Nancy Drew: The Haunting of Castle Malloy
First posted on 19 November 2008. Last updated on 21 November 2014.
I admit I have been avoiding Her Interactive's Nancy Drew series. While the cover for the last game, Nancy Drew: The Phantom of Venice, intrigues me every time I look at it, I simply cannot get past the words "Nancy Drew" on the box, nor the words "10 to Adult". It is easy to see the mystery adventures of this longtime sleuth as suitable only for young female gamers. Certainly, the developer does not seem to do much to discourage this stereotype. Indeed, the latest sequel, Nancy Drew: The Haunting of Castle Malloy, proudly advertises the tagline "Plan a Wedding in Ireland" right on the back of the game box. So imagine my surprise after trying out a few Nancy Drew games that I actually find them to be among the most professionally produced and consistently engaging modern adventure game series. Do not let being an adult or a male gamer stop you from checking this series out. If you are a fan of adventure games, you will not be disappointed with Nancy Drew.
Nancy Drew: The Haunting of Castle Malloy is the 19th title of the long running Nancy Drew series. This time, the story begins as Nancy arrives in Ireland to be the maid of honor at an old friend's wedding. As seems typical for Nancy, it does not take long for her trip to become complicated. Her car is run off the road by a mysterious flying ghostly figure that resembles a banshee. If that is not enough of a mystery, Nancy then discovers that the groom is missing. The bride insists that he is simply playing a practical joke. The groom's best friend confides that he believes the groom may have cold feet, while the crotchety old caretaker has no doubt that fairies are behind the whole disappearance. Naturally, it is up to you as Nancy Drew to explore the castle grounds and solve the mystery.
The production values of the game are excellent, as they always have been for the series. The voice acting is consistently of high quality, with each character establishing a distinct personality even from the first few lines. Nancy herself is voiced wonderfully. While the delivery of the lines sometimes goes just slightly over the top, it is completely appropriate given the premise of the series. The graphics are also quite pleasing, consistent with an effort put forth by the developer to gradually improve the series' look over time. The automated scenes with the banshee are particularly well presented. That being said, they may have reached a little too far graphically this time, as I often experience graphical glitches with a character's mannerisms and gestures. During conversations with a certain male character, his shoulders frequently shrug, but the rest of his body does not follow the shrug until a full second or more later. This leads to a very disjointed look that can be very distracting. Notwithstanding the minor glitches, the overall appearance of the game is very polished.
The puzzles run the gamut from classical to innovative in their design. What has always impressed me most about the Nancy Drew series is how consistently logical, yet challenging, the puzzles tend to be. With few exceptions, this title proves to be the case. The puzzles range from an excellent classic logic problem in the form of a wedding seating chart, to a series of clever doll arranging puzzles, to a rather challenging sequence where you have to pick wires to get an old piece of machinery to work. The mini games are equally diverse. You will spend time playing darts, beating drums, and playing the Nancy Drew equivalent of the bar video game Photo Hunt. If you are playing on the easier difficulty level, you can buy hints from a fortune telling machine. The tokens for these hints can be earned by mixing non-alcoholic drinks for the locals (unusual for an Irish pub, perhaps, but makes sense for a game aimed for a younger audience). The dart and photo games, in particular, are among the most fun mini games I have ever played in an adventure game, and I often find myself enjoying a round or more between puzzles (especially at times of having been momentarily stuck in the game). This is a welcome change from many other adventure games where the mini games are less enjoyable and are served mainly to interrupt the flow of the game rather than to compliment it.
While the puzzles are excellent overall, the game is not without its flaws. As much as I enjoy seeing classic puzzles in modern adventure games, I feel it is my duty to plead with Her Interactive to stop putting a sliding tiles puzzle in virtually every single Nancy Drew game. Sliding tiles on a 3x3 or 4x4 grid to form a picture is indeed a classic puzzle, but given the number of times such puzzles have appeared in past games, putting in yet another sliding tiles puzzle in this game is starting to feel more like a copout. This is also the first Nancy Drew game where I have come across puzzles that defy reasonable logic. For example, there is a sequence where you have to deduce clues from inscriptions in books. I do not want to spoil any of them here, but a few of these clues border on being simply ridiculous and the solution can leave you irritated even after you have solved the puzzle. There is also a gear puzzle that is frustrating to solve. Not only is the clue that you cannot solve the puzzle without finding more gears a little too subtle, the puzzle seems to make itself needlessly difficult to complete. I have tried to work out the puzzle backwards, but the game literally will not let me place certain gears until others are in place, despite having no discernable reason to bar me from doing so. This makes the puzzle unnecessarily difficult, for no real excuse other than making sure the puzzle unsolvable unless you have the missing gears. It is impossible to say whether the majority of adventure gamers will experience this same irritation, but it is worth noting this is the first time in this series I have felt this way about any of the games' puzzles.
The gameplay in this game goes in a somewhat different direction from the other Nancy Drew titles I have played. The game employs a top down view of Nancy as she explores the castle grounds, in addition to the familiar first person view. You control her during these sequences by clicking where you want her to go. This gives an illusion of the grounds of the castle to have a somewhat larger feel than if you explore them all in the classic first person view, even when it also creates a jarring separation between you and your character. A major advantage of the first person view is the immersive quality it gives you as the player. You feel less like you are controlling a character and more like you are in the space itself. This immersion is completely shattered every time the top down view of Nancy appears. This is the first time that Her Interactive has utilized the top down view, and it may be best if this view is left out in future installments.
I also have mixed feelings about the overall mood of the game. The entire game takes place at night, which gives it a grim and somewhat unpleasant feel. This is especially evident when compared to the bright and vibrant views of Venice in the previous game. Naturally, the game is attempting to convey a spooky tone, which is appropriate when exploring an old castle and tracking down a banshee. Yet, I feel like it takes this a bit too far. Ireland is such a beautiful place; to only see it under darkness almost feels like we have not seen Ireland at all, especially when the entire game takes place in the castle and the surrounding grounds. The music also seems inconsistent with this mood. Sometimes, it will provide a creepy undertone to the location. At other times, a spooky exploration of the castle grounds will be backed with Irish music that, while not exactly upbeat, is not exactly foreboding either. More consistency in music and maybe even a day/night sequence with different music for each may help to improve the atmosphere of the game immensely. Too much time in the dark makes the dark gradually become far less spooky but no less grim.
While I have spent a lot of time nitpicking the game's flaws, Nancy Drew: The Haunting of Castle Malloy is not, by any means, a bad adventure game. The game simply needs a few minor tweaks for it to reach a much higher level of enjoyment. Longtime fans of Nancy Drew will nonetheless find plenty to enjoy on this trip. If you are a newcomer to Nancy's exploits, I still recommend that you pick up this game, but only after trying out some of the series' earlier (and stronger) titles, such as the superb Nancy Drew: The Phantom of Venice. The production values are as strong as ever, and most of the puzzles are of excellent quality. I hope Nancy visits Ireland again in a future case, but next time, I hope she remembers to turn on the lights once in a while!