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A Veteran's Review of MHM

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  • A Veteran's Review of MHM

    Allow me to preface this review by saying that I have been playing the ND games for almost thirteen years. Over those years, I have probably played each game over twenty times--the older ones probably over fifty--and I do at least one full marathon of all 33 games (i.e., all 32 and SCK Remastered) annually. As I have gotten older, I have found myself ranking the games, characters, music, etc. in my spare time during marathons, and this year I thought I would write--and subsequently post--reviews of each game while I go through my 2018 marathon (I'm starting a month early). I have lost access to/forgotten about my previous accounts on here, including my very first one , so I made a new one solely for this purpose. That being said, I hope you enjoy my review.

    Plot: Prima facie, a little Latin phrase that means "at face value" or "at first look," the plot of MHM seems a tad bit boring. When Nancy reads the opening letter, the only plot points given are that she has gone out to San Francisco to help with renovations on a Victorian mansion and that there have been some setbacks due to a few accidents. Naturally, knowing the title of game, I anticipated that these accidents were going to be attributed to ghosts, or that some manner of haunting was going to crop up while Nancy explored the mansion. The game soon delivers on its name when Abby immediately brings up that there are ghosts in the house, that they are interested in Nancy, and that they may give her trouble because she doesn't believe in them. Not long afterward, we are presented with the mystery of the spirit "Valdez" and his wife, which, to me and assuredly everyone else, remains to be the most captivating part of the story. The formula in this game (i.e., Nancy going to X location to help/do chores/go on vacation and then have a mystery unfold) is used countless other times with huge success, in my opinion. Sure, helping Rose and Abby with the renovations isn't the worst thing in the world, but Rose really only has you do two chores for her before you start focusing on Valdez, the history of the mansion, and the hauntings.

    Setting: Oh, the setting in this game is so gorgeous. I have always been obsessed with the Victorian era, so spending the entire game "cooped up" in a beautiful Victorian house has never bothered me. I do wish we could see more parts of the house, but the rooms we can see are breathtaking. The first time I saw the Chinese room as a ten-year-old, I probably looked like this: . I still feel that way about it, to be perfectly honest. Everything from the wood paneling and wallpaper to the furniture and sculptures is so beautiful. Abby's room is also quite delightful. The cool color palette is so nice, and the small details in her room are perfect: she has tarot cards, a palmistry diagram, astrology books, incense, a motion lamp, etc. Each room is so beautiful and has a distinct color palette, which makes the relatively small environment not even remotely visually boring. I want to have a library like that one in my own house, including the hidden room! On top of the beauty of the setting, there's also the hauntings, which ramp up the fear factor of the very first scary ND game. While the hauntings in the later games are better and scarier, the randomness with which the majority of the scares appear is a highlight of this game. Some are obviously scripted for certain moments/interactions, but the way they continue to happen without any warning is great. All right, enough gushing; obviously, I love the setting.

    Characters: Unfortunately, I think the cast of characters in this game suffers compared to its predecessors and certainly its next two successors. The most interesting characters in the game are Lizzie Applegate and Diego Valdez, and they're dead! Nonetheless, I think Abby is hands-down the best, most-fleshed out character in the game, but even she is pretty two-dimensional. Her mystical nature with a strong dose of business sense make her out to be the most levelheaded character. I think Rose might honestly suffer the worst from lack of development. We get that she put all her savings into buying and renovating the house, making her extremely stressed and worried when things are not going her way, but that is basically the extent of our knowledge about her. She tells Nancy she is too busy to talk and interactions with her are limited to her whining about the accidents and proving that she does not have a clue about 99% of things going on outside that dining room of hers. She isn't a bad character, I just find her dismissal of Nancy annoying and her overly-trusting nature with everyone EXCEPT Abby to be odd.

    Charlie is an interesting character, and one I wish we knew more about. I felt great sympathy for him as a child, and I feel even stronger sympathy for him as an adult who's been through college and lived in poverty. I always wanted to see the conversation he had with Rose about his living situation, but either it isn't in the game or I have never been able to trigger it. I don't understand why everyone in the game is so hard on him when the poor guy is just trying to do his job. They act like he's the only one who's actually doing any renovation work around there. The other male character, Louis, is so flat, he might as well be that painting on the wall in the library. He acts so uninformed about everything Nancy asks him when it's his job to be an antiquity expert. There really isn't much to say about him, except that he has no redeeming qualities.

    Music: The music in this game includes some of my favorites. To those who have read my other reviews, this should probably come as no surprise given how much I adore all of the music from the games; however, there are some distinct compositions or soundtracks I hold in the highest esteem, and this soundtrack includes three of my most loved songs: the saloon theme, the seance theme, and the Chinese Room theme. As I have said before, the music in these games does an exceptional job of setting the mood and enhancing the atmosphere of the games. The parlor, hallway, library secret room, and attic music are all unsettling and mysterious. They never get repetitive, but they don't really stand out in my mind when I think about the game or the ND soundtracks.

    The aforementioned true gems of the soundtrack do stand out, though, for all the right reasons. I find that the saloon theme--and subsequently the séance music, which is the saloon theme in a different key--is my absolute favorite from the game. Kevin Manthei could have gone a different route and made the saloon theme a little hokey Western song, and it would have, for all intents and purposes, fit the environment. Nonetheless, the only element of the song that really gives off a stereotypical saloon vibe is the slightly detuned piano (i.e., reminiscent of a honky-tonk piano), which sounds beautiful and haunting with the underwater effect on the sound quality (I hope that makes sense; there's a lot of reverb and the piano's notes are sustained). The result of this choice of instrumentation and audio effect is a composition that makes me feel like I am stepping back into time when I go down there as opposed to being anywhere else in the house. The Chinese Room theme is another of my personal favorites, and such a great choice for a theme--and location--to start out the game. Once again, instead of taking a more direct approach by creating hokey "Oriental" music, Kevin Manthei incorporates traditional Chinese instruments, some more subtly than others (for instance, did you ever notice the use of the gong?), into a beautiful and suspenseful theme that suits the game and the room so well. Such genius! While Abby's room isn't listed among my favorites, I do think it is another one of the more genius pieces in the game; that twinkling, swirling opening is so appropriate for the environment of her room.

    Puzzles: This is the first game in the ND series that starts ramping up on the puzzles compared to the first two. There are two, if I recall correctly, puzzles relating to the renovations that are quite simple, with one being significantly more rewarding in terms of moving the plot along than the other (i.e., a new location! ). There are several more challenging puzzles in this game that require keen observational skills and thorough snooping (e.g., the stairs, the piano, and especially all the puzzles that relate to the wall). I love that the long-term puzzle is introduced at the very beginning of the game through the tapestry poem (and we see the use of a tapestry poem again in Curse of Blackmoor Manor). I love how all the puzzles really connect to the plot and move things along without it being blatantly obvious what the "reward" of each puzzle is going to do or unlock.

    Graphics: As I have said before, the 3D background/environment animations are simply gorgeous. Many of the items (e.g., furniture, props, etc.) in this game are actually used again in later games. The tea set in the dining room is actually the same one we see in The Silent Spy, and that's just one of the many unofficial Easter Eggs that have come from Message in a Haunted Mansion. I love how varied the color palette is within each room and within the mansion itself. The character animations are, in some ways, slightly worse than the ones in the game before, depending on the character. Abby and Charlie are animated particularly well--they have nice faces for sure--but Rose's hair is downright terrifying and Louis' eyes and shoulders/arms are so unusual, I don't know whether it's funny or creepy. Rose's model wouldn't be that bad without that awful hair, but I recently noticed her skin tone is patchy in places, which is unfortunate because she is the very first POC in the ND games.

    Ending: Since it it difficult to pinpoint where exactly this ending begins, I have decided that it includes the event that happens before the culprit reveal (i.e., the culmination of all the puzzle solving). Since this game was, if I recall correctly, not only the first game I ever started but also the first one I ever beat, the ending holds a special place in my heart. I remember the excitement and anticipation I felt when I put the piece in place, and then magic started happening and the glittering solution was found. When the culprit was actually revealed--ah, the first time Nancy gets bludgeoned by the bad guy--I was not even remotely surprised, even as a ten-year-old first-time player. Naturally, that is disappointing to anyone who likes to be stumped and shocked by the culprit reveal, but I think in this game, at least for me, finding out who it is is almost relieving (if you wanted everyone else to not be guilty, that is). Stopping the culprit proved difficult for me as a child, not because I didn't know EXACTLY what to do--I had accidentally caused this event to happen before, resulting in a game over--but because I thought I would run out of time if I tried going the other way. It's a little unrealistic--how on earth would the culprit survive that Phantom of the Opera injury?--but it's certainly got an excitement factor.

    Other points of interest: The voice-acting is solid in this game. I don't recall anything sounding overacted, underacted, or strangely delivered. Also, this is the very first time we hear the voice of our beloved Scott Carty, who plays the voice of Ned Nickerson for the rest of the series, which THRILLED me the first time I realized it was him years ago. I also love that the exterior shot of the house and B&W picture we see in the game was based off of this house in Newnan, Georgia--a fact I accidentally stumbled on back in 2013. I can't link it here, sadly, because of forum rules, but if you go search something like "Newnan, Georgia Victorian house," it'll pop up. The house is identical to the one in the picture in the foyer, but they duplicated half of the house and the wrap-around porch in the animated, run-down one during the opening letter. So gorgeous!

    The Takeaway: The third game in the series is, in my opinion, stronger than the first two in most respects. The culprit choice is the biggest and most significant drawback of the game, but otherwise I find it to be an enchanting and captivating game to this day. If I was going to rate this game on a ten star basis, I would give it six and a half stars. It really is a wonderful game through and through, but the lack of imagination for the culprit choice and reveal takes away some points in my book.

    So the final question is obviously whether I think you should play this game. YES. It is a classic among the older games, and it is one of most balanced games in terms of length and difficult for a first-time player. It was the very first one I played and beat--I got the 75th Anniversary Edition of the first five games for Christmas in 2005 and booted up Message in a Haunted Mansion first, until I got stuck, opened the rest, and got stuck on them too all in the same day--so it holds a very special place in my heart. It is also the very first "scary" Nancy Drew game, but the most tame of them all in that category, so it's a great place to start if you want to experience the scares without possibly soiling your pants. If you are new to Nancy Drew games and want more of a challenge/a longer game, then I would perhaps recommend playing another of the first five games--Treasure in the Royal Tower is one of the best games I have ever played in my life, and The Final Scene maintains its place in my top ten ND games--or one of the legendary fan favorites (also in my top ten): Curse of Blackmoor Manor and Secret of Shadow Ranch. Curse of Blackmoor Manor is also one of the scarier games--it still scares me for a variety of reasons--without going full-on scary like Shadow at the Water's Edge and Ghost of Thornton Hall, which are my #1 and #3 favorite games as of my 2016 and 2017 marathons. (Don't worry, I will explain why once I get to those reviews in the coming weeks. )

    Thank you for reading my review! I hope that my perspectives and ramblings inspire someone to play this game, replay this game, look at it through fresh eyes, or try it for the first time. I should be posting a review of Treasure in the Royal Tower sometime over the next day or so, and I will continue to post them as I complete my 2018 Nancy Drew Marathon...I hope you'll think it's a treasure.

    Previous Review: Stay Tuned for Danger
    Next Review: Treasure in the Royal Tower

    Last edited by yukixiaomeimei; November 19, 2021, 06:58 PM.

  • #2
    Another great review! You again bring up some great points that I don't see mentioned in most other reviews, those being the color palettes and the soundtrack. This is surely one of the greatest of the classic ND game soundtracks; the songs fit well alongside each other, but are also distinct and give the mansion a lot of character. I love what you said about the coloring of the rooms too. In particular, I like how the rooms contrast so well with the house, like the red of the Chinese room and the cool purple in Abby's. Great job!
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    Hope everyone's having a great summer!


    • #3
      Thank you so much, disneygirl12! It's sad that not many people talk about more specific elements of the art design when reviewing the settings and graphics of these games! Someone--or several people--worked hard and put a lot of thought into the design of each environment, including the color! I'm happy to hear that at least one other fan loves the soundtracks as much as me.


      • #4
        I was so excited to read this review, because MHM was also my first Nancy Drew game. I got it as a gift in my easter basket when I was like ten (I can actually still remember that moment lol). The nice thing about this game is that it really holds up over time despite its age, and not just because of Nostalgia.

        I wholeheartedly agree with you on how beautifully the setting was done! The artistry in this game is really great, and it really allowed the spooky elements of this game to fit seamlessly since the place would have felt haunted even if it wasn't. (Like, would I ever be brave enough to live in an old creaky, perfectly normal Victorian house? Absolutely not.) I also tend to prefer when HER confines us to mostly one location (as opposed to spreading things out over a map) because I just feel as though it makes everything feel bigger and more immersive in the long run. MHM is the first game that did this, and it REALLY paid off here and went on to work beautifully in so many other games. Don't get me wrong, there are some instances where Nancy travels about and it still feels well done (SHA, SAW), but I feel like HER has a worse track record in general with those types of games and doesn't always get it right (SSH, CLK, etc).

        I really do love your analysis of the music, and you are definitely making me become more aware of the music scores in my own playthroughs (I'm on DOG right now, and now that I'm paying attention I realize there are some great pieces in there - and some not so great lol). I tend to only comment on the music if it stands out to me, and I have to say that I definitely noticed the Saloon Theme in my playthrough of this game!!! It is SOOOO good, and so fitting. And you're right, it could have gone a completely different way and still made sense but I'm incredibly glad they went the route that they did. (I play piano myself, so I typically am a sucker for piano pieces lol).

        I also really LOVED the introduction of a long-term puzzle in this game. It's one of my favorite types of puzzles, because it really rewards you for exploring and getting into new places as you progress through the game. I agree that the main downfall of this game is the culprit. And also, HOWWWW on earth did the endgame even work? I just remember being SO upset about the way it happened once we finished the FINAL piece of that puzzle, because it was just so unrealistic lol. Because of this game's age, I think I tend to give it a pass, but still. I value realism in a game and this just didn't do it for me.

        Awesome job!! Onto the next one!
        Last edited by Jett; November 20, 2019, 04:18 AM.


        • #5
          I’m so glad you liked the review! I haven’t looked at this one in a long time, so I had to reread it before I commented. I think MHM is the perfect choice for any first-time player. It’s such a classic with a great story, length, and difficulty, especially for a young player. I’m so happy to know it was your first game too, and I totally agree about it being solid even without nostalgia bias. I vividly remember showing the 75th Anniversary pack to my parents in Walmart and then getting it for Christmas that year. The first game I saw/wanted was Curse of Blackmoor Manor at Toys-R-Us (RIP), but my mom wouldn’t let me buy it because of the whole curse/witch thing on the box.

          It’s such a gorgeous game, especially for its time. See, I would love to live in a Victorian house, but I can agree it would probably be spooky even as a normal house. It definitely depends on how well they execute it, but I think you’re right. TRT and CUR really show off how incredible a game can be when limited to one setting. I really love when the games confine you to one setting but then more and more parts of it open up to you as the game progresses. MHM does it, and it works out splendidly. On the other hand, WAC does the same thing, and I think that environment feels insanely constrained. (Then again, there isn’t much to look at in WAC either.) Overall, I believe they handle traveling to multiple destinations more poorly than not (e.g., RAN, CRE, TOT, ASH, and MED, which are my least favs).

          That is such a compliment! Thank you! You’ll have to let me know what you think of the soundtracks as you keep working through the games. (Hahahahahahaha, just wait until you read my review of DOG’s music. You hit the nail on the head.) Same! The Saloon Theme is so gorgeous, and I find it so strangely relaxing. I’m so thankful that Kevin Manthei went with that track for the saloon. Ah, I wish I played the piano. I wanted to, but I never got any lessons.

          Long-term puzzles are the best, and this one is executed spectacularly well. Yeah, this game would be almost perfect if the culprit wasn’t so glaringly obvious. Hahahaha, I have no idea. Ten-year-old me thought it was incredible, but, to this day, I still don’t know how that was supposed to work. Maybe it’s supposed to be that the refraction of light happens at a certain time of day? Not sure how that angle would work though, and it certainly wouldn’t make everything glow like that. It would have made more sense to have a shadow fall at a certain time of day instead.

          Thanks again for the comment!