At times as crackling, though certainly not as deadly, as a live wire, Nancy Drew’s 27th detective outing, The Deadly Device, is an intriguing whodunit involving dueling inventors, dangerously malfunctioning lab equipment, and an office full of brilliant, if misanthropic, scientists. Her Interactive has juiced up its newest installment, and veteran fans and new players alike will find the abundance of well-integrated puzzles to be both challenging and fun, and will welcome the continuing, steady improvement in the series’ interface. And while the paucity of exploration in a largely mundane environment certainly limits its scope, the game’s focus on story will nevertheless keep you guessing until the very end.
The opening cinematic takes players through swirling snow to a strange looking lab filled with bizarre electrical equipment and an enormous Tesla coil, an alien-looking machine that emits high-voltage electricity. A scientist works alone in the room, when, without warning, the man is electrocuted to death. Niko Jovic was a brilliant scientist developing a revolutionary new technology: wireless energy. His death brings Nancy to a gray, imposing edifice at the behest of Victor Losset, who has worked with Niko for decades. Though it looks threatening, its sign reading "Technology of Tomorrow Today" promises all kinds of possibilities. Unfortunately for Nancy, because of the project’s sensitivity Victor wants her to work undercover, posing as a researcher for a potential investor.
As you begin your investigation, you’ll find the gathering of information slow going. This is a supremely technical laboratory, where you’ll be delving through the ins and outs of alternating and direct currents, Tesla coils, transistors, resistors, and diodes. You will be doing a lot of reading in this game just to get up to speed on all of the experiments the scientists are conducting. You’ll find books on the life and times of Nikola Tesla, the legendary battles between Edison and Tesla and their competing technologies, chemistry and biometrics (the study of fingerprint security), and more. In addition to reading, be prepared to do a lot of listening. Niko left behind a treasure trove of video diaries, but rather than being dull, the actor manages to communicate Niko’s increasing paranoia as he continues his experiments.
Thankfully, learning about electrochemistry and electronics isn’t all you’ll be doing. You’ll also interrogate the few souls left in the lab; no easy task, given this socially awkward bunch. The voice actors do a fine job of developing their characters, including Gray, a gruff and surly security guard with a secretive backstory. Niko’s motivations for recruiting him are murky, and he’s quite the misanthropist, yelling at one point to Nancy, “Nice work. Now get out.” If that isn’t friendly enough for you, his introduction to Nancy could also use a Miss Manners overhaul: “I’m Gray. I don’t care who you are. Now get out.” He’s not exactly one to help you out or speak too much. Another character/suspect is Ryan, the hyper-energetic young mechanic whose super-excited voice greets Nancy when she enters the tech workshop. A soft spot for gummy bears hasn’t stopped her from leaving threatening notes for Niko. Mason, a researcher working for Victor, takes the term condescending to nose-bleed heights. One person describes him as a computer with legs and a sweater – quite an accurate description, as he snidely describes his great contributions in his nasally voice. He’s meticulous to a fault, not to mention suspicious that Niko had been stealing from him. Mason’s colleague Ellie is cool and collected, except when it comes to Mason. She dislikes him so much, she can’t be in the same room with him, or so she says. And of course, there’s Victor: bombastic and loud and quick to anger, the man who brought you in to investigate but whom you’ll mostly be interacting with over the phone.
As you go through your dialogue choices, you’ll need to be careful not to make anyone too angry. Should you do so, the character will end their dialogue with you, and you’ll need to wait a bit before approaching them again. An additional trick to chatting with the characters is determining when you’ll encounter them. You’ll use an alarm clock to switch between nighttime and daytime investigations. Clicking on day or night always has you sitting through a short animation which you can’t skip. Given the number of times I switched between the two, it would have been nice to have a shortcut. You’ll also have to figure out how to get characters out of rooms at times, which may involve interacting with your environment or with other characters first.
Mirroring the mix of characters is the game’s mishmash art style. The swirling lines of Art Nouveau in Niko’s office (something that at first seems to clash with his dry, scientific mind) bump up against the jumbled mess of electronics in the lab, which sits just outside the smoothly modern glass circles hanging in the center of the complex’s atrium. The varied styles make you feel as if you’re getting a bit more exploration bang for your buck, given that you won’t actually be visiting very many rooms and don’t even have access to all of them at any one time.
There are some intriguing details in the art design. As you traipse through the building and day fades into night, the light streaming through the circular glass art installation slowly shifts. The lab researchers’ desks open a small window into their personalities: Mason’s desk is orderly – woe betide anyone who moves his lined-up paper clips or neat and tidy sticky notes. Ellie’s desk is filled with letters from friends at home; she has never felt comfortable in Colorado. The tech work room which Ryan calls home is filled with graffiti of a skull and bones and a big hog of a motorcycle. And it wouldn’t be a Nancy Drew game without those knowing winks from the designers, whether it’s the Krolmeister imprint on the technical equipment or a candy case chock full of Koko Kringles, Udder Pops (shudder), and Cudsmackers (chocolatey, chewy nougat treats).
These details help to improve the exploration quotient somewhat, but they don’t fully disguise the fact that you’ll never get out of the lab. That’s a grand total of two floors, which you traverse by using an elevator that goes through an animation every time you use it. This was an annoyance whenever I realized I was on the wrong floor and just wanted to skip directly to the room I needed to visit. The two floors contain dreary brown cubicles, a dark security room, Niko’s office, the student lounge, the tech work room, and the main laboratory and its offshoots. In comparison to some of Nancy's more exotic destinations, this one definitely feels more like work than a vacation.Continued on the next page...