In Nancy Drew: Ransom of the Seven Ships, Nancy’s friend Bess seems to have luck on her side. Bess has won a trip to the Bahamas and she decides to take Nancy and George as her “plus two”. Bess and George fly out a day before Nancy, but as soon as Nancy’s plane touches down on the island, she learns that Bess has been kidnapped. It seems the two girls found a welcome letter when they arrived, inviting them to watch the sunset at Sangre beach. Only Bess went, but when she didn’t come home, George went to look for her and found only a ransom note.
This note seems to be clearly meant for Nancy. Someone connected with either the island or the teen sleuth seems to know a lot about our girl’s powers of deduction and wants to blackmail her into doing a little treasure hunting for them. As it turns out, this island may be home to the riches of Captain General Juan Ignacio de Santa Ana Domingo, better known as El Toro. A trusted follower of the Spanish throne in the 1600s, he was charged with extracting and transporting the wealth of the new world to Spain. El Toro and his seven ships were laden with treasure for the home country, but were lost in a storm. Or were they? Someone seems to think the treasure still exists and is buried on the island the girls are vacationing on. This someone also seems to figure Nancy has the right credentials to find it, and engineered the contest with an eye to kidnapping Nancy’s friends and forcing her to search for it. And so begins Nancy’s 20th PC adventure.
As with other games in this series, there is a lot of reading to do at the beginning of the game, not only to get your bearings on the island, but also to provide clues for the various minigames you will encounter as you begin to explore. There is much to know, such as how to communicate with the island’s troop of monkeys, call bats in the island’s caves, or interpret flag signals. A lot of the story is driven by El Toro’s journal, which Nancy finds early on and includes a large amount of background information on his ship’s treasure and the island itself. It is loaded with clues that push the plot forward and propel Nancy around the island and its waters. Much of the action takes place either on the beach, on a boat, or in the ocean. In fact, Nancy spends a great deal of this game underwater. Her time is divided between trying to win back items the island’s klepto monkeys steal, outsmarting a beach bum, diving to wrecks and caves in search of items, and sailing around trying to find these dive sites.
The island itself is quite large, requiring the use of a golf cart to reach most locations. There is a handy map on the wall of the scuba diving centre that shows the island roads, indicating which to take to get to the different locations. Some of these stops include Sangre Beach, Shark Cove, and the Monkey Research Centre. With so much territory to cover, you spend a lot of time manually driving back and forth in an overhead view of the island, rather than simply transporting to your destinations automatically. Luckily, there are signs of tracks off-road here and there. You soon learn you can follow these shortcuts, which cut down on your drive time. But the island isn’t the only place Nancy has to explore. The deeper you get into the game, the more Nancy will need to go to various places off the island and into the ocean. This requires that Nancy learn to dive and sail. What tropical island would be complete without water sports?
Surprisingly, there isn’t a huge amount of human interaction in the game, as Nancy really only speaks with two other characters: George and Johnny Rolle, a Jamaican fisherman. Rolle never seems to be totally honest with Nancy, and goes through a number of transformations as the game progresses. Either he is on the lam, as he says, or he is in on the plot. We are never quite sure which, as his story seems to change to accommodate circumstances. For most of the adventure, George is busy trying to get the resort phone to work. However, you do have the opportunity to play as George from time to time, and she comes through in style with key assistance to Nancy at one point.
Ransom represents George’s first actual appearance in a Nancy Drew game, and switching to her is accomplished by using the walkie talkies that George and Nancy carry. When one calls the other, the player jumps to the recipient’s character. This is especially helpful when Nancy is busy exploring far away and needs George to handle some monkey business. The voice work done for Bess (who, being kidnapped, plays only a minor role) and George is very good. Nancy, of course, is voiced by the same actress who has been her audio ego from the start. Johnny seems to wobble from one accent to another through the game as more is revealed about his character, some more believable then others.
Though the island appears to be pretty deserted, it actually does teem with characters -- they just happen to be of the animal variety. First is CouCou, the resort’s resident comedian parrot who will do tricks for treats and constantly implores Nancy to forage for him. He tends to repeat dialogue ad nauseum and can become annoying if you are forced to be near him for a long periods of time. Then there is the troop of monkeys, remnants of the monkey research station once located on the island. These monkeys love to play games, which they usually win, and to steal anything that isn’t nailed down. If something is missing, you can count on having to play a game with one of the monkeys to get it back.
More than most Nancy Drew adventures, Ransom of the Seven Ships seems to consist of a long series of mostly standalone puzzles and minigames. Some are easy enough to figure out through simple mathematical calculations, like a golf cart water puzzle. Others simply take some time and perseverance, like an octopus box puzzle where you have to move a series of lines to create a group of squares. One particular keypad puzzle at the resort doesn’t offer much information right away, so I thought there would be more provided further on in the game, only to later learn this wasn’t to be, leaving me just to put my head down and try to figure it out.
While some may miss the more multi-layered puzzles woven into previous mysteries, these standalone challenges work fine here. They don’t require the kind of dogged exploration and note-taking that bigger puzzles do, but they can be fun for exactly that reason. Usually you have all the tools you need with you to solve them: your own tenacity and ingenuity. Most of these puzzles are not actually that difficult, though you may need to repeat some steps or re-read El Toro’s journal to pick up the hints he has laid out. Some, like the octopus box puzzle, are done underwater and need to be done quickly so that Nancy doesn’t run out of air. But if you save often, most of these obstacles can be easily overcome.
The downside to this approach to gameplay is that there are several minigames that are heavily based on hand-eye coordination, making them so difficult to win that the sheer frustration of solving them almost negates any and all pleasure you’ve had so far in the game. This is most unfortunate, and the words I would like to use to describe these games aren’t suitable for print, so just take my word for it: when it is time to play with the monkeys, think patience and fortitude, and make yourself really comfortable, as you’ll likely be there a while. Every Nancy Drew game has one or more of these make-work types of minigames in it. They are never popular, are almost always cited by critics and fans as being a weak point in the game, and yet you can always count on finding new ones.
In this adventure, it is the Coconut Toss. It took me 2 hours and 44 tries before I won. Doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, does it? (Fun being what games should largely be about.) For those who fare better, I wish I had been you; sadly, I am me, and 44 tries at any puzzle is sure to make you question the worth of a game. And it is not just the many, many tries required that irritates, but the fact that with each failure you have to continually re-enter the puzzle from the beginning, going through a series of rote actions. You’re not simply given the opportunity to just play again, which adds another barrier to an already annoying task. There are a few other puzzles like this in the game as well. Not nearly as difficult to solve, just repetitive and time-consuming, like finding CouCou a new perch (picky bird!).
As for Nancy, Ransom of the Seven Ships is one of the more dangerous games she has been in. While scuba diving, along with the continuous possibility of running out of air or resurfacing too quickly, she also seems to be a jellyfish magnet. When rock climbing, she is forced to dodge boulders the monkeys throw at her from above, possibly knocking her to the ground. Luckily, Nancy is given a second chance to try again in each of these instances if she does suffocate or fall, but I would still recommend saving before beginning either task. I think Nancy holds up pretty well under all this danger, although I can’t say she will ever develop a fondness for jellyfish, painful little buggers.
One area where I wish the Nancy Drew series would move forward is in allowing for 360-degree perspectives. When I want to explore more in a game, I’d like to be able to at least look at everything around me, if not move in any direction I wish. Most adventure gamers want the ability to peer around every corner and get their nose up close to objects, but that just isn’t possible in this game. While the first-person, slideshow-style navigation that moves you from node-to-node works fine, it is still limited in most cases to 3 or 4 directions, as only rarely can you look around from any given spot. Screen rotation has been around for years, and every time I play a new Nancy Drew game, I hope the developers have heard me on this, but so far my wishes have been denied. I can’t help wanting more.
Nor have there been any significant improvements to the rest of the presentation, though here at least no real enhancements were necessary. Ransom features the same point-and-click interface the series has used for the last three games. The graphics are colourful, displaying the exotic island with its pink sandy beaches and glistening blue pools, but it all feels flat and rather unimmersive. Slightly more dynamic are the small sets of animations scattered around the island, like water lapping and monkeys monkeying around, though none will make you really feel like you’re there yourself. There is looped music throughout the game, most of it with Caribbean-styled bongs and chimes used very well in each piece. It reminded me of being on holiday, a pleasant sensation that works for a game that is supposed to be about three friends on vacation at an island resort. There are ambient sounds also sprinkled in, like the ocean lapping and exotic birds chirping to each other, which combine to set the right tone for its tropical location.
While Ransom doesn’t boast anything new technologically, it does offer much of what sleuths have come to expect from Nancy Drew adventures: lots of puzzles, an interesting locale, and a nicely developed story. The puzzles are largely a standalone variety this time, but that makes for a nice change from the series norm. The chance to play the game as George is also an interesting and welcome addition, allowing players the opportunity to view Nancy in action, if only from a distance, rather than just seeing the action through her eyes. I would certainly have liked to see 360-degree movement added to the game, and will continue to look for it in future, as the limited viewpoint and movement can at times create a feeling of inertia. This is probably the game’s greatest shortfall. However, Her Interactive seems to have the formula down on almost all other fronts.
That formula does includes some repetitive minigames that more often than not try the player’s patience rather than add enjoyment to the experience, but fortunately these frustrations are infrequent enough that they subside as you enjoy the better parts of the game. Overall, I think this game will be good for newcomers due to the large number of standalone obstacles. Long time series fans may not be so enamoured of these, and certainly a number are just thinly disguised make-work projects that we can all live without, but there's enough of interest here for everyone. Combined, they contribute to making Ransom of the Seven Ships one of the longer Nancy Drew games, taking me about 18 hours to finish the game in Senior Detective mode. But hey, no one ever said that finding buried treasure would be a vacation, even for Nancy Drew.