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.
Still, if you can’t see as much as you’d like, there’s always something to do, at least. The Phantom of Venice has a mystery to solve, with lots of puzzles to help you piece together who the burglar is, though none are extremely difficult. That is, with the exception of Scopa. This is a card game Nancy has to play at least twice in the game. That was two times too many for me, since it takes a long time to play to a score of 11, which simply bogs down the pace and feels like nothing more than filler. It is also governed by a complex set of rules that those who hate card games, like me, will wrestle with. I particularly didn’t like that I had to play it a second time in order to get paid, only to never get my hands on the promised cash.
That’s money I could have really used, too, as I had planned to spend it on clothing at the costume store. I just loved the ability to buy new clothes and to dress Nancy up. I actually got a little carried away. But Nancy’s wardrobe is pretty limited when you start, so you need to buy new pieces to flesh it out. This requires money that you’ll need to earn. I spent a lot of extra time doing little make-work projects like picking up garbage for cash, picking and selling flowers, and dancing like a freak at a club for tips to do so. However, though I loved this part of the game, I have a feeling not everyone will be as dedicated to making Nancy as stylish as possible. Nor is it required; I just enjoyed it. If you’d rather just get on with the mystery at hand, the good news is that aside from Scopa, all the busywork that was necessary in previous games is mostly voluntary here. If you are a skinflint from the beginning, you will have enough money to purchase all the objects you need without resorting to chores, so keep this in mind.
Besides the card game, there are a couple of timed puzzles that might get your heart rate up, though as is usual with Nancy Drew games, you’re allowed to simply retry them if unsuccessful. The dancing is necessary at one point, and I struggled with it at first, unable to line up my dance moves with the correct colours and appropriate sounds. It took me several tries to get it right. Of course, I did choose to add to my misery by going back to try again in the name of earning extra money for clothes, so I guess practice makes perfect. You’ll also have a couple of mazes to best, conduct some “B&E” (breaking and entering), do a little reconnaissance, and of course pull a lot of levers. I didn’t care for the mazes, but this type of challenge is often a boring and repetitive way to add length to a game, and this is exactly the case here.
A few other artificial time-wasters are evident as well, such as a door lock you need to pick multiple times and the inefficient navigation map. Usually a way to speed things up, here the map almost slows you down, as you can’t go directly from one spot on the map to your destination, but instead are forced to jump from one site to the next on the map until you finally reach your goal. Yet despite some of this obvious time padding, the light puzzling still makes The Phantom of Venice one of the shorter Nancy Drew games I have played, which surprised me when compared to the previous game in the series. Even with all the extra chores I did to buy clothes for Nancy, I still zoomed through in what felt like record time.
All in all, while still providing a dependable Nancy Drew adventure that fans have come to expect, I just couldn’t help but feel that The Phantom of Venice seems tired, or more specifically, that it’s the latest entry in a series that itself is getting tired. While certainly not something that will impact newcomers, this game has the feel of a house that has had some rooms renovated to good effect, but others that are clearly showing their age. In this case, such improvements as the shopping option and newer character models only tend to highlight the longstanding limitations of the navigation system. It’s high time that players were allowed to explore some of these great places Nancy visits a little more thoroughly. And while the overall house construction is solid, with a storyline as interesting as always and a generally good mix of puzzles, some details managed to slip through the cracks this time around. Specifically, the usually reliable voice work that’s a little shaky in some areas here, as well as a repetitive mini-game and additional fillers that try to conceal its very brief play time. Overall, then, the 18th Nancy Drew adventure is yet another solid addition to the series, but not one of the longer or stronger games.