Nancy Drew: The Silent Spy review
You hear the name Nancy Drew and you're bound to think of an independent teen detective who follows every mystery she can down the rabbit hole even if it takes her to the ends of the earth. And she does all this, time and time again, without the aid of her parents. However, in Her Interactive’s newest adventure, The Silent Spy, Nancy will desperately need her father’s help if she's to get to the bottom of her mother’s death in a car crash years ago. In an entry that unearths dramatic family dynamics previously unexplored, the developers have given players a truly emotional and thrilling story set amidst a bounty of fun, challenging puzzling, even if the familiar look and feel of the game haven’t made any significant advances.
Nancy has sleuthed her way through 28 mysteries already. In the past, she has called on her friends George and Bess, her boyfriend Ned, and even her dad Carson occasionally. But her mother Kate died when Nancy was young, so she’s never had that maternal advice or support to turn to. This time around, Nancy receives a call that promises her more information about the accident that took her mother’s life. That one call pulls Nancy into a deadly world of spy craft and international terrorist organizations where no one she meets with or talks to, including her own father, can be trusted.
With the promise of learning more about her mother – and very much to her father’s disapproval – Nancy hops on the next flight to Glasgow, Scotland. Upon arrival she’s mugged, and the thieves make off with her luggage and information she brought with her about her mother. Soon after, Nancy discovers that she’s being watched by a regional MI5 (the UK’s version of the CIA) office called Cathedral. It’s all a bit overwhelming, but you quickly learn that Nancy’s mother was much more than your garden variety journalist working abroad.
It seems that everyone Nancy meets in Glasgow is eager to help her and may know more about her than they should. There is Alec, the skip tracer. He enjoys hanging out at the local train station, ready to track down people who are trying to skip out of arrest or detection. He aids Nancy after she’s mugged, but at times you question why a total stranger wants to be so helpful (ah, the cynical times we live in). You’ll also meet an old colleague of Kate’s, a fellow journalist. She helped convince Kate to come out of semi-retirement and come back to Scotland on her fatal trip. She’s harboring a large secret and seems worn down and just tired of life in general. She has information about Nancy’s mother, but you’re not exactly sure what she had to do with Kate’s death. Ewan is Nancy’s MI5 Cathedral contact. He’s pretty laid back, but has curious ways of interacting with Nancy, such as locking important documents away for her in her hotel safe and providing tricky locks for her to open. And there’s Bridget, the absolutely crazy Scottish native who hangs on Nancy’s every word and goes out of her way to find out why Nancy is visiting town.
Finally, there’s the mysterious Revenant. Revenant is the name of an amorphous terrorist organization that MI5 had been investigating when Kate Drew died. Kate’s death coincided with the organization’s dormancy, but they appear to be active again. Every so often, they will send Nancy creepy messages on her phone and even ask her to participate in activities to gain information about her mother. You get to help Nancy decide just how far she’s willing to go to learn more about Kate’s death.
It wouldn’t be a Nancy Drew game if you didn’t also learn a bit about local history via copious amounts of books, notes, and letters – about Scotland, its history, and spying, this time around. (Though these historical tidbits take a back seat to Nancy’s family story.) It’s convenient that you can bring many of the books with you, so you’ll have them at hand when you need to look up how to play the bagpipes, for example, or remember an obscure bit of Scottish royal history to help solve a puzzle.
You won’t just explore Glasgow through books, of course. While in the city, you’ll have limited access to the well-appointed rooms in your hotel, the Glaucus Lodge. And Nancy will get some high-tech spy help to zip into other resident’s hotel rooms. You’ll even get access to Cathedral’s local command center in the hotel’s basement. You’ll also make the rounds of the Wyvern’s Gate train station and several locations along the railroad stops, including Loch Lomond with its small cozy cabin in the woods (replete with an archery practice center and a very high-tech secret), a pub serving good old-fashioned Scottish fare (though you never get to go inside to order), and a small cottage hidden off the beaten path. All of these environments are rendered in Her Interactive’s typical realistic slideshows. Though there are a variety of cinematics breaking up your node-based exploration, the graphics haven’t seen any improvements from previous outings, and there are really no ambient animations to speak of.
As you explore these somewhat limited environs, you’ll encounter music that is soothing at times and actually plays an important part in some backstory and one of the puzzles. Variations on a main theme wend their way through the game, and the music picks up on the local flavor, including wind instruments and the requisite bagpipes. There is some ambient sound, such as the distant echoes of laughter and song through the closed door of a pub, and occasionally it helps to ratchet up the tension, such as the incessant beeping of an alarm set to go off at a certain temperature. The voice acting is serviceable with some notable treats. Carson displays his frustration with Nancy as she forever courts danger with sharp tones and resignation, knowing that his daughter has turned out to be exactly like her mother. The other characters aren’t as memorable, and there is an obvious cheat as Lani Minella plays double duty – the same actress who plays Nancy also clearly plays Kate Drew, only with a lower pitch.
You'll interact with some of these characters over the phone. You know you’re in a Nancy Drew game when you see your trusty smart phone, inventory menu, and observations and suspects tabs (and a detailed task list for amateur sleuths) in the user interface. You can click through conversations if you don’t want to sit through the dialogue, although the writing is one of the stronger points of the game, so I never found myself wanting to do this. The phone is also useful for making calls to your Dad and Ned. They’ll give you vital pieces of information, with Ned sometimes nudging you in a particular direction if you feel like you’ve hit a wall in your investigations. You’ll get text messages throughout the game as well, which upped the sense of immersion for me, though at times I just wanted to text Ned back and ask him to knock off the irritating interruptions. And I swear the minigames on your phone multiply every time there is a new adventure. This time around, you’ll have seven of them to choose from. None of them are essential to moving the story forward, and I found myself completely ignoring them as I was so pulled into the story I just wanted to keep going.
Aside from the games on your phone, you’ll have to make cookies to make money. This is a simple enough job based on seeing a picture of a cookie a customer wants and putting on the right color frosting and sprinkles and using the right cutouts, all in the correct order. This is the kind of tedious make-work task that I thought had been eliminated from the Nancy Drew games, and I was disappointed to see one reappear. While you will find some money lying around occasionally, I usually found that I had to make cookies to earn extra money. Not only can money be used to purchase optional items like souvenirs (which can garner you achievements), you’ll also need that money to buy train tickets to explore, gather food for people, and sometimes even to look for clues.
Searching for clues at times involves inventory puzzles, including looking for spy equipment to help you listen in on conversations or open up hidden caches. The bulk of your puzzling, however, will be taken up with cracking passcodes and interviewing the folks you meet to find out more information about your mother. Everywhere you turn you encounter information, whether in Cathedral’s archive or in an old friend’s locked jewel box that is protected by a passcode. Breaking the codes requires solving riddles, figuring out ciphers, doing some simple math, and making note of clues that you stumble across in books and your general environment. I felt a bit overwhelmed by the sheer number of passcodes, and this was on the amateur level. However, a bit of patience (and I can’t lie, a few peeks at walkthroughs) paid off.
At times you’ll find yourself challenged with some timed puzzles that drop you into the dreaded fatal error screen if you get them wrong. But, as in previous games, you always restart right before the initial action began. In one such instance, you set off an alarm and must find a way to escape within a certain amount of time, with no skip option. You’ll also encounter some sliders and color-matching puzzles, including one where you’re asked to recreate fairly intricate tartan patterns. There is a series of music-related puzzles too, which require you to read notes on a staff. While you get clues on how to do this, it could be difficult for someone not at all familiar with musical notation. You even get jazzed-up jigsaw puzzles involving chemical equations, which I found to be a nice twist on your typical jigsaw.
With such an abundance of puzzles, there were times I found it difficult to know what to do next, even with my handy task list, which comes with hints on the amateur level. For objectives that can't be solved until later in the game, the hints only reveal that more information will be revealed in due time. It wasn’t always immediately apparent what had to happen first, whether to re-interrogate someone, re-look at a room, or simply re-examine the many books and notes that I was carrying to see if I already had the solution to a puzzle.
All of these puzzles filled up about ten hours of leisurely gameplay, though as fun and thematically well-integrated as they were, they ultimately served as more of a backdrop to the centerpiece story about Nancy's mother. Part of this story is revealed through cinematic flashbacks, opening up a window into the relationship between Kate and Carson. Far from being cookie-cutter family scenes straight out of Leave it to Beaver, you’ll encounter first-hand the flaring of strong emotion through the childhood eyes of Nancy. I found this window into Nancy’s life to be fascinating. This isn’t just the tale of a perfect young woman with great best friends and the perfect boyfriend anymore. Here she’s witness to the tensions of a married couple who must balance family love and loyalty with a strong sense of duty.
It’s also the story of a woman grappling with larger philosophical questions about country, war, and terrorism as you read through Kate’s journals and letters. Kate notes that Revenant may have been after a “way to wage war without war . . .” and that “it would be noble . . . if it weren’t so scary.” Normally I balk a bit at all the reading I have to do in these games instead of actually experiencing the story through exploration, but the writing and background here are so strong that I didn’t mind this time. You can feel Kate’s pain as she struggles to reconcile her need to do what she believes is right with her love for her daughter. And Nancy’s remembrance of her mother and the gaping hole her mother’s absence has left in her life genuinely moved me. The spy gadgets, the listening devices, the augmented reality glasses, the grappling hooks: these were all just extra frosting on this multilayered story delving into Nancy’s personal history.
Despite the lack of puzzle direction at times, some fairly restrained environments to investigate, and a notable stagnation in graphics, this Nancy Drew entry still manages to be one of the strongest in recent years based on the strength of its story. Despite The Silent Spy’s moniker, you’ll find a wealth of discussion about Nancy and her family that we've never been privy to before. If you’re looking for a ripping family yarn surrounded by exciting espionage trappings with loads of puzzles in between, you’ll definitely want to check out Nancy’s most intimate adventure so far.
No need to break out the gadgets; if you’re looking for a surprisingly personal story and a wealth of codebreaking puzzles, you’ll find them front and center in Nancy’s case of The Silent Spy.