Nancy Drew: The Secret of Shadow Ranch

Developer/Publisher:  Her Interactive
Year Released:  2004

Review by Rosemary Young (September, 2004)
As with the Nancy Drew Books, it's looking suspiciously like the Nancy Drew games from Her Interactive will eventually amount to a substantial series. The Secret of Shadow Ranch is the 10th Nancy Drew adventure game and is based on the best-selling book of the same name. Number 11 in the series is about to be released.

Made for players 10 and up, in Shadow Ranch Nancy is set to solve another mystery. Though these games follow a familiar formula this latest effort is the biggest and, arguably, one of the best yet (everyone has their favourite). And not only is Shadow Ranch more substantial, the challenges are also a notch or two tougher. There have been some improvements as well, so that the game window is much larger and the cursor more versatile. Perhaps the graphics haven't yet graduated to full 3D splendour, but they are vibrant and clear and make Shadow Ranch a fun and interesting game to play.

Headed for trouble
As the game opens Nancy arrives at Shadow Ranch expecting to meet up with George and Bess. Alas this meeting is destined to be elusive because their flight has been delayed. And Bess and George are not the only ones missing. The Rawleys who own the ranch are not there either. Fortunately Nancy will not be just sitting around waiting for things to happen, because things are already happening. The sudden, startling appearance of a phantom horse at the Ranch last night caused havoc, and Ed Rawley was bitten by a rattlesnake and rushed to hospital. Perhaps the two events are linked, and if they are Nancy is sure to get to the bottom of it.

Luckily Dave, Tex and Shorty the Cook are still around at the ranch for Nancy to talk to, and she will soon go riding to meet Mary at the nearby gift shop. There is also Cougar Bend to visit with its many petroglyphs, the Lonely Trail Stop with a lonely grave, and a deserted ghost town named Dry Creek. But Nancy is going nowhere till she does some chores and gets Tex's permission to borrow a horse. Getting chores done is a feature of this game as each day Nancy has to muck in and pick vegetables, collect eggs, and sometimes feed the stock or build a fire. Not too arduous, but by their very nature chores are bound to get some bad press. Apart from the egg collecting which is fun, each of the others requires some searching and investigation to get them right. Seen in this light, they not only reflect the rigors of ranch life, but they also present extra problems to overcome.

The Mystery
Of course there are more things to do than take care of chores. Very soon the phantom horse gets linked up with a tragic tale of forbidden love and a hidden treasure cache involving the past residents of Shadow Ranch. Then there are things happening in the present day too, and Nancy will discover little secrets about the various characters and eventually tie it all together.

As noted above, the puzzles in this game are plentiful and a little more complex than in the previous games making Shadow Ranch the most challenging Nancy Drew thus far. There are many hidden coded messages with clues to extract, and letters and diaries to find, with more clues of course. And there are locked boxes to open, as well as a couple of hunts: one to find 10 arrowheads, and another to find glyphs on the canyon walls.

Added to the mix are a few puzzles with boards and moving pieces or patterns to get right, as well as a 'test' requiring research into horsy things, and even a couple of more energetic challenges: practice some lassoing, and race Bob, the horse, around three barrels in under 10 seconds. This last one tested me a bit but I'm sure younger players won't be daunted. Of course none of the problems are too difficult but some of them are clever and require a little extra thought in identifying the clues, and will surely be a worthy challenge for younger players.

Junior or Senior?
As is usual with the Nancy Drew games this one is first person perspective and there is a choice of playing as a Senior or Junior Detective, with the latter offering some simpler puzzles and more hints along the way.

Just ring George and Bess, or Frank and Joe, they nearly always have some good ideas. Nancy also keeps a journal of her progress which is helpful in pointing the way, and in Junior mode there is a list of things to do as well.

Don't take my word for it
Although promoted as a 'game for everyone' the Nancy Drew series is really more accurately targeted at younger players so I took the opportunity to briefly test it with Naomi who is 11 and loves mystery stories. She was visiting for the day so we had about 5 hours play. We had a great time and she would have stayed the week if that were possible.

We looked carefully around at the start of the game, read some books, chatted to the characters and got the key to open the desk before collecting some goodies. The locked blanket box proved a bit more of a challenge, but Bess had a timely hint and we finally managed to open it and read the letters and even found a little code to decipher. After doing a few chores and answering 10 questions about horses we finally got to ride Bob, much to Naomi's delight. Unfortunately time was nearly up, so we made a quick visit to Mary's Gift shop and looked around at the displays of native American art before we decided to jump ahead a bit and bake a cake. After the first aborted attempt we deduced there had to be a better way than just guessing the quantity of ingredients that matched the recipe. There was. Like every good cook, Shorty had a conversion list to help us out. So we got out pencil and paper and carefully calculated the correct amounts. After taking care of the cooking I left my helper to do the decorating which she managed without a problem, and would have repeated the process had she got the opportunity.

Rounding up
With Naomi's wholehearted endorsement I can certainly recommend Nancy Drew: Secret at Shadow Ranch. The 'new look' game with the bigger picture is a great improvement although inventory management is a bit fiddly having to select an icon to open and shut it continually. I also found later in the game that one board puzzle wasn't clued well. Maybe I missed it, but a periodic table of the elements would have been useful hanging around somewhere. Some younger players might need extra help with this one although trial and error would work, of course.

That aside, Secret of Shadow Ranch is another enjoyable Nancy Drew adventure. It's a game that's particularly good for pre-teen adventurers as the story is simple but entertaining, and the dialogue is well written, very clear and easy to follow. Every word is subtitled. And there is the added bonus that players will learn something about horse riding and breeding, and about some aspects of Native American culture in the Arizona region, as well as about rattlesnakes and scorpions and picking vegetables and building fires.:-)

Note: Since writing this review a reader has pointed out that there is a clue to the Elements Puzzle mentioned above. I just checked it out and I certainly did miss it! rating:  

Copyright © Rosemary Young 2004. All rights reserved.

System Requirements:
Windows 98/ME/2000/XP, 400 MHz or greater Pentium II or equivalent, 64 MB RAM, 300 MB Hard Drive Space, 16 MB DirectX Compatible Video Card, 16 MB DirectX Compatible Sound Card, 12x CD ROM.