Another day, another Nancy Drew title to review. The Legend of the Crystal Skull is the seventeenth game in the series, so someone out there must keep buying them. Presumably just putting the name 'Nancy Drew' up the front will bring in screaming hordes of 12 year old girls, while simultaneously keeping away pretty much everyone else. It's a shame in a way because Crystal Skull contains some decent storytelling and puzzles that are tough and chewy enough to challenge anyone.
The game sticks firmly to all the standard point 'n' click adventure game traditions. Expect to spend a lot of time sweeping the screen with the mouse cursor until something lights up, wading through conversation trees, travelling through pre-rendered 3D screens and fumbling with a wide variety of fiendishly difficult puzzles. The solutions to a few of the puzzles are so wilfully obscure and counter-intuitive that we have to wonder if they've been included for no other reason than to sell a few more strategy guides, but generally speaking they strike a good balance between difficulty and fun.
The story takes place in New Orleans and centres mostly on an old, spooky house that belongs to the recently deceased uncle of a friend of Nancy's boyfriend, Ned. Nancy pops in to see what's going on and - what are the odds? - quickly becomes involved in a convoluted mystery. It's a dark tale, both visually and thematically. The game advises the player that it's best to play with the lights off and the curtains drawn, and it's pretty much a necessity as the house and its environment have been rendered with a very dark, low contrast look. It's atmospheric, moody and remarkably creepy at times. Exceptionally nervous young gamers might want to play with an adult at hand.
The writing and voice work are of a higher standard than you might reasonably expect. Nancy is particularly well acted, and the supporting cast do a good job as well. Some of the exchanges between the characters are quite amusing, and it was a pleasant surprise to be able to switch control from Nancy to her friend Bess at certain points in the game. Nancy, as seen from Bess's point of view, comes across as a somewhat bossy and obsessive young lady and it's a neat little narrative trick that keeps things interesting.
So, on a fundamental level, Legend of the Crystal Skull ticks all the boxes that will keep puzzle and adventure fans happy. It's a shame then that a number of irritations that have sullied other Nancy Drew games still persist. The spoken dialogue is unskippable, which can lead to some interminable conversations. Either the developers are so enormously proud of the voice acting that they couldn't bear to have it skipped over or it's just a way to pad out the length of the game. Who knows and, really, who cares? It needs to be fixed.
The endless amount of unavoidable to-ing and fro-ing will place further demands on your patience. This is not so much a game of exploration and discovery as one of microscopic inspection of well-trodden territory. We must have criss-crossed the house gardens and neighbouring cemetery dozens of times, usually scuttling back to get some damn key or other, before heading back where we were in the first place. At least the travel time isn't as painfully drawn out as in the last Nancy game we looked at, but it really does begin to suck the enjoyment out of the game.
Also, as we mentioned earlier, some of the puzzles are so sadistically unsolvable without a strategy guide or FAQ that it makes them almost pointless. For example, at one point you have to arrange a selection of shelved objects so that they create a domino-style chain reaction. Fair enough, seems like good fun. An hour later, after having watched the (pre-rendered) chain reaction fail at the same point over and over again and with no combination of the available objects leading to success, we headed to the nearest available FAQ. Turns out we needed a particular object from outside the puzzle in question. There's no hint in the game that this is necessary and, short of spontaneously deciding to throw every single object you've collected throughout the game into the mix, it's a solution that can only be stumbled on through sheer, blind luck. About as much fun as giving someone a jigsaw with half the pieces missing and, to be frank, an example of dreadfully poor design.
It'd be good to see the Nancy Drew series leave behind the game design and technology of the early 90s and make the leap to, well, at least the mid-90s. There's obviously money being made here, so why not put some of into a decent 3D engine? We're not talking Crysis, but surely a licence for the original Unreal engine wouldn't cost more than a few bucks, would it? And it's not like the hand-me-down PC that the average Nancy fan might have inherited is going to have trouble running something a little more demanding. Hopefully any future additions to the Nancy Drew franchise will show a smidge more ambition.