Nancy Drew: Message in a Haunted Mansion
First posted on 22 January 2007. Last updated on 21 November 2014.
Her Interactive's Nancy Drew: Message in a Haunted Mansion is the third of the company's popular adventure games based on the famous Nancy Drew novels and characters. Her Interactive is the only commercial game developer to focus solely on creating quality games for girls, but these games have much wider appeal. Although certainly not the best game in this excellent series, Nancy Drew: Message in a Haunted Mansion has still plenty to offer, particularly for gamers who enjoy exploring haunted houses and getting to know interesting characters.
As the title of the game indicates, Nancy Drew: Message in a Haunted Mansion is set in what is ostensibly a haunted house—or a dilapidated Victorian inn, to be precise. Nancy has been called there to assist Rose Green, a friend of Nancy's housekeeper. Rose and her friend Abby have invested their savings in renovating the old house. Rose's dream is to make the place into a successful bed and breakfast, but a series of suspicious accidents has attracted the attention of the insurance company—will the bed and breakfast ever open its doors to the public? Meanwhile, strange noises and sightings have some of the characters convinced that ghosts are involved. Nancy's job, of course, is to get to the bottom of these inexplicable events, but also to help out with the renovations. Soon enough, each character in the game emerges as a possible suspect. The young man Rose has hired to help with the renovations, Charlie, appears out of nowhere to help out shortly before the accidents. Rose's lawyer, Louis, seems a bit too interested in some of the old books in the house. Is he really honest? Perhaps Rose herself is plotting to burn down the house and defraud the fire insurance company. However, gradually Nancy learns about a much larger and more intriguing mystery involving jewels that may be hidden somewhere in the house by its long dead former occupants.
While Nancy Drew: Message in a Haunted Mansion does not have the sort of awe-inspiring graphics of a high-end adventure game title, they are nevertheless highly polished and more than adequate. The rooms and settings are mostly all photorealistic and lavishly detailed, while the characters are beautifully pre-rendered creations. Items and exits are easily identified. Although there are obviously better looking games out there, graphics are not always the most important characteristic of an adventure game.
Indeed, the key question to ask about this or any game from the Nancy Drew series is how well the characters and dialog bring the game to life. The characters in Nancy Drew: Message in a Haunted Mansion are perhaps not the most interesting in the series, but they do present players with a variety of personalities and possible motives. The dialog is as good as that in any of the Nancy Drew novels, and the characters are well developed. Rose's friend Abby, for instance, is a highly amusing "mystic" and a rather pompous young woman who insists in the reality of the spirits. Her conversations with a skeptical Nancy are always entertaining. Also, Nancy frequently consults with her very likeable friends George and Bess via a telephone in the parlor. These exchanges are quite humorous and fun to click through. Of course, adventure games with lots of dialog have often suffered because of fantastically bad voice acting. Fortunately, the developer has done a great job in this game recruiting quality voice talent. The voice actors (especially Nancy's) seem to be enjoying themselves immensely, and the effect is to greatly enhance the pleasure of the game. Likewise, the in-game music is pleasant and just sinister sounding enough to create the right atmosphere for the spooky old house.
There are plenty of interesting puzzles in this game, ranging from playing a certain sequence on an old piano to solving a rather complicated riddle involving a dozen or so Chinese characters. Clues to these puzzles are scattered all throughout the house, so players must keep a sharp eye out and be ready to make lots of small sketches (or screenshots) as they play. There is also the usual mix of sliding and tile puzzles which, although perhaps only loosely tied to the story, are nevertheless a welcome diversion and are quite fun to play. Perhaps the most interesting puzzle is a randomly generated 3-D maze, which players must navigate to figure out the password to a laptop. Maybe this puzzle is evidence that the developer has been experimenting with a fully 3-D interface? At any rate, the maze is just challenging enough to be fun without being tedious or frustrating.
The game's interface is fairly straightforward and a marked improvement over the first two games in the series. The most obvious innovation here is the ability to turn in a 360-degree arc in certain rooms. When this is possible, the cursor changes to a left or right pointing arrow when dragged to the sides of the screen. The cursor may still confuse some players (it turns red to indicate a variety of actions), but most players can probably get used to it fairly quickly to navigate the game. The hotspots are large enough to make pixel hunting unnecessary, and there are a variety of ways for Nancy to get help if she gets stuck on a puzzle (or is unsure what to do next). Nancy herself will usually give clues, but she can also call her friends to get more advice. Perhaps the most confusing aspect of the game is the real-time clock. A pocket watch icon on the interface screen allows Nancy to see the time, which becomes important since certain characters will only be present during certain times. An alarm clock in Nancy's bedroom allows her to sleep until certain hours. Although this feature may make the game more realistic, I cannot say I particularly like the setup. There are the 2 "Spy IQ" levels of difficulty which players can choose at the start of the game—"Junior Detective" and "Senior Detective". While some of the puzzles are quite challenging, there are sufficient clues available to help players through them, and young players can opt for the "Junior Detective" mode which enables even more clues and in-game hints. The puzzles here are meant to be enjoyed, not agonized over.
All in all, I am pleased with Nancy Drew: Message in a Haunted Mansion, though, having played 11 other games in the series, I must admit that it is not my favorite. Other games are more educational, and Nancy Drew: The Curse of Blackmoore Manor is more frightening. Since the initial release of Nancy Drew: Message in a Haunted Mansion, The Adventure Company has released the Nancy Drew: 75th Anniversary Limited Edition that is a compilation of the first 5 games of the series which also includes this title. Overall, Nancy Drew: Message in a Haunted Mansion is a worthwhile adaptation of the Nancy Drew fiction and is definitely a game worth checking out.