Adventure Gamers Awards
Her Interactive has been targeting a primarily female audience for some time with their Nancy Drew series, and having read a bit of The Hardy Boys when I was younger, I was intrigued to see how they would handle the new franchise on the Nintendo DS with Treasure on the Tracks. I don’t remember much about the books now, but enough to recall how similar they were to their British equivalent teen detectives, The Famous Five. I was aware, then, that this would be a game aimed at a younger audience and probably wouldn’t run too deep. In fact, I half-expected to find my adult self poking fun at it throughout, much like the South Park episode featuring the ‘Hardly Boys’, but I was pleasantly surprised to encounter a fairly enjoyable game that isn’t strictly for kids.
The plot, like so much other children’s adventure fiction, centres around a search for hidden treasure. The treasure here is that of the Romanov family, hidden during the 1917 Russian revolution. The Tsar left clues to the treasure's location in paintings he had specially commissioned and concealed within items throughout the Royal Express. The train now makes a journey from Paris to St Petersburg every year, and a select few treasure hunters are invited to solve its mystery. This time it’s the Hardy Boys’ turn, but they find themselves up against some suspicious fellow passengers in the quest.
The two main characters in the game are of course Frank and Joe Hardy. Most of the time you will be playing as both them together, but towards the end of the game they split up and you’ll play as one and then the other. Controlling the two boys together is really nothing unusual, as you don’t see either brother with the game’s first-person perspective, though a conversation between them often plays out onscreen. The younger Joe is easily excitable and acts spontaneously while Frank prefers a more logical, calculated method of solving mysteries, but though their differences tend to leave them at odds sometimes, together they come across as likeable characters with their cheeky sense of humour. In addition to the Hardy brothers, you occasionally play as another character, an elusive female spy known as Samantha (among other names), who helps the boys out along the way. I found the inclusion of this character to be uncomfortable at first, as it stopped feeling much like a Hardy Boys adventure without them in it. Her appearances in the game are brief, however, and these segments do add some welcome depth to their story.
There are plenty of other mysterious characters in this game: the pompous Baron Von Ekartsburg believes he is a descendant of the Romanovs and is therefore entitled to the treasure; Carol Stephenson-Hughes is an ambitious British historian, Alexey Konstantriev is one of Europe’s premiere art scholars and clearly knows it; and Isabelle DuPont is a clumsy but well-meaning waitress aboard the Royal Express. All of these characters have a secret they’re hiding, and the Hardy Boys soon have to determine who is willing to go to criminal lengths to find the treasure for themselves. For a game aimed at a younger audience, the characters are fairly interesting and will keep you guessing (for a little while, at least) who the bad guy is. There are no voices in the game, and all dialogue appears in a box on the top screen. The writing is not as simplistic or patronising as you might suspect, and the humour consists of plenty of smart-alec, mildly amusing remarks that would have appealed to me when I was ten years old (and still does a little bit, if I’m honest).
There are two types of locations the player gets to explore in the game: the cities where the Royal Express stops en route, and of course the train itself. Before gaining access to the cities, which include Vienna, Prague, and Warsaw, players must solve an increasingly (but still only mildly) difficult grid puzzle, determining which blocks to fill in to pinpoint the locations the boys must visit. These areas are limited in scale, usually consisting of only two or three places with several screens each. The first location in Paris is even smaller, but as the game progresses the cities become bigger and more interesting. The ultimate goal in most places is to find and decipher the clues in the next painting, but first you’ll need to collect pieces of relevant documentation conveniently scattered nearby. As you walk around, sometimes information is given about that particular location, which seems intended simply to educate rather than add anything to the storyline.
The Royal Express is the real heart of the game, though. There are seven carriages to explore in total, from the dining car to the Tsar’s private quarters. Not all of them are open from the start, so the Hardy Boys will have to keep exploring further as new information and new items are found in the game. Sometimes Frank and Joe will be required to snoop around the other guests’ rooms before the security guard catches them. This is a timed activity, but merely requires you to tap all interactive objects in the room until you find the one of importance. If you get spotted, another minigame begins that has you tap a series of coloured spots that come up on the screen, which you’ll have to keep doing until you get it right. There are other minigame sequences to contend with as well, along with certain puzzles you can fail, either by getting caught or in one case letting a bomb explode. These add some tension, but can easily be attempted again without any kind of penalty. The difficulty here is slightly more advanced, though kids should have no trouble with the reflex-based minigames, and there are always enough clues to help get through the riskier puzzles.Continued on the next page...