Nancy Drew: Legend of the Crystal Skull is a 3-D mystery adventure game that exists in a unique genre that girls can excel and relate to. This is not to imply that it is a gender-exclusive title, any more so Halo 3 is only for boys. Rather, Nancy Drew’s latest adventure provides the unique opportunity for mastering skills and competitive game play in a scenario that is not overridden with scantily clad women, violence, and other teenage male fascinations. This is a game for girls. What does that entail? As an adult male reviewer, I offer my humble attempt at both what the game design does to invite women and how it compares to the genre of adventure titles in general.
The interface is basically a variation of The 7th Guest, a first person perspective guided by clicking the mouse and picking up objects to solve puzzles. At times you’ll be memorizing dental charts, dressing up iguanas, and deciphering Hoodoo letters to progress through the game. What these complex puzzles add is a unique set of specialized game skills, ones sorely out of use by most gamers, that must be developed in order to win. Let’s face facts, part of the reason people dig Halo 3 is because they are talented enough at it to beat other players online. The set of skills and accomplishments that make many games fun are also what makes them so divisive. After all, if everyone was good at Halo 3 it wouldn’t be a very good game, would it? Yet I don’t imagine being killed by a teenager screaming racial profanity is any more pleasant for a girl than it is for the rest of the online gaming world. So is it any wonder that they’d want something of their own to excel at?
Not only are the Nancy Drew games hard at the Adult difficulty setting, it’s going to completely flabbergast most average gamers. You don’t pick up a machine gun and start gunning people down to find the clue. You don’t run around until the answer flashes white at you. You have to sit, look around, think, take notes, and maybe take a break if you’re really stuck. And the thing is, twelve-year-old girls are champs at this stuff. I know because the GameFAQ I used was written by one.
You never actually see Nancy or her friend Bess, but rather assume their perspective throughout the game. It’s a classic second-person novel identity, and the writers manage it well. The player will be projecting onto Nancy and Bess’s words in no time, empathizing with their opinions as if they were their own because there is no actor or image to break the connection. The characters all support this player bond with Nancy, but in a distinctly feminine portrayal of the second person experience. Henry Bolet, the man you’re originally sent to help, is suitably angst-ridden and helpless enough to make the “average girl” swoon for whatever reason women seem to be drawn to that type. Other male characters throughout the story even flirt with you, but nothing overt enough to be more than just overly friendly.
Then there’s your boyfriend, Ned, whom you call to update with info and quiz for ideas on how to proceed. The most interesting part about these phone calls is that unlike the other times that you’re updating characters, the exposition on what you’ve done in the game so far doesn’t fade out. You actually hear Nancy explain that she just solved the Spider Key puzzle and found a secret room. For a moment, I found myself nodding and doing other things while she talked, checking back to see if I needed to click on “Yeah, sure, whatever.” Of course, Ned was far more excited and verbose about his support, setting a standard of being a perfect boyfriend I certainly don’t approach.
You interview all sorts of interesting characters.
This particular adventure takes place in New Orleans, a location that many adventure games have found ripe for puzzling. Taking a cue from The Colonel’s Bequest, the game mostly takes place in an old Southern house located next to an enormous cemetery. The body count is more appropriate for younger ages than Sierra’s mystery, though, with the death happening before Nancy arrives and the plot focusing on the mysterious skull instead. Despite the ability to switch to Nancy’s friend Bess in one precise shot of the French Quarter, very little of the city is explored in the game. I know this is a tad nitpicky, but if you’re going to be an adventure game in New Orleans then you owe it to the player to explore the city itself. The sheer multitude of locations you could incorporate makes localizing the main story at an old mansion in the middle of nowhere a bit disappointing. It just makes a game more interesting when you can visit a place that you once went to virtually. I remember after playing Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers I actually spent one nerdy trip to New Orleans checking out the various locations of that game for fun. Given the expansive variety of places in which the Nancy Drew titles take place, it seems reasonable to want the adventure to a be a bit more…adventurous.
Generally, the puzzles don’t resemble the classic Sierra-On-Line/LucasArts style of collecting items and combining them, which is a shame, because those seemed to rely on the creativity of the player a lot more. This is not to say that this is a flaw in the design, but rather, it leads to a lack of absorption for the player. The huge quantity of ‘find the combination’ or ‘solve the jigsaw puzzle’ activities begin to disappoint after a while because they just don’t seem as innovative a thought process as, say, using a magnetic compass to pull a key across the room. Instead, you just walk around until you figure out how to learn the combination and then go open whatever it is you need to unlock. Perhaps I’m just not used to this kind of game, but a little more variety in the puzzles beyond scavenger hunting would’ve gone a long way. There are also a few mini-games from Hell (skee-ball comes to mind) which are not very appropriate for these games. They’re not bad in and of themselves, but they shouldn’t be so difficult as to impede game play. Finally, there are several sections which involve reading books in the game. I’m not saying a little bit of reading is the end of the world, but when I’m flipping through a twelve-page book to find clues, I can’t help but feel that the designers are treading a very thin line. If I wanted to read a book, I’d put the game down.
Still, for twenty bucks, Nancy Drew: Legend of the Crystal Skull is a bargain. Hopefully the designers will have the faith to consider a bigger budget and development timeline, because they’ve got a great design going for them. None of this is even to mention how awesome this would be on the Wii, whether via the release of past titles or future ones.
For this review, it seemed appropriate to put a lot of extra emphasis on myself and the reaction as a male player I had to the game because I spent a great deal of the playtime being incredibly aware of the moments in which I felt slightly out of place. Perhaps these exchanges and ways of acting seem normal to the average girl, but years of being treated like a man in most second-person games made Nancy Drew very striking in fairly odd ways. You have to think differently than when a game is treating you like a guy, since even the puzzles themselves lean toward stereotypically feminine ways of thinking. At one point a spider is blocking you from picking up a key. I actually spent a few minutes looking around the cemetery for a rock to bash its brains out with before it occurred to me that I was probably supposed to figure out a more peaceful method. I don’t think I’ve ever played a game where not only was I treated like a lady; I had to act like one to win.