Well, well, well. Of all the detectives in all the world, she came to me. She was a dame with hair red as communion wine spilled by a bishop looking at a nun’s cleava- oh what, wait, she’s how old? Christ, Philip, get your head out of the gutter for once, this is a family website. I was previously a snob about the Nancy Drew point and click puzzle games, and then came to regret it when a fan of them (very nicely) emailed me explaining they’re actually really good. We’re going to find out for ourselves by playing them. There are north of 30 in total, and I will update the rankings at the end of each article.
The first is 1998’s Nancy Drew: Secrets Can Kill, in which Nancy solves the murder of a Floridian highschooler named Jake Roberts, and there’s a lot to love about it right away. There’s a restrained cast, three locations in total, and the school sports team is called the Fighting Manatees. Thus the icon for the game is a lil’ cartoon manatee – and to be absolutely accurate, this is the remastered version of the game from 2010, not the original 90s version. I’m as disappointed as you.
Inherent to a book series like Nancy Drew is the plot doing a backflip early on to get into a position where a teenager is intimately involved in a murder. In the case of Secrets Can Kill, Nancy has actually been recruited by the cops! The reasoning for this flagrant breach of due process is that a) Nancy’s aunt Eloise is the school librarian, and b) I guess nineteen-year-old Nancy is more believable as a high school student than a middle aged detective. Still, though, it has literally been a week since Jake was bad-murdered, so you’d have thought the cops would have some conventional avenues of detection left to go down before drafting in an out-of-state adolescent. I do, however, like the peppy letter Nancy sends to her dad by way of exposition, which establishes her as already a detective. Like, yeah, it’s 1998! We don’t need to be told who Nancy Drew is, or see her getting bitten by a spider with a magnifying glass.
Before we go any further, let me introduce you to our very small cast.
- Nancy Drew – of course, a peppy 18-year-old citizen detective, and our playable point-of-view character from now on.
- Jake Rogers – the victim. He was beaten up and pushed down the stairs at school. Everyone hated him.
- Hal Tanaka – a Japanese exchange student whose family are pressuring him to get a full scholarship to a good school.
- Hector “Hulk” Sanchez – the jock, a star football player who hopes to get an atheltic scholarship to join the meatgrinder that is college football.
- Connie Watson – a hall monitor who spends all her time sitting in front of the teachers’ lounge, stopping you from getting in the teachers’ lounge.
- Daryl Gray – the rich kid, now curiously working in the local diner. Connie dumped him to go to the Sadie Hawkins dance with Jake.
There’s also Mitch Dillon, who services the school boiler and basically doesn’t appear, and Uncle Steve who is actually your cop contact, and who e.g. refuses to give you the code to Jake’s locker. Oh what, suddenly that’s a step too far, Steve?
On that note, I have to say I was utterly charmed by the school, which has rows of lockers, a study area, and a huge library. There are books in there that both are and are not relevant to the case, which is a cool amount of effort to go to. My most favouritest thing is the pictures for the art competition, which are authentic, school-art-class-looking efforts, and I wondered if the team made them or got them from actual high school art classes, because they’re great. There are lots of little detail surprises around the school, like the set dressing posters and club announcements on the noteboards around the place all feeling like real things. There are loads of little surprises if you pay attention.
One of the more obvious surprises to me was the voice acting! Secrets Can Kill’s haunted 3D puppets are fully voiced, with Nancy having a kind of husky depth to her voice, as if the stress of being a teen detective has driven her to a pack of fags a day. Connie in particular really sells her increasing suspicion of our Nance, who has just moved to the town but keeps rocking up with questions about the murder every five minutes. Some lines are delivered with a weird tone of surprise, but all the characters are pretty indifferent to the recent murder – one even says Jake was just unlucky – which is how you know Jake was massively unpopular. It doesn’t take long for you to intuit that Jake was blackmailing everyone, even without solving any puzzles.
The puzzles are pleasingly complex, too. The 90s were the halcyon days of not getting any help, and Nancy doesn’t narrate what she should do next out loud. It’s up to you to put together that if, for example, Hal mentions that Hulk had a recent sports injury, you should probably go and ask Hulk about it. The most in-depth puzzling is a load of secret messages that are hidden on the school notice boards, many written backwards or in code, which reveal hints about checking library books, things like that. It’s the sort of game that had me writing things down in a real life notebook, something that we praise Sam Barlow for today as a great innovation! How short memory is. Some puzzles make no sense (knowing to check an encyclopedia for the kanji for crane requires some intuitive leaps), but all in all the depth of the puzzles is what stretches the run time to four-ish hours. There’s even a bit where a boiler is about to explode, and it’s way easier to survive if you found some bolt cutters in the diner – but they’re also entirely optional! Nice!
Similarly, the beats about academic and financial pressure aren’t what I was expecting. There’s a subplot about a masked martial arts master secretly winning tournaments that genuinely took me by surprise. These issues aren’t given the depth that they would be in, I dunno, a 12-hour indie game dedicated to them, and Hal’s story definitely leans into a stereotype, so that’s far from ideal. But I wasn’t really expecting to see these sorts of issues come up at all, so some points for effort there.
Unfortunately, while I didn’t encounter any problems with the static pointing and clicking around the halls of the school aside from it being a bit clunky – even working on Steam Deck – I did have to resort to using a guide. It turned out that Secrets Can Kill bugged out on me, and didn’t trigger a dialogue option that in turn should have triggered a threatening note. Alas, I had to watch the end on a YouTube let’s play, and it was simplistic and obvious and didn’t make best use of the cast. A disappointment on two counts, there. Still, Secrets Can Kill has given us a solid starting point for the rest of this Case Rankings series. I’m interested to see how Nancy’s personality evolves as we go.
- Secrets Can Kill (1998)
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