Review for Nancy Drew: Tomb of the Lost Queen
Adventure games by HeR Interactive
A dig site in Egypt is about as far away as Nancy Drew can get from her suburban hometown of River Heights. But never one to turn down an opportunity to travel (and maybe solve a mystery or two), Nancy takes a jaunt to Cairo to assist a famous Egyptologist in her 26th adventure, Tomb of the Lost Queen. The dusty, exotic locale should have been a perfect setting for the series to stretch its legs and grow a bit, and indeed Nancy regulars will find some welcome changes, including a more user-friendly interface. Newcomers, however, will find themselves thrown into the midst of a swirling sand of chaos, with little in the way of introduction, character interaction, or dynamic animation. But of course there's plenty of sleuthing and research to be done, so if you aren’t searching for whiz-bang graphics and don’t mind some blatant design shortcuts, you'll unearth a reasonable amount of enjoyment from mummies, ancient curses, suave young men, and well-integrated puzzling as Nancy explores an archeological dig.
Years ago an expedition set out to discover the resting place of the lost queen of Egypt, Nefertari, paramour of Ramses the second. But the explorers discovered that the desert doesn’t give up its secrets easily, and all were lost. Sixty years have passed, and we now find Nancy job shadowing Egyptologist Jon Boyle. Of course, trouble always seems to follow her wherever she goes, and when Jon is injured during a treacherous sandstorm, Nancy learns that what appears to be an accident may have a more sinister cause. Even more worrisome, other accidents are starting to pile up at the current dig, making the participants wonder if the ancient curse is reaching across the sands of time to afflict them.
After Jon’s accident, most of the dig crew left, leaving only a few people remaining as suspects. While they have all convened here for various reasons, each seems to have equally compelling motives for hurting Jon or even sabotaging the site. Dr. Abdullah Bartoum, seemingly distinguished with his gray hair swatches just above his temples, is a swaggering, conceited archeologist. He may respect Jon as a pillar in the field, but in a world filled with mummified kings and queens, there’s room for only one pharaoh at this site, and in Abdullah’s opinion, it isn’t Jon. Lily is an overly ambitious graduate student who was quick to take over job duties when Jon left the site. She’s under Abdullah’s tutelage, and while she shows a rather unhealthy fear of curses, she’s also determined to get ahead in her field by any means necessary. Jamila is a young woman who seems to be much more interested in aliens than archeology. Finally, there’s Dylan, a handsome tour guide who shows more than a passing interest in Nancy. The funny thing is, this site isn’t on any tourist maps, and yet Dylan somehow managed to get himself here anyway.
As usual, Nancy also interacts with a variety of other characters through her phone. These include her good friend Bess, who’s always up for shooting the breeze and chatting with Nancy about her current case. Curiously, Ned is no longer on her speed dial. Nancy also spends a lot of time chatting with the knowledgeable, though very flighty and melodramatic, Professor Hotchkiss, whose textbook on Egypt’s famous queens led Nancy to the desert.
But Nancy’s not just trying to find out what happened to Jon; you can’t visit a mysterious pyramid and not look for the mummy. And while Nancy has at least a couple of Egyptian experts to call on in her search, she relies on her well-honed sleuthing skills to locate the elusive queen as well as the person behind the accidents. In doing so, however, for a large part of the game you’ll only explore two military-style canvas tents and the pyramid dig site in the middle of the desert. Even within the pyramid, you’re limited to the main room and three branching tunnels for nearly two-thirds of the game. Every surface inside the pyramid is covered in hieroglyphics and an explosion of colorful curls and tendrils forming ancient drawings that depict the various gods and goddesses of the Egyptian pantheon. You’ll see queens with indigo hair, golden headdresses, and vermilion gowns and strange Egyptian deities like the jackal-headed Anubis. But because of these overabundant hieroglyphics and pictograms, it can feel like you’re looking at the same rooms and tunnels over and over again. Later in the game, you’ll finally gain access to more pyramid rooms, which provide a welcome respite from the sameness of sand dunes and ancient graffitied walls.
Partially offsetting the limited environments are several welcome changes this time around. There is a new ruby-centered cursor and an inventory menu that stays at the bottom rather than taking up a third of the screen real estate when open. Now you can scroll horizontally through your large number of inventory items and still retain the ability to view the scene you need the item for. And hooray for finally allowing players to use the mouse wheel to scroll through dialogue options. You don’t start at Nancy’s house this time, instead beginning in medias res in a swirling sandstorm. Also gone is the brief tutorial walking you through the interface basics, which is nice for folks who have seen it 25 times previously, but would have been helpful as an optional feature for those new to the series.
There are two difficulty levels as usual, only this time the levels are named Amateur and Master. The Master level provides more challenging puzzles, no hints, and only a basic task list. The hint system on the easier level is actually helpful this time around, at least for the logic puzzles. You’ll get layered hints that make you wait a bit before receiving the next round of help, but click on enough hints and you’ll eventually get the actual solution to the puzzle you’re trying to solve. You’ll need to rely on your task list alone if you get stuck determining where to go or what to do next, however, as the hint system offers no help otherwise.
The streamlined interface should have left more space for animations to bring the pre-rendered backgrounds to life, but it seems as if the game has backslid in the graphics arena. There are no improvements in the limited slideshow format, and there are nearly no ambient animations, which serves to further dull the already monotonous scenery. The few times you encounter some movement – locusts pouring out of a truck and a cobra swaying and hissing a few feet away from you – only emphasize the squandered opportunity to enliven a world mainly filled with dead things and ancient artifacts. The cinematics are also a bit disappointing. The game opens with dark ribbons of sand swishing across the screen, but while surely dramatic, this actually makes it difficult to see anything. When the hot desert winds finally calm down, you’ll encounter a character face down and already injured, which feels like a rather anti-climactic shortcut.
This lack of animation is especially obvious since Nancy is the only one doing any work. Occasionally you’ll overhear two people arguing, but you won’t get to see them. I found it hard to believe that the lead archeologist would spend all his time just looking at one wall trying to translate it (especially when you end up translating it later in the game anyway) rather than exploring the tomb with Nancy. The same goes for Lily, who is described as an overeager archeology student but spends the entire time reading a book on her bed; odd behavior for someone who has done all she could to get to an expedition of a lifetime. What character animations do exist at least are entertaining: Abdullah is a hand-talker, punctuating his bombastic sentences with vigorous gestures. Lily, with her thin lips and pinched face, puffs out her chest and places her hands on her hips, looking all the world like my three-year old when she’s trying to boss her dolls around. Dylan spends his time lounging in his deck chair waggling his eyebrows rakishly.
The voice acting is also top notch. When Professor Hotchkiss says, “The serendipity is as delectable as chateaubriand smothered in lavender-lemon jus,” you can almost hear her drooling over the phone. And when straight-laced Lily comments on alien-follower Jamila in her clipped tones, “You can take that to the bank – the crazy bank”, I laughed out loud. One complaint: The designers could have done a better job of sound editing. At the end of a line, you can often hear a hint of the character’s next response begin before being abruptly cut off. This happened frequently and felt jarring every time, and such sloppiness could easily have been cleaned up. The other issue with the voice acting is the conversational sign-off. Rather than allowing you to simply close out of a dialogue, you’ll always have to select a final “see you” or “bye bye” closing option. A cheerful farewell that sounds just fine when you’re leaving a character you’ve just met sounds woefully out of place when it’s spoken to someone who’s just revealed a disturbing message to you about Egyptian curses.
Complementing the voice acting is middle eastern-flavored music with whispered recorders and the plinking of lute-like stringed instruments. Outside of the music, unfortunately, the sound work is another missed opportunity. You’ll be doing a lot of exploring in creepy tombs, and you’ll occasionally hear rocks sliding against each other, wind whistling through the tombs, or the sound of a snake hissing. But these ambient sounds are few and far between, leading to a lot of silence as you investigate, which might be realistic under the circumstances, but isn't very entertaining.
One of the best parts of the Nancy Drew games, the strong writing, is still in evidence here. The characters and the things they utter are absolutely hilarious. Professor Hotchkiss isn’t just a sober archeology fan, she gets absolutely swoony about the participants; in fact, she mentions that Abdullah is December in her Men of Archeology calendar. When you call the number for S.P.I.E.D. (Strange Phenomenon Inspectors: Extraterrestrial Unit), an alien organization that Jamila talks about, you get a recorded message that says: “Thank you for calling S.P.I.E.D. Earth creature. Please leave your message in the form of binary light sequencing.”
Aliens and archeological one-upmanship are only the tip of the pyramid, so to speak. During Nancy’s investigations, she’ll also discover hints of a thriving antiquities black market that borders on dangerous for those who get involved. As she digs through all of these mysteries, the method to Nancy’s sleuthing hasn’t changed. You’ll still interview suspects, gather inventory, and solve puzzles. The inventory challenges are rather straightforward. You’ll need to search for light sources to illuminate dark passages and tools to dig through the sand or investigate people who may be following you. You’ll also find notes that give you clues to more complicated puzzles, but keep an eye out: Sometimes these notes are sand-colored and sitting in the sand, making them very easy to miss.
The notes often help solve one of the main puzzle themes, which is deciphering a series of hieroglyphics. Clues to decryption are scattered throughout the journals, textbooks, and other pieces you’ll find throughout the game. This is made more complicated by the fact that the lost queen and her true love apparently developed their own language, so you’ll be working with two sets of hieroglyphic translations. This is where the camera function on your phone comes in handy. Taking a picture of a book several screens away from a hieroglyph that needs translating will save you some painful backtracking. Translating a piece of script not only gives you information about the lost queen of Egypt, it sometimes leads to riddles that help you find other hidden tombs and open up the various barriers that sit between you and the next mummy.
The logic puzzles in Tomb of the Lost Queen represent another of this series’ strengths, being well integrated and rarely taking you out of the mood of the moment. You’ll encounter puzzles that ask you to rearrange mirrors so you can light up a darkened room or determine the weight of mummified rats to find the one that will open the tomb of a cat mummy. Puzzles also include ancient board games, jigsaws, scarab minigames where you have to move a scarab around a board to pick up items, and other tasks where manipulating items in one room will have consequences played out in another. Occasionally you’ll solve a series of puzzles only to find the trail you were on was a huge red-herring.
One especially annoying sequence involved opening a complicated lock only to find yet another lock inside that. Nancy even remarks, “It’s like I found the world’s most unnecessarily complicated filing cabinet.” For the most part, however, make-work tasks are nowhere to be found. Hotchkiss does ask you to solve some historical trivia questions for her, but you only need to answer the first couple questions to gain her help in return. From then on, you can choose whether to help her further in order to attain one of several achievements at the end of the game. Thankfully, there are no timed puzzles. You will encounter some that allow a limited number of mistakes before you meet a fatal end, but as always, you’ll get a second chance that restores right before Nancy made her silly error.
Sifting through all the evidence was a bit challenging for me, even at the easier difficulty level. As with most Nancy games, you’ll get a lot of history and background information as you explore. I found the details about mummy embalming, hieroglyphics, and ancient burial practices to be fascinating (I love it when my game notes include lists like: stomach, lungs, intestines, liver), but there is an awful lot of it, and many times the mountains of explanatory text contain snippets of clues you’ll need to remember for puzzles later on. In terms of exposing the culprit(s), I’ve found previous Nancy Drew mysteries to be rather easy to solve, but Tomb of the Lost Queen kept me guessing for eight or so hours right until the end.
Overall, Nancy Drew: Tomb of the Lost Queen is certainly not a poor game, but it isn’t one of the series' best either. Such a great setting and premise deserved equally great treatment, but limited character interaction and increasingly dated graphics prevent this outing from being a truly immersive experience, and more exploration through varied and animated scenes would have added some much-needed depth. Still, there's an engaging mystery to hold your attention throughout, and you’ll encounter some fascinating Egyptian history along with funny voice acting and well-integrated puzzling in this search through a mummy’s tomb.