Growing up, I loved reading Choose Your Own Adventure books. The ability to actually make a series of choices based on what you would do and read the results of your actions in the story was hugely appealing… in fact, for me it is still hugely appealing. It is for that reason that when I heard about a new Nancy Drew "GameBook" coming to the iPhone I knew I had to review it.
Titled Nancy Drew Mobile Mysteries: Shadow Ranch (not to be confused with the full-on PC game of The Secret of Shadow Ranch), this is the first in a series of Nancy Drew mobile titles due to be released. As the genre, GameBook, would lead you to believe, it is something of a cross between a game and a book, a jack of all trades if you will. And, like a jack of all trades, it is a master of none. Those who just want to read the full story will be disappointed at having to stop and play hidden object and word games, those who want to play games will be disappointed at their repetitiveness, and those who want a little bit of gaming but to mostly choose their own adventure will be disappointed at the illusion of choice they are actually offered instead of getting real, substantive decision-making ability throughout.
Shadow Ranch is organized, more or less, in book format. After loading the title and connecting to GameCenter, you enter your name (so the title can keep track of who is playing and where they are) and then you're taken to the table of contents. The "book" is divided into eight chapters, with only the first unlocked at the outset – you have to "play" through each chapter before the next one is available. The story itself is pretty standard fare for this type of mystery – Nancy is invited by her friends to join them at a dude ranch where there are strange goings-on. It falls to Nancy, naturally, to figure out what's going on and save the ranch.
As you read each chapter, you'll find a ton of clickable words and pictures; some make sounds, some are special hidden objects, and some bring up the definition of the word. How exactly the words are hidden if they're made a different color from the rest of the text isn't quite explained, but the game does let you know that you've found a hidden word when you click on those. If you collect enough of these hidden words in each chapter, you open a special post-chapter story, each of which essentially amounts to an aside from the main title.
Fine, highlighted hidden words aside, the bigger problem with the game is the fact that it really seems to only present an illusion of choice in your options. On a regular basis the game will ask you whether you wish to do A, B, or C. Sometimes what you should do is clear – Nancy would of course go fetch firewood when needed and if you want 100% completion in the game you're obviously going to have to fetch it as well. Sometimes the answers are less obvious – does it matter at all whether Nancy goes stargazing or down to the water or to check out a cave? And then sometimes the answer is (briefly) important but you can't possibly know what the right choice is – do you help your friend facing the deadly snake or run away and get help?
Now, most of those types of questions (save the getting firewood stuff) are perfectly fine for the game to ask provided that they make any sort of difference as you're reading the book. They don't. Yes, you'll probably have to go back and make the other choices later if you want to find all the hidden words, but the outcome of the story isn't really affected by what you choose – it can't be in a chapter book because the story needs to progress you to each (already written) subsequent chapter and if it lets you go to far astray those chapters could become meaningless. There are absolutely wrong choices that can be made, but after reading another page or two the game quickly redirects you, offering the choice again with your previously selected option marked in a different color so that you're not foolish enough to travel down that path once more. (but if you do, not to worry, you'll get the same choice again in another minute). Make decisions that result in harm to yourself or a good guy and after getting a brief "ending" to the story, you're sent back a little in the book and given the opportunity to make the right choice.
The end result of this is that you feel frustratingly locked in to what the GameBook wants you to do – it knows where it wants you to go and will only briefly pretend that you have any other choice. So then, why call it any sort of game at all? Is it because of the hidden object puzzles? Is it the brief word puzzles you get once you find the "hidden" words? The answer is that Shadow Ranch is a hybrid, but it really fails to work as either a book or a game and that can be seen on more than just the game side of things.
The title lacks certainly aspects which are crucially important to any sort of book – be it of the "e" variety or not. Chief among these is the ability to flip pages. While you can always progress forward in the story, after making a decision (no matter how irrelevant the decision), you cannot go back and make the decision again without restarting the chapter from the beginning. This means that if you're two-thirds of the way through a chapter, have made a half-dozen (meaningless) choices to that point, and for some reason dislike what you did on the seventh choice, you need to go back to the beginning of the chapter and spend a decent amount of time to flip through each individual "page" in order to get back to that moment you were at two seconds earlier.
It gets worse than that however. These hidden words unlock mini-game "collectible challenges." If the word you find is "hematite," you can then go back to the table of contents, click on the most recently found word and enter the mini-game, which has you make new words out of the letters in the hidden word (from hematite you can make time, mate, team, etc.). Finish the mini-game and you're kicked back out to the table of contents. If at that moment you click back on the chapter you were just reading you've made a massive mistake.
See, if you click on the chapter you were reading, you go back to the beginning of the chapter and (as noted) then have to go through every page and choice all over again. What you were supposed to do is click on the far-smaller-than-the-chapter-button-resume-story button. Of course, unlike many an ebook reader, Shadow Ranch doesn't keep track of the furthest point to which you've gotten, so once you clicked on the chapter instead of resume story, going back out to the table of contents and using the resume story button then will just bring you back to the most recent point read (i.e., the beginning of the chapter you just clicked on) rather than the furthest point read (the spot where you clicked "hematite"). The word "frustrating" and any word I can derive from frustrating doesn't begin to describe the experience when you're forced to scroll through page after page you've already read and are forced to choose again between the same options which make little to no difference whatsoever in what's going on in the story.
I can definitely foresee ways in which the Nancy Drew Mobile Mysteries series can become a great source of pleasure for those who want reading with their games or games with their reading. As the series progresses hopefully HER Interactive and Riptide Games are able to refine and expand upon what they've done here in Shadow Ranch. The idea behind this is really a good one, but this particular title is not ready for primetime.
Nancy Drew Mobile Mysteries: Shadow Ranch has no ESRB rating.
Article first published as iPhone Game Review: Nancy Drew Mobile Mysteries: Shadow Ranch on Blogcritics.