Danger by Design

Review by MrLipid
October 2006

Detective Basics

Most mysteries have a relatively simple premise: something happened and it is the job of the detective to find out what. The reason it is a job is that what happened is a secret. The secret is affecting events today and, as in a ghost story, peace and order cannot be restored until the secret is revealed and the world put back in balance.

That's been the premise of more than a few entries in Her Interactive's Nancy Drew series. Each game's cast members—also known as suspects—have a hunch about something that happened once upon a time, and it is up to Nancy to solve the mystery first and see to it that whatever everyone is chasing winds up in the hands of its rightful owner.

It's a solid formula that has worked for creators of detective fiction for decades. It is a formula that creators of detective fiction violate at their peril. If what happened once upon a time has nothing to do with what's going on today, solving the mystery of whatever it was that happened is not likely to be very interesting. And that's the problem with Danger by Design. There is no point in the game where what happened once upon a time connects with what is going on today. This creates an enormous structural problem because the resolution of the mystery the game spends most of its time setting up has nothing to do with the mystery Nancy was originally asked to solve. As a consequence, the solution of the big mystery falls flat because it doesn't directly involve anyone in the present. At the same time, the mystery the game implies it is going to be about falls flat because almost none of the game's activities have had anything to do with its solution.

Game On, More or Less

Danger by Design starts out promisingly enough. Nancy has gone to Paris to work as an intern for world-renowned fashion designer, Minette. Minette has taken to wearing a mask at all times, and one of her major investors wants Nancy to see what's going on. Roughly half of the puzzles and errands in Danger relate to Nancy's role as an intern. These activities include making tea, making cookies, developing photos, buying objects to inspire Minette's muse, and so on. All nicely realized and enjoyable enough, but not the sort of challenges one expects a legendary sleuth to spend a lot of time on.

The mystery that has nothing to do with all of these intern-level tasks provides the basis for the other half of the game's puzzles. Some of these are real corkers and require players to, among other things, develop a basic understanding of cryptography as practiced during the Second World War. Great stuff, but it has nothing to do with Minette or why she wears a mask or why she is falling behind on her new line.

Loose Ends

There are, by my count, only three puzzles that have anything to do with the job Nancy was sent to do, and, of these three, one can be skipped completely (!) without affecting the outcome of the game. In percentage terms, only 10% of Danger by Design involves the mystery surrounding the woman whose mask graces the cover of the box. As my wife and I played, we kept wondering how all the threads were going to be brought together at the end. It was wasted wonder. Rather than ever being tied together, the threads just stop.

Pretty, Though

While the story in Danger by Design never really works, the look of the game is quite pleasing. This is, after all, a game about fashion, and fashion is all about the look, no? The production team has found a way to effectively integrate photography into the game's backgrounds, giving Danger's one exterior location a nearly three-dimensional effect.

The smoothness of the visual surface of Danger stands in stark contrast to the erratic quality of the title's puzzles and errands. The level of difficulty ranges from trivial to near-impossible, with more twitch, arcade, and timed sequences than I remember seeing in any previous Nancy Drew game. Anyone who's solved the timed safe puzzle with the solution offered in the official strategy guide should consider switching to decaf. (A considerably less frantic solution is available here.) The timed bomb defusing and the underwater maze also bring a level of tension not usually associated with Nancy Drew games. And, as if all of the safecracking, bomb defusing, and underwater maze navigating weren't enough, the last twitch puzzle is tied to the final cinematic, making it impossible to provide less-agile gamers with a saved game to let them see Danger's finale.

One of the more controversial puzzles in Danger takes place entirely in the dark. Some loved it. Some hated it. I found it both nervy and commendable. The last time I encountered a dark screen puzzle was in DreamingMedia's 2002 Independent Game Festival Grand Prize winner Bad Milk. Would never have expected to find anything like it in a Nancy Drew game.

And the Verdict Is ...

Though it pains me to do it, the best rating I can give this, the 14th entry in the Nancy Drew series, is "average." It's a good-looking game with some enjoyable challenges, but the two stories it tells have nothing to do with each other, effectively denying players one of the basic satisfactions of mystery fiction. Rather than restoring order and balance, Nancy settles for tidying up a bit, tilting the game more toward chore than adventure. Here's hoping her next outing, Creature of Kapu Cave, will provide the satisfactions that make both Nancy and the genre within which she lives so enduring.

Trend Alert

Danger is the second Nancy Drew game to be available via download from Big Fish Games. The plan seems to be this: once the next Nancy Drew is within a week or two of shipping, the current Nancy Drew is released as a download. At the same time, Big Fish Games is releasing some of its downloadable games, such as the Mystery Case Files series, in boxes at retail. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Her Interactive
Publisher: Her Interactive
Release Date: July 11, 2006

Available for: Windows

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System Requirements

Windows 98/ME/2000/XP
1 GHz processor
128 MB RAM
650 MB free hard drive space
32 MB DirectX compatible video card
16 bit DirectX compatible sound card
24X CD-ROM drive
Mouse and speakers

Where to Find It

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No reproduction in whole or in part without express written permission.