I received Nancy Drew: Legend of the Crystal Skull as a Christmas gift from a friend whom I now assume doesn’t like me very much.
It sat on my desk for weeks afterward, and over time I began to think that it may have some redeemable content. After all, the puzzle adventure game genre is a pretty simple formula to follow. A basic story and some scattered puzzle bits and you’re essentially good to go, and as this was evidently the 17th in the series, they’d had time to refine the process.
This is a kids game, but it’s rated “10 and up”. I’m well aware I’m not the target audience, here, but I’m upwards of ten, so no problems there. And it had a skull on it and some kind of pirate guy on the back, so how bad could it really be.
So at last I bit the bullet popped in the disc and loaded up the game. It was time to put on my detective hat and my Nancy Drew cardigan and solve some kind of half-assed teenage mystery!
Nancy’s desk popped up on my monitor in what turned out to be a fairly accurate representation of what was to come, and I realized immediately that I had made a serious mistake.
All the best detectives live on suburban cul-de-sacs.
On the desk top, in ascending order by the magnitude of concern I felt at their presence, were the following:
Case file on the current mystery
Small Mayan statuette
Scrapbook of mementos from previous cases
Statuette of a mother and baby blue whale
Book titled “How to be a Detective”
A fucking unicorn.
I decided I really needed to get a beer, and – while I was preparing for the worst – my bottle of Crystal Skull Vodka autographed by Dan Aykroyd. With that on my desk I felt I could cancel out that unicorn while still staying on message.
The book gave a basic overview of controls, and my first sample of Nancy’s chipper Pleasantville voice-over. I glanced through the case file and clicked the plane ticket, which the book informed me would start me on my adventure.
Here the game gave me my first surprise by offering me two modes of difficulty, in the form of Junior or Senior detective.
When I flash one of these, people gonna respect.
As shiny as the Junior Detective badge was, I really felt that this is where the “and up” part of “10 and up” comes in and decided to step up and be a man.
And don’t forget your teddy bear.
A man playing a game designed for little girls.
(I turned out the lights.)
The game begins at the door to a mansion, which belongs to the grandfather of a friend of a friend of yours, who is now dead, and somehow this adds up to permission for Special Agent Tween to come poking around.
Entering like she owns the place, Nancy stumbles across a man in a skeleton costume.
Kra-kow, lightning! The power goes out, and when it comes back on, Skeleton Guy has Batmanned across the room and is standing right in front of me!
It’s a good thing the lights were out, or I wouldn’t have gotten the full effect.
Suddenly, the skeleton man throws some dust in Nancy’s face, she passes out, and wakes in another room. There an old lady I’ve never seen before tries to make Nancy drink a cup of green slime. The game is afoot!
From there the game delves below the shallow surface of the plot, and into the shallow core. Murder suspects include the emo computer kid, the old lady gardener who practices voodoo, an old man next to a gumbo truck, and the underdog suspect: a heart attack.
The police are pretty keen on the heart attack theory, but Nancy isn’t convinced, or she wouldn’t be here. For my money, I think it was the emo kid.
I’m on to you, emo kid.
Turned loose to explore on my own, and with no real leads or any idea what I was looking for, I started digging through everyone’s stuff and asking a lot of personal questions that were really none of my business.
Within minutes, I was finding things that made me regret being such a busybody.
What. What the hell is this.
Oh, wait, I see. Never mind. It’s just an eyeball in a trophy cup. Because really, who doesn’t have one of those.
Weird eyes start turning up all over, and are – I swear – a pivotal part of the plot, unlike this creepy doll in the rocking chair that I found a little bit later.
They don’t even pretend to have a reason for this shit.
As far as gameplay goes, every conversation is fully voiced, and each is as long and rambling as it is useless.
If you wiretapped a high school girl whose only hobby was cold calling special needs children and patients at mental hospitals to poll for arbitrary bullshit, you would get the audio content of Nancy Drew: Legend of the Crystal Skull.
To help you make the most of this feature, the game includes the invaluable “cell phone” tool, which enables you to solicit information or assistance from a number of helpful contacts. From the top to the bottom of your speed dial, these include:
This is Nancy’s friend, and she’s even dumber than Nancy is. You get the chance to play as Bess frequently when Nancy calls and asks her out to do menial, illegal, and often dangerous tasks throughout the game. Between these ill-advised missions she allegedly goes shopping out on the town and fixes her hair, despite the fact that the entire game takes place during one interminable night in the middle of a tropical storm and no matter when Nancy calls her she’s standing on the balcony of their hotel room. My own theory is that Bess stays in the hotel and cries, making up lies to tell Nancy so her life sounds more interesting.
Nancy’s boyfriend. Calling him doesn’t advance the story in any significant way, but that doesn’t stop Nancy and Dan from chatting on and on about how confused she is about this whole crazy murder business. Clues are hard!
The Cab Company
Another number with no impact on the story. When you call it, you get a message saying the storm is too out of control for taxis to drive in, so you can’t leave. More than anything this felt like the developer’s way of laughing at me for buying their awful game. Well played.
A crazy old woman
Someone who Nancy met on a previous adventure, and though it was hard to pay attention through their frustratingly stupid and disjointed talks, I came away secure in the knowledge that I should stay away from all of Nancy’s previous adventures.
An old man’s answering service
This is the old man next to the gumbo truck that Bess has to talk to. When you call, it reminds you that he is unavailable, in case you’d suffered a recent head trauma and needed the constant reminder about his whereabouts on your speed-dial.
There’s no way to skip or fast forward through these long forays into the realm of Nancy’s night and weekend minutes, and I spent a lot of time hammering on the space bar because even if it wasn’t serving any function, it was drowning the voice-overs out a bit, and was less aggravating to listen to.
In the end, that’s just obnoxious. It doesn’t ruin the actual gameplay, just my life.
What’s worse – and most damning for a puzzle adventure game – you simply cannot examine any items in your inventory that are not books or notes. This means that any details or clues on these items are impossible to see, and in fact the inventory icons are so small the items are difficult to tell apart at all.
It’s difficult to explain how incredibly frustrating it is to be unable to convince Nancy to look at what she’s holding in her hands at any point in time.
Luckily, this frustration can be eased by dressing lizard up in different costumes. Optometrist; pirate; police officer; and, of course, clown. What in any other game would be a stupid mini-game time killer is, in this one, an essential part of the plot. Don’t want to dress an iguana like a pirate? Too bad, asshole, there’s a murder to solve!
This made me ashamed of myself as a person, a little bit.
The game did score some points with me for one clue, however:
Oh, a box.
Hahaha, fuck you! Happy nightmares, kids!
There’s also a Rube Goldberg contraption, which, thanks to the lizard, is only the second most improbable asset to a murder investigation in this game – despite the fact that it takes hours to construct in full view of the person you’re trying to trap with it, who then happily triggers it and is critically disabled by… wait for it…
You could probably have just handed him a rock and asked him to club himself with it, though it makes sense to me that the only way someone as dumb as Nancy can be a detective is for everyone else in the world to be functionally retarded.
Fortunately, in a world of the stupid failure has no consequence. There are several places in the game where your adventure can meet an early end. Bitten by a spider, stung by wasps, or eaten by a crocodile were a few that I encountered.
After each, the game gives a helpful recommendation like “Hey, maybe try not to get bitten by spiders this time” or “That crocodile just ate you. Why did you let it eat you, what were you thinking.”, and resets you to the moment just before your critical error so that you can make wiser decisions.
Of course! Why didn’t I think of that?
One may think that during a murder investigation, your primary threat is going to be the murderer themselves attempting to get you out of the way, as you are after all not a law enforcement official but a dangerously nosy teenage girl who no one seems to like or pay attention to.
This was a rookie mistake, and this game taught me that when investigating a homicide, you really need to look out for angry fauna.
Bonus lesson: don’t eat too much chocolate, it will make you throw up. (Not great for Nancy, but it pleased me to cause her pain in little ways to retaliate for her incompetence. I spent a lot of time hanging around the wasp nest.)
Hey, come on Nancy. This is a kid’s game.
By the time I had trudged my way through most of the game it had become very clear that Nancy had never actually cracked open that “How to be a Detective” book.
As bad as the game’s narrative packaging and mechanics were, the puzzles were actually challenging from time to time. Legend of the Crystal Skull isn’t the next Myst by a long shot, but several of the puzzles on Senior Detective mode took me a while to figure out.
The rest of them were either as lame as the dialogue, or just borderline disturbing.
Those eyes I mentioned earlier? Near the end, when you collect all twenty-five, you plug them into a special case in the wall to solve the climactic puzzle.
I hear detectives run into this kind of thing all the time.
I think the real answer to this puzzle is: “I’ve spent my adult life designing Nancy Drew computer games, and now I’ve finally lost my mind.”
It’s a downhill race to the anticlimax from there.
I don’t want to ruin the end for you, so it’s really lucky that nothing can ruin this ending more than the ending itself already does.
As the guilty party launches her cunning escape plan and attempts to float slowly away from the shore – and Nancy- in a shitty old speedboat, a crocodile ruins her pointless monologuing by bumping her boat. This startles her into dropping the large carved crystal skull, and the heroic reptile eats it.
This may seem like a strange twist until you see that the crocodile, understandably, mistook the skull for a marshmallow. His favorite food, if you recall from a conversational detail from early on in the game. For your sake, I sincerely hope you don’t.
At this point the murderer apparently calls it a day and turns her boat around, then waits until the police show up and cart her off to jail. She only ever got about two feet away from shore anyway.
That’s my guess, anyway, the developers didn’t seem to feel that the apprehension of the murderer needed to be addressed very specifically.
For succeeding in solving the gripping deep south mystery you are rewarded with a photo montage, accompanied by a lengthy voice-over by Nancy. Hooray!
You can’t skip through this, either.
Wait, I won. Why am I being punished?
As is mandatory for a game of this sort, it’s revealed through the montage that everyone has learned valuable lessons and had their happy ending.
Except for emo kid.
Life is hard.
At the end of the game, I was crushed to find that I had fallen short in my detecting. There are a number of achievements you can earn over the course of the game, and I had only netted half of them. I was astounded to learn that though I had suffered through hours of soul crushing bullshit, I hadn’t won the Chit Chat Award.
As a final parting message, Nancy informs me that she’s ready for her next big adventure, and that I should come along to help her solve another fantastic mystery!
Not a chance in hell.
In all, despite the frustrations, I’m going to have to give the game a D+.
That spider thing went a long way with me, and a couple of the puzzles were actually fun.
And, you know, maybe the vodka helped.