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Throwback Review Series: SHA {a fresh new play-through and in-depth review}

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  • Throwback Review Series: SHA {a fresh new play-through and in-depth review}

    THE SECRET OF SHADOW RANCH (SHA)
    Release Date: July 20, 2004
    Difficulty: Senior Detective


    FINAL SCORE: Superior(9/10)

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    Rating Scale:
    1. Dreadful | 2. Poor | 3. Mediocre | 4. Not Bad | 5. Acceptable
    6. Good | 7. Exceeds Expectations | 8. Strong | 9. Superior | 10. Outstanding

    ************************************************** ******************************************

    MY PERSPECTIVE:
    Hi there! I am a veteran Nancy Drew player, and have been playing these games since I was very young. Message in a Haunted Mansion was the first game I played at eight years old. I am now 27 and have completed every game in the series at least once. However, it's been several years since I've played my last ND game (Sea of Darkness in 2015), and many, MANY years since I have played many of the games. I've had a bout of Nostalgia and have decided to replay the entire series, starting from the beginning. I've decided to write a review for each game as I go. I will be playing on Senior Detective and using as few hints/online help as possible.

    Please keep in mind that everything written below is only my personal OPINION. If you don’t agree with something I have to say about a game, please don’t feel upset or offended. We all enjoy different aspects of these games and it’s wonderful that we can all have differing opinions about what makes a game great. I hope you enjoy!!

    DISCLAIMER:
    I just thought I’d be upfront with you that this is my all-time favorite game of the series, I have serious nostalgia for it and my review will reflect that. With that being said, I know it isn’t perfect and will still do my best to score this game as objectively as I can. But I’ll mostly just gush a whole lot about how good this is. Also, I’m sure this will get DROWNED amongst all the MID reviews that are going to be coming out today, but I still hope you guys enjoy this much less exciting review about an old classic! Enjoy!


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    PLOT: Outstanding (10/10)
    Yes, you read that right. We’re starting off with a completely unapologetic ten out of ten. This entry has a lot going for it, but the plot is, in my opinion, probably its most impressive asset.

    This time around, Bess and George invite Nancy along to stay at their Aunt Bet and Uncle Ed’s newly acquired Ranch in Arizona. Yes, you read that right. Nancy goes on a legitimate and realistic trip to a place that makes sense with actual friends - you know, like a real teenager would do! Unfortunately, she travels separately from her friends and when she arrives at Shadow Ranch, neither Bess and George nor their Aunt and Uncle are anywhere to be found. We quickly find that Bess and George’s flight has been delayed. We also learn that Aunt Bet and Uncle Ed are at the hospital due to a rattlesnake encounter in their bedroom the night prior. No matter, though! Uncle Ed is fine, Bess and George will be there soon, and Nancy is told to enjoy what the ranch has to offer in the meantime. But as we know, nothing is ever this simple for Nancy. We soon learn that a mysterious glowing horse has been accompanying several accidents at the Ranch. Legend says it’s the ghost horse of the outlaw Dirk Valentine. Nancy is sure it’s just a distraction. Either way, her curiosity whisks her through the tragic romance of Dirk Valentine and Frances Humber and puts her on the path to finding something long forgotten.

    And honestly, that isn’t even the half of it, but for the sake of avoiding spoilers I’ll leave it at that. What’s important is that this plot is so incredibly beautiful and well done. The story itself isn’t long - in fact, it takes place over only three days. While this would normally bother me as I like feeling as though time is passing, it works here so well because of the reason Nancy is at Shadow Ranch in the first place. She literally has nothing else to do so she spends all day exploring, riding and mystery solving.

    What’s most impressive, though, is the pure quality of what HER has given us here. We’re not only following Nancy in the present, but also Dirk and Frances in the past. Not only is their tale poetically tragic, but the way it directly affects the present and becomes the driving force of the story is just so good. Believe me, you will CARE about these people as you learn about them, and they will be constantly present throughout this plot. Because this connection is so well done, working through this mystery feels so incredibly rewarding. While not an overly-complicated plot, there are a lot of small things that intertwine here that make it feel complex. Progressing through the story feels earned, and on the occasions where progression isn’t earned (i.e. Nancy’s gloves on Night 2) the game still makes it happen in such an organic way.

    This plot is incredibly cohesive. If you really pick it apart you’ll be able to find a couple of plotholes, but it’s highly unlikely you’ll notice them or care on a playthrough of this game. In general all of my questions were answered by the time I got to the end, and I was so satisfied with this story throughout the entire experience. There is so much more I could rave about here, but then this review would literally never end. So let’s just leave it at this: I love this plot and so will you.

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    SETTING: Superior (9.5/10)
    This setting is not only beautiful, but it is my personal all-time favorite setting of the entire series. I actually grew up riding horses, and I was about twelve when I first played this game, so I suppose that’s got something to do with it. Although that was probably the most horse-crazy stage of my life, I am still an equestrian to this day, have worked on several farms/ranches, and just have a general affinity for all things equine. That being said, I feel I can be a pretty good and critical judge of this setting - but the truth is there isn’t much to criticize. HER basically gets it right here, and I am impressed over and over again with what they’ve created in each and every playthrough of this game. More importantly, the plot relies heavily on the setting to accomplish what it does, and the truth is that neither would feel so perfect without the other. The two together are the one-two punch that really puts this game at the top of my list.





    LOCATION: Outstanding (10/10)
    Our primary location for this game is Shadow Ranch, a working ranch in Arizona recently acquired by Bet and Ed Rawley. However, the greater scope of this game encompasses several locations in the general vicinity of Shadow Mountain. While we get a variety of locations, both outdoor and indoor, they all share a common denominator that makes them feel cohesive. What I mean by this is that the overall setting shines through no matter which location you’re in, and although Nancy travels a distance between them, they don’t feel at all “separate.”

    The ranch itself is my favorite of the locations we’re given to explore. The Ranch House is stunning, in a very southwestern ranch house kind of way. It’s complete with clay stone floors, natural woodwork, a mishmash of ethnic and rustic textures on tapestries and rugs and pillows, a beautiful stone fireplace, a gorgeous kitchen with a cast iron stove and a backsplash of clay tiles… need I go on? A LOT of detail was put into this location. The whole place just feels homey and welcoming, yet the decor (and the view from the windows) reminds us that we’re in the sweltering Arizona desert. We also get to see a few pieces that we know came with the house, such as the blue corner hutch. Not only are these bits nice to look at, but they bring bits of the past into the present - something this game does so well time and time again.

    Moving on outside, we’re greeted with a very dry-looking, but realistic ranch-yard complete with a garden and a chicken coop and a lovely post and rail fence. We also get a covered paddock where the horses are tied for the time being, along with the tack room which like everything else in this game is incredibly well-done. This is 100% what a real tack room looks like and feels like, from the saddle racks to the feed chart and tin cans everywhere to the posters to the mouse trap that sits on the floor by Bob’s saddle. They got this room EXACTLY right, and I am so pleased with how well this was designed. Not to mention the HORSES themselves, all of which are beautiful.

    But wait - there’s more! We get Mary Yazzie’s gift shop, complete with a variety of handmade trinkets and discovered artifacts. We get Cougar’s Bend, which is very reddish-orange but in a good way and has some absolutely gorgeous topography. We get the Trail Stop, which is really just a bit of desert that somehow still manages to be visually pleasing. We get Dry Creek, which is a STUNNING ghost-town featuring a bunch of run-down buildings (and two that we can explore) that manages to give you a little anxiety even on repeat playthroughs. And we also get one MORE location that I will not discuss at length, but just know that it is among my favorite and I was so pleased that we ended up there.

    The truth is, I could go on at length about ANY of these locations, but I think it’s much simpler if I just say that they are all fantastic. By far the most endearing thing about all of them is that they ALL connect back to the past in some way and help to tell the story we’re experiencing. Because of this, the player is able to not only visualize what these places might have looked like before, but is able to actually stand where these ghosts from the past were and turn their thoughts into action.

    EXPLORATION: Superior (9/10)
    Now, admittedly, when I think of good exploration in a game I typically think of LOTS of different areas with a lot to look at, a lot to DO in each area and plenty of hidden locations. And I admittedly prefer games that take place in a single setting over games that force us to travel via map. And while I admit that this entry doesn’t necessarily provide all of those things, I still think it provides a REALLY GREAT sense of exploration in its own way. Allow me to explain. While we do travel via a map and we don’t get a TON of locations (six technically - Shadow Ranch, Mary Yazzie’s, Cougar Bend, Dry Creek, Trail Stop and an undisclosed location), this world still manages to feel huge. While we may not get a lot of activities to play with (no computer games, random sandwich making,) and also not a TON of educational information (most of which we now find on Nancy’s phone), none of these locations feel boring.

    The plot gives us so much to do in each and every area, at different times and in different ways and because the plot is SO intertwined with these locations, the player feels a highly rewarding sense of exploration throughout the game. This is because the very nature of what’s happening is reminiscent of a scavenger hunt, and attention to detail in these locations is an important aspect of progressing through the game. There may not be fifteen books to read like in the SCK remastered library, but there is a plank of wood SOMEWHERE in the game with a certain marking on it that you should probably keep an eye out for. Because the player needs to pay attention to things like this in their surroundings, the game sort of has this way of tempting the player into exploring deeply without it ever feeling forced.

    Furthermore, while there aren’t a lot of “hidden” or “secret” areas in this game, it still kind of feels like there are. This is because of the way the map functions in this entry. When you begin, you can only get to Mary Yazzie’s via horseback. After that, you unlock a couple more locations (presumably because you passed them or discovered them while riding.) Throughout the game, you’ll “discover” one or two more locations as you learn about them. This makes these “discoverable” locations feel like hidden locations when they really aren’t, but it has the same effect. The bottom line is that this world gets bigger and bigger as you play this game.

    Lastly, let’s talk about the map. Yes, the dreaded map which I tend to dislike in every entry - EXCEPT for this one. The map works well here for a couple of reasons, first and foremost because of what we just discussed above. But it also works well because of the nature of the way Nancy is travelling. She’s moving around by horseback, which is NOT the fastest form of travel to begin with. We also learn that many of the locations she’s traveling to are more than an hour’s ride from Shadow Ranch. Because of this, the map sequences don’t feel out of place, and in fact do a really great job of making it feel like you’re traveling a pretty decent distance in-between locations. As a result, when you arrive at a location that we know is out of the way (such as Dry Creek), it really FEELS out of the way. It feels like Nancy is ALONE at these places, which packs a way bigger punch than you might think when it feels like somebody might be watching you, or you find yourself in a less-than-pleasant situation. For this reason, I’m not only okay with the map but am happy they went this route in this particular entry and feel as though it improves upon the exploration value of the game.
    ************************************************** ******************************************
    CHARACTERS: Exceeds Expectations (7.5/10)
    I have to admit, I struggled a lot with how to rate our characters this time around. While I generally consider them strong, and they’re LEAPS AND BOUNDS better than some of the characters we’ve seen up until this point, I can’t help but feel as though they’re outshined by the story of Dirk and Frances and the general history of the area. I also think we’ve seen better characters, even up until this point (Dexter Egan for example). That being said, I think this is the best OVERALL bunch of characters we’ve seen so far, I think they fit really well into this story and I genuinely enjoyed each and every one of them. I think this entry did a really awesome job of showing us the characters interacting with each other in a way we don’t typically see, and I think that did a great service to their development.





    SHORTY THURMOND: Strong (8/10)
    Shorty is the super-gossipy, superstitious cook at Shadow Ranch, and I would be lying if I said I didn’t love his character. This guy absolutely loves to talk, and has a TON to say about all the happenings around the ranch. He’s generally friendly (unless you insult his cooking), and even lets Nancy off the hook for snooping through his stuff because he also likes to snoop in people’s things. And I just really love that for some reason. We get a really great sense of his personality, and I honestly think he’s pretty unique compared to the other characters we’ve seen so far. I also LOVE that his motive isn’t really a secret - he just straight up tells Nancy, basically - and it fits so well with his character. Also, his voice acting is superb.

    DAVE GREGORY: Strong (8/10)
    Dave is the dreamy ranch foreman who is incredibly polite and is basically the only man I approve of hitting on Nancy (aside from the Hardy Boys of course) because he is just such a darn gentleman!!! This guy is literally just a nice and honest cowboy trying to do his job. I mean, really, he somehow manages to say he’s glad Bess and George’s flight got delayed in the NICEST way possible without at all sounding like a jerk. He’s a little standoffish at first, but after a pretty decent plot twist that breaks the ice between them he opens up to Nancy quite a bit. I absolutely love the way Dave connects to the plot, and while he has a really great motive, I also feel like it’s righteous enough and if I were in his shoes I would probably do the exact same thing. My only qualm is that I wish we could talk to him more than we do (particularly when he asks Nancy if she has a steady!!!) as I feel like there was so much more dialogue that could have been had here.

    TEX BRITTEN: Strong (8/10)
    Tex is the head wrangler at Shadow Ranch, meaning he’s in charge of the horses and livestock. He’s a man of few words, and is admittedly a bit frightening at first. He also has a pretty decent motive that we learn early on in the game. That being said, though he never loses his gruff exterior he does warm up to Nancy eventually and we learn that there is a lot more to this man than his icy stare. He too gets a plot twist which I particularly enjoy, and which really adds to his character. I love his voice acting, I love his character model, I love the layers that we know there are to his personality, and you know what? I think this man is actually my favorite character in this game - I know, unpopular opinion because of Dave. But there is just something about an irritable cowboy with a soft spot hidden under the surface that I just can’t help but love!

    MARY YAZZIE: Not Bad (4/10)
    Ugh. There’s always one in every game - you know exactly what I mean. EVERY game has that one character that brings all the others down, and Mary Yazzie is unfortunately that one. I so wish they’d done a better job with her, because she is bringing down my rating. Mary Yazzie is the owner of the gift shop, and we learn right away that she’s been trying to buy a piece of land from the Rawleys, but that they keep turning down her offers. She doesn’t like them, she has a motive, yada yada yada. The thing is, she isn’t terrible. She’s just so… separate. Tex, Dave and Shorty are all hands at the ranch. They have feelings about each other and about the ranch and about Dirk and Frances. Mary is just completely separate from all of that, and has the least to say out of everybody. While she is our third character to get a plot twist, it’s the same plot twist as another character and it works SO much better for that other person that she just kind of falls by the wayside. I also think her voice acting, though not awful, is the worst of the bunch. But most importantly, I just didn’t care about her and I didn’t feel that she added much to the plot or the game in general.

    PHONE CONTACTS: Superior (9.5/10)
    Our phone cast is SO GOOD this time around! Or regulars put on great performances, and our new contacts have really awesome dialogue and stellar voice acting. I have zero complaints about them. The only thing I might add is that it’s been so many games since we’ve talked to Ned, but I guess if I were Nancy surrounded by all those cowboys I wouldn’t be missing him too badly either.

    Bess and George: Outstanding (10/10)
    Honestly, when I think of Bess and George, I think of them in this game. They are really phenomenal in this one. This is probably due to their unique closeness to the plot, in that Bet and Ed are their Aunt and Uncle. They’re stuck in the airport for the duration of the game, but they have a lot to say and they say it well. I also love that their mini-plot directly helps Nancy move forward in the game’s overall plot. This is just another way that this game pulls something small and seemingly insignificant into the greater scheme of things in a meaningful way.

    Frank and Joe: Outstanding (10/10)
    Similarly, when I think of Frank and Joe, I think of this game lol. There’s just something about them here that I love so much. This time, Frank and Joe are being plagued by “laptop guy” - aka, a friend of their mother’s who is paying them big to track down his missing laptop. I love the personality we get from them through this mini-plot - particularly, how excited they are when Nancy calls - but mostly because she isn’t laptop guy. They have a lot to say, their voice acting is wonderful, and their dynamic with each other is fantastic. One of their best performances.

    Bet and Ed Rawley: Outstanding (10/10)
    It almost pains me to give out another 10, but these two really deserve it. Aunt Bet and Uncle Ed aren’t present at the ranch when Nancy arrives, and we learn that it’s because Uncle Ed has been bitten by a rattlesnake. They’re stuck at the hospital for the remainder of the game, but Nancy talks to them plenty on the phone. First and foremost, both of their voice actors do a FANTASTIC job. Aunt Bet and Uncle Ed have unique and pleasant personalities, their bickering is realistic and enjoyable and they just feel like a real married couple. I love their dynamic both with each other and with Nancy, and I particularly loved the bit about sending Dave on an “errand,” it was incredibly sweet and it made me smile. The only thing I find slightly unrealistic is that Aunt Bet would just stay at the hospital for three days without ever returning to the ranch, but it isn’t enough for me to care.

    Everyone Else: Strong (8/10)
    We get three additional phone contacts that I would consider minor, and all of them put in a really good performance. First, we have Sheriff Hernandez. While he’s not really anything special, his voice acting is good and he’s kind and helpful to Nancy. We also talk to Geza (I think), who I feel is the worst of the bunch in that he isn’t particularly memorable and his voice acting isn’t the absolute best. But he’s incredibly minor and he was decent enough for the role he played. Lastly, we get my favorite minor phone contact - Charleena Purcell. Charleena is a novelist who writes historical fiction, and she is interested in the Shadow Mountain area. Nancy calls her for expert advice, and her voice acting is very good. Additionally, she does come across nicely as a successful (if not slightly conceited) bestselling author. All in all, even our minor phone contacts are strong.
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    PUZZLES AND TASKS: Strong (8/10)
    For reference, I consider puzzles to be anything that requires “solving”, while tasks are things that simply require “doing.”

    While this game isn’t what I would consider “puzzle heavy”, there are still a lot of puzzles. It’s a little deceiving though, because most of them manifest as part of a long term, scavenger-hunt style puzzle and therefore build off of each other. Aside from this long-term puzzle, we do get several smaller puzzles to solve, most of which are actual “put the pieces together” puzzles or at least of similar difficulty, such as the egg basket, the chicken coop, the jewelry sorting, etc. It’s possible you may find these tedious, but in all honesty I didn’t. The scavenger hunt is home to its own variety of puzzles, though I feel it provides a really nice balance of both basic logic and puzzle solving. It also really rewards the player for progressing through this long-term puzzle, and I enjoyed working my pay through it.

    All in all, I felt the puzzles in this game were challenging enough but not frustratingly tedious and I really enjoyed the particular balance found in this game. There were only two puzzles total that I found actually frustrating: The Run for Cover game is enjoyable the first time, but on your first playthrough you’ll likely wind up playing it several times. Since you’ll already know how to solve it, this is just tedious and annoying, and I highly recommend just saving in the appropriate place and reloading to avoid having to replay this game a million times. The second puzzle that I found frustrating is the maze. There is actually a trick to remove the pieces of wood, but even with them gone this thing is just IRRITATING. I disliked it greatly. I also am lucky enough to have a lot of knowledge about horses, but if you know nothing about horses I can see Tex’s horse quiz being a huge pain. In any case, these are a small portion of the game and I didn’t hate them so much that I felt they negatively affected my experience at all.

    As for tasks, I would say this game is task heavy. I actually really enjoy tasks in these games, as they make it feel immersive. But if you’re somebody who finds basic tasks tedious and annoying this may be a negative for you. I personally enjoyed all of the tasks we were given and felt like they felt as though they were belonged and weren’t overly tedious. I enjoyed collecting vegetables for Shorty, collecting eggs, feeding the horses, etc. The only task that I could see being slightly tedious is the arrowhead task, but I personally enjoyed it and felt as though it helped to make exploration just a little more rewarding.

    Overall, I think the puzzles and tasks in this game are really strong, and furthermore fit into the plot flawlessly.

    ************************************************** ******************************************

    ENDGAME: Superior (9/10)
    There are so many things about this endgame that I absolutely love - the way we get there, the actual location in which it takes place, the culprit, the solution to catch the culprit. It’s just all really good, and there isn’t a ton more that I can say about it without spoiling it for you guys. Just know that it’s a fairly lengthy yet rewarding conclusion. Navigating to the FINAL final location is rewarding, only to realize you need to go back and do even more which is even more rewarding, only to be confronted by the culprit. The culprit is a great choice, and the final moments of the game after confronting them are just stressful enough to frazzle you if it’s your first time through. I mean, it’s at least my dozenth time through and I still get a little anxious at this point! This is one of the first games where the solution here isn’t immediately obvious. It takes some thinking and creativity to finish it off, and I LOVE that about it. All in all, this game does NOT drop the ball in the end like some other entries do, and I love that what we get is brilliant from start to finish.

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    MISCELLANEOUS:
    This category may not affect the game’s overall score in any particular way, as low scores in the categories presented here shouldn’t necessarily be interpreted as a bad thing. These are highly subjective to personal taste and are included primarily for informative purposes.





    DIFFICULTY: Good (6/10)
    I wouldn’t say this game is incredibly difficult - it’s more that it requires good attention to detail and a hefty dose of logic. This is a perfect level of difficulty as far as I’m concerned. We get a bit of logic, a bit of puzzle solving, some tasks to do in the meantime, and a tricky but rewarding endgame. Nothing is OVERLY hard, but it does take enough thinking to feel rewarding. Additionally, there aren’t really any irritating “how do I move forward” moments here. My only bit of advice is that if you feel you can’t get things to move forward on day one, click on Bob’s saddle just ONE more time. You’re welcome!

    SCARE FACTOR: Not Bad (4/10)
    This is most definitely not a scary game, but it gets a four out of ten because there are more than a few locations that DEFINITELY make me anxious the first couple times through. However, I am easily frightened so keep that in mind. This game is more suspenseful than anything, and that’s only at times. But if you’re anything like me, your hair will stand on end during those times.

    EDUCATION/LOCATION HISTORY: Exceeds Expectations (10/10)
    This gets a ten out of ten just for the sheer brilliance of Dirk and Frances’s story. The location’s history is not only there for us to learn about, but it drives the game in such a brilliant way. But I think I’ve talked about that enough. We do get a plethora of other educational materials, both via books and also through Nancy’s web search on her cellphone. The first thing I’d like to point out is that a lot of the educational material here seems to be accurate. For example, the two books about horses - I can verify that they’re providing real information. We also get to learn about vegetables, snakes and scorpions, petroglyphs, cliff dwellings, agates and petrified wood and a few other things. I love that the information provided here fits so well with everything else going on and I think all in all HER did a great job in this category.

    IMMERSION: Outstanding (10/10)
    This concerns how realistic the game feels. Does it feel like Nancy is really there for the reason she is supposed to be? Is her reason for being there realistic? Are the things that happen throughout the game realistic?

    This game is incredibly immersive. Nancy is at Shadow Ranch for a real, legit reason. Bess and George and Aunt Bet and Uncle Ed are all NOT there for very legit reasons. Nancy does realistic chores and has to at least do something to prove she can handle a horse before Tex lets her go riding all by herself. All of the character’s motives make sense, the mystery Nancy is solving makes sense. I mean, we have to saddle Bob every time we want to ride, and if we forget to tighten his girth the saddle slips when we try to mount him. YES this is a real thing, you do not want to know how many times this has happened to me! Even the bonfire we have with the cowboys on night one is APPROPRIATELY awkward, as it probably would be.

    I have very few complaints. But if you’d like to know what they are, here you go! First of all, as far as I can tell, there is not a bedroom in the ranchouse, yet we know Ed was bitten IN THE BEDROOM. But if there is a bedroom, there is no door. If anybody wants to explain that one, I’d be grateful. Next, Tex makes Nancy run the barrels in under 10 seconds to get a lariat… Pretty sure the world record for barrels is like 13 seconds, and most pros run it in around 15 to 16 seconds, so there is NO way Nancy did it in 9.5 lol. I’ll let this one slide because maybe it was a shorter course, but just ugh. Lastly, THAT IS NOT HOW A LARIAT WORKS. I am willing to forgive it because I know they had to be able to animate it for the game, but it is just so comical to me because Nancy’s lariat defies the laws of physics. That is all.

    MUSIC: Outstanding (10/10)
    I know none of the names of any of the pieces, but this is one of my favorite soundtracks of all the games. I particularly LOVE all of the music we hear while at the ranch. It’s full of harmonica and accordion, and is just so ranchy and chill and I love it. I also enjoy all the other pieces, but the ranch themes stand out to me the most. ALL of the music does a phenomenal job of making this game feel complete.

    GRAPHICS: Acceptable (5/10)
    I’m bumping this up to Acceptable this time around because while I can’t put my finger on it, all of the characters look pretty darn good this time around (Dave’s face especially).

    EXTRA STUFF/NOTES:
    Well, we can’t eat any food this time around. That’s sad. BUT, we do get a new UI interface in this game, along with new inventory, notebook and cellphone tabs. Additionally, the cellphone is much better in this game than in previous versions. In general, the UI update is good and welcome and I am happy about it.

    Oh and most importantly, I FOUND A HARRY POTTER REFERENCE. I am a HUGE potterhead and somehow this is the first time I caught it. I must just be paying more attention this time around!
    ************************************************** ******************************************
    FINAL SCORE: Superior (9/10)

    The bottom line is, this game is a classic. If you haven’t played it, just do it, you won’t be sorry. Unless you hate beautifully crafted plots and gorgeous, immersive settings, of course. This is objectively one of the best games of the entire series, and in my personal opinion it is THE best game in the entire series. It has a beautiful plot, a charming and realistic setting, interesting and enjoyable characters and wraps up with a satisfying and rewarding ending. Overall, a superior game.

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    THROWBACK REVIEW SERIES - ALL REVIEWS

    SCK | STFD | MHM | TRT | FIN | SSH | DOG | CAR | DDI | SHA
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    Last edited by Jett; December 11, 2019, 02:34 AM.

  • #2
    Note: I am currently grieving because I had written an extremely long reply to you, and I accidentally hit "quote" at the bottom of your review right before I finished it, which deleted everything I wrote. Then, the autosave saved that instead of what I had written previously. ANYWAY, I will try my best to remember what all I had written, but I may not pull out everything I had previously quoted.

    Stellar review! I have so been looking forward to your thoughts on this game after learning that it was your favorite. Since it is your favorite, I feel compelled to say a lot in response to give you more opportunity to gush about it than you already did. Besides, this has always been one of my favorite games as well, and it was either the first or second game I played after beating the original five (I got SHA and CUR bundled and CLK and TRN bundled at Target when I was eleven). Honestly, as nostalgic as it is, I think it is objectively fantastic and only gets better with time.

    PLOT

    I completely agree with everything you said about the plot. It is one of the strongest plots in the entire series, and I regard it highly for how well the two stories are interconnected throughout the game. Most of the games have a main plot and a subplot, but it is rare that the two are handled so effortlessly and with such incredible balance. There is never really a point where I feel like I am focusing on one mystery over the other, as there are always little (or even significant) things that tie the two mysteries together as you progress through the game. (Spot on about how progression feels earned in this game!) Even when exploring Cappy's, there are multiple clues for both investigations right there together. It's such an impressive feat, and both mysteries are really interesting. Now, when I think about the game, I definitely think about Dirk and Frances' tragic romance first, but I appreciate how the investigations are run parallel to each other pretty much the entire time and intersect often. You are totally right that you end up caring immensely for Dirk and Frances by the end of the game--I am heartbroken over their fates every single time I play--and I cannot give that part of the plot more praise for how perfectly everything unfolded and was tied up at the end.

    SETTING

    Our primary location for this game is Shadow Ranch, a working ranch in Arizona recently acquired by Bet and Ed Rawley. However, the greater scope of this game encompasses several locations in the general vicinity of Shadow Mountain. While we get a variety of locations, both outdoor and indoor, they all share a common denominator that makes them feel cohesive. What I mean by this is that the overall setting shines through no matter which location you’re in, and although Nancy travels a distance between them, they don’t feel at all “separate.”
    You have perfectly put into words how I feel about the setting of this game, especially the part about things not feeling "separate." One of the things I love most about the setting is how it really does feel like parts of an organic whole. We travel to all of these distinct locations, using a mini-map no less, but they feel like they are all one with each other. It certainly helps that they are all tied so deeply into the plot, but there is still this sense of unity between them that we do not get in most other games with mini-maps (and certainly not the ones preceding this one). I do not feel like I am missing something by not seeing what connects these areas and what is between them. Naturally, what is between them is a vast, unbroken desert landscape, but it still feels like they all exist together at once and are there for more than just plot convenience. They are the Shadow Mountain Valley, not a bunch of disjointed locations thrown together for the purpose of gameplay. The way they open up to us organically is fantastic, too, rather than having them already listed on the map when the game starts.

    The truth is, I could go on at length about ANY of these locations, but I think it’s much simpler if I just say that they are all fantastic. By far the most endearing thing about all of them is that they ALL connect back to the past in some way and help to tell the story we’re experiencing. Because of this, the player is able to not only visualize what these places might have looked like before, but is able to actually stand where these ghosts from the past were and turn their thoughts into action.


    This is one of those scenarios where the setting is almost a character in itself, which has always, always been a great topic of interest to me in works of fiction. The Dirk Valentine plot really brings these locations to life, and, as you so poetically said, they feel haunted by the past. I think the game being set in the West certainly helps with that feeling, but none of the locations let you forget their colored pasts. There are little things in each that really make them feel like places where real life happened, whether it be Charlie's grave at the Trail Stop or the carvings at Cougar Bend.

    The plot gives us so much to do in each and every area, at different times and in different ways and because the plot is SO intertwined with these locations, the player feels a highly rewarding sense of exploration throughout the game. This is because the very nature of what’s happening is reminiscent of a scavenger hunt, and attention to detail in these locations is an important aspect of progressing through the game. There may not be fifteen books to read like in the SCK remastered library, but there is a plank of wood SOMEWHERE in the game with a certain marking on it that you should probably keep an eye out for. Because the player needs to pay attention to things like this in their surroundings, the game sort of has this way of tempting the player into exploring deeply without it ever feeling forced.
    Yes! I deeply appreciate how every location has so much to see. There's never a scenario where you explore a location one time and automatically find everything it has to offer. You are encouraged to explore and have to revisit locations repeatedly, and there is usually something new to "unlock" every time you travel back. I like how dynamic and real it makes the environments feel.

    Lastly, let’s talk about the map. Yes, the dreaded map which I tend to dislike in every entry - EXCEPT for this one. The map works well here for a couple of reasons, first and foremost because of what we just discussed above. But it also works well because of the nature of the way Nancy is travelling. She’s moving around by horseback, which is NOT the fastest form of travel to begin with. We also learn that many of the locations she’s traveling to are more than an hour’s ride from Shadow Ranch. Because of this, the map sequences don’t feel out of place, and in fact do a really great job of making it feel like you’re traveling a pretty decent distance in-between locations. As a result, when you arrive at a location that we know is out of the way (such as Dry Creek), it really FEELS out of the way. It feels like Nancy is ALONE at these places, which packs a way bigger punch than you might think when it feels like somebody might be watching you, or you find yourself in a less-than-pleasant situation. For this reason, I’m not only okay with the map but am happy they went this route in this particular entry and feel as though it improves upon the exploration value of the game.
    That is precisely how I feel about the map in this game. As you know, I am not particularly fond of it in most games, but it really works in this game. I love that the game forces you to travel from each location along a determined path, rather than taking a shortcut straight to it. Not only does it truly make me feel as if I am traveling the kind of distance the game tells me exists between these locations, distance that requires literal hours of riding to cross, but it makes everything feel so real. In all likelihood, the land between these areas that is not on the marked path is not able to be traversed on horseback, so it makes complete sense that I would have to ride considerably longer to reach my destination by following the trail. As you said, it also heightens my belief that I am, or at least SHOULD be, completely and utterly alone at all of these locations. When I don't feel alone (and I literally NEVER feel alone at Dry Creek), it is anxiety-inducing. Plus, we get to ride Bob, and Bob is way more adorable than a junky boat or bicycle.

    By the way, I have even higher regard for the setting now that I know it checks out with an equestrian.

    CHARACTERS

    I love his voice acting, I love his character model, I love the layers that we know there are to his personality, and you know what? I think this man is actually my favorite character in this game - I know, unpopular opinion because of Dave. But there is just something about an irritable cowboy with a soft spot hidden under the surface that I just can’t help but love!
    I could have quoted the entire section, but I would have ended up sounding like a mockingbird. However, I did want to say that I am in complete agreement on Tex. He TERRIFIED me as a child, but I honestly find him so endearing now, "nope"s and all. He is easily the most interesting living character in the game. Now, I get why people love Dave--he is so cute and the way he reverently says "ma'am" to Nancy makes me scream a little--but Tex is a far more fascinating person. Everything you said about everyone else is totally accurate, and Mary Yazzie...yeah.

    [QUOTE]Our phone cast is SO GOOD this time around! Or regulars put on great performances, and our new contacts have really awesome dialogue and stellar voice acting. I have zero complaints about them. The only thing I might add is that it’s been so many games since we’ve talked to Ned, but I guess if I were Nancy surrounded by all those cowboys I wouldn’t be missing him too badly either.[/QUOTE]

    You know how I generally feel about phone contacts, so you know it's a big deal when I not only notice them, but L O V E them and feel compelled to talk about them in my own review. The phone contacts in this game are BRILLIANT. I actively make a habit of exhausting all conversation with the characters in this game because they have such fun dialogue, from George being bored enough to read about nineteenth century fashion, to Sheriff Hernandez talking about Dave having a crush on Nancy, to Charleena Purcell's assistant telling me that I am important enough to not listen to the on-hold message about RIDING ON THE WINGS OF LOVEEEEEEEE. They are all so good and add so much to the game, both in plot progression and just overall flavor and fun. Love, love, love them so much. Honestly, Charleena Purcell is probably my favorite of the bunch, and I sometimes wonder if she played a small part in me developing a preference for writing historical fiction (though not historical romances ). Uncle Ed and Aunt Bet are really fun to talk to, though, and I adore their dynamic. It's still tragic to me that we never got a chance to meet them or hear anything about them in future games.

    PUZZLES

    I absolutely think the balance of puzzles (and tasks) in this game is perfect. The best puzzle is easily Dirk's long-term puzzle, but I appreciate that the game gives me other puzzles to solve and tasks to do to keep the game from feeling like only one big, long puzzle. The way his puzzle is broken up into satisfying parts is really nice, too, and it helps me feel like I am actually making progress. They are so sweet and cute too. Like you, I also like the tasks in this game a lot. I actually look forward to gathering eggs, collecting arrowheads, picking vegetables, feeding the horses, organizing rings, building a campfire, and baking Tex's birthday cake (especially this one; I'm a real sucker for the cooking puzzles).

    All in all, I felt the puzzles in this game were challenging enough but not frustratingly tedious and I really enjoyed the particular balance found in this game. There were only two puzzles total that I found actually frustrating: The Run for Cover game is enjoyable the first time, but on your first playthrough you’ll likely wind up playing it several times. Since you’ll already know how to solve it, this is just tedious and annoying, and I highly recommend just saving in the appropriate place and reloading to avoid having to replay this game a million times. The second puzzle that I found frustrating is the maze. There is actually a trick to remove the pieces of wood, but even with them gone this thing is just IRRITATING. I disliked it greatly.
    This two puzzles are BY FAR the worst. The problem with Run for Cover is that you have to play it so many times. It runs super slowly and gets all glitchy on my computer, too, which makes it an even more miserable experience than the repetitive banjo music achieves (aka making me want to rip my ears off). If it was a one- or two-time thing, it would not be that bad. The worst thing for me was the time I had to go back and get scrip for over an hour because the RNG gods cursed me on Cappy's game. I was so angry and annoyed by that point that I created a save right after I beat it so I never had to do that puzzle again. Terribleeeeee. The zebra rock puzzle is equally annoying, and it is an absolutely nightmare on the trackpad, even with the wooden bars removed. Just a headache and a half. Do not approve.

    ENDGAME

    This game's endgame is soooooo good. Definitely in my top five best endings. I prefer the long endgame sequences, so this one is perfect. The first time I played, I actually had found some of the pieces required for that last puzzle, which was nice. It was really difficult to find them all, and I was really worried about getting lost, but now I don't even bother memorizing the maze solution because the pieces are hidden off the path. I find it a lot more rewarding to fully explore the area on subsequent playthroughs, especially since it is my favorite area in the game and so beautiful. (Plus, I know how to get through it without writing down the solution, so I don't concern myself over getting lost anymore.) I absolutely love the culprit choice so much, and their dialogue is so chilling for whatever reason. The culprit confrontation/escape scared the daylights out of me as a child, and I still get a bit anxious and I fumble with my inventory. I thought I was supposed to outrun/navigate around the culprit the first time, so I kept getting that gameover dialogue. OOF. I even noticed the solution earlier on, but I did not think about how to create the scenario necessary to outwit the culprit. It's so clever!

    IMMERSION

    This section is perfection through and through! You know, I have always wondered about the structure of that house as well. There is absolutely nowhere for the bedrooms to hide, unless the "front porch" is actually a porch in an inner courtyard the house is built around. Still, that is not typical of Southwestern ranch houses, and there would be no reason to call it a front porch if that were the case. Perhaps Nancy needs to solve the mystery of the phantom bedrooms next. Also, I appreciate your equestrian knowledge because I have next to no understanding of anything relating to horses, except that they are beautiful and I like them.

    MUSIC
    This soundtrack is . Like you, I prefer the themes at the ranch the most. They make me so happy, especially Frances' theme.

    EXTRA STUFF
    Whattttttttt?! I need to know this Harry Potter reference immediately. I cannot believe I have never noticed! I know The Shining one, but that is way easier to figure out because it is so memorable and terrifying.

    Whew! I still don't know if I said everything I said the first time, but I tried to get everything down. You made so many incredible points that I give your review a 10/10. (Then again, I would probably give them all a 10/10.) All in all, a truly superb review for a truly superb game! Looking forward to your thoughts on CUR!

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    • #3
      What an epic response, I greatly enjoyed reading it!!! I wish I could justify it with an equally long response in return, but I would basically just be agreeing with you entirely lol. Also, I plan on reading your full review after this reply, so I will most definitely comment more over there! But of course, I'll still comment on a few things

      Most of the games have a main plot and a subplot, but it is rare that the two are handled so effortlessly and with such incredible balance. There is never really a point where I feel like I am focusing on one mystery over the other, as there are always little (or even significant) things that tie the two mysteries together as you progress through the game.
      YES! I think the most interesting thing about this plot is that the "Ghost Horse" plot is obviously supposed to be the main plot, but the secondary plot of Dirk and Frances is SO GOOD that it feels like the main plot as well. So rather than a primary and secondary plot, we're left with two plots that both feel important when either takes the forefront.

      I do not feel like I am missing something by not seeing what connects these areas and what is between them. Naturally, what is between them is a vast, unbroken desert landscape, but it still feels like they all exist together at once and are there for more than just plot convenience.
      That's a great point, and I also think that is so important. Because we know it's just expansive desert, it both serves its purpose and doesn't make the player feel like they're missing out!

      You know how I generally feel about phone contacts, so you know it's a big deal when I not only notice them, but L O V E them and feel compelled to talk about them in my own review.
      YAY, FINALLY!! I am so happy you appreciated them in this game, because this really is the most nostalgic (and just generally stellar) phone performance we get as a whole in my opinion. When I think of Nancy Drew phonecalls, I instantly think of George and her 19th century fashion, and Charleena Purcell, and the laptop guy pestering the Hardy Boys.

      I thought I was supposed to outrun/navigate around the culprit the first time, so I kept getting that gameover dialogue. OOF. I even noticed the solution earlier on, but I did not think about how to create the scenario necessary to outwit the culprit. It's so clever!
      SAME. I'm pretty sure I tried escaping indefinitely until I got frustrated and made my dad help me figure it out He also struggled, by the way.

      Whattttttttt?! I need to know this Harry Potter reference immediately. I cannot believe I have never noticed!
      THAT WAS MY EXACT REACTION WHEN I FOUND IT!!! Take a look at the small bookshelf in the corner of the ranch house! There's a collection of "Harvey Herring" books on the bottom left that are a play on the first five books. They're the appropriate sizes and everything, with titles like "Harvey Herring and the Border in Phoenix, AZ"

      ANNND with that, I'm off to read your review!!! It is super busy right now with Christmas coming up, so if I don't get around to commenting on it quickly just know I most definitely will when I have time.

      Comment


      • #4
        EXTRA STUFF/NOTES:
        Well, we can’t eat any food this time around. That’s sad.
        You can actually eat a piece of cake the day after Tex's birthday, but all you do is click on it and Nancy makes her usual "mm-hmm" noise, and you can see that a good-size slice is gone. Any additional clicks will get you a "I'll let someone else have the last piece."

        Excellent review! One of the best things about this game, in addition to good characters, is that all of the puzzles and activities (and even chores) are quite enjoyable and make perfect sense.

        I have very few complaints. But if you’d like to know what they are, here you go! First of all, as far as I can tell, there is not a bedroom in the ranchouse, yet we know Ed was bitten IN THE BEDROOM. But if there is a bedroom, there is no door. If anybody wants to explain that one, I’d be grateful.

        Exactly!! I can offer no explanations, and always thought that there should have been a staircase put in the game that we just don't get to climb at the very least. There are plenty of other games with doors that you cannot open.
        Last edited by Juliana+Walter; December 12, 2019, 10:20 AM.
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        • #5
          Originally posted by Jett View Post
          What an epic response, I greatly enjoyed reading it!!! I wish I could justify it with an equally long response in return, but I would basically just be agreeing with you entirely lol. Also, I plan on reading your full review after this reply, so I will most definitely comment more over there! But of course, I'll still comment on a few things
          I'm so glad you enjoyed reading it! Oh, no worries, as soon as I read your review, I knew that there would not be a lot to say without being like "I agree" over and over. Even our game scores are the same!


          YAY, FINALLY!! I am so happy you appreciated them in this game, because this really is the most nostalgic (and just generally stellar) phone performance we get as a whole in my opinion. When I think of Nancy Drew phonecalls, I instantly think of George and her 19th century fashion, and Charleena Purcell, and the laptop guy pestering the Hardy Boys.
          Definitely! There are a few others I find pretty memorable (e.g., Bess and George in TRN, everyone in SPY, everyone in SAW, everyone in GTH, everyone in CUR, Prudence Rutherford in DAN), but the phone conversations from this game are at the top of the list. The laptop fiasco with the Hardy Boys is great and totally underrated.

          THAT WAS MY EXACT REACTION WHEN I FOUND IT!!! Take a look at the small bookshelf in the corner of the ranch house! There's a collection of "Harvey Herring" books on the bottom left that are a play on the first five books. They're the appropriate sizes and everything, with titles like "Harvey Herring and the Border in Phoenix, AZ"
          Ahhhh, that is so COOL!!! Next time I play it, I am definitely going to check that out! I cannot believe I never noticed those book after so many replays.

          ANNND with that, I'm off to read your review!!! It is super busy right now with Christmas coming up, so if I don't get around to commenting on it quickly just know I most definitely will when I have time.
          Absolutely no worries! Things are crazy on my end as well, and I am struggling to try to finish these reviews before my self-imposed deadline of Christmas Day! I'm hoping I'm not being too ambitious, especially with all the decorating, cooking, baking, and shopping I need to get done, but I think things will progress a bit faster after I finish the GTH one. All that is to say that I completely understand and take your time on getting back to me!

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