Adventure Gamers Awards
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.
Timelines also blurred to me – the accident happened long ago, and Charlotte died more recently, but because she was throwing a masquerade ball, her ghost appears wearing old-fashioned clothing; every time I saw her, I instinctively thought of the 1800s rather than the contemporary Charlotte. In fact, there is just too much going on overall – bickering sisters, family scandals, missing daughters, ball preparations, wedding plans, and ghosts – but not enough cohesive background tying everything together. Just like the rambling old mansion, the rambling story could have done with a lot of tidying up.
The house itself is a vision of decayed magnificence. Rolling fog shrouds the manor and starry indigo skies sweep above, while curling wrought iron swirls around the house and dripping weeping willows sweep their tendrils to the ground. But the atmosphere stops dead when it comes to a sense of tangible immersion. This is where the Nancy Drew series usually falls down, and does so again. Spooky story? Check. Haunted location? Check. Ambience? Negative. Background animations are few and far between. You’ll occasionally stumble upon a porch swing that swings by itself or a statue that moves slightly as you glance at it, and there are a small number of jump scares where items will flash shockingly across your field of view (ugh, spiders, why did it have to be spiders??). You’ll even see a ghost passing through the halls once in a while. But this is supposedly a story about things that go bump in the dark, and without plentiful animations the journey through this static slideshow can be a very lonely rather than suspenseful one.
Over the course of many Nancy Drew games, the developers have done a fair amount of pruning. Gone are the make-work tasks, and you can thankfully now click through conversations rather than having to wait until each and every line finishes. But some updates have jettisoned fun parts of previous games. It wouldn’t be a Nancy Drew mystery without the ability to make the wrong choice and meet a fatal end. Typically, these mistakes have been accompanied by clever text about how Nancy always wanted to learn how to tap dance, just not on piles of broken glass, for example. Now you’re simply greeted with a default error message before being allowed to start immediately where you left off. If they’re going to just have canned text now, they should just leave out this feature altogether.
Ghost of Thornton Hall has a good balance between challenging logic puzzles and integrated inventory puzzles. There are a lot of family secrets being kept and no one is open about their feelings with anyone. So naturally, everyone you meet has some reason to lock things away or obscure their real thoughts about why and how Jesslyn disappeared. Many of the inventory puzzles involve deciphering the mansion's mysteries, even as you're fed clues from an anonymous helper who leaves you notes around the house. These obstacles are fairly easy to figure out on the junior level and add a good bit of fun to learning about the family history as you search through diaries, family trees, notes about wedding arrangements and more. You’ll also encounter a lot of code and anagram puzzles, apropos of descendants of Civil War-era spies.
But being a detective doesn’t just mean picking up clues. In Nancy Drew’s world, it also means fixing an old cotton gin and balancing scales to find just the right amount of cotton seeds. If you need to reach an out-of-the-way place, you’ll have to stack items in a precarious fashion, with controls that are just a bit on this side of frustrating. While you can’t skip puzzles, the hints will always give you step-by-step instructions if you need them, on the easier difficulty level anyway. And the few tile slider puzzles included are fairly simple. What I typically enjoy about Nancy Drew puzzles is the fact that they have a real logic behind them. When you encounter multiple clocks that require setting the appropriate times, there is a rational way to approach the solution rather than a haphazard manner, even if it isn't immediately apparent. If you take notes and methodically work your way through each puzzle, you’ll be able to solve them with minimal frustration.
Ultimately, this is a story about a family tree split down the middle by a tragic act. Evil and good branches intertwine. Family members feel guilt about past misdeeds and fear about the future. And there’s a twist in the middle. Unfortunately, the storyline really dodges the question of whether or not there are ghosts with a rather silly semi-explanation that had me disappointed that Nancy didn’t rely more on her pragmatic sleuthing side than she could have.
Despite that misgiving, given the fun southern lore you'll learn and the crazy family shenanigans you bear witness to, Ghost of Thornton Hall is a satisfying, if at times uneven, entry in the series. Upping the scare factor and trimming the family background into something more cohesive would have moved this game into the upper tier of Nancy Drew adventures, but as it is it still provides a fairly entertaining mystery for the relatively brief six or so hours it lasts. And don’t forget to keep playing and watching until the very end for a hint at Nancy's next adventure. Nancy receives a mysterious call from a deep-voiced stranger from Glasgow – someone who claims to have knowledge about Nancy’s mother! Now that’s a mystery I’m dying to dig into.