Nancy Drew: The Secret of Shadow Ranch Download (2004 Adventure Game)

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The teen sleuth saddles up and sets out to solve a Wild Western mystery in this graphic adventure from Her Interactive, based on the best-selling Nancy Drew novel to date. When Nancy's vacation to an Arizona cattle ranch is interrupted by a visit from what appears to be a ghostly horse, she decides to discover the truth. The young heroine lives like a ranch hand as she investigates the apparition, helping with chores, learning to use a lasso, and riding her horse, Bob, when she finds a little free time. Her biggest challenge, however, will be sorting through the rich history of the Shadow Ranch and learning more about its current residents. She'll meet real cowboys, like the ranch's foreman, Dave Gregory, and its head wrangler, Tex Britten. She'll also gain an interesting perspective on the recent strange events from the camp cook, Shorty Thurmond, and she'll learn about the region's history from, Mary Yazzie, who runs the nearby store. As usual, however, each character can provide only a part of the puzzle; it will take a shrewd mind to put all the pieces together and uncover the Secret of Shadow Ranch.

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 retreat - and have they all left? Where do those ATV trails really lead?

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 time - The Secret of Shadow Ranch. Published in 1931, this faithfully recreated and modernized story holds up very well, indeed, for its intended audience - preteen persons (not just girls; let's be P.C. with our PC game!).

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!

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.

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.

It's hard to envision a better first adventure game for a preteen person - girl 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 guidance - ranging 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 (Danger 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.


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