Genre: Mystery Adventure
Release Date: October 2004
Note: Originally published 15 October 2004
Dear, oh dear, Nancy…. what have you got yourself into this time….
The Nancy Drew games, by Her Interactive, seem to have begun with a simple mission: to provide graphic adventure games for "Girls who were not afraid of a mouse." As far as we can see, she certainly succeeded in her mission. Nancy Drew: Curse of Blackmoor Manor is her, wait for it, 11th outing! Busy girl. So, apart from the projected target audience, has anyone else tagged along?
Oh, come on, be honest! Every adventure game fan must have at least two of Nancy's adventure games on the shelf (forget your Doom 3 pride for a second, and take a moment). They are not the most loved, or cherished, but you will never forget those hours by Moon Lake hunting for bugs, or sending crafty codes from Deception Island.
For what seemed like a very long time, Nancy was the only person around to provide anything in the way of a good adventure game, to brighten up subdued Sunday afternoons with aplomb. I always found the games were a good reason to get a few friends round, open a bottle of Merlot, and sit down to puzzle, chat and giggle at the intentional and unintentional silliness of it all. A little like the spontaneous feeling you get watching a kid's movie, or eating a favourite childhood meal. It's harmless, good-natured, unpretentious fun.
So, given that Nancy has nothing to prove (she's doing quite well on her own), what did I make of Curse of Blackmoor Manor?
The usual installation (i.e. bug free, technical problems non-existent) went as expected, and the menu appeared as per usual. It's a mixed feeling when 'that' menu appears, and the music kicks in. What was once pleasantly minimal now shares a space with that feeling you have after yet another boring Christmas. You know the drill, you perform all the right actions, but it lacks spectacle and charm. So, let's click "New Game." Here comes the first of many shocks encountered while playing Nancy's most surprising and complex game to date. She is growing up, and becoming a little more complicated than before.
"There are some doors that should never be opened…."
First of all, Nancy is no longer on her home soil. She is over here in Blighty! Good 'ol England gets to play enigma. The change of scene works wonders to add a fresh feel, and the "County of Essex" provides a backdrop to the strange goings on at 'Blackmoor Manor.' Sadly, in reality, Essex isn't known for its Manors, or Moors. Failed Pop Stars, Hair Dressers and Fried Chicken shacks are the best known feature decorating London's nearest neighbour. Ho hum. Should we let a little geographical glitch spoil our heroine's adventure? Probably not, there's more to Nancy's Essex than the tourist board could ever muster. So, what's afoot over here in "jolly old England?" I don’t want to put this too bluntly, but: possible child Satanism, alchemy and hairy werewolf women! Read on, patient player….
A clean, rather plain, but almost full screen video introduces your home for the next few days, and suggests a little of the action to follow. Nancy is her usual chirpy self, and the suspects begin to pile up like Murder She Wrote roadkill. The "Manor" itself is a rather strange affair. I don’t know of any Welsh named families living in Baroque Essex stately homes (with a mere four bedrooms), but this is fiction, and the environments look better than ever. The usual Nancy stockpile of 'pleasant looking soft furnishings' and 'tasteful shelf fillers' have been replaced by something a little more odd and surreal. It is only later that you realise that, perhaps, the whole house is one big puzzle, and every oddment may hold the key to unmasking our culprit.
Nancy Drew Villains: They are always from the "so, it was Mr. Jones, the Janitor" School of Evil, and "Blackmoor" offers no surprises on that count. Having said that, you may keep wondering which of these snide Limeys is behind it all right up until the end, unless, like me, you were thrilled that Her Interactive chose the character you had wanted to murder throughout the game. Nice touch. As per usual, the characters are easy to interact with and a pleasure to listen to. The voice acting is lively and entertaining, and never suggests people are delivering lines for cash only. Although I must say the cockney character takes more than a jellied eel to be desired, or accepted. The poor actress performing Nancy's role must have felt very confused when confronted with a line like, "I can use my Johnnie Rutter to grease up that lock outside Janes room." Please! This is a game series for teenage girls! Using cockney to spice up a day's game production work is one thing, but do understand that it needs a little more camouflage to be acceptable. Dirty minded? Hardly! I was not alone on this adventure, and the collected Nancy aficionados of ol' London Town were on the floor in fits of giggles. Perhaps the "senior mode" means more than it is letting on.
Books, notes and diagrams: Oh. My. Oh. My. So many pages! I love reading. Especially during good adventure games. "Blackmoor" truly rewards the reader, and note taker. As some may know, I am partial to dotting a few books here and there in my own games, so this was a treat. The books presented are not only well written, but look lovely too. Actually, scrub that. The books presented are beautiful to behold. Aged pages, tasteful script and realistic layout combine to deliver some of the nicest tomes this side of the Myst universe. Absolute top marks to the Her Interactive designers for making that extra effort to create items of such interest. A very welcome and nice touch.
There are further commendations for the talented illustrators and diagram designers. No puzzle clue was muddy, and each sketch was clear and consistent. I was reminded of Zork: Nemesis while browsing though certain books. It wasn't the only time I was reminded of that game.
The Sun, Moon and Stars: I did mention, above, that the whole house was one big puzzle? It might well be seen like that. There are literally dozens of puzzles in here. Forget pulling crank handles and starting up bridge machines…. for as far as puzzles go, "Blackmoor Manor" is where the adventure gamers should reside. More often than not the manor house resembles Hogwarts rather than a little known pile in an unfavourable county of England. From sound puzzles to runes, and arcade games to academic research, both you and Nancy are going to have a right royal time working this one out. Some puzzles are nicer than others. A difficult maze was made far worse by certain long running problems presented by the game engine. Mazes are rubbish. They always have been, and always will be. So, making them timed, and limiting your directional turns is not such a great idea. Oh, did I mention that you may also have to cope with complete darkness? Sadly, I really do mean to say 'complete darkness.' Apart from that, and a little gripe here and there, the puzzles are mixed, entertaining and great communal activities (should you be playing with friends). The alchemy-based material is surprisingly fleshy and complex, while certain board-game style brain-strainers were enough to bring out the Lycanthrope in me. They weren't overly difficult, but were realistic of the competitive chance games that we have learnt to love, and hate.
Mind your manners: There is a well-disguised element to the Nancy games that I rather like. They do not only set out to pass the time, or sometimes entertain. There is a very impressive goal at work within the fun, and that goal is to educate. I have learnt a little more about alchemy while researching in "Blackmoor's" library and on Nancy's web-enabled cell phone, but that isn't what I am referring to. Beyond my fun, there is a drive to include a little etiquette alongside the gameplay. It comes in small subtle references, and comments by those present inside the game world. It isn't fussy, or preachy, and makes an awful lot of sense. For example, Nancy no longer uses her cell phone in front of other characters, as it might appear rude. What a charming, well-mannered girl she must be. A more cynical player may find these touches nauseous, or even insulting, but I found them quite refreshing. Perhaps Her Interactive see themselves as the Finishing School for Girls who are not afraid of a mouse. Again, it was a nice touch.
Lastly, I must mention the interface. It was perfectly ok when Nancy was finding her feet, but this time 'round I found it did not sit well with the higher quality gaming presented. Please, please, revamp the save/load screens. It's very confusing. I managed to load a game three times, when I was meaning to 'save'. The question which pops up to warn you of your own actions (you know the one!) only confuses matters. Having the save and load buttons on one screen is not a good move. Thank Nancy's cotton socks there is the "Second Chance" feature, which saved the day on more than one occasion. Literally!
Technical blips aside, "Blackmoor" offers plenty for newcomers to the series, and plenty of fresh charm to the seasoned Nancy fan. So, what are you waiting for? Get yourself to "Blackmoor Manor" forthwith. A delight in the puzzle department, and pleasantly surreal. Nancy will need your help, as not even she can cope with Bangers and Mash, Werewolf women and bonkers rococo architecture alone. The game's afoot, and the alchemists are waiting.
Final Grade: B+
300 MB hard drive space
16-bit color graphics video card with at least 16MB of VRAM
16-bit Windows-compatible stereo sound card
12X CD ROM
Mouse and Speakers