A Review of "Nancy Drew: Secrets Can Kill"

Matt Barton's picture

Nancy Drew: Map: Small Town, Big Secrets...Nancy Drew: Map: Small Town, Big Secrets...Secrets Can Kill (SCK), originally released in 1998 by Dreamcatcher, is the first of Her Interactive's licensed Nancy Drew graphical adventure games, and it's a rich and rewarding experience. It's set in a small town in Florida, where the murder of a local high school student and plenty of suspects peaks Nancy's curiosity to the "boiling point." The game is chocked full of clues, codes, and Easter Eggs--and puzzles galore. In short, it's a great game for all ages and both sexes, and even educational to boot. It's a well designed GAG with lots going for it, so if you see it, grab it--you won't be disappointed.

What can I say? I'm becoming a big fan of a line of graphical adventures intended for prepubescent teens. After completing Danger on Deception Island last month, I was on the lookout for more Nancy titles in the local bargain bins. I was ecstatic (and incredulous!) to find this 75th Anniversary collection, published by the Adventure Company, at my local Target for only $20! This was an incredible deal, and I'll be gradually reviewing these games as I complete them. I no doubt attribute the high quality and caliber of these games to Her Interactive--read up the team, and I think you'll see why they've got a good thing going here. These are smart folks doing smart things!

Anyway, on to the game. At first, the scope may seem limiting to those more drawn to "400+ locations" style of games. There are really only four places Nancy can visit: Her Aunt Eloise's house, the high school, a hamburger joint, and a pharmaceutical factory. The biggest of these is the high school, which consists of maybe 12 locations. Don't let that discourage you, though. Limiting the explorable space helps greatly in pacing and puzzle solving, since you don't have to drag your avatar all over the world to solve them. Besides, this game isn't so much about exploring rooms as investigating suspects. Each of the three students Nancy interviews at the high school are all somehow implicated in the murder, and it's up to Nancy to discover how their stories clash and ferret out the truth. She'll also need to find ways to break in to off-limits part of the school--all the while evading someone who wants to put her off the case permanently.
Nancy Drew: Yup, this is a clue...Nancy Drew: Yup, this is a clue...
Many people (well, at least me!) always assumed that Nancy Drew as a sort of "goody two-shoes" role model for young girls. This is far from the truth. Nancy has no qualms about breaking and entering, stealing, impersonation, and threatening people if it means solving a case. Danger? Nancy's there, and certainly doesn't need a man around to protect her. In short, I can't imagine a better role model for a young girl to follow; Nancy is about as far from a bubbleheaded bimbo as it's possible to get, yet doesn't compensate by turning into a "ninja with boobs and a butt" that you get with other girl avatars. What makes Nancy attractive as an avatar is her intelligence and bravery.

Surprisingly, the control scheme and graphics weren't that different than the much later game Danger at Deception Island. The graphics can probably best be described as "cartoonish," though with a distinctly CGI quality about them. They're neat and well defined, and work very well to keep players focused on the game rather than its graphics. The controls are of the simple point-and-click variety familiar to players of Myst. Like that game, SCK is played from first-person perspective. When the mouse rolls over a "hotspot," Nancy can either pick up an object, zoom in to get a better look, or, if it's a person, initiate a conversation. Interestingly, some of the rooms offer a panaromic view; clicking on the sides of the screen will rotate the perspective slightly. Also, Nancy can look up or crouch to see under things. In short, the game is designed to let players get a really close look at each location, which is often necessary to find hidden clues and objects.

Many of the puzzles in SCK are exceedingly clever, most involving some type of transcoding. Braille, sign language, and various forms of cryptography are employed here to challenge players. Clues also have a habit of popping up in inexplicable (and unrealistic) places, such as a row of characters around an old map of Florida. There are also countless references to other facets of the Nancy Drew universe, ranging from subtle ones like "Ned's Mustard" (Ned is Nancy's boyfriend), to the words "Nancy Drew" hidden on seemingly innocent texts (like menus or bulletins). These are mostly Easter Eggs with no real bearing on the gameplay, but it's still fun to see how many of them you can find.
Nancy Drew: Do you see the hidden clues here?Nancy Drew: Do you see the hidden clues here?
While it is possible for Nancy to be killed, a handy "Second Chance" feature standard in Nancy Drew games will restore the game to the moment just before the fatal event. This is a great feature that reduces the need to constantly save the game (a distraction, to say the least!). There are some tricky puzzles here--indeed, some of them were challenging even for my wife and me to solve. Fortunately, the game does offer a "Junior" mode with simpler puzzles and more time for timed puzzles.

I did have one fairly serious problem with the game, however. For some reason, the main menu and save game screens seem to have a bug, so I had to click many times with my mouse to load and save games. A similar problem occurred during the dialogue screens. Again, this bug wasn't a show-stopper, but it could really use a patch.

The abundance of Easter Eggs and the cleverness of the puzzles make this SCK my favorite Nancy Drew game so far. I'll be back with reviews of the other games as we complete them, including the second game--so Stay Tuned.