HerInteractive has finally released their latest installment in the Nancy Drew PC game series: Nancy Drew: Midnight in Salem. Previously, fans of the series had two Nancy Drew games to look forward to every year, but the fandom has been holding its collective breath since the Sea of Darkness release in 2015. Now, after a change in CEO, the loss of our main heroine’s familiar voice actress (Lani Minella), company layoffs, and an entirely new game built on the Unity platform, we finally have the game we’ve been longing for. Has this newest installment in our favorite sleuth’s journey ushered in an exciting age of gaming for Nancy Drew fans? Grab your notebook and Koko Kringle bar and settle into our Nancy Drew: Midnight in Salem review to find out.
Five Years Later
Five years for HerInteractive is an extremely long time to put out a game. To say the fans were chomping at the bit for any news, digging deep into the HerInteractive forums to find even just a crumb of information about the game is an absolute understatement. I think I speak for most of us when I say that hearing that Nancy Drew was going to get a graphical update was extremely exciting news. Video games have advanced so far today with their graphics, how amazing would it be to see something similar brought to our favorite game? It was incredible to hear that the developers heard our requests and were working hard to implement changes. What we received wasn’t terrible. But, I feel like it could have been much, much better. Stay with me here.
Pick Your Sleuthing Style
If you’ve never played a Nancy Drew game before, Nancy Drew: Midnight in Salem, like its predecessors allows you to choose your difficulty. Amateur Sleuth gives you more hints in your notebook, while as a Master Sleuth you’re on your own, while encountering more difficult puzzles. Your first time, I would normally highly suggest going the Amateur route. There is no shame in allowing yourself to get used to a game before going into hard-mode. With that being said, I didn’t feel much of a difference inbetween the two modes in Midnight in Salem. Working your way up to Master Sleuth difficulty used to be a kind of point of pride, but the puzzle difficulty doesn’t seem to be effected nearly as much, and with the clues in the notebook being few and far between to begin with there’s hardly any reason to fret over the choice. If you don’t plan on finishing the game in one play through (please go outside and get some sunlight), I would still suggest the Amateur route since the notebook can at least remind you of where you left off when you pick Midnight in Salem back up.
Point-and-Click Movement With a Twist
Nancy Drew: Midnight in Salem starts you out gently, with a tutorial that introduces you to the game’s new movement mechanics by searching for the “Book of Apologies” and setting you up for a thievery and transition into a mystery in Salem. We’re introduced to the new voice of Nancy (Brittany Cox), and given some backstory about her current mission. At first, it was hard to get used to Nancy’s new voice. We’ve gone over thirty games with Lani, and change is hard, but I think she did a fantastic job voicing the character. Moving around the room, we now have the option to actually right-click and drag our camera to rotate slightly around the screen for a better view at objects. The classic point-and-click directional arrows are still there, but now you have to wiggle your mouse if you want to see more details.
In theory, this was probably meant to give the player a more freedom to immerse themselves in the game environment. But honestly, it just felt like a chore to have to keep stopping and rotating my head like an owl to get a clear view of all the scene’s details. If we were moving with WASD keyboard controls, it might have felt more seamless. However, all of our movement is controlled by our clicking our mouse buttons, so you end up clicking a hundred times to get a good idea of the scene’s layout.
Not only that, but later on when you turn around to go back the other direction, your sassy tag-along buddy Deidre is breathing down your neck and gives you a mini heart-attack when you whip around and come face-to-face with her character.
Speaking of Deidre, let’s talk a little more about the graphics and the character models themselves. Oh boy. After turning the games graphics up to ultra, it is a decent-looking game. I feel like they were onto something special with the Unity system and it does have a lot of potential for the games in the future. There’s something surreal about seeing the wind blowing through the trees when we’re so used to the scenes being static.
At first, it was kind of nice. However, the environment itself still somehow feels lacking. Before, every scene meant something. Most scenes were fairly detailed and had little nuances and easter eggs you came to appreciate. In Midnight in Salem, it feels like I’m clicking through a 3D world that doesn’t have a lot of substance. There is no point but to keep moving from point A to point B. It feels even more mind-numbing when you add in the movement mentioned earlier.
Doors Have Rights, Too
Previously, I felt like I could just get lost in Nancy’s world, and actually enjoyed navigating through it. Here, I really struggled to connect to it. For example: see this door? I can’t reach it. I can’t even go down the hallway to click it and chuckle at the classic “It’s locked” line from Nancy. Don’t dangle a door in front of me like it’s a piece of meat, and then refuse to let me fail to open it. A lot of the charm comes from just being allowed to explore. Let me open the fridge to find a stock of Koko Kringle bars, I don’t care, just something.
Though the world is much more populated with people than it has been, the character models are…well, Andromeda-esque. Their movements are so jarring and bizarre that it completely takes you out of the moment with their dialogue. And those eyes. Don’t get me started on their eyes. Let’s take another look at our dear friend, Deidre, shall we?
Chilling. I would almost rather that they just stood there and shifted every once in a while, or focused more on smoothing out their facial animations rather than the disjointed flailing of the characters’ arms during a conversation. The character models and graphics ultimately just feel disappointing, which is really unfortunate because you spend a majority of the game talking to and looking at them.
Just Along for the Dialogue Ride
Midnight in Salem clearly places a heavy priority on dialogue and story in the game, and I cannot reiterate enough times how much I love the theme of the story. Be still my witchy, history buff heart. However, at times it feels like we’re being told more than we’re being shown or allowed to experience ourselves. As Nancy Drew, half of the fun is piecing the story together and digging in deep to truly understand the root of the problem. Nancy is essentially hand-held throughout most of the story, and sits back while books of dialogue information just fall at her feet. And I love dialogue. Even so, I found it long-winded and sometimes inauthentic.
I did thoroughly enjoy learning about the history of Salem! Some of my favorite parts in the game involved just wandering around a place and drinking in all of the history. Mixing in history with the allure of the supernatural is right up my alley, so I thoroughly enjoyed the themes of the game and tried to stay open to the new changes that were bothering me.
The Mystery of the Missing Puzzles
Nancy Drew has always prided itself on bringing its players creative and innovative puzzles to solve. Whether you’re an Amateur, or Master Sleuth, you’re guaranteed to find yourself stuck at some point on a challenge and inevitably flocking to the forums in a desperate attempt to solve them. Remember when I told you to pick up your notebook earlier? Well, put it back down. Midnight in Salem unfortunately didn’t have nearly as many puzzles or challenges as we’re used to. Those that were included in the game unfortunately didn’t pose much of a challenge at all.
A new feature that they’ve opted to include in Midnight in Salem, is the ability to rotate 3D clues. If you’ve ever played Square Enix’s Tomb Raider (2013) you’ll find the mechanic somewhat familiar, as Lara Croft was able to pick up items and rotate them to allow you to inspect them further for clues. This is something I didn’t realize I was missing until it was staring me in the face. We’ve always had 2D clues that we just interacted with, never being able to actually pick them up and turn them over in our hands. Rotating the objects we picked up was a pleasant surprise that I did feel added another layer of connection to the world.
Assessing the Fun Factor
The thing that tends to make or break games for me would be their fun factor. On its own, as a standalone game, is Midnight in Salem fun? Honestly, I would still say yes. It has a pretty great story, and though it is rough around the edges, it’s about the journey to get there. Though it isn’t as familiar as our past games, the world is still alive and the characters and mysteries are still extremely rewarding to unravel.
While I can appreciate HerInteractive building the game from the ground up and maybe trying to go a new direction with Midnight in Salem, I can’t help but feel a little upset and disappointed at the lack of challenge and actual sleuthing that were present in previous games. I commend the crew for all of their hard work, but I personally would have waited a few more years if it meant really getting the game right. There were a lot of changes made that the players have been begging for for years, and I believe this was a decent start to addressing those longstanding concerns. Nancy Drew has had the same successful formula for so many years. It has had several years to figure out what worked, and improved with each new game that came out. In the hands of a new CEO utilizing new strategies, it is going to have to start over from scratch and re-establish that trust with their player base again as the company rebuilds what they want their vision of Nancy to be.