Review: Her Interactive's "Nancy Drew: The Creature of Kapu Cave" (2006)

Matt Barton's picture

"The Creature of Kapu Cave," the 15th episode in the popular Nancy Drew graphical adventure game series, scores big in some areas and misses in others. In some ways, this is the strongest entry in the series, scoring particularly high marks in graphics and interface. The problems are a bit trickier to isolate. Essentially, the problem is making a long story short. I've been covering Her Interactive's Nancy Drew games for some time now, and this one felt the briefest. Of course, that's not always a problem, and I prefer a game that leaves me wanting more rather than one I can't wait to be over. Unfortunately, what's abridged here are some of the most charming qualities of the series--fun, well-developed characters, intrigue, and plot twists. The focus here is mostly on a series of simple mini-games, all held together with the Hawaiian theme.

I'm not sure where the impulse is coming from, but in the last few games, Her Interactive has been engaged in a number of experiments with the series. In Danger by Design, for instance, we got a real-time fighting scene, developed photos in the dark, and played with paper dolls. "Last Train to Blue Moon Canyon" introduced the Hardy Boys as characters and even let us play as one of them for awhile. The 12th game, Secret of the Old Clock, offered us a nostalgic look at Nancy Drew in the 30s, complete with a top-down driving mini-game and putt-putt. Of course, any series has to evolve, and that means experimenting in ways that might initially upset fans. Whether it's fair or not, those of us who play extensively in one genre (and even more in one series of a genre) tend to build for ourselves a sort of "meta-game," or an ideal that every game should live up to. In other words, fans of this series construct their own imaginary "perfect" Nancy Drew Game, with a certain set of features that are collected from various games and probably aren't all present in any of them. For instance, my favorite game of the series, "Stay Tuned for Danger," has great characters, intrigue, and puzzles, but has a limited and confusing interface compared to later games in the series. Likewise, although several games have included real-time elements like clocks, alarm clocks, or day/night modes, I never liked these innovations and am glad that Her Interactive has dropped them in the last few games. My contention is that we do this criticism tinged with nostalgia a bit too often, and I hardly think it's fair to a game developer to ask them not only to compete with their real-life competition, but also with an imaginary "perfect" game that never really existed! It's rather like some mothers who continually insist that their son isn't the person he "ought" to be. Says who!?

I apologize if I've gone a bit too long on this point, but I think it's worth keeping all that in mind when we try to pick apart a game like "Kapu Cave." I'll look at each element separately at first, and then collect my thoughts on the game as a whole.

Storyline
There are basically two types of Nancy Drew games: Educational and Fantastic. By "educational," I mean the games that have a strong "edutainment" orientation, such as #6, "Secret of the Scarlet Hand," which is set in an ancient history museum and teaches players all about the Ancient Mayans. Another example is #9, "Danger on Deception Island," which partners Nancy with a marine biologist and teaches her all about orcas. By "fantastic," I mean the games that are more strictly entertainment-oriented, usually set in "spooky" environments. The gist of these games is usually getting to the bottom of some supposedly "supernatural" events and busting crooks. Games of this type include #3, "Message in a Haunted Mansion," #7 "Ghost Dogs of Moon Lake," as well as #11, "Curse of Blackmoor Manor." Although I prefer the educational-style game, I can appreciate why Her Interactive offers both. Indeed, many of the games can't be easily placed in either category, and that includes Kapu Cave. There are definitely "fantastic" elements here, but also a lot of edutainment.

The story goes something like this. To get a "free summer vacation" in Hawaii, Nancy agrees to serve as a research assistant to Dr. Quigley Kim, an entomologist (bug scientist) studying wasps. Kim thinks she's on to something very important, and Nancy soon gets caught up on trying to solve the "mystery" of an exploding population of norsobeta ordorata. Also on the island is a secretive bio-firm called Hilihili, run by an egomaniac named Malachi Craven. Also on the island are "Big Island Mike" and his daughter Pua. Big Mike runs an "Immersion Excursion" tourist-service and Pua is an amateur surfer with aspirations of the big league.

Before Nancy arrives on the island, someone (or something) destroys Quigley's camp (as well as a few of her experiments). Rumors quickly begin circulating that Kane Ocala, a mythical beast, has been loosed by the Hawaiian gods upon the island to show their displeasure. But why? Big Island Mike and Pua think it's whatever is going on at Hilihili--probably genetic mutations. Meanwhile, the Hardy Boys (Frank and Joe) have shown up on the island, ostensibly merely to enjoy themselves and learn to surf--but secretly they've been hired by a bio corporation to scope out Pua and make sure there are no skeletons in her or her father's closet (the corporation is planning to sponsor Pua).

It doesn't take Nancy and the Hardies long to get into trouble on the island. One of the Boys get assaulted and knocked out at Mike's, and Nancy has to sneak into Hilihili and see for herself what's going on there.

Characters
The Hawaiian Jungle: Beautiful scenery and tribal art give this game a unique atmosphere.The Hawaiian Jungle: Beautiful scenery and tribal art give this game a unique atmosphere.The characters are where Kapu Cave really disappoints. They are mostly flat stereotypes which can be grasped in a few seconds. Pua is a rather dim-witted type whose only interest in life is surfing. Blah. Craven and Quigley are geeky, egocentric eccentrics whose only interest is in their esoteric work (and having Nancy do chores for them). Big Island Mike is somewhat fun with his over-the-top sales pitch for his "Excursion," but as a character he's got little else to offer.

The best interaction goes on between Nancy and the Hardies, though even this is somewhat limited (always focused on the matter-at-hand). In short, there's none of that tone-setting conversation that really helped set the mood and drum up dramatic tension in the earlier games. We're left without a radical character like Nanette ("Danger by Design") to whip up interest, and there's not even the usual kooky-old lady to challenge Nancy's wit (and patience).

Gameplay
Unlike most of the other games of the series, Kapu Cave is decidedly action rather than dialog-based. Nancy and the Hardies have several conversations with the other characters, but these are very brief and linear.

The two elements of gameplay I remember the most were fishing and collecting shells with the Hardies. In a somewhat contrived setup, the Hardies are asked to perform various tasks in order to collect "Big Island Bucks," which they can use to either get historical information out of a console or (eventually) use to rent snorkeling equipment. To get these "bucks," they can either collect shells on the beach to make necklaces, or fish off the pier. The fishing segment is fairly well done and somewhat reminiscent of the fishing episode in Syberia II. Really, the only trick to it is clicking the mouse as soon as the cork begins to bob. In a sort of mini-economic system, selling fish brings in money which can in turn be used to buy better bait. There are four different types of fish that bring in different amounts of bucks, and, naturally, the more expensive bait helps nab the better fish. The shell necklaces work similarly; although you can find "cheap" shells on the beach, you have to buy the best ones. In any case, it's not difficult to accrue enough bucks to buy whatever is needed, but it can get a bit tedious.

The puzzles are either based on logic games, pattern recognition, or clues. Probably the best logic game is based on fertilizing plants; depending on which color fertilizer Nancy uses, some of the flowers perk up while others wilt. It's a clever game, and takes some fairly involved thinking to get through. There's also a sodoku-style puzzle involving numbered solar panels. The pattern games range from selecting good peas in a pod to sorting out "frass," or bug bits, from traps set out by Quigley. Finally, there are some puzzles that can only be solved by searching out overt information found elsewhere in the game. For instance, the combination to Quigley's chest can be found only by listening to her audio journal.

Although one segment of "Last Train to Blue Moon Canyon" required players to temporarily take control of one of the Hardy Boys, this switching-off plays a much more central role in Kapu Cave. The switching is done by using the cell phone to call the other team. The mechanism is nicely integrated, so that several puzzles can only be solved by collecting information in the other mode. I might add that you can't control both Hardy Boys at the same time; several conceits work to prevent this (for instance, Joe gets knocked out and is in the hospital for awhile.) It'll be interesting to see whether this is something Her Interactive will continue in future games. Perhaps we'll have a game where players can switch-off between Nancy, the Hardy Boys, and George and Bess. Maybe even Nancy's boyfriend Ned will get involved.

Graphics
The graphics, animations, and so on are as good in Kapu Cave as any other game in the series. The Hawaiian setting really comes through in several jungle scenes, and the actual "Kapu Cave" is appropriately spooky. Water moves and leaves flutter. The characters are rendered in 3D and look great, with realistic body language and lip-sync. The cut-scenes are slick and just as polished as anything you might find in a Cyan game.

Sound and Music
At first I thought I was going to be in a for a musical treat as great as anything since "Danger on Deception Island," with its haunting Celtic-inspired guitar work. Unfortunately, while excellent, the music of Kapu Cave is more limited and soon gets repetitive. The repertoire ranges from fun, Hawaiian ("Gilligan Island") type themes to moody synth-style. I only wish there had been a few more tracks. Sometimes a problem with in-game music is that it's too distinctive. More "ambient" style tracks often work better.

Sound effects and voice acting are spot-on. Big Island Mike, Craven, and Quigley are all fun to listen to, and the banter between Nancy and the Boys is chirpy and humorous.

Concluding Thoughts
The problem with Kapu Cave is that it literally ends too soon. Just as we start to learn that there's more to Big Mike and Pua than we thought, oops--the game's over, everything is spelled out, and it's time to start waiting for #16. Hmm.

The game is very short on "intrigue." There are few moments when we're really asking ourselves, "Hmmm...Now what did that mean? What is really up with this character?" and so on. Instead, everything proceeds in a linear fashion, with little of the "subtle" type of ambiguous information that propels a mystery novel along. Furthermore, I felt a bit cheated at the end when things I should have been able to figure out for myself were just delivered at the end. Unlike in most games, where at the end the player is really eager and anxious to see who the "culprit" really is, this time it was obvious. At the end, when Nancy goes through her usual explanatory spiel about what happened, I found myself scratching my head and wondering why everything felt a bit too tidy at the end.

In short, this game has a bit of a rushed feel. There are some parts where I felt much more development had been planned, but then yanked. There are several strange devices, for instance, that seem to have been planned for a puzzle, but then abandoned to serve merely as odd, interactive decorations. More problematic, though, is the lack of real character development or intrigue. This game is really more about getting through the mini-games and solving the logic puzzles than getting to know characters and solving a mystery. Her Interactive has basically gone from offering us a game with only one really interesting character ("Danger by Design") to a game with none. What I'd like to see is a return to the games in which there were several characters to work with, such as in the first game, "Secrets can Kill," but also later games like "Ghost Dogs" and "Deception Island." Let's just hope that the next game--based on a ghostly wolf--returns to the intrigue/character-based formula that made other games in this series so enjoyable.