Nancy Drew: The Secret of Shadow Ranch
Review by Old
Michael Moore Visits Crawford, Texas?
What secrets lie within the Ranch of Shadows? How did a rattlesnake
wander into the master bedroom? Why does the foreman wear dark sunglasses
and a necktie microphone? Is this the clandestine replacement for
Area 51? Why can't reporters visit the reputed sprawling sub-basements?
How could visiting dignitaries be so attracted to this hot and dusty
retreatand have they all left? Where do those ATV trails really
Forgive me for having a little fun with this tenth entry in the
famed Nancy Drew PC game mystery series. Of course, this fine game
has nothing at all to do with Mr. Moore or Crawford. Rather, we
finally have a gameitization of the first and best-selling Drew
mystery of all timeThe Secret of Shadow Ranch. Published
in 1931, this faithfully recreated and modernized story holds up
very well, indeed, for its intended audiencepreteen persons
(not just girls; let's be P.C. with our PC game!).
"Oh My Gosh, You've Got a Mystery to Solve, Don't You!"
As with my previous
Drew review, I thought it best to see how a young person would
feel about this rather simple adventure title. Luckily, I found
a volunteer in 9-year-old Amanda. Now, Amanda was a most interesting
helper. Although she has her own PC and is quite adept with it,
Amanda has never played a PC or video game. Her parents are very
religiously conservative and have generally classified all "video
games" as something harmful and not allowed in their home.
In discussion with Amanda's mom, it was agreed that Drew mystery
novels were within acceptable limits. To make a long story short,
we then logically moved to not only an acceptance of, but a real
appreciation for, this particular PC game; in fact, quite excitedly
so in the case of Amanda herself. A good part of my rating is how
this 9-year-old first-time gamer reacted to Shadow Ranch.
As to the story, our heroine, still appearing to be in her late
teens (she's really in her nineties but visits Switzerland a lot),
travels to a dude ranch in Arizona for a vacation. Of course, as
with Jessica Fletcher, the Hardy Boys and Miss Marple, Nancy can't
seem to go anywhere without a crime either going on or following
her closely. It makes one wonder, doesn't it? Once arriving, she
finds the ranch in relative disarray. The owner is in the hospital
with a rattlesnake bite; some nasty damage has occurred on the ranch
grounds; Bess and George have had their flight delayed; some of
the staff, particularly the foreman, seem quite grumpy; and, to
top it all off, there are rumors of hauntings by a phantom horse!
"I Don't Snoop, I Sleuth!" Nancy
Our game installed and ran smoothly, both on my system and my associate's
somewhat lesser system. Since this was her first adventure game,
I encouraged her to go through the "tutorial," or gameplay
overview, which was very nicely done. It demonstrates the 360-degree
rotational movement, use of arrows, examining with the magnifying
glass, selecting inventory items, conversational options, case journal,
cell phone, and the somewhat controversial inventory process.
Although the new removal of inventory items from direct screen
view allows for greater screen size, accessing that inventory proves
to be quite clumsy, involving several steps. One hopes the developers,
who strive to make improvements in gameplay mechanics with each
episode, will fine-tune this feature for Nancy Drew 11.
Amanda chose Junior over Senior detective, in terms of difficulty
settings. This allows hints from NPCs along the way, extra phone
call help, second chances when you bomb out. One option that Amanda
particularly liked, since it fit in with her personal style (she's
a superior student), was the task list. She enjoyed Nancy saying:
"Organized person that I am, I like to check things off."
Accompanying the journal, this list is a helpful supplement to the
logical and organized mind, although more experienced gamers will
likely choose to not have such assists. Finally, you can save anywhere,
in both Junior and Senior modes.
A word about the official strategy guide, if I may. This was included
with our review copy, but I held it back from Amanda until she completed
the game and then gave it to her. Occasionally, I would bring it
along for reference when she called or I visited to answer a question
and see how she was doing. I must say, it is a very well-done 32-page
booklet, about six by eight inches in size, nicely presented, with
vocabulary appropriate to the target age group. Its acquisition
is encouraged, particularly for new gamers.
"This Is Not the Right Time" Foreman
As with most adventure titles, certain items need to be acquired,
conversations competed, places visited before later objectives can
be approached. Of course, puzzles also need to be solved, most rather
easily. There are some novel minigames (barrel racing, lasso practice)
along the way, and a twist that Amanda and I had some real questions
about. "Do I really have to do all those chores, all the time?"
complained my young friend. When checking this out, I felt as if
I'd wandered into Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life. Although
appreciating the educational value of the Drew games (let's teach
the child about life on a ranch), this particular set of expectations
may be a bit much for many, and it becomes rather tiresome.
Of course, that's only a minor glitch in an otherwise fine infusion
of informational themes within the game and story. Amanda learned
a good deal about horses, the Anasazi Indians, and general expectations
when one lives on a ranch.
One of the Best Drew Gamesfor Amanda
It's hard to envision a better first adventure game for a preteen
persongirl or boy. The story is "safe," interesting,
and in a wide-open western setting replete with legends, romance
and novel characters. Although graphics may seem dated to those
of us used to the likes of Far Cry, this 3D engine, with
2D rendered backgrounds, is very serviceable and brought no complaints
at all from my young helper. She played for 20+ hours as Junior
Detective and now is going to replay in the Senior mode. Voice acting
is excellent, as is the script. Puzzles are mostly integral to the
story (finding 10 arrowheads) and are generally within the range
of children's abilities.
Perhaps best of all for Amanda, and other new gamers, is the system
of guidanceranging from the fine tutorial to the help available
when Junior Detective difficulty level is selected. Amanda had a
lot of fun with this, especially the "to do" list, which
resembles her weekly school task format.
This my fifth Drew game and, although not my personal favorite
on Deception Island has that honor), is the title in the
series I would select unreservedly as a gift for a new and/or younger
adventure gamer. For that person, it gets a Gold Star rating; for
all others, a Thumb Up.
What I Liked Most About The Secret of Shadow Ranch
- Extremely good first game for a preteen.
- Excellent built-in help systems.
- More game, less toolbar, on the screen is welcome.
- The story is not only a classic, but interesting.
- Educational value.
What I Liked Least About The Secret of Shadow Ranch
- Accessing inventory is awkward.
- Graphics engine is still five years old.
- Ranch chore requirements are overdone.
Release Date: July 20, 2004
Four Fat Chicks Links
64 MB RAM
16 MB DirectX compatible video card
16 bit DirectX compatible sound card
12X CD-ROM drive
300 MB free hard disk space
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