It is always fun to hang out with Nancy Drew. She usually has great places to go, strange people to meet, and clever things to keep her busy, as hundreds of books and seventeen previous PC adventures would attest. The latest case in point is The Phantom of Venice, as you and Nancy get to spend time on the canals of the scenic city, go shopping for Carnevale costumes, and learn a little Italian. This should all add up to a great time spent together. And for the most part it does, but with a few notable exceptions.
The Phantom of Venice has all the elements we have come to expect from a Nancy Drew game, with a new cast of offbeat characters, another exotic locale and lots of different types of puzzles. And where would we be without a mystery to solve? This time around, Nancy has been enlisted to track down a cat burglar, the elusive “Phantom of Venice”. It seems that this phantom has been stealing valuable objects of art from a number of places in Venice, leaving nary a clue to his or her identity. The police are stumped, and you, as Nancy Drew, have been recruited to go undercover to give them a hand. You even get to stay at a beautiful palazzo on the Grand Canal owned by a Contessa. So far so good.
While I usually love the eccentric characters in most of the Nancy Drew games, I found some of the actors in this installment a little over the top. One of the game’s potential baddies is a character named Colin. A tessera (decorative tile)-loving, reformed art liberator, he is working on restoring a number of the mosaics at the villa where Nancy is staying. He greets her warmly when they meet; a little too warmly -- almost lustfully, really. I also found the voice work for him a bit cringe-inducing. While the other characters are variously burdened by their own crosses, delivering chunks of dialogue in a second language or with heavy accents, Colin is the weak link, as his character just tends to grate. Maybe this is what the designers were hoping for, but if so they were a little too successful.
The soundtrack for the game, while pleasant, is so understated that I barely noticed it. It consists of individual tracks attuned to various locations in the game, and to specific situations the gamer needs to figure out. There are a number of ambient sounds, especially water. Face it, Venice is on water and surrounded by water, so you naturally hear a lot of it. But you also get to overhear a lot of Italian being spoken throughout the game. Usually it is just background noise, but there were times I wished I could understand it so I knew what was being said. It felt like there was an in-game joke and I was missing it. Unfortunately, what little Italian you’re required to learn in the game isn’t nearly enough to understand the chatter, though it does become an important puzzle-solving skill during the game.
The graphics for the game include the new character modeling introduced in Nancy’s last adventure. Here they spice up the game just as nicely. The model for Helena Berg, an ‘in the know’ German reporter staying at the same villa as Nancy, is especially well done. When she speaks in a conspiratorial way, her face crumples all in on itself, like she is trying to make the words softer by condensing her facial features. The model for the Countess Margherita Fauberg, on the other hand, is not as distinct in its features. There don’t seem to be any unique characteristics, unlike most of the other people. She appears in some respects to be melting away in the sun she cherishes, bathing under it all day.
As for the rest of the game’s graphics, they are very colourful, as one would expect in a vibrant place like Venice. I just wish I could have seen a little bit more of Nancy’s world. The game just doesn’t include a lot of different environments to roam, nor are you able to truly explore the scenery. Sadly, you are not able to walk along the Grand Canal, only look at it from your bedroom balcony or from the front of your palazzo. Yes, you can pay to take a gondola ride, but even this doesn’t offer much chance for a closer look as the trip is made up of mostly static images.
This is a recurring issue for the Nancy Drew games, but one made all the more pronounced in a place so deserving of sightseeing. Her Interactive has always done a great job with the core elements of a Nancy Drew mystery, but it would be nice to feel a little more incorporated into Nancy’s environment. Nancy goes to all these fabulous places, but the gamer can barely explore them, since in most locations you don’t have the ability to move or even look in any more than the four cardinal directions. If nothing else, consistent 360-degree panning would go a long way towards fixing that. While a few locations do allow players to pan horizontally, many do not, and the panning movement itself is stilted and choppy when available. You most certainly can not just look up. Or down. What is the use of having a balcony in your room to view the Grand Canal when all you get is three very limited views? Since exploration is such a key aspect of adventure games, and detective mysteries in particular, such player restrictions are a real hindrance that should no longer occur in such a popular franchise as Nancy Drew.Continued on the next page...