Nancy Drew: Midnight in Salem

A Lesson in High Expectations

Nancy Drew: Midnight in Salem

Anissa Peoples, Staff Reporter

For many years, the Nancy Drew books and computer games have captured the hearts of mystery lovers everywhere. Beginning with the release of “Secrets Can Kill,” in November of 1998, Her Interactive released a new Nancy Drew point-and-click mystery game nearly biannually until 2015, when they disappeared without any explanation. In Dec. 2019, nearly five years later, the long-awaited 33rd installment, named Midnight in Salem, finally released.

Midnight in Salem was highly controversial in the Nancy Drew enthusiast community long before its official announcement. During the five-year drought, Her Interactive faced major internal upheaval and several new CEOs as they looked for funding for the company. Most of the staff was laid off, including the voice actress for Nancy from the previous 32 games. The initial reviews were just as controversial as the behind-the-scenes news. The games had upgraded to the Unity engine and added 3D character models to upgrade from the only-seemingly 3D ones of the past. Some players adored the game, while others deeply hated it. So, I decided to get my hands on it and try it out. Here’s what I found.

 

Story

In Midnight in Salem, players step into the shoes of Nancy Drew, a well-known detective, as she is in Austria at Moosham Castle, retrieving a book relating to the Salem Witch Trials as a favor for her father. While she’s there, the book is stolen and she receives a call from her rival, Deirdre Shannon. Deirdre is in Salem and needs Nancy’s help to solve a mystery—her cousin, Mei Parry, was accused of arson and is about to be wrongfully convicted. Along the way, Nancy teams up with the Hardy Boys, Frank and Joe, to solve not only the arson case, but the book theft and debunks some ghost stories. Needless to say, Nancy’s pretty busy.

From a game standpoint, the best part of Midnight in Salem, by far, was the story. It was mostly believable, engaging, and overall enjoyable. While the serendipity that all three major events in the story were linked, despite one taking place in Austria, was a little bit of a stretch for belief, it was still believable enough to keep from jarring me out of the immersion. The history that came along with the fiction, a common theme for Nancy Drew games, was sprinkled in well enough that I didn’t feel like I was playing a history book, while still grounding me in the “real world” enough to help me delve in and immerse myself in the game.

Story score: 9/10

 

Gameplay

Overall, the gameplay was mechanically clunky. The game introduced a new movement control method, where players held down the right mouse button and could drag to look around. Once I inverted the drag controls, it was bearable, but the sensitivity was incredibly high and occasionally made me nauseous. As for the traditional point-and-click walking fans, the areas we point-and-clicked were nonsensical. Several times I’d want to turn to Nancy’s left, to investigate, and it would do a full 180-degree turn and refuse to let me look there. Other times, I wanted to turn, say, 90 degrees, but the game would turn 20 degrees upon clicking. The inconsistency was infuriating.

A popular selling point of the series is also the puzzles. Midnight in Salem had only a handful of puzzles, relying on conversation with the game’s cast to advance the story. The most solid of the puzzles was toward the end of the game. Players had to arrange drawers into a large box, but the drawers were like puzzle pieces and had different shaped notches sticking out or holes where the notch for another drawer would fit. The puzzle worked exactly as intended, with no major issues, and was genuinely enjoyable to do even though I solved it pretty much the first try.

However, one puzzle stood out in a very bad way. Another key part of Midnight in Salem is the player stepping into the shoes of another detective, Frank Hardy, half of the Hardy Boys detective duo. Frank and his brother Joe are tasked with finding any evidence of paranormal activity in the city graveyard. Using an EMF detector, the player walks around and looks for “cold spots,” where the detector goes off and shows a red sound wave. Players use dials on the detector to match a green sound wave to the red one. The dials were incredibly difficult to use, had an uncomfortably loud sound associated with moving them, and required pin-point accuracy to prevent ruining all of the progress players manage to make before their hand cramps. On top of being overall impossible mechanically, the requirement to “pass” the puzzle was extremely restrictive, requiring players to match the waves down to the literal pixel. The worst part of all, players are required to solve these puzzles three times before they can advance the story. I find myself to be a patient gamer, I’ve spent 7 hours on one raid checkpoint before, but I was so frustrated by this puzzle that I had to get up and walk away for a minute before I became more angry. After somewhere between half an hour and 45 minutes, I managed to finish it, but found myself questioning if the rest of the game is worth playing. Despite questioning myself, I pressed on. No puzzle came close to the frustration level of the EMF detector, but it did lead to me playing in two sittings instead of one simply because my hand hurt too bad to continue.

Gameplay score: 6.5/10

 

Visuals

After playing the 32nd game in the Nancy Drew franchise, Sea of Darkness, I had high hopes for the visuals in Midnight in Salem. Not only did the team have a newer engine to work with, they’d had nearly ten times the time to perfect the visuals comparatively. Those hopes were very quickly put into place, though. The environment art was pretty close to what I expected, detailed and visually appealing. The lighting wasn’t as dynamic compared to Sea of Darkness, but it wasn’t causing me to be jarred out of immersion.

Unfortunately, the game fell flat when it came to the visual quality of the characters. Returning to the Sea of Darkness image I had in mind, I booted Midnight in Salem expecting the same level of character detail, if not more. I hoped for the same level of visual skin details, like freckles and shading, or even something as small as shirt details. For a large majority of the game, with the exception of Mei Parry’s leggings and a couple jackets, the game truly looked worse than some of Her Interactive’s games from the early 2000’s. Characters had no skin detail, very little clothing wasn’t just a plain shirt, even the hair looked like a solid block instead of, well, hair. On top of an overall lack of detail of the characters’ design, their movements were clunky, nonsensical or out of sync. On several occasions I noticed that the characters’ mouths weren’t moving correctly with the words that they were saying. Similarly, the characters would make jerky movements that weren’t natural whatsoever. At one point I said aloud, “Why is she shrugging so much?” Overall, the environment may have saved the game from being a complete graphic disaster, but only narrowly.

Dagny Silva from Nancy Drew: Sea of Darkness
Deirdre Shannon from Nancy Drew: Midnight in Salem

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Visuals score: 5.5/10

 

All in all, the game wasn’t the worst I’ve played. The story by far carries the overall score, but the environmental art was pretty good too. At the end of the first 32 Nancy Drew games, Her Interactive gave a sneak peek at the next installment to the franchise. To my personal shock, Midnight in Salem did not. Will we get another adventure with Nancy? Only time will tell. Hopefully if we do, Her Interactive will figure out how to visually design characters and create puzzles again.

Overall score: 7/10