Nancy Drew: Shadow at the Water’s Edge review
In Nancy Drew: Shadow at the Water’s Edge, Nancy gets to spend time in the Land of the Rising Sun. Since I have been obsessed with Japan since watching Shogun, I was excited that Her Interactive selected this location for their newest mystery. And indeed, there is plenty of Japanese culture to absorb. Nancy spends her days in Kyoto teaching English to school children, while at night she stays in an authentic ryokan, or traditional Japanese guest house. It has paper sliding walls, traditional Tatami mats, a beautiful garden, and a real sense of history. It is also apparently haunted, giving the teen sleuth a much-needed mystery to fill her spare time. These otherworldly aspirations are never particularly compelling, as it turns out, but even so, there are interesting characters to meet and plenty to see and do in this otherwise solid installment.
Only moments after Nancy arrives, a portrait of the innkeeper’s long-dead daughter Kazumi crashes to the ground. But the innkeeper Takae and her granddaughter Miwako won’t admit there is anything unnatural happening. They insist there are no ghosts, and that the persistent rumours and concerns from guests are just the product of confused interpretations: shadows from branches moving across the paper walls mistaken for human forms, strange noises caused by the ancient structure. But no matter how loudly they protest, the inn has amassed a reputation and has now become a destination for ghost hunters while scaring away all the other guests. Luckily, Nancy is not alone in Kyoto, as Bess and George have come along as well. They are attending a conference, so while Nancy teaches and sleuths, they learn about new inventions and technology and take advantage of Kyoto’s night life. Fortunately, they are able to multi-task and help Nancy out from time to time.
As you begin to investigate, you’ll learn that the Japanese are enthralled with hauntings and good ghost stories. They also consider the number 4 to be bad luck, so it is a little disconcerting when Nancy discovers her room has mysteriously been changed from number 24 to 4. But Nancy doesn’t get really suspicious until she has her own supernatural encounter. Still, being the inquisitive sort, she’s not prepared to believe in ghosts just yet. Could someone be trying to make guests think the ryokan is haunted on purpose?
I was happily surprised by how many locations there are to explore, adding up to a considerable play time of about 15-20 hours. The biggest environment is the ryokan itself, with its many rooms, bath houses, and guest spaces like the garden. Most of the characters you meet are here, but there is also a bento stand where you meet Miwako’s sister, Yumi, whose apartment you’ll also visit. Finally, there is an arcade where you need to play the slot machines to win credits so you can purchase various items from time to time.
As the older sister, Yumi is the one rightfully destined to take over the ryokan, or so says her mother. Too bad Yumi has other things in mind, causing all kinds of family strife. Yumi hustled away to the city as fast as her high heels could take her. She is an extrovert who makes her own, shall we say… fairy tale-inspired clothing, and runs off at the mouth every chance she gets. She also becomes fast friends with Bess and George and texts you pictures of the three of them throughout the game. Yumi has never met a boundary she doesn’t like to charge past.
Miwako looks after the front desk and seems to have a deft touch with the guests. She and her robotic cat, Suki, greet new guests and provide help to current ones. Suki is an interesting companion, and Miwako has taught her how to do some tricks. I mean, who doesn’t want a robotic cat that does tricks? Later in the game, you will need to track down the man who created these felines and complete a giant Sudoku puzzle in return for the programmed commands for Suki. When you get them, I suggest trying them all out, as Suki is a very entertaining cat.
While at the ryokan, its proprietress Takae is going to make sure you get a good grounding in Japanese culture. She will teach you Japanese calligraphy, the proper way to brew and serve tea, and how to master origami. To some people these minigames might be viewed as make-work projects, but I didn’t find them so. I quite enjoyed them, and thought it was a clever way to include some cultural education in the game.
Besides Takae and Miwako, you also have the game’s comic relief, Rentaro. Rentaro is Miwako’s boyfriend and the inn’s handyman. He lives next door but spends so much time in the garden shed he might as well move a bed in there. While Rentaro seems to be good humoured about helping out, he also lets Nancy know he wants Miwako to move away with him, which seems to be something that Miwako just can’t bring herself to do.
Rentaro also happens to be the resident Sudoku champ. This boy loves numbers, and he soon convinces Nancy to try Nonogram, Sudoku, and Renogram. If it were up to Rentaro, Nancy would get no sleuthing done, she would be too busy playing these games. Unlike Rentaro, I felt there were too many of these number-based puzzles in the game, and a little more variety would have been welcome. In fairness, most are not difficult to do once you figure them out, but they are time-consuming, and I wonder how well some real “Junior Detectives” might do with them. I can see younger players getting quite bored.
There is also a good chance most players will need to make use of the “Try Again” feature. If you aren’t careful and ask the wrong questions, you can get kicked out of the ryokan, or if you don’t work fast enough you may end up getting knocked out. The most challenging timed puzzle took me four tries to solve within the allotted time. It isn’t a difficult puzzle, simply putting pieces of coloured glass together in a mirror image, but it does take time to figure out and you can’t save your progress midway. If you don’t finish in time, you have to start over from the beginning.
This brings us to my least favourite part of the game. Yumi insists that Nancy help her make bento boxes for her customers. A bento box is a single-portion takeout meal in a box-shaped container. In this case, you have three types of food: sandwiches, eggs, and rice, which are shaped like either a rabbit, a bear, a pig, or a cat. I can’t even tell you how much I came to dislike bento, and I have never even eaten it. Unfortunately, you have to solve this puzzle not just once, but on three separate occasions. After spending close to three hours trying to organize my second box as per Yumi’s not-at-all-clear directions, I threw my hands up and restarted the game on the easier setting. I strongly encourage you to do the same from the start, especially since the bento instructions are specifically geared towards this version. Either way, this task also leads me to ask, why is Her Interactive so obsessed with food preparation? I don’t think I have played a Nancy Drew game where there isn’t a totally contrived project that revolves around preparing food of some sort. It’s getting old.
As in previous games, Shadow at the Water’s Edge has an inventory and task list. I have never really needed the task list before this game, but I really liked it here. I got off-task a few times and found it very helpful to refresh my memory. The inventory also works well, including certain objects that you can zoom in on. The handiest item you collect is a Japanese dictionary that can be used to translate signs and messages that cross your path.
One shiny new edition to the game’s interface is conference calling on your cell phone. This is handy, as occasionally you need to talk with Bess and George at the same time. Another thing that works well is the subway system. Each subway station has a large map which shows all the stations. At first you need to figure out the course from the station you are at to the one you need to reach. When you have plotted out the path, you just click on the name of each station you need to pass through to arrive at your destination. You can later go back to the ryokan or any other station you have visited directly, with no more jumping from connection to connection.
The cutscenes and graphics seem to be slightly refined from the last game in the series, with extra detail added to the environment to give them more depth. I have always found the presentation in Nancy Drew mysteries to be very efficient, using a more simplistic design than other games, but in this game the graphics appear more realistic. As usual, there are a number of little animations that add a bit of extra charm, like the bamboo fountain in the garden or the twirling advertising sign outside the arcade.
Too bad you still can’t explore more of what you see. Shadow at the Water’s Edge uses the same clunky game engine as the last few entries, so you can take advantage of some intermittent choppy 360-degree panning and zoom in on a few select objects, but mostly you can only move along defined paths: left, right, up, down. Still, one of the nice things about these games is that the environments tend to be quite contained, which helps to stay focused on what’s important. If you get stuck, you just need to go back and talk to everyone you can until you tweak on what it is you need to do next. This usually resolves any confusion you have and you are on your way again.
The soundtrack is made up of a number of Japanese-inspired scores, including one that uses taiko drums. They put out a big, deep thump that gives those scenes a real sense of urgency. At other times you’ll hear a Japanese lyre, with the high-pitched bing bing that you hear so often in sushi restaurants. The soundscape also includes a variety of ambient effects, from a crackling fire in the ryokan lobby to the slow trickle of water filling one bamboo garden tube before it tips and pours into another in the garden. Voicework is a bit of a mixed bag. By far the standout is Rentaro, who also gets most of the best lines to deliver. Miwako is also very good, and both sound sufficiently like Japanese people speaking English. Other characters… not so much. Yumi, for instance, sounds a lot like any young woman you would meet in North America, while Takae's accent sounds forced and unnatural a great deal of the time.
Unfortunately, while the mystery here is supposedly about a ghost, which could have provided some chilling moments, so many elements of the haunting appear to be rip-offs from Japanese-inspired horrors like The Ring that it comes off as inauthentic. The designers were clearly trying to capture some of that unearthly fear such movies excel at, but I just never felt any bona fide tingles during the haunting portions. The story loses a lot of momentum as a result, leaving the game feeling more like a neutered Japanese horror film than a compelling Nancy Drew mystery.
While the storyline never really delivers on its suspenseful potential and we are still waiting for a new game engine that allows for expanded exploration, Nancy Drew: Shadow at the Water’s Edge does have a lot of good things going for it. The locale is exotic and the cultural education exercises are a clever touch. There is a great deal of character interaction to enjoy, and most of the characters are quite entertaining. For these reasons, I think most players who already like the franchise will enjoy this game, but I doubt it will win any new converts. So many of the puzzles revolve around number games, and there are several make-work activities that can become tedious and frustrating, particularly the dreaded bento box puzzle. Still, it’s a welcome excursion to a fascinating place, giving the game a distinct flavour. Let’s hope that Nancy keeps travelling the world in her future adventures, just so long as they come with their own chefs from now on.