Return to Nancy’s hometown in Nancy Drew: Alibi in Ashes

Nancy Drew: Alibi in Ashes is the 25th game in the Nancy Drew series of point-and-click mysteries from Her Interactive. It’s an impressive milestone to reach, especially considering that the quality of games in the series has remained fairly consistent throughout. Alibi in Ashes shakes up the usual formula, not just by sending Nancy to a different location, but by actually placing her in jail for most of the game while her long-time friends – Bess, Ned, and George – do most of the sleuthing on her behalf.

After travelling to fun locations like Japan, Germany, and Ireland, Nancy returns to her quaint hometown of River Heights, where she is promptly arrested for arson after a suspicious fire destroys the old town hall.

With Nancy is confined to the police station, it falls to her childhood friends, Bess and George, and her boyfriend, Ned, to do the leg-work on the investigation for her by interviewing suspects, searching for clues and evidence, and following up on leads to find out who really burned down town hall. Nancy coordinates the investigation from the police station, where she can process evidence, do research on the computer, and call people on her cell phone.

At various points in the game, you’ll be required to switch between all four of the characters to continue with the investigation. This is an interesting twist on the usual formula of only playing as Nancy, and it’s the first opportunity that players get to actually meet Nancy’s friends in person instead of just hearing Nancy chat with them over the phone.

The setting of River Heights isn’t as exotic as some of the locations in past games, but it’s still fun to explore some of Nancy’s childhood haunts, and especially her home, where you can actually sit at the famous desk the players see at the start of every Nancy Drew game.

As in past games there are two modes of play, Junior and Senior Detective. In Junior Detective mode, the puzzles are somewhat simplified, and you get a checklist of tasks that keeps your investigation pointed in the right direction, which is especially helpful since the “hint line” has been disabled.

While Alibi in Ashes is as polished and playable as any of the Nancy Drew games, there are a couple of things holding it back from being a series stand-out. Players are presented with a detailed overhead map of River Heights that they can use to fast-travel between locations, but many of the locations on the map – like the park and the airport – can be driven to but not actually visited. I would have liked to see a larger set of locations worked into the story as an excuse to see more of the town.

Also, you can only switch to a new character while you’re playing as Nancy. In other words, if I’m playing as George and want to switch to Bess, I can’t just call Bess; I have to call Nancy, then, as Nancy, call Bess and ask her to take over the case. It would have been less cumbersome to be able to call any character directly to switch. There only seem to be a handful of advantages to using a particular character as well. For example, one of the female suspects has a crush on Ned and is only willing to share information with him; while the antique dealer develops a dislike for klutzy Bess and banishes her from his shop.

Alibi in Ashes should be praised for trying out some new gameplay ideas to shake up the formula, but in the end it’s not as strong as some of the other games in the Nancy Drew series.