Nancy Drew: Warnings at Waverly Academy

When valedictorian candidates at an exclusive all-girl academy become the targets of threats and dangerous accidents, Nancy goes undercover to solve the mystery of the "Black Cat"

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Genre: Adventure/Mystery
Release Date: October 2009
Platform: PC (reviewed), MacIntosh 

Note: Originally published 02 November 2009

Every successful series in books, movies, television programs, or adventure games is grounded in a formula. There are certain elements – plot structure, character catchphrases, or action sequences, for example – that audiences come to expect from a series, often elements that become trademarks of what makes it so successful. After twenty games over a span of more than ten years, Her Interactive has certainly found a profitable formula with their Nancy Drew mystery adventures. As I played their twenty-first interactive case, however, I began to wonder whether it may be time to reinvigorate the franchise and try something new for America’s oldest teen detective.

This latest adventure capitalizes on many of the aspects that have made previous games successes. Nancy again works undercover, this time at a boarding school for girls in the Berkshires, where somebody calling herself the Black Cat has been leaving threatening notes and playing malicious pranks on students, specifically seniors who are in the running to be valedictorian. While attempting to uncover the identity of the mean prankster, Nancy (“Becca Sawyer,” a rather obvious fake name, if you ask me) does her usual share of chores for other people and plunges into a historical treasure hunt that is, of course, connected to the modern day crime.

The strong point of this game is the visuals. The school itself, though rather restricting if you are somebody who likes to explore a lot, is quite attractive, especially the paintings on the walls and the detailed woodwork. When it is snowing, you can see flakes from all of the windows, and the scenery outside changes depending on how hard the precipitation is falling. Additionally, all of characters – and there are five of them this time, a big difference from the previous installment – have expressive gestures and movements that show them reacting realistically to what Nancy says. The moments where their eyes widen or they shake their fist make the interactions realistic, even if it is slightly improbable that they are always in the same place, doing the same thing whenever you go looking for them. They are interesting people to talk to, clearly representing different kinds of students and attitudes and personalities.

To add to the lure of the game for adolescent girls, already the majority of the Her Interactive audience, Nancy has a cell phone that allows her to receive gossipy text messages from the other girls at the school. These texts often provide clues or red herrings that she can bring up in conversation. It is not an interactive element (you cannot send or respond to these texts), but it is a fun one that helps immerse you in the environment.


However, the texts are one of very few hints that indicate what to do next. When Nancy is running around doing errands for people in exchange for a key, password, or other kind of valuable information, the objective is always clear, if tedious or repetitive. But there were also times when I did not know what to do; in many of these cases, I had to go to Nancy’s room and set the alarm for a different time of day in order to trigger a certain event to occur. Some more direction in these instances would have been helpful.

The puzzles fall into two distinct categories: first, as I mentioned, there are errands that Nancy has to do in order to get what she wants from other people. In a Nancy Drew game, suspects will never volunteer anything other than their name willingly; they always demand something in return. This becomes an annoying ploy to lengthen game time and/or make you do some kind of tedious activity. In this game, the annoying chore is Nancy’s duty as snack bar manager. Once a day (plus whenever somebody asks for a snack in exchange for a clue), you must fill orders for students and teachers at the snack bar. I understand the rationale that it fits the idea of the students having specific duties assigned to them at school, but it is not a fun activity. You will not be surprised to know, however, that it is by no means the first food-related activity to appear in the Nancy Drew series. I’m surprised Nancy is not whipping up gourmet meals at this point. Virtual food preparation, in my opinion, just makes you hungry.

The second kind of puzzle is that which is related to the historical mystery that frames the plotline. Nancy finds yet another hidden journal in which somebody has written cryptic clues to a long lost treasure, this time an unpublished book of Edgar Allan Poe poems, and must decode the journal and solve all of the necessary challenges to find it before somebody else does. These puzzles are actually of a nice variety; they are not too challenging, but they require some thought, sometimes pen and paper (with the exception of a mind-numbing activity in which you have to place all of the fifty states on a map. Seriously?!).

But even with all of these positive attributes, not to mention the other hallmarks of the series – the fabulous soundtrack, the suspenseful timed ending, the plot twists, the historical research, the phone calls to Nancy’s friend and boyfriend – I found the game very underwhelming. I even found Nancy herself moderately annoying, as all she does during the game is ask question after question after question, not bothering to engage in any actual conversation with the characters. As someone who has devoured all of the other games, I was disappointed with this one because it had nothing new to offer. It follows the same formula, in my opinion a tired one, that so many games before it have, except with certain elements (especially graphics and voice acting) improved.

If you, like me, are a loyal fan of this series, you may or may not enjoy this latest installment. Even though Her Interactive has been making steady improvements to their game design over the years, improvements that definitely show, this game has nothing to excite people who have followed Nancy’s adventures since 1998’s Secrets Can Kill. If you do not mind playing the same formula again, then you will enjoy this game as much as any other, but if you are hoping for more, as I was, you will be disappointed. Newcomers to the series, though, will find that Warnings at Waverly Academy is a pretty solid introduction to the 3D world of Nancy Drew. Here’s to hoping her next adventure will provide some new thrills for even the most devout fans!

Final Grade: B+/A-

System Requirements:

    PC
    Operating System: Windows® XP/Vista/7
    1 GHz or greater Pentium or equivalent class CPU
    256 MB of RAM
    1 GB or more of hard drive space
    32 MB DirectX 9.0 compatible video card
    16 bit DirectX compatible sound card
    24X CD-ROM drive, mouse, and speakers

    Mac
    Mac OS X 10.5.8 Leopard or higher
    Intel Processor
    512 MB RAM
    At least 1.1 GB of hard drive space
    Intel GMA 950, ATI X1600, NVIDIA 7300 graphics card or better
    Keyboard and mouse
    Internet Connection

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