Nancy Drew: The Captive Curse review
Once upon a time . . . make that once upon the 24th time, a young sleuth named Nancy Drew set out to solve a mystery called The Captive Curse. This time around, Nancy finds herself in Bavaria attempting to discover the secrets behind a creepy monster reported to be haunting an imposing castle. A fine mixture of German culture, great supporting characters, and a dash of local folklore provides a pleasant backdrop for some complex puzzles to be solved at Castle Finster. Unfortunately, this adventure is streamlined almost to a fault, and a dearth of scene diversity and suspects make this outing an exercise in random wandering at times, with not much in the way of fairy tale magic or mystery.
A wealthy German investor named Marcus calls Nancy for help with a fabulous castle that he owns, whose denizens and employees are terrified by sightings of a mysterious beast. What makes the tale more intriguing is that the castle has a long history of monster sightings and missing girls. In typical Nancy Drew fashion, upon her arrival Nancy begins interviewing a small but colorful cast of characters. You’ll meet Lukas, the impish son of the castle’s head of security; Anja, the fiery castellan; Karl, the game-obsessed burgermeister (mayor); and Renate, a mysterious tourist who always seems to visit the castle whenever the monster makes its appearance. It’s a shame there aren’t more of them, however, as having such a limited cast drastically reduces the number of suspects in the game, making it fairly easy to guess the final outcome long before Nancy.
You’ll conduct your investigation by delving into each character’s knowledge of the monster’s history, and this is where the game really shines. Dialogue is as simple as clicking through a long series of options, but character animations are well done, adding depth and personality to each character. Lukas, seemingly abandoned in the castle by his family, is a merry prankster. His eyes open wide in feigned innocence, and he’ll duck down beneath a table to whisper something secret to Nancy. Anja, who also runs the castle’s gift shop, bangs the counter for emphasis, cocks an eyebrow, and narrows her eyes when revealing critical information.
Supporting the great character animations is some delightful acting and humorous dialogue. When Karl asks Nancy, “How do you deal with peasant uprisings?” Nancy deadpans: “It’s never really been an issue.” Listening to Lukas act out American cop shows in his little boy German accent is a treat, as is hearing Marcus berate another driver while he switches mercurially to cavalier chatting with Nancy on his cell phone. The voice acting for the most part is solid, except for Anja, whose German accent comes and goes, and more disappointingly, Nancy herself, who never seems to be fully in the spirit of the game. It’s as if she’s acting in a very different story, one where the sun is always shining and monsters that frighten little girls are nowhere to be found. If a character reveals something spooky, she’ll cheerily chirp “Auf Wiedersehen” as she leaves. At times, her line reading is so different in tone from the character she’s interacting with that it pulled me entirely out of the game.
Given the fairy tale backdrop to the mystery, there was plenty of opportunity for the designers to add some rich imagery for Nancy to investigate. This is the Bavaria of the Brothers Grimm, after all: spooky castles and misty woods filled with monsters and scared little girls. But despite a stylish black and white opening cutscene, the rest of the game’s graphics are merely serviceable. Much of the castle’s interior looks fairly similar, and you’ll find yourself wandering halls with nondescript paintings and monotonous parquetry floors. Two wings are designed identically except for the wall coloring; as I consistently forgot which color went with which wing, I’d find myself going down the wrong one only to later discover I was at the complete opposite end than I wanted to be. The only area designed with any humor and whimsy at all is the gift shop. There you’ll meet an animatronic monster that growls in both English and German, amidst books ranging from “Sassy Stuttgart” to “Castle Plumbing and German Existentialism.” If only the designers had brought this same attention to detail to the rest of the castle.
Outside, you won’t fare much better in the exploration department. The game describes Castle Finster as a sort of self-contained city, but none of the storefront or house occupants in the castle square let you in. You will get to explore a bit of the surrounding forests, but most of the paths are extremely similar and definitely not spooky. In fact, part of exploring the woods is determining which path to follow, and trying to discern the right direction by minutely examining rocks or plant placement becomes a bit tedious. You’ll feel a sense of déjà vu as you randomly wander through the castle’s hidden passages as well. You will eventually find a map to these passages, but you’ll have to navigate through them first to find it. Along the way, there are very few ambient animations bringing this world to life, and what animations do exist are rather annoying. Sending a bucket down a well takes forever, which is something you’ll have to do many, many times, making me wish I could pull out Nancy’s smartphone and play a few rounds of memory while waiting for the bucket to come back.
Getting to the bottom of the mystery involves solving a fair number of inventory and logic puzzles that range from tile and slider puzzles to layered obstacles that often have several steps. Opening a glockenspiel clock lock with a musical tune requires that you not only learn which keys represent what notes, but also that you learn what sequence of keys to play. These layered puzzles are generally fun and fairly difficult even on the Junior level. However, making them unnecessarily challenging is that even if you have figured out the solution, you won’t be able to solve a puzzle if you haven’t started the sequence correctly or have missed discovering a step. I had to resort to a walkthrough for several such puzzles, because I was absolutely sure I had gone through the correct actions yet couldn’t get a door or lock to open, only to find that I had missed the trigger that officially started the puzzle. Once triggered, I then had to repeat all of the steps again to actually solve the puzzle – an exercise in sheer frustration that slows the game down and leaches out any suspense or mystery the game could have held.
The Captive Curse has all but eliminated the make-work tasks that have characterized Nancy’s other recent outings. For example, while food still plays a large part (with one character bizarrely moaning in ecstasy when presented with a treat), you won’t have to go through a million permutations to make it; you’ll just need to find enough scattered coins in your travels to buy it. Most of the minigames only require you to complete them once, though if you’d like to play them again you can revisit the character who played it with you originally or choose from a set of three games on your smartphone. These activities are actually quite enjoyable and cleverly designed, like a Magic the Gathering-style card game that the mayor has created for entry into a contest. The cards all have their own strengths and weaknesses and stats, but the rules are fairly simple to follow. Not only is the game fun to play, its fairy-tale theme ties into the game’s main motif, and learning about the game and its rules provides you with clues to additional puzzles. If you’d prefer a simpler activity, you can chat with Lukas about the card game he’s playing, which involves either keeping cows alive or killing as many as you can as a monster.
The game is still presented as a first-person slideshow, which along with the repetitive scenery can make navigation difficult. You can pan around in certain scenes, but as many locations have really only a couple of areas of interest, you can find yourself scrolling through tedious backdrops like a vast set of bookshelves in the mayor’s office for no reason. There are no significant updates to the same dated interface Nancy has been using for the past several games. In this era of USB sticks and cloud data, you still click on a floppy disk to save your games. After selecting an item from the inventory, you can’t right-click to get rid of it; you have to click it directly back into the box to do so. Even basic ideas like keyboard shortcuts and the ability to use the mouse wheel to scroll through dialogue options would be a great improvement. As is the case with all Nancy Drew games, you can make mistakes in your investigation that lead to a humorous variety of premature endings. However, the game always gives you a second-play chance that begins right before you… er, Nancy has done something stupid or dangerous.
One thing that has modernized a bit is Nancy’s phone, which has morphed into a smartphone that not only calls people and plays games, but also receives messages, offers hints on a hotline, and takes pictures. What’s nice about the picture-taking aspect is that you actually use it to take photos of evidence, rather than simply using it as a prop for a make-work task as has been the case previously. However, you won’t be using the phone to call people very often. The game makes a gimmick of the fact that Nancy gets terrible reception; most of the time people will call her just to tell her to call them from a landline. When you do get through, Ned informs Nancy that her phone will serve as a one-stop hint shop. However, I found this hotline to be rather useless for the game’s complicated layered puzzles, as the hints provided are rather vague. It would have been nice to get tiered hints, which would have helped with the individual steps or identified missed triggers for longer puzzles.
Just as Ned lets Nancy know early on that he’s feeling a bit left out with all of her travels and sleuthing, I felt a bit left out of the spirit of the game during the ten or so hours of play time, as any suspense and story immersion were cut short by aimless wandering caused by frustrating puzzle sequences. This is a shame, as the story that unfolds about a castle with a wealth of history and folklore about monster sightings and missing girls is intriguing and well acted by its animated characters. But rather than delving deep into grand gothic castles and the black forests of Germany, following a compelling set of clues, you’ll find yourself roaming around and around a mostly empty castle instead. If all you’re looking for is the comforting, familiar feel of a Nancy Drew game with a wide variety of engaging puzzles and an entertaining supporting cast, you’ll feel right at home in The Captive Curse, but if you’re looking for a truly suspenseful game with a lot of exciting exploration, you may have to look elsewhere for your happily ever after.