Nancy Drew: Legend of the Crystal Skull
First posted on 01 December 2007. Last updated on 21 November 2014.
I make no pretense to hide my enthusiasm for Her Interactive's Nancy Drew series of point-and-click adventure games. These games have consistently offered an exhilarating mix of memorable characters, classic plots, and challenging but not overly difficult puzzles. The production values (such as graphics, sound, music, and voice acting) are also of high quality and better than what may be expected from such budget priced games. Unfortunately, the latest title in the series, Legend of the Crystal Skull, is not up to Her Interactive's usual high standards. Several of the key puzzles are counterintuitive and obscure, and the characters, while interesting, are not as well developed as those in the earlier games. All in all, I was disappointed with this game, though it was certainly not a complete disaster—indeed, with a little more spit and polish, this could have been an excellent game.
The storyline has Nancy and her friend Bess Marvin visiting New Orleans, or, more specifically, an old gothic style mansion on the outskirts of the famous old city. The owner of the mansion, Bruno Bolet, has recently passed away, and his great nephew and heir, the young Henry Bolet, is having a hard time settling the old man’s financial affairs. Henry is a friend of Nancy’s boyfriend, Ned, and Ned asks Nancy to visit the mansion and keep Henry company. Naturally, it does not take Nancy long to find herself involved in a mystery. Soon after she arrives, she is assailed by a mysterious figure clad in a skeleton costume, who knocks her out with a smoke bomb. Of course, Nancy takes it upon herself to learn the identity of her attacker, a quest that soon leads her into a larger mystery involving the titular crystal skull, a valuable artifact alleged to have magical powers. However, the skull is missing, and Nancy must decipher Bruno’s clues to find the artifact before it is discovered by someone less scrupulous.
The cast of characters is rather small. It consists of only 3 major characters. The first is Henry Bolet, a young "goth" or "emo" type whose black dyed hair and eyeliner are unusual for a Nancy Drew game. However, while Henry looks interesting, he interacts very little with the player, offering only a dozen or so lines of dialog. The others are Renee Amande, a housekeeper who is both suspicious and superstitious, and Gilbert Buford, a physician and old friend of the deceased. Both Renee and Gilbert have reasons for wanting the skull for themselves, and their quirky personalities and quality dialog add greatly to the game. Lastly, a secondary character worth mentioning is Lamont Warrick, a hilarious owner of curio shop. Lamont's role is mostly for comic relief, and he is not featured prominently. Indeed, my main criticism of this game is that the characters are scarcely involved in the game; they are only present to offer the occasional line of terse dialog, and the conversations are strictly linear. The result is a game that feels empty and shallow, especially when compared to earlier games such as Last Train to Blue Moon Canyon or Stay Tuned for Danger.
Production values are mostly good, though there are odd instances of an audible clipping noise at the ends of some strings of dialog. The music is a mixture of jazz and blues, quite appropriate for the New Orleans setting. Unfortunately, there is not enough of it, and much of the game is spent in silence—though the frequent rainfall provides nice visual and aural ambience.
The biggest disappointment of this game lies with the few prominently placed but utterly baffling puzzles. The first of these occurs very early in the game—a standard Rube Goldberg type puzzle that has Bess placing a dozen or so objects in a sequence. While the goal of the puzzle is clear enough (blast Lamont with a nose full of sneezing powder), the lack of feedback and arbitrary nature of the arrangement makes this puzzle practically impossible. Even after I discovered the solution and placed the objects accordingly, I still did not quite understand why it worked on a logical level in retrospect. At the Senior level of difficulty (at least), there are no clues or notifications to the players given that parts of the puzzle are correct; it is all or nothing. Considering how common these types of puzzles are in adventure games, it is odd that the developer has done such a poor job with it. Another very difficult puzzle involves a billiards type board; Nancy must shoot the ball and change 9 toggles to a certain setting. This puzzle is maddeningly hard and requires inordinate patience and a very steady hand on the mouse. Other puzzles are duplicated several times, almost as if the developer is running out of time or resource and decides to recycle puzzles to stretch out the game's length. Finally, at certain moments in the game I simply had no idea what I needed to do next to advance the plot. Thankfully, these moments are few, but they can be painfully frustrating. Other puzzles are better thought out, especially a series of riddles based on tombstones and a difficult but fun sequence involving 25 glass eyes and a poem about pirates.
The unique culture of New Orleans and southern Louisiana in general makes the area a fertile ground for adventure games. The developer, however, has somehow missed many opportunities to exploit the setting. Although Nancy can call a cab company, she is never allowed to leave the mansion and explore the greater New Orleans area. I recalled how much fun I had exploring Paris in Danger by Design, and I felt cheated in this game. Indeed, except a few small cultural references such as gumbo, Mardi Gras, and a graveyard full of tombs, there is little else to establish a New Orleans theme. I would have expected some mention of Hurricane Katrina, or at least some passing mention of Bourbon Street and Café du Monde. Not a single beignet in a game set in New Orleans?
In the game's defense, most of the annoyances in Legend of the Crystal Skull are also common in other adventure games, and many gamers can appreciate the difficulty and care less about the authenticity of the setting or lack of dialog. If nothing else, players will probably find the dark and gloomy ambiance a great way to spend a few wintry evenings, and with a few exceptions the puzzles are well designed and fun. I recommend this game to fans of the series, but also point others to some of the previous (and better) games in the series, such as Danger on Deception Island or The Secret of Shadow Ranch. What I hope is that Her Interactive will quickly regain its footing in the next Nancy Drew sequel and follow the precedent established in its earlier games, which feature cleverly themed puzzles, captivating soundtracks, and fun characters.