It’s the middle of the night, and the sound of your phone ringing shatters the silence. Do you answer? If you’re Nancy Drew, then of course you do! In Ghost of Thornton Hall, Nancy’s 28th adventure, that midnight call takes her to the sticky American subtropics of an island off the coast of Georgia. There she’s asked to look into the case of a missing girl, but in doing so she’ll have to contend with the legend of a ghost haunting a rundown mansion. Despite the eerie locale and a fascinating family history, you won’t find too many scares in and around Thornton Hall, and you may find the rambling story difficult to follow, but anyone up for another mystery with the popular teen sleuth will be in for a fairly fun time exploring this dilapidated southern house and solving its bountiful puzzles.
The late-night caller is Savannah Woodham, a paranormal investigator Nancy met in a previous outing, Shadow at the Water's Edge. She’s a firm believer in ghosts, including the reported ghost of Charlotte Thornton, who died tragically when she was 21. But this newest case from the same family, involving a missing bride-to-be Jesslyn Thornton, requires someone who doesn’t believe in ghosts, a skeptic like Nancy.
Before disappearing, Jesslyn appeared to be the happy fiancée of Colton Birchfield, albeit one hooked on spooks. She was so hooked, in fact, that for her bachelorette party she eschewed the what-happens-in-Vegas-stays-in-Vegas route and threw a ghost hunting party for herself and her friend. Rather than recounting the story of that night through friends or journals, the game has the party played out on a series of voice recordings Jesslyn left on her phone in a nod to the popularity of found-footage movies (think Blair Witch). It’s surprisingly effective in imparting a sense of rising anxiety as Jesslyn and her friend explore the old mansion and encounter more than they bargained for. You’ll also learn about characters via their IM chat histories, which is a nice way to reveal story background rather than just sticking it in a pile of notes or books you need to read (although you’ll still find plenty of those around). IMs between Jess and Colton indicate more than one case of cold feet.
Cold feet are understandable considering the family drama the Thornton family has in spades. Wade, with his rugged leather jacket, is the down-and-out philosophizer who hangs out in the family cemetery with his electronic voice phenomenon (EVP) meter, spouting phrases like “who’s more welcome here, the living or the dead?” He’s quick on the uptake if he feels like he’s been insulted, snapping back in a southern drawl to a comment about his appearance: “And wearing boots don’t make you stupid. Makes you smart if it’s muddy.” He also has a way with words that raised the hairs up on my neck: “That prickly feeling you get in the house? That means something dark is whispering your name.”
Wade is Clara Thornton’s cousin, and Clara is Jesslyn’s mom. Charlotte was Clara’s sister, and Harper is also Clara’s sister. Confused? I certainly was. It wasn’t until you’re actually given a family tree drawn out for you that I started to make sense of who was who. Once you do figure out the lineage, their personalities help to set each character apart. Wade isn’t the only family black sheep. Harper is a crazed mess, with frizzed-out hair and a feverish look in her eyes. She’s the prodigal daughter who is so unpredictable she warrants a tombstone when she runs away because no one knows if she’s coming back. Somehow she’s made her way into the Thornton Hall basement and you’ll have a difficult time determining whether she’s trying to help or hinder you. Clara is cold and clipped, but her expressive eyes belie a fiery passion within. Jesslyn, aside from her ghostly proclivities, seems to abhor and yet remain under the thumb of her mother. And then there is Charlotte, the cousin, the dead one. You’ll encounter her vaporous spirit throughout the Thornton grounds dressed in a blood red Civil War-era hoop dress.
The character animations are well done, even if they do often repeat. When Harper grows irritated with Nancy, she doesn’t just tell her to scram, she brings her arms up and sweeps both hands back and forth at the wrists, physically gesturing for Nancy to shoo. I’ve always found these personalized animations to be a strength of the Nancy Drew games, and this game is no exception. Voice work also plays an essential role in establishing each character impressively. On the voice recordings left behind, Jesslyn’s friend starts out sounding light and free from tension. As the evening goes on, however, you can hear the nervousness creep into her voice, her tone becoming taut and fearful. Clara does a terrific job of getting into a high dudgeon whenever her motivations are questioned, her voice deepening and gaining in authority.
As tangled as the family relationships are the surrounding environs. I never got a good sense of the scope of the titular Thornton Hall. You can investigate a few rooms on two floors, but though this house is a mansion, that’s all you can explore. Outside you’ll have the family graveyard to roam, as well as the ruins where Charlotte died. There are also some very oddly placed rooms, like an indoor cotton-sorting room complete with a cotton gin, rusted farm equipment, and high ceilings with swinging chains and burlap sacks right down the hall from the parlor. The same room also has space for a worktable where you can make an impromptu battery. The cotton work is a small window into the family business, though I never really understood what the business was exactly, just that a tragic accident once killed many workers in a Thornton family mill and that Clara is now CEO of a collection of agriculture-related businesses.Continued on the next page...