Review: Her Interactive's "Danger by Design" (2006)

Matt Barton's picture

Her Interactive's fourteenth and latest entry in the Nancy Drew series, Danger By Design, has met with mixed reactions among fans of the series, and I'm no different. There are certainly some interesting innovations here, and I have to give Her Interactive credit for being willing to take the series in new directions and experiment with new types of gameplay. This is the first time in the series that Nancy Drew has actually fought an opponent in hand-to-hand combat. It also introduces one of the series' wackiest yet memorable characters, the masked Minette. Finally, like much of the Broken Sword series, it's set in Paris, a setting which never fails to provide amusing cultural eccentricities for the bumbling American. Overall, I must admit to being somewhat disappointed by Danger By Design, but it's nevertheless a highly playable and enjoyable game. The key problem is a couple of counter-intuitive puzzles that'll probably leave you stumped--a problem that must explain why Her Interactive decided to include "the official strategy guide" with the game. In cases like this, Her Interactive is its best competition--if we consistently compare each new game to past masterpieces like The Final Scene and The Secret of Shadow Ranch, we're raising the bar a bit high.

Storyline
Like the other games, the background story is short and sweet. Nancy has been hired to travel to a studio in Paris to get a job working for a highly eccentric fashion designer for "plus sizes" named Minette. Minette has an international reputation, but her public behavior has been growing so outrageous that her backers are worried she won't deliver on her spring catalogue. It doesn't take Nancy long to discover just how wacky Minette really is--not only does she hurl potted plants when she gets upset, but she's taken to wearing a spooky white mask at all times (for no apparent reason). Meanwhile, Minette has begun to receive threatening letters and nasty packages in the mail. Someone wants her out of the picture.

Heather McKay: Unfortunately, your interaction with characters is very limited.Heather McKay: Unfortunately, your interaction with characters is very limited.The suspects emerge pretty rapidly. First, there's the obvious suspect--Minette's competition in the world of plus size haut couture, one Hugo Butterly. Then there's Heather McKay, Minette's much-abused clerk who is also an aspiring designer. Heather seems to be patiently enduring Minette's tirades, but maybe she has a motive to see that her boss doesn't meet her obligations. Another possibility is Dieter von Schwesterkrank, Minette's German ex-boyfriend. Dieter is a fashion photographer who seems to have a strange connection to the old windmill where Minette set up her studio. Finally, there's Jean-Michel Traquenard, an arrogant and pompous fashion critic who feels slighted by Minette's failure to pay him homage.

Gradually, Nancy learns about someone named Noisette, a spy who worked for the French Resistance while serving as a double agent for the German occupational forces during World War II. Noisette has hidden something in the windmill, and it's up to Nancy to find out what it is.

Unfortunately, the only character that ever really gets developed is Minette. While Minette is certainly a fascinating and unusual character, I would've liked to have seen more done with the supporting cast. Schwesterkrank and Traquenard serve as little more than annoying fetch quests, and there seems to be some discrepancy concerning Heather (at one point she is identified as sending the letters, but that turns out false in the end). I'm not sure if the colorful Minette makes up for a rather dull cast. The actual villains turn out to be so stereotypical that it's hard to walk away from this game feeling anything but letdown.

Puzzles and Themes
Danger By Design offers a nice mix of puzzle types and themes. There is a heavy emphasis here on codes and decoding, and the infamous "Enigma" machine gets mentioned several times. Nancy also gets to visit the famous Paris "catacombs," a sort of massive underground dungeon that is a favorite spot for urban explorers. The other theme, of course, is the world of "high fashion." This last bit is probably the weakest theme, and I wish it had been better implemented. The developers seem to treat the subject in a strictly tongue-in-cheek manner. Of course, it's possible that they're hoping the average Nancy Drew fan won't take such things seriously anyhow. If so, more power to them.

Most of the puzzles here will seem familiar to fans of the series. There are the obligatory sliding puzzles, matching games, and secret codes to decipher. New here are several action sequences that are sure to challenge gamers with slow reflexes. One of these involves clicking on roaches that quickly scuttle across the screen. Getting through this section takes patience and a very fast hand on the mouse.

One of the most bizarre puzzles I've ever seen in an adventure game begins when Nancy is told to develop some photographs in a darkroom. The trouble is, the screen literally goes dark, and Nancy has to remember the precise location of each tub of chemicals the photo paper must be bathed in. If the player clicks anywhere else, the room explodes, and she must begin again. I finally solved the problem by sticking some post-it notes to the locations of the tubs, and even then things were tricky (you must click twice on the last tub before turning the lights on). Thankfully, the game seems to give up on you after awhile and will "give" you the puzzle after repeated failed attempts. There is also a timed skin diving segment. If the player can't guide Nancy through the underwater maze quickly enough, she drowns.

Fisticuffs: Has it come to this? You can't attack, but you can block Minette until she passes out.Fisticuffs: Has it come to this? You can't attack, but you can block Minette until she passes out.Still, the most unexpected and improbable "puzzle" occurs at the end, when Nancy must engage in hand-to-hand combat with Minette, who has apparently been studying a weak form of martial arts. I'll spare you the details, but the segment basically boils down to anticipating where Minette will try to strike (top left, top right, middle, bottom, etc.). There is a clue earlier in the game that explains how to do so; Minette will make a different sound to preface each move (as well as assume a different stance). Even without the clue, it's a fairly easy sequence to beat--I did it the first time with no trouble. In an effort to be true to the Nancy Drew ethos, Nancy can only block Minette's attacks; she can't actually punch or kick. Gradually, though, Minette will get exhausted and collapse.

I definitely can appreciate the novelty value here, but I hope that Her doesn't decide that they need a fight scene at the end of any future game. Once is enough.

The most annoying "time waster" in the game involves painting a bunch of water colors to earn enough money to buy needed items. These "puzzles" are almost as annoying as delivering telegrams was in Secret of the Old Clock. After painting a few watercolors, you quickly realize it's just a diversion to stretch the game out. Yawn. Several fetch quests and tedious operations like making tea even seem to irritate Nancy, who almost seems to groan, "Okay, I'll do it." Now, if something is tedious for Nancy, how exactly is it supposed to be entertaining for the player?

I must admit that there were several points during this game where I didn't know what to do next. The game is setup in the standard "day" mode, in which you must complete a given number of arbitrary actions to advance to the next day. On at least two occasions, it took me quite awhile to figure out what I needed to do. Although Nancy can phone up her friends Bess and George or the Hardy Boys, they had very little to offer this go round. Nancy does keep notes for the player's reference, which I found far more useful. Still, a gentle prod in the right direction would have been nice from time to time.

Graphics and Sound
The graphics here are as good as those in any ND game. The characters are rendered in 3D and move realistically, with very nice face and body movements to accentuate their speech. The dialogue is good, and most of the voice acting hits the mark--though a few French and German accents from minor characters are truly cringeworthy. Although I didn't check the credits, it seems that most of the voice talent from the past games are back, which is really important now that we're so far into the series. I hope that no one at Her gets restless! I don't think I could handle a new Nancy at this point.

There are a few brief "cut scenes" in the vein of those seen frequently in the Myst series, with Nancy plodding through an underground cavern and the like. These are nicely executed and work well as set pieces. Surprisingly, the player actually doesn't get to see much of Paris (I would have expected to visit the Louvre, at least). There are some six or so metro stops with a half dozen to a dozen locations in each, so the game feels quite small. Nevertheless, the places Nancy does visit are well-rendered and colorful, with a mixture of photographs and 3D renderings.

It's a bit hard to describe the music, but I suppose "French jazzy" might fit. At times it sounded like what I'd call "Bourbon Street." None of the music really stands out like it did in earlier games like Danger on Deception Island, but it's not unpleasant.

Concluding Thoughts
I'm a bit sad to say that the Nancy Drew series is starting to have a tired feel to it. Her seems to be getting further away from what made its best games so great--compelling mystery stories with lots of colorful suspects and fun locations to visit. Instead of concentrating on story, character, atmosphere, and puzzles, Her seems to be gravitating towards grafting on cheesy "arcade" elements and rather obvious traditional puzzles. We had the putt-putt golf and driving games built in to Secret of the Old Clock, and now we get a fighting scene and catch-the-roach. Are these the kind of things we look for in Nancy Drew? I know I don't.

I had a bad feeling about Danger by Design when I noticed that it included a strategy guide. Perhaps I'm a bit cynical, but I tend to think that if the game had been designed right, a strategy guide wouldn't be necessary.

I know that I'm not alone in hoping that Her's latest game, The Creature of Kapu Cave, will be a return to those things that made the past games so enjoyable.

Comments

Bill Loguidice
Bill Loguidice's picture
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Joined: 12/31/1969
Nancy Drew Review

It looks like this has really become your specialty, Matt. You should probably request a review copy of the next game from Her. You've certainly been the most diligent reviewer of their Nancy Drew game series that I've seen. Nice work.

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Bill Loguidice, Managing Director
Armchair Arcade, Inc.
[ My collection ]
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