Nancy Drew is a very skilled worker. Whenever she goes undercover, she learns how to do many things, like cooking, dermatology, entymology… the list goes on. It’s all part of getting to know the people around her, and to blend in. In Nancy Drew: The Secret of Shadow Ranch, Nancy will have a lot of jobs to do, but unlike some other games in the series, it doesn’t feel forced.
Like a moth to a flame, trouble seems to follow poor Nancy wherever she goes. This time, it’s at her friends George and Bess’ aunt and uncle’s ranch, called Shadow Ranch. Right before Nancy arrives, Uncle Ed Rawley was bitten by a rattlesnake and is in hospital. What’s worse, people have recently seen a phantom horse gallop up to the house in the night, glowing, then vanish into the darkness. What could it all mean?
Unlike many other Nancy Drew games, the main objective isn’t clear at the beginning of the game, which is actually very refreshing. Rather than being called to some locale to stop a saboteur, or return a stolen object, Nancy just appears in the middle of a situation. Everyone knows who she is, and the story seems to unfold around her, and you’re caught up in it just like Nancy is.
Because Nancy is arriving on a ranch that is short two people, of course she pitches in, but unlike other titles, the tasks never feel contrived. Whether it’s feeding chickens, baking a cake or feeding the horses, Nancy’s actions just make sense. For example, if she has to go out riding, Nancy will have to know enough about horses and equipment so she can ride safely. As such, you must learn through various resources (either using your cellphone to browse pre-determined "web pages" or in books or notes at the ranch) to answer questions, and fit into the routine.
In fact, the cellphone is a great feature in The Secret of Shadow Ranch. Nancy is able to call and receive e-mail from a wide variety of people. From George and Bess (who are stuck at an out-of-state airport) to the county sheriff to even the Hardy Boys, Nancy is rarely alone. Between the people she can call and the characters who live on and around Shadow Ranch, The Secret of Shadow Ranch is populated by some of the best characters in the series. Because of this, it is a real whodunit by the end, and will keep you guessing.
Almost like a refrain whenever the Nancy Drew series is discussed, the game has great production values. While this game is the tenth of the series, the graphics still hold up very well, and the voice acting is splendid as always. The layout of Shadow Ranch and the surrounding areas is easy to navigate. The cursor is very clear: a magnifying glass that turns red whenever something of interest is under it, or changing to other icons like a hand or text bubble for context. Overall, this is one of the more accessible games in the series.
Of course, the big question is, how are the puzzles? The Secret of Shadow Ranch is full of them, but they might not always be what you’d expect. There are some very nice jigsaw puzzles, sliding tile puzzles and deduction puzzles, with no real "arcade" games to speak of. The fly in the ointment here is a slot-machine game that Nancy must win in order to progress. If you don’t win right away, you must ride back to another location to get another token to play (or just save your game right before you play it). This random and arbitrary delay mars what is otherwise a great set of puzzles.
Also, this time around, there are a lot of follow-the-steps puzzles, like baking a cake, or solving the ranch hand’s horse quiz, there is a lot of detective work to be done here. You’ll find yourself taking some serious notes just to keep everything straight. While it is important for a detective to keep good lists, not all players will be willing to keep the information straight all the time, especially when there’s a lot of it. While the game gives you a task list on the Junior difficulty level, and Nancy’s diary can often be helpful, keep a pad and pencil handy.
But that’s the point: Nancy Drew should be, first and foremost, a detective. The Secret of Shadow Ranch gives Nancy a chance to really shine as a youthful gumshoe. If you’re looking for a fun, rich adventure, download the Secret of Shadow Ranch and hit that dusty trail.