Most mystery movies allow you to watch the protagonist as he or she collects evidence, interviews suspects and ties together the diverse strands of an unsolved crime. But the Nancy Drew series of adventure games from Her Interactive take you beyond passive observation to be the eyes, ears and, most notably, brains of the famous teenage detective.
Nancy Drew: Curse of Blackmoor Manor is the 11th release in the series, but it’s no worse for the wear. In fact, it’s among the best in the franchise.
The story opens with promise, especially for players who enjoy a few goose bumps while sleuthing. We begin with Nancy arriving at the gates of Blackmoor Manor in England, where she’s been sent to check on Linda, her neighbor’s newlywed daughter. Linda hasn’t been herself since marrying Hugh Penvellyn and moving into his estate, and Drew’s neighbor wants to know why. While standing at the front door moments after reaching her destination, our heroine hears a disembodied voice whisper her name, then sees a pair of red eyes glowing in the dark by the moor. When the entrance opens, she’s relieved, even though it’s Hugh’s creepy aunt, Leticia Drake, letting her in. Before long, a story of witches, werewolves, family curses and hidden treasure starts to unfold.
Curse of Blackmoor Manor continues to milk its spooky premise as Nancy moves about the mansion meeting the cast of characters. Mrs. Drake, who’s skeptical about Drew’s experience outside the manor, rules the house with a stern eyebrow. Linda keeps to herself, hiding behind the curtains of her canopy bed and mumbling about a ghostly midnight visitor. Then there’s Jane, Linda’s daughter, who enjoys playing mini-games that provide Nancy with some of the objects she’ll need to move forward. The cast also includes the colorful Loulou, an old parrot that provides Nancy with clues for solving puzzles.
An aging bird and a playful grandkid aren’t the only tools at Drew’s disposal. She also totes a case journal and a cell phone on which she can make calls, read emails and access the Web for information that aids in her investigation. All of her gear is easily reached through the game’s simple mouse-based interface. In fact, as you learn about managing Nancy’s inventory, navigating the manor, examining objects and clicking through branching conversations, you get an immediate impression of how well organized the interface is. The only wrinkle in the otherwise fine blueprint is the cramped window in which character dialog and Drew’s responses appear.
If point-and-click controls and scripted chats make Curse of Blackmoor Manor sound by-the-numbers, I’ve given you the wrong impression. Rather, the creators have crafted a wonderfully non-linear story for Nancy to inhabit. For example, conversations take place at different times depending on your actions elsewhere in the game, with an alarm clock in Drew’s room allowing the junior detective to jump ahead to the next day to meet a particular character.
In addition to keeping track of time, you’ll need to bring the full force of your observational skills to Blackmoor Manor as you piece together evidence from books, star maps, coats of arms and more. Clues reveal themselves over time and in different parts of the mansion, with the entire quest leading to a final puzzle veterans will enjoy, but younger players might find too hard. While challenging, the game’s newfound non-linearity is a welcome addition that breathes new life into the series.
Also refreshing are the upgraded visuals. Graphically, Curse of Blackmoor Manor is the high mark in the franchise, even if it doesn’t achieve the clarity seen in the best-looking adventure games. Rooms are bursting with color and detail, and the character animation is more expressive than in past Nancy Drew titles. Even better, an eerie ambiance pervades every nook and cranny, making Blackmoor Manor a candidate for playing with the lights on.
The game’s audio also helps to create a tangible sense of atmosphere with ethereal voices, beastly growls and other hair-raising noises. The voice acting deserves kudos as well, in particular Lani Minella, who once again brings Nancy to life. She vacillates between frightened and bold from one conversation to the next without hitting a bad note.
If you’re a Nancy Drew computer game fan, add Curse of Blackmoor Manor to your collection. Younger players might find some of the puzzles a bit tough, but it’s time for the series to mature, much like its intended audience must be doing. In the end, the game’s well-crafted puzzles, non-linear progress, abundance of mini-games and improved presentation add up to a fine offering. They also bode well for future installments in the series.