and become slowly more difficult the further you move into the game. I have found this to be the case with other Nancy Drew games, but for some reason I did not find it worked this way with SOC. All the puzzles seem to require about the same level of skill. This is not a bad thing, and there is really no huge pull-out-your-hair, scream-at-your-computer puzzle that had me grinding my teeth. The only challenge that made me really feel the heat of frustration was a sewing job that required a good deal of hand-eye coordination. The other area players might have some trouble with is a slightly tricky miniature golf game which takes a bit of practice to get the swing of. Before beginning your golf round, I would recommend that you save, as it costs money to play, and may take several tries to successfully score a par for the course. The rest of the game is filled with three slider puzzles (no kidding, three!), an anagram quizzer, some regular push, pull, or turn types of challenges, and a number of errands that need to be completed to get inventory items. Despite the inclusion of three sliders, I thought the game had a good mix of challenges and riddles that will satisfy most gamers.
While the graphics in the Nancy Drew games have always been solid, there has never been any fear that they would give the Myst games a run for their money in this department. This brings me to the first of two areas where I think Her Interactive would be wise to tweak the upcoming games in this series. While the environments in their games are nicely developed and generally employ camera angles and lighting to good effect, let's be honest… they aren't pushing any boundaries here. One of the areas they could improve in their games with very little energy is the game's character modelling. The people look okay, but they move like marionettes and have less facial expression than a Mr. Potato Head. With the exception of some arm movements, they are pretty static. If the artists could infuse a little more life into their characters, they would be adding another level of realism and quality to their games.
The second place I would like Her Interactive to focus some extra design attention is the use of music in their games. The looped soundtrack in SOC, while having an appropriate Cole Porter-esque sound that was appropriate for 1930, really doesn't add much to overall gameplay. For a series of games like Nancy Drew, that releases one or two games a year, creating a extensive soundtrack a la Myst IV: Revelation is just not practical. So why not just ditch it, or at least extensively scale back its use in the game? Does a repetitive soundtrack add enough value to gameplay to include it throughout? I am not sure that it does, especially when we have seen other games have greater success with just a slate of ambient sounds. This is an aspect the game already does very well. In SOC, I was especially jazzed by the sound of a plane flying overhead when I was in the courtyard of the Lilac Inn. Elsewhere, the sound of a cat purring and meowing was so realistic that it had my two cats going a little crazy looking for the interloper.
The voice work is always good in the Nancy Drew games and SOC is no exception. I don't know how it is that Her Interactive so consistently delivers in this area where the majority of games stumble. As I have played a ton of games whose characters were painful to listen to, this game is like balm to the ears. The tone and delivery of each actor always sounds age-appropriate to the character they are playing, whether it's a teenage girl or a middle-aged bank manager.
And as always, the dialogue is a cut above. Again this is an area that causes so many games to crash and burn, but SOC succeeds. There is a good deal of dialogue and slang used in the game that is meant to be period-specific. You might think this would create confusion for a player not familiar with some of these expressions, but they actually work very well and add a level of authenticity that is most welcome.
At this point, Her Interactive has a successful formula with their Nancy Drew games that almost always results in a captivating game. But should they rest on their laurels? As the twelfth game in their venerable series, they've reached a point where these games could start to stagnate if they don't continue to make improvements. Specifically, they need to take their character design to the next level. They have the voice work and dialogue for their characters down to a science, but now they need to bring the graphic design to that level. The use of sound also needs to be re-thought. I really feel these games could benefit from dropping their reliance on looped soundtracks in favour of an expanded library of ambient sounds. This has been very successful in other games, and I think it could be in this series, as well. However, despite these remaining weaknesses overall, Secret of the Old Clock is still an enjoyable Nancy Drew title that would be a welcome addition to the library of both Senior and Junior detectives.
Spunky teenager Nancy Drew, though celebrating her 75th birthday, once again proves why she is still relevant in the 21st century.