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NANCY DREW: The Secret of Shadow Ranch
Mystery 10

Reviewed by  Laura MacDonald

It has been quite a while since the first Nancy Drew mystery raised its interactive head and peeked out from the store shelves.  Been following their progress ever since.  Now here we are with what is one of the great success stories in adventure gaming, and game development itself.

I think it is fairly well accepted that Her Interactive employs a 'formulaic' approach to the Nancy Drew titles.  Each new one has small subtle changes, experimental features and nudged improvements.  But overall the same familiar theme music comes up at the menu screen, the same voice actors/actresses are used for the main characters, and there is a predictability to the story pathways and interface.  A bad thing?  Nope, not to me.  Goes hand in hand with an old business truism:  if it ainít broke, donít fix it.  OK, maybe you say, Sounds reasonable to me, so why even bring it up?

To make a few points, of course.  First there is a misapprehension that the Nancy Drew games are made for adults.  They are labeled 'For Everyone', but in truth this is always with a clear eye on their hard core fan base:  "the girl who is not afraid of a mouse".  As such, the games have been, and will continue to be, responsive to the marketing feedback from that group of gamers.  But needless to say, just because the games are designed for teen and younger girls doesnít mean that these same games canít be fun for adults, or for nostalgic gamers with a fond memory of their younger years.

So how do they keep selling these games, and is the current one up to par?  Short answer:  yes.  It's not my favorite Nancy Drew game, or arguably even the best.  But it is at the head of the pack for a number of reasons, the first of which is the storyline and such things.

Range Roving with Nancy... or Saddle Up Little Cowgirl

I have to admit that my reading material for Nancy Drew is focused on the old classics written back in the 1930ís, 40ís and 50ís.  I was crestfallen when they turned Nancy from a blonde into a titian-haired girl sleuth, and I have always loved the old roadster over the more modern vehicles.  I also collect Horatio Alger books, so go figure.  And no, I wasnít even remotely alive when any of these originals were first written and published.  Just like the way they wrote in those days.  So I am not really on top of the Secret of Shadow Ranch essentials.

In this newest mis-adventure, Nancy finds herself on a ranch.  However once again her pals George and Bess are a no-show, the ranch owners themselves are settled in at the local hospital, the ranch hands are an odd lot, and there is a phantom glow-in-the-dark stallion whose very appearance is suppose to portend bad luck.  Then there is the matter of the 'Legend of the Ghostly Horse', a tragic tale of love and robbery, hidden loot, and a broken heart.  Oh, and the gallows thing...  but thatís another story.

To this reviewer, that part of the game was well written.  The voice talent was strong, and the enduring love of the robber for his brilliant beauty was touching in places.  Now maybe cynicism is rampant among jaded gamers, but I liked this part of the game and found it oddly compelling.

Ropin', Ridin' and Barrel Racin'...

This game tracked the devices used in Danger on Deception Island ( DODI ), where you got to bike and Kayak.  Though it wasnít puzzling, I had fun with the practical aspects of the game.  Now hereís a little known factoid from my own past.  I am a born-and-bred native Texan, and I actually barrel raced as a kid.  Or as we say it in Texas, I rodeoed.  And there was a great deal of useful info in the game on the care, feeding, and other details about horses that was informative, accurate and well researched.

You have to learn how to rope items (or actually, to click at the right time), but it wasnít brain numbing, and it was entertaining.  I donít play the Nancy Drew games to be challenged and run through reams of notes.  But it is useful to take more than a few pages in this game.  You will have to pass a short quiz on everything horses, feed them (or risk having to put your horse out of its colicky misery), saddle up and hit the trails.

The map feature means that you donít have to actually wait forever to get from one spot to another, but there are a few flash slides of scenery along the way.  Make sure you pay attention to tips on posters and words of advice from seasoned trail hands, or you could find yourself in some trouble.  Yep, Nancy can get fired in this game...  a feature first introduced in Haunted Carousel, and one that provides some minor comedic moments.  So be careful out there...

Happy Trails and Ghost Towns...

The Her Interactive team has taken increasing care to try and make the music thematically based in their games.  There were some nice rollicking sea chantey tunes in DODI, and the music in Shadow Ranch was appropriately western-based.  Rather than continually looping though, it did recede after a few rounds, and so was less overpowering than in past games.  There were a few times where I got a bit weary of the same tunes, particularly as you will spend a great amount of time riding from place to place in the three days you spend at Shadow Ranch.  But for the most part, I once again found the music to be an enjoyable feature of the game.  There was also a nice transition to a creepy ambiance for the spookier parts of the game, and again this was very well done.

Trail Bosses, Badlanders and...

There was the standard cast of several supporting characters (or better to call them potential suspects) in the game.  They were personable, and maybe even tweaked a bit more in this latest game.  First up is the talkative cook who is full of information and chatter, though his cooking seems to be not exactly up to par.  Then you meet the stern faced foreman, who is about as talkative as a concrete block, and as warm.  There is also a charming ranch hand who apparently has an eye for Nancy.  Yahoo.  And finally, you encounter a Native American storeowner, who has plenty of secrets of her own.

One of the interesting tweaks in Shadow Ranch was a more fleshed out character base for those you donít see or meet, but instead deal with over the phone.  One in particular had some of the best and funniest dialogue in the game.  This phone character is a bureaucrat who takes names and dates, and keeps a very careful eye on the requests and interests of all who contact him.  This is a man that you want on your side, or at least where you can see him coming.  I donít want to spoil the fun...  just be ready for some interesting side bits in this current title.  It marked a high point of the game for this reviewer.

Of course all the River Heights 'chums' are present:  Frank and Joe Hardy, Bess and George.  Still waiting for the game that has one or all of them making an actual appearance, but their inclusion in the game is worthwhile.  George and Bess once again play an active part in the gameplay by securing some facts and info that Nancy needs to solve the mystery.  Yes, and they also, along with the Hardy boys, serve as hint facilitators should anyone become mired in the game.  Not that an adult would ever have any trouble in a game designed for 'Everyone' (*cough*)...

Treasure Hunting and Challenges...

OK, letís get this said right now.  I am not going to tell you that if puzzling is more than a way of life for you, then this game will have you up late at nights.  Come on, this is a Nancy Drew game!  But there were some fun and yes, even momentarily perplexing puzzles in the game.  There is an easy maze, lots of coded messages, and one (why must they do this to me again?) arcade-type game.  Ok, so it was really a puzzle disguised as an arcade game...  but does it have to be on a machine?  Just kidding.  There are some 'make a cake', 'ride the horse', 'click on the rope' type challenges also.

But with a nod to the general audience that the Her Interactive team is trying to interest and satisfy, I think there was again a great balance achieved.  At best, these games will not be more than a couple of short evenings' diversion for most adults, but that is fine with me.  As I have said before, gaming is not always about perplexing mind-kicking challenge for me.  At its heart it's meant to be diverting, affordable, well-valued fun.  And I felt fine with the level of puzzling in this game, and liked the mix.

Pony Up...

Well the mystery is solved, the bad guys revealed, and Nancy Drew has solved yet another case.  Bottom line time is here.  Get the game?  Well sure, why wouldnít you?  Itís not a puzzle fest, or even perhaps the riveting game of your dreams.  But Nancy Drew was never intended to be thought provoking, in game or book form.  Ideally, any game should be judged according to the standards and measures set forth by the developers themselves.  Her Interactive has set itself the goal of providing well rounded, well-crafted, family fun...  with an eye for a solid story and familiar gameplay, coupled with a versatile challenge mix.  They have scored a success here, on all points.  Now the only sad part is that I have to wait 'til October for the next Nancy Drew game to come out.  Happy sleuthing...

© 2004  Laura MacDonald

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Developed (2004) and published by Her Interactive.  Distributed by ATARI.

Rated:   E   for Everyone

Minimum System Requirements:  Windows

Where To Buy This Game:

Walkthroughs or Hints:

"MaGtRo's Walkthrough" available here!

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