Nancy Drew is the ultimate goody two shoes. She travels around the world solving mysteries pro bono and always captures her culprit. In Her Interactive’s 25th Nancy Drew adventure, Alibi in Ashes, the teenage sleuth comes home, not to a warm welcome but to a town surprisingly eager to accuse her of arson. This time it’s Nancy’s turn on the hot seat and our turn to play both as Nancy and her full circle of close friends for the very first time. The result is an efficient, solid whodunit that finally lets you learn more about Nancy’s life and the town she grew up in. Like its predecessors, it’s once again quite technically limited, but there are plenty of well-integrated puzzles to solve and an opportunity to explore the underbelly of River Heights you never knew it had.
Taking a break from her typical globetrotting, Nancy decides to partake in a town clues challenge. Though she normally works alone in solving her mysteries, here in her home town she’s got her whole gang of friends to help her: ditzy Bess Marvin; serious George Fayne (a girl, for those of you new to the Nancy Drew franchise); and Ned Nickerson, Nancy’s impossibly perfect boyfriend. But just as the game is getting started, Nancy finds herself trapped in the old town hall as a fire overwhelms the building and threatens to end her sleuthing days.
Veteran players know to look out for a few timed puzzles that will result in the sassy detective suffering a game-ending tragedy if you don’t solve them in time. These usually make their appearance well into the game, but Alibi in Ashes throws you right into the middle of a timed puzzle as you attempt to escape the burning building. The tactic immediately thrusts players into the midst of an exciting storyline, adding a wonderful sense of urgency to the introduction. However, coming as early as it does, it can also be quite a frustrating wrench thrown at you right away if you’re not a fan of pressured sequences.
After the frenzy of this first challenge, things slow back down to Nancy’s typical pace, where a large part of the investigation involves leisurely interviewing potential suspects. In this game, however, Nancy is the prime suspect, and she spends most of the game locked away in the police station. Fortunately, Nancy has her trusty phone to contact her friends, and you’ll get to decide which one to take over the case at which time. As Bess, George, and Ned, you’ll question the other suspects, including an ambulance-chasing news reporter, a town council member who also runs the local ice cream parlor, a jealous classmate, and an aging antique dealer who used to be a prodigy amateur sleuth long before Nancy.
Though there aren’t many alternate suspects, you’ll get different responses depending on which character you are currently controlling: clumsy Bess may not be the best person to send into an antique shop cluttered with precious antiquities; on the other hand, handsome Ned can help you wheedle out needed information from the ladies. As you chat with the various suspects, you’ll have to manually click through a list of dialogue options using the same clunky interface. No mouse scroll option or even the ability to use the up and down arrows to move through the limited dialogue box makes interviewing suspects a pain at times. Handy interface options are limited elsewere as well, as there are no keyboard shortcuts to do things like close out of your smart phone or inventory screens.
As in Nancy’s previous outings, Alibi in Ashes plays as a first-person slideshow, with limited, choppy panning in some scenes. The pre-rendered backgrounds are beautiful, but a complete lack of ambient animations gives the environments a lifeless feel. Nancy’s pristine suburban home is straight out of “House Beautiful”, with buttery yellow walls, miles of white wainscoting, puffed-up sage throw pillows on window seats, and staid framed prints marching up the stairway walls. You’ll get to nose around Nancy’s room, which is tastefully decorated with Art Nouveau prints on the walls (no Taylor Lautner or Justin Bieber posters here). The only windows into Nancy’s sleuthing life are a closet filled with mementos from her earlier mysteries, such as a small Frankenstein monster from The Captive Curse, and her drawers, which are filled with detective tools. Without any animations, however, roaming her house can feel more like paging through a glossy magazine.
You’ll also get to visit the burned-out husk of the town hall, a news van, an ice cream shop, the antique store, and the police station. To get from location to location, you click out of the current scene and into an interactive map. The map shows a wide variety of town locations, but only the six places you can investigate allow you to fully interact with them, and you’ll get to watch your characters’ cars drive the streets of River Heights before you arrive at each. If you click on additional locations, such as the town cemetery or mall, you’ll get some amusing voice interaction, but you won’t actually get to explore them. While amusing at first, because you’ll be traveling between the same six areas multiple times, watching your little car driving between them becomes tedious over time.
Character animations have not made any advances from the previous games, and even seem to have backslid a bit. There are a few characteristics that give you insight into the suspects: Nancy’s high school rival purses her lips into a petulant pout as she chats about how much better she is than Nancy, and the ice cream shop owner glares at you with sudden malice if you snoop too much into her motives. However, if you chat long enough with the townspeople, they’ll repeat the same motions, making their animations a bit mechanical.
The voice acting follows in this same hit-or-miss mode. Nancy is her same unflappable self (showing only the smallest bit of emotion even when asking her boyfriend to flirt with someone to dig up some clues) and the town council woman is a bit on the boring side. But Bess is terrifically bubbly, a young woman mastered by a love of sweets – listening to her blissful moaning whisper of how much she loves ice cream is hilarious. The ambient sounds are great, with doors squeaking and chimes ringing as you enter a shop, and these extend even to the interactive map, where your car tires change sound as you drive past well-manicured lawns and over railroad tracks. The music, a light jaunty instrumental, fades into the background during your explorations for the most part.
When you’re not interviewing suspects, you’ll be looking for items and evidence that will help clear Nancy’s name. These aren’t simple fetch quests, as you’ll have to lift fingerprints, gather chemical samples and other items and then deliver them to Nancy, who analyzes these clues using equipment she finds in the police station to piece together the mystery. During analysis, you’ll help Nancy use the station’s computers to scan and then identify matches of suspect fingerprints, examine chemical charts, and put together clues on a suspect bulletin board. The analysis is never very difficult, but I found it to be a welcome change of pace.
Between evidence gathering and examination, you’ll also encounter a variety of well-integrated puzzles. A connect-the-wires puzzle isn’t just a random obstacle; you’ll need to solve it to fix a much-needed signal jammer. Lock-picking puzzles are woven into the story as you pry into people’s private property to find evidence of motives. Clues for many of the puzzles are found in journals and instruction booklets, as well the individual puzzle screens themselves. If you’re unsure what to do, clicking the question mark provides you with a brief description of each puzzle’s objective. You also get a hint hotline on the smart phones that each character carries. The hotline gives you layered hints, but you’ll have to play around a bit before the next layer is revealed, and the final hint is just that: a hint. Even on the easier Junior Detective level, you won’t get the final solution handed to you, so you’re on your own to complete the more frustrating puzzles, like the timed maze that comes near the end.
Continuing a trend begun in the previous game, Alibi in Ashes has made all of the minigames completely optional. There are three different types (a matching game; a number-linking game, where you try to make a long consecutive string of numbers; and a mini-strategy game, where you try to stake a claim to the most amount of land) available to play any time on your phone. The ice cream shop also has a standalone arcade minigame, where you’ll swap letters in a long message to decipher it, which can help pass the time as you wait for the right opportunity to interrogate a suspect.
While it’s been nice to travel the world in the past, I had a great time learning about Nancy’s home town and her place in it. Being such a renowned do-gooder hasn’t made Nancy quite as many supporters as you would think, which is an interesting insight into a character that you usually don’t learn much about. Not only that, the writers have taken the time to flesh out the characters and motivations for several of the suspects, including the old antique dealer, whose life story is as poignant as any I’ve come across in a game in a while. Though Alibi In Ashes doesn’t improve at all on from the limited graphics and interface issues of its predecessors, the developers have done a great job of dividing up the familiar gameplay formula between four different characters for a little more variety this time. As you play through a wide range of well-integrated puzzles and discover a variety of fun facets of Nancy’s life and the not-so-humdrum town of River Heights, you’ll have a great alibi for at least ten-plus hours of sleuthing fun.