Nancy Drew: Warnings at Waverly Academy review
With 21 Nancy Drew adventures in the books, so to speak, Her Interactive has had quite a bit of practice honing their craft, which guarantees a certain degree of polish and reliability but at times gives these games almost an assembly line feel. Many elements are so formulaic that you can guess what is going to happen before it does. This is true of Warnings at Waverly Academy as well, as no new technical or design ground is tread once again. Fortunately, that doesn’t matter this time, as this is far and away the best of the Nancy Drew titles to date, so even if you’ve grown tired of the same old thing, this game warrants another look at the long-running series.
The Nancy Drew mysteries have always had wonderfully colourful characters: eccentric heiresses, corny con artists, loony clothing designers, you name it. It is one of the series’ greatest strengths, and in Warnings at Waverly Academy, you land smack dab in the middle of Mean Girls, USA. Catfights, backstabbing, boyfriend stealing, it’s all here. Her Interactive doesn’t cut Nancy any slack in the world of privileged, spoiled-rotten prep school girls. These girls have their own culture, as Nancy learns within moments of her arrival.
And what is Nancy doing at this bastion of scions and snotty girls? To use the local parlance: Duh… like, solving a mystery. It seems someone is taking out possible Valedictorian candidates at Waverly, one girl at a time. A few weeks prior, girls started receiving threatening notes from a mysterious ‘Black Cat’. The first note is just a warning, but whenever a second note is received, it is usually followed by an unfortunate accident. The latest crisis resulted in a girl going to the hospital with a life-threatening allergic reaction. As you can imagine, this hasn’t gone over so well with worried parents, who are spending the equivalent of a vacation home in the Hamptons for their daughters to get a first-class education.
But why all the fuss? Well, the Valedictorian gets a full scholarship to the Ivy League school of their choice. Not a bad incentive to encourage learning… or maybe some malicious plotting instead. With the halls packed with two-faced lassies, it’s going to be hard for Nancy to sort out the tough talk from the criminal behaviour. And there is plenty of talk. These girls make grand accusations, gossip relentlessly, easily and quickly pass judgment, and talk trash about each other non-stop.
To start with, your new roomie, the twitchy Corine, has a runaway mouth that never seems to slow down, and she is less than thrilled with your arrival just before a huge paper is due. After getting batted about by her, you walk right into Waverly’s reigning queen bee. Izzy makes a few backhanded comments in your direction, quickly letting you know that your status on the social totem pole is right at the bottom, and then sets up your cell to receive campus emails and texts. Little do you know at the time that these girls have taken texting to the next level, and within minutes of Izzy leaving you receive your first text, and guess what: it’s gossip about you! That was fast!
The more you explore, the better you’ll get to know Nancy’s fellow classmates along the way. Next door is Mel, a self-proclaimed outcast who desperately wishes she wasn’t. Then there’s Rachel, an anxiety-ridden overachiever who wastes no time in assigning tasks for you to complete, since as she says, “you have nothing else to do.” Then there is Leela, the boyish star athlete and über-competitive schoolmate who expects you to play both air hockey and darts against her. With so many strong and conflicting personalities, it’s going to take all your powers of deduction to figure out who’s the Black Cat.
I can’t say enough about how good the voice work is. Considering that you’re dealing with a group of teenage girls who range between Izzy’s passive aggressive barbs, the disconnected tones of the cello-playing emo chick Mel, and the super-high-pitched whine of Rachel, it is quite an achievement to hit just the right note for everyone, but they’re all spot on here. Because there are so many characters, a great deal of the game’s momentum is driven by interacting with them. Everyone is willing to gossip or offer an opinion on everyone else, and thankfully the dialogue is equally great. You get lots of useful info by talking to each character, but it does take some thought to sort out the invective from the truth. And the truth just might be that the Black Cat is hiding something more important than the desire to be Valedictorian. In fact, one of the school’s founding teachers had nursed Edgar Allen Poe in his final days, and may have absconded with copies of his last texts and hidden them somewhere in the school. Is this really all about getting a scholarship to the right University?
The environment is pretty much limited to the Academy’s dorm wing, though there is occasion to go outside a few times. While this may sound confining, I found it generally helped me figure out where I should go next. What is available is plenty of fun to explore, like the school’s beautiful library where you spend a lot of time doing research, and each girl has put her own unique stamp on her room, like Mel’s décor of bright pink, spiders and art. As with previous games, movement is usually limited to four directions at any one time. There are certain places where panning is available, but it is pretty limited. As always with these games, I find this lack of movement and free perspective gives Warnings at Waverly Academy a static slideshow kind of feel.
There are a few cinematics and small animations to liven up the experience, but they are a very small part of the game. The graphics themselves are pleasant and colourful; it just would have been nice to be able to look more closely at the details, like the many awards and objects in the glass cases, or even the walls of books in the library. The ambient sound in the game, from owls cooing to mice squeaking, does help to create a more immersive atmosphere, but ultimately these games will continue to suffer in this area until a game engine comes along that can handle greater exploration.
The simple point-and-click navigation isn’t the only returning feature, as Warnings at Waverly Academy includes some make-work projects. Every Nancy Drew adventure has them, and this game is no exception. Lucky you, this time you get to man the snack bar. This exercise gave me a White Wolf of Icicle Creek feeling of déjà vu. What is the fixation with preparing and serving food in this series? While it is not difficult work, it is time consuming and has to be done at least once a day. Waverly has a demerit system, and students who don’t do assigned duties get points deducted, which I found out the hard way when I crawled out my bedroom window at the wrong time. If you lose too many you can get penalized, but I never lost enough to find out what happens if you do. The upside of playing reluctant food server? Well, the girls do like to trade rumours while waiting to pick up their snacks. You can find out all the dirty deeds at Waverly by baking up a batch of cookies.
The snack bar example brings me to my next point: I wish Nancy wasn’t so helpful. She tires me out. Sometimes I wish she would just learn to say no. Don’t these people understand we are on a case? Mysteries don’t solve themselves, and they certainly don’t get solved when the sleuth is busy running pointless errands and making sandwiches for bratty prep girls.
Happily though, much of Nancy’s kindness leads her into some interesting puzzles and exploration. For instance, though Rachel seriously threatens to monopolize all Nancy’s time with her demands, activities like photographing prominent school features are good for getting out and exploring the Academy. In fact, the majority of puzzles blend quite seamlessly into what is going on in the game. Whether it is playing air hockey against Leela for information or stealing back items that could be crucial clues, each task seems to fall at exactly the right place. I didn’t hit one brainteaser I wasn’t prepared for and I never got mired down. This is quite an accomplishment, especially when you consider the variety of challenges the game includes, from simple hand-eye minigames like playing darts to logic puzzles like sorting out valve sequences on an ancient furnace.
As with other Nancy Drew games, there is a book she picks up that acts as a puzzle compass, providing you with clues that continually point you in the right direction. The hardest puzzle, by far, is the one in which Nancy literally has to retrace a squirrel’s exact steps to the top of the large oak outside her window. This wouldn’t be nearly as difficult if the squirrel you're following wasn’t so fast! I suggest saving before the squirrel gallops up the tree. There is also some inventory gathering to do, such as picking up the occasional key or blueprints. Despite the variety of activities, however, at its core this game is about character interaction. Talking with the girls, sifting through what to believe and follow up on and what to discard, is easily what Nancy spends the majority of her time doing. Fortunately, it is also the most fun to do.
Nancy and I have travelled quite a few miles together. To me her games have something of an old shoe feel, broken in and well worn, very comfortable and safe. But even so, sometimes the ageless sleuth still has the capacity to kick it up a notch and sparkle brighter than usual. When the basic formula is supplemented by inspired character interaction and regular weaknesses like make-work projects are toned down to manageable levels, these games are able to deliver a wonderful experience for all ages. Nancy Drew: Warnings at Waverly Academy is just such an adventure, and a lengthy one to boot, likely taking Senior Detectives about fifteen hours to play and Juniors a little longer. It’s the best game in the series so far, and it will be thoroughly enjoyed by new and old players alike. So get gossiping!
The best Nancy Drew adventure to date, Warnings at Waverly Academy will give any player a first-hand education in mean girls, which is a surprising amount of fun.