Nancy Drew’s 18th point-and-click adventure, Nancy Drew: The Phantom of Venice, takes the teenage sleuth to the canals and palazzos of Italy’s famous water bound city. She’s been enlisted by the GdiF (Italy’s FBI) to help capture an art thief known simply as “The Phantom.”
As usual, her investigation involves not only a group of shifty characters on whom she must keep tabs, but also a heaping helping of challenging conundrums that require some serious lateral thinking.
What makes Nancy Drew puzzles special is that they usually make sense within the context of the narrative. As a result, players must use common sense to figure them out. For example, early in the game you’ll run into a locked door. To pick the lock, you’ll need to learn about lock picking. If you’re lucky, you’ll have purchased a detective magazine at a local newsstand that happens to have an article explaining how traditional locks work and ways in to bypass them in the event you haven’t a key.
Then, hopefully, you’ll remember that Nancy keeps some hairpins in the makeup bag back in her room that she can use as lock picking instruments. And that’s just the groundwork necessary so that you can start the puzzle. Solving it - which requires discerning a pattern of motion amid the pins in the lock and then putting that pattern to work - is perhaps even more challenging, especially if you have selected the Senior Detective difficulty setting.
Indeed, The Phantom of Venice isn’t for mental slouches. One puzzle forces players to research and learn how to send coded messages using a rare form of algebraic notation used in chess, and another requires us to detect faint lines on a microdot using a microscope and then figure out how to use them as a digital key to gain access to a secured palazzo. Be prepared for your brain to break a sweat.
Thankfully, there is the occasional recess from extreme mental gymnastics. One of my favorite sequences is when Nancy, disguised as a thief, makes contact with a denizen of the underworld who will only do business with her if she can beat him in Scopa, a wonderfully addictive card game played with a traditional Italian deck made up of 40 cards. The rules are easy to learn, but Nancy’s foe is a masterful player; it took nearly an hour for me to defeat him. It was a nice respite from searching for clues, combing through virtual magazines, and conducting interviews.
However, while the majority of challenges are expertly crafted, there are a couple that slide into what feels like random chance. I became quite frustrated during a hidden object game that involved looking for a spy gadget that would explode if not found in time, forcing me to go to a new area and start the hunt again.
I was also vexed by a pigeon tracking challenge that required me to randomly click on birds in a large flock until I found one with a message attached to its leg. The catch was that I could only click on a few before they all flew away to another location, where I would have to start searching again from scratch. I did three laps of Venice before finally finding the right bird.
Thankfully, these sorts of tasks are the exception rather than the rule. The rest of the game’s puzzles are entertaining enough that they can easily be overlooked.
Of course, puzzles are only part of the reason why Nancy Drew games draw accolades. The franchise is also renowned for its excellent production values, and The Phantom of Venice further cements Nancy Drew’s reputation for top-notch graphics, sound, and dialogue. Famous Venetian locales such as the Grand Canal and the Basilica di San Marco have been rendered with almost photo-realism. Plus, the 3-D characters animate beautifully; you can actually see their faces emote in synchronicity with words spoken by the game’s actors.
The writing is outstanding as well. Not only are conversations well worded and efficient, providing extensive information in a short amount of time, they’re also amusing and educational. As I played, I learned about Venice’s history and culture (did you know locals are being forced to leave because of an influx of foreigners driving up real estate values?) — and let out the occasional chuckle while doing so. I was a little disappointed to see the occasional vernacular slip — Nancy is prone to saying “real” rather than “really”—but the only reason such minor gaffes stood out was because the rest of the game’s dialogue was nearly flawless.
Nancy Drew: The Phantom of Venice is a strong addition to the teenage sleuth’s catalogue of mystery games. If you’re new to the series, you may think it a better choice for your daughter than yourself, but the story is mature enough and the puzzles sufficiently challenging that adult players will find it at least as entertaining as their children. If you’re on the hunt for a fun and stimulating point-and-click adventure, look no further.
- Excellent graphics and audio. Extremely challenging puzzles. Engaging narrative.
- A couple of puzzles are based on luck rather than skill.