The Phantom of Venice is the eighteenth title in the Nancy Drew adventure series, which does make you wonder what every other franchise out there has been doing with their time. Gears of War 2? Halo 3? Street Fighter IV? Pfft! Mere amateurs when it comes to churning out product in a timely fashion. It does prove, though, that you don't have to be a big, flashy 3D extravaganza to shift a few units.
It also shows that not everyone wants innovation and cutting edge game design when sitting down for an evening in front of the PC. Phantom of Venice is an absolutely standard adventure game, with everything you'd expect and nothing you wouldn't. It's all about talking to people, collecting clues and solving puzzles. Endless puzzles. And that's exactly what a lot of people want from this kind of thing. It's the gaming equivalent of a Sunday night murder mystery on the ABC, or one of the many Criminal Crime Case: Forensic Detective Squad shows that clutter up the commercial channels. Easily digested, accessible and also, much as we wriggled and squirmed in its clutches, undeniably satisfying.
It's best described as 'not half bad', or, if you prefer, 'mostly quite good if you can ignore the bad stuff'. When playing through the game, we were constantly surprised that we didn't really mind it all that much (apart from the bad bits), and may actually have been enjoying ourselves every now and again. It's all put together competently and the unfolding mystery, involving a mysterious art thief in Venice, unwinds in a reasonably engaging manner. Nancy herself is an amiable companion throughout, and the voice acting is actually a step above that found in most other games, no matter what the genre.
We were happy to see that a few tweaks have been made to the game engine since we last encountered it. There's a very handy task list that lets you know what you should be doing at any one time, and which provides the small but satisfying pleasure of Ticking Things Off as you progress through the game. An in-game journal also keeps track of clues, notes and other bits of evidence, and in combination with the task list, keeps things bubbling along quite nicely. Everything is still presented in Myst-era, pre-rendered 3D but it's pleasant enough to look at, and some of the character animation occasionally teeters towards being mildly impressive.
The puzzles - or 'roadblocks' as we like to think of them - are solid and challenging, and had us scuttling towards the nearest FAQ on more than one occasion. A rather nifty card game pops up at one stage and we spent a few hours happily losing against a masked Italian, until the losing turned into irritation and we started wishing that we could move on to something more interesting. Phantom of Venice also contains a few deeply annoying pseudo-quick time events, in which a short time limit is suddenly imposed and failure to, for example, get yourself into a cupboard before a door opens, boots you out of the game. Not fun.
Speaking of not fun, here are two words that will strike fear into even the most stony-hearted gamer: unskippable dialogue. It really is inexcusable, when the text is written there on the screen, to have to sit and listen to every line spoken to its conclusion. There can be some quite lengthy exchanges and nobody is in a rush to get through their lines. It's particularly annoying when, at the end of each round of the previously mentioned card game, your opponent insists on slowly talking through how the points have added up before allowing you into another round. It's excruciating at times, and serves little purpose other than to inflate the game's running time.
Rounding out our list of grumbles is the excessive amount of to-ing and fro-ing that the game demands. There's an awful lot of going there to get that before going back to there to change into this, so you can then go there and on and on and on it goes. Travel happens via a top-down map that lists all the various districts of Venice, but doesn't actually tell you what is in each district, so it's up to you to remember if the dress shop is in the Campo Santa Maria Formosa, the Campo del Frari or the Campo Santa Margherita. And it's not just a matter of clicking on a location and being instantly transported there - to cross the map you have to click from A to B, watch an animated line connect the dots, click B to C, watch the animated line, C to D, watch the line, repeat until done. Just a few informative icons sprinkled around the map would make a world of difference and cut out a lot of mindless wandering.
Despite all the effort that Phantom of Venice puts into frustrating and annoying the player, we did enjoy our time with the game. The story hangs together quite well and, while it's not pushing any sort of boundaries, remains interesting throughout. It's definitely one of the best games in the Nancy Drew series, and may be one of the better adventure games around at the moment. The various problems with the game - f'gosh sake, skippable dialogue next time, yes? - prevent us making a wholehearted recommendation, and it's unlikely to distract anyone from the shoutier end of the gaming spectrum. There are, however, worse ways to keep warm during a rainy Sunday afternoon, and you might just find yourself won over by Ms. Drew.