"Ransom of the Seven Ships works because it has high ambitions. When you step into Nancy's shoes, you're doing more than clicking through a few lifeless menus. You're arriving at the edge of a hauntingly beautiful island, one that you'll cautiously explore over the next six or eight hours of play. White sands, lush foliage, towering cliffs and murky pools of water all meld perfectly to form Dread Isle, the sort of destination that should scare off tourists by reputation alone. The place is large enough that you'll use a golf cart when it comes time to explore everything, plus there are outlying islands that you'll have to reach by way of sailboat. The resulting sense of freedom adds a lot to (and to an extent defines) the whole affair."
When Bess won a trip to a tropical island paradise and was told that she could bring two guests, of course she chose George and Nancy. The girls have been through all sorts of exhausting adventures together, so this was an opportunity to recuperate amid sand dunes, palm trees and the gentle sounds of surf and seagulls. There's just one teensy little problem: by the time Nancy arrives on the island a day later than her two friends, Bess has gone missing and George is in a state of panic. It quickly becomes clear that this whole getaway was a trap. Ruh-oh!
The starting premise in Nancy Drew: Ransom of the Seven Ships is old enough that you'd expect it to have a beard and cane, but there's a noteworthy twist: heroine Nancy Drew learns that she can save her friend if she pieces together a series of obscure clues and finds the treasure of El Toro, a ship captain whose fleet of seven ships set sail for England in the late 17th century but was never heard from again. The vessels held an incredible treasure and now someone wants everyone's favorite teen detective to find it.
Locating that booty means working through a remarkably solid adventure, something that may come as a surprise to some folks. Despite the rather impressive fact that Ransom of the Seven Ships is the twentieth installment in a long-running and successful series, the games regularly sneak under the mainstream radar by virtue of their obvious target audience: teen girls. Conventional wisdom says that any games geared for that demographic aren't worth the time of day. There are exceptions to nearly any rule, though, and that's what you'll find here.
Ransom of the Seven Ships works because it has high ambitions. When you step into Nancy's shoes, you're doing more than clicking through a few lifeless menus. You're arriving at the edge of a hauntingly beautiful island, one that you'll cautiously explore over the next six or eight hours of play. White sands, lush foliage, towering cliffs and murky pools of water all meld perfectly to form Dread Isle, the sort of destination that should scare off tourists by reputation alone. The place is large enough that you'll use a golf cart when it comes time to explore everything, plus there are outlying islands that you'll have to reach by way of sailboat. The resulting sense of freedom adds a lot to (and to an extent defines) the whole affair.
Exploration only plays a minor role in the grand scheme of things, though. The real emphasis here is on the puzzles for which the series is known. Whether you're opening a locked crate, spinning sundials or diving into ship wreckage to place colored tiles as sharks swim nearby, there's a definite focus on the use of gray matter. And while it's possible on occasion to reach a quirky "game over" screen because you didn't have good reflexes or you weren't paying attention to one gauge or another, mental dexterity is still the trait that will determine your success or failure on Dread Isle.
The developers should be commended for the job they did in setting things up so that gamers of all skill levels can find a challenge. Two levels of play are offered, with the differences between them amounting to more than just additional seconds on your timer. Junior Detectives are provided a task list that points them in the proper direction each step of the way. Puzzle solutions also can often be solved in fewer steps. More experienced adventure gamers should start on the Senior Detective setting. Doing so will allow them to marvel at how well everything is put together. There are still plenty of signs about where to go next and what items will be required, but nothing is insultingly obvious and some of it may leave you scratching your head. The result is that the adventure becomes engrossing for just about anyone.
Ransom of the Seven Ships isn't without its share of stumbles, however. While many of the puzzles are terrific, there are times when you can't even access them until you've done something arbitrary or engaged in a series of fetch quests. There are several main locations on the island and you'll have to visit them each more than once. Even if you know exactly where useful items are located (such as a sea urchin at the bottom of a tide pool), those helpful trinkets won't appear until you've first gone to some other location and failed to solve a puzzle that required them. This setup ensures that you spend way more time crisscrossing the island than would otherwise be necessary. By the end of the game, the sight of the golf cart is more likely to elicit a groan than it is the smile that you'll remember from the beginning.
Another developer blunder is the Primate Research Center, where you can play one of three games with the monkeys that live there. This was a neat idea, but there are serious issues with two of the three games. One diversion is based entirely on luck. All you do is spin an old school spinner--which requires no skill or timing--and hope that it lands on the number you want so that you can race to the end of a game board without landing on a space that forces you to restart. It's a pointless waste of time, one where "winning" could take several attempts. Particularly frustrating are those instances where you spend two minutes in a round that was never in your control, only to lose at the last second and have to repeat the whole process. Victories are infrequent.
The other broken mini-game has you toss up to eight coconuts at signs that pop up on occasion. Some are worth more points than others. You don't have a way to know which will materialize next, but your computer-controlled opponent does. There are instances where your adversary has already thrown one of his coconuts and it's sailing through the air toward its mark before the sign even pops into place, guaranteeing that you can't get those points. That takes "cheap" to a transparent new level. The worst part of the research center is that you'll have to return to it several times throughout the course of your adventure to obtain items crucial for your quest.
While Ransom of the Seven Ships looks and sound just like you'd expect of a first-rate graphic adventure, the game's final flaw is that there are some places where the developers seem to have taken shortcuts. Character models sometimes look like they were lifted from a previous generation. George in particular is difficult to face, with a mouth that doesn't seem natural at all. Her expressions range from passable to hideous. Voice acting fares much better, aside from Nancy Drew's tendency to sound 30 instead of 15. The one painful exception is the dialog spoken by the sea plane pilot during the game's opening, which may be the worst that any video game has yet featured. Whatever effect he was going for, he missed it by miles. Such character action makes up only a minority of the gameplay, though, so complaints along those lines aren't really anything more than disappointment that an otherwise excellent project released with chinks in its armor.
Few adventure games are entirely free from issues, though, particularly when they carry such a reasonable price tag. Ransom of the Seven Ships would be worthwhile at half again its asking price for the simple reason that it realizes most teens can do more than just gaze at Robert Pattinson calendars all day. There's a significant female audience that welcomes a challenge and wants to feel the sense of accomplishment that comes from solving brain-bending puzzles and escaping dangerous scenarios. Not surprisingly, there are plenty of guys looking for some of the same things. If that's the sort of gamer you are and you're willing to overlook a few issues, give Nancy's latest adventure a shot. You just might like it enough to start watching for future installments...
Staff review by Jason Venter (July 26, 2009)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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