As comfortable and familiar as the Nancy Drew games have become, with Nancy now on her 19th sleuthing adventure, it's becoming increasingly difficult to not expect improvements in each game in the series without ruining what makes the franchise so appealing in the first place. Regrettably, The Haunting of Castle Malloy does little to push the series forward, even taking a small step back in some respects. There are some challenging and quite varied puzzles to play with here, but an uninteresting cast of characters and predictable plot means that it lacks the intrigue of some of the better earlier games.
This time around, Nancy has been asked to be a Maid of Honour to Kyler Mallory for her wedding in a family castle in Ireland. After flying to Dublin and renting a car, Nancy is talking to her boyfriend Ned on the cell phone while driving (tut tut) when a mysterious shape crosses her path, causing the car to crash. Upon exploring the surrounding area, Nancy comes across the infamous Castle Malloy, where she discovers that the wedding has been called off on account of the husband-to-be's shocking disappearance. Has Matt suffered a case of cold feet or has he fallen victim to the castle's rumoured ghost? Or is it all just a big practical joke? Once again, it's down to Nancy to get to the bottom of the mystery and solve the case.
Nancy Drew games have never been known for their particularly deep narratives, but Castle Malloy's storyline simply feels a little too recycled. Occasional encounters with a white-gowned woman adds weight to the possibility of a banshee haunting Castle Malloy, but clearly all is not what it seems. During her stay, Nancy comes across mysterious swamps and fairy rings located within the castle grounds that offer more clues about Matt's sudden disappearing act. In the process of investigating, she also discovers the troubled past of the castle and its secrets that have been kept hidden for many years. The names and faces are all different here, but the plot itself feels very similar to a few other games in the series, and although there are a couple of small twists towards the end, none of it really captivates as much as it sounds.
Very early in the game, Nancy will meet the prospective bride, Donal Delaney the eccentric Brit-hating castle caretaker, and Kit Foley, best friend of the missing groom. In the later stages, you'll meet two more characters, but otherwise that is pretty much it for the entire game. While the cast size resembles that of other Nancy Drew games, for there to be so few characters to interact with throughout the entire adventure is something of a disappointment. Maybe that’s because, with the exception of Donal and his tales of fairies spiriting strangers away from the castle, none of the characters are particularly interesting. Dialogues can be quite tedious, as topics of conversation are often too similar and tend to feel drawn out even when unravelling new bits of information. In terms of voice acting, the standard is pretty reasonable, as always, with Kit Foley appropriately sporting an American accent and Donal using a distinct Irish dialect.
To begin the adventure, only a small selection of rooms inside the castle are available to explore. The décor is suitably medieval, with suits of knight armour lined up along the hallway, while a rocking chair wrapped with cobwebs sits idly within the nursery. Subtle but moody music sets the atmosphere quite nicely, and the odd scream from the banshee at least gives the scenes an air of menace. As you progress, it becomes possible to explore the grounds of the castle. With the entire game set during the course of a single night, all locations are noticeably a mixture of grey and green tones. In a way this actually works against the game, as it means the locations lack any real visual diversity, and as a result are quite bland in appearance. While you'll get to visit the local pub at one stage, there aren't any other places to visit in town, which ultimately makes it feel like an abandoned village. Backgrounds, character models and animations sport the realistic style of previous Nancy Drew games, yet at times the environments appears grainy and lacking detail. There are a couple of cinematics during the adventure that are quite impressively done, however, and have a definite impact.
The Haunting of Castle Malloy continues to use the refined point-and-click interface of the previous few iterations. The cursor changes when there is an item that can be interacted with or a character to address, while the bottom portion of the screen features an icon for your inventory as well as journal entries and a task list (the latter only in Junior mode). As usual, you can choose between Junior and Senior Detective modes, with the former offering some easier puzzles for younger gamers, and even some tutorials from the main menu for those unaccustomed to adventures and in need of handy hints. The navigation method is the same as previous games, with arrows at the sides of the screen indicating the node directions that Nancy can move. Between these explorable environments, however, the game also includes an overhead view of Nancy on a map screen, controlled by holding down the mouse button while guiding where she walks. This takes place every time you exit the castle to reach its grounds or leave for the nearby village. When Nancy reaches a location that can be entered, it is highlighted and a simple mouse click switches the view to the standard first-person perspective.
Some of the puzzles include devising a seating plan by making sure each guest is placed next to the correct person, arranging dolls in a dollhouse and moving weights across scales based on the elements of the periodic table. There are also puzzles involving runes, and following maps and reading books provide useful clues for your journey. Most of these puzzles are reasonably varied in their type and some can be quite challenging. In fact, at times they’re a little unbalanced in their difficulty; one minute they're too easy and the next incredibly hard, and many of the later puzzles are science-based, which will not appeal to everyone. And while Nancy Drew games are known for having unexpected deaths as part of the adventure, this is especially true of The Haunting of Castle Malloy. There are quite a few instances where you can die without any warning, particularly when solving an incredibly tricky chemical puzzle near the end of the game. This puzzle involves moving a claw around a board to put together a chemical solution, made especially difficult by the fact that the slightest collision with an object results in instant death. As the claw itself is imprecise in movement, this means that death happens far too frequently and makes you want to throw the game out of the nearest window, even if it does automatically restore you to the beginning of the puzzle again.
As often occurs in Nancy Drew games, there is a small selection of mini-games that require completion to progress. A drink-mixing game in the pub is timed, and while you do get a reasonable amount of time to finish it, you’re rewarded with additional coins if done quickly. It's an enjoyable activity, but there are occasions when the game will say the recipe hasn't been carried out successfully without being clear where the problem occurred. There is also a spot-the-difference game that involves clicking on the areas of one picture that are different from another, and a game of darts, where reaching a certain score will result in winning an essential item. Darts is particularly fiddly, with a dart arrow moving before you aim, making it difficult to score what you are targeting. These two games require tokens in order to play, but if you ever run out then simply replaying the drink-mixing section will earn you some more. There is also a drum game that requires quick reflexes, where you have to use the arrow keys and space bar to hit coloured bars in time to the beat, and it’s surprisingly difficult to accomplish. Elsewhere, a sheep-shearing game involves entering codes depending on the behaviour of the sheep, which is actually quite hard to gauge and makes for a frustrating experience. One or two such frustrations are easy to overlook, but they occur a little too often for comfort here.
While The Haunting of Castle Malloy poses a genuine challenge that will take even experienced gamers between 10-15 hours, the unbalanced difficulty of the puzzles and mini-games combined with an uninteresting bunch of characters and locations results in one of the lesser Nancy Drew games on the market. And with really no significant enhancements over previous games in the series, it's difficult to recommend this installment to anyone other than devoted Nancy Drew fans. In many respects it's a decent enough addition to the ever-growing lineup, but newcomers to the series would be best advised to pick up an earlier iteration.