Nancy's back once again, and this time she happens to be hunting down a mystery in my neck of the woods. In The White Wolf of Icicle Creek, Nancy is investigating some odd accidents at the Icicle Creek Lodge, a snowy wilderness resort set in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta, Canada. The lodge has been beset by a series of strange accidents that have scared away a number of guests. And adding to the headaches of its owner, Chantal, there is a strange white wolf stalking the resort as well. It appears that someone or something is intent on driving customers away from the Icicle Creek Lodge, and driving the lodge out of business in the process. Definitely a job for Nancy Drew.
The game starts with a bang! As you approach the lodge, you see a huge explosion. Someone has blown up the lodge's bunk house! Good thing no one was inside. Once inside, you find out Chantal has left to meet with her lawyers regarding the spate of recent accidents. So instead of meeting face to face, you get to chat via phone. Chantal decides, with a little bit of prompting from Nancy, to make you the new chamber maid and cook. Such fun duties, no? Fortunately, it also gives Nancy the freedom to snoop around, though cleaning the rooms and making meals quickly becomes tedious.
As with many older Nancy Drew games, you need to pay attention to what time it is in the game. This is especially important in Icicle Creek, as it takes place in a cold climate. This means that outdoor exploring can only be attempted during daylight hours when it is warm enough to emerge from the lodge. Otherwise, you could freeze to death, no lie. Also, as the maid and chef you have specific duties to complete during specified blocks of time. If you don't do things right, you could get fired for missing duties in the early stages of the game. So use the clock in your room to navigate through these time periods effectively.
Managing time and seeing to hotel duties is just one of the ways that puzzles are built into the game. Like other Nancy Drew games, Icicle Creek does a great job of integrating challenges into the game's environment and storyline. I found this to be especially true in this particular game. Previous games have suffered from an over-abundance of make-work projects that add time to gameplay, but shorten gamers' patience. Here you must perform your housekeeping tasks once or twice, but after that you can choose to do as much or as little as you wish. The option to begin ignoring them with no serious repercussions is certainly welcomed, though it's not immediately apparent that you can opt out without getting Nancy in trouble. Besides the chores, there are a good variety of puzzles in the game. Many have to do with items you find throughout the game, but there are also a couple of timed puzzles. My favourite challenge was a puzzle requiring you to unify the symbols on the face of a pyramid, which doesn't occur until the last segment of the game. Most of the puzzles are fairly easy to figure out with time and patience, and those familiar with the series should find the difficulty equivalent to previous games. I only became frustrated with the few whose timed elements made them difficult to complete in the time allotted.
There are six characters to interact with, all of whom seem to be hiding something. One is a world class biathlete known for his drive to do anything to win, which could have made him the target of jealous competitors. Another guest is a closet humanitarian who could be concealing some animal rights sympathies and seems intent on protecting the white wolf at all costs. There is also an artist who harbours a deep interest in palaeontology, and a visitor who ostentatiously claims to be there for ice fishing, though he may actually be fishing for something else entirely. Add to this group Ollie Randall, the cranky lodge overseer, and his eccentric daughter, and we have a typically diverse group of characters, all with potentially suspicious aspects to their stories.
There are quite a few improvements in this game over previous Nancy Drew offerings. All involve the game's interface. I like the fact that Her Interactive keeps refining things. They never make huge leaps from game to game, but they always seem to tinker and improve something with each successive title. And with 16 games on the shelf, they must be feeling like pros at it by now. The new interface includes menu icons to save, load, exit, and adjust settings from within the game. In previous titles you had to go to a separate screen for such options, but now you can do all these things right from the main game window. Your notebook, inventory and task list have also been turned into icons in the game window. This provides a much cleaner and user-friendly interface than the previous setup and gives you quicker access to everything.
The written dialogue presentation also got a tweak. Compared to previous games, where the dialogue box took up a huge section of space of the bottom screen, it has now been moved into a pop-up window to save space. The size of the text has been reduced quite significantly and may be hard to read for some. Finally, the clock has also been made smaller. Previously, it appeared as a pocket watch and you needed to click on it to see the time. Now the time is shown in a digital format, about a tenth the size that is used to be. It is always visible in the top right hand corner. No clicking, no confusion, no fuss.
These minor improvements aside, the game still comes with the same point-and-click, first-person interface we have experienced in previous games. Movement is still done from node to node, while the cursor indicates the directions you can go and changes to signal hotspots and objects that can be zoomed in on.
The background music in this game is so light that it is hardly noticeable. You now have the option to turn it down, unlike in previous games, although I doubt that you will need to since it's so unobtrusive. There are also some very subtle ambient sounds that blend in naturally.
While the soundtrack benefits from a light touch, the voice work in this game doesn't seem to be on par with previous games. One thing I have always noticed about the Nancy Drew games is how well they handle the voiceovers. While it is not grating to listen to in Icicle Creek, it just lacks the believability of earlier titles. Usually characters sound age-appropriate and pretty much what you would expect from them based on what you know about the character and their situation in the game. I didn't find that in this game. For instance, the character of Ollie had too much of a down home, gee shucks-sounding lilt, while the voice of his daughter, a child around the age of 12, was obviously voiced by someone three times the age and sounded like it. Fortunately, smoothing over the actors' rough edges is a well written dialogue. The conversations sound natural and unforced, and above all, believable. Nothing ruins dialogue like clichéd writing or hackneyed sayings, but there's little of that to spoil things here.
The graphics are virtually the same as in last year's Nancy Drew games. Having just finished an adventure with spectacular character modeling and luminous graphic design, playing this game with its static models and less complex graphics is a little bit like falling back to earth. I know these games don't try to compete in the visual arena, but it can be rough on the eyes to go from graphically bold games with all their rich details to The White Wolf of Icicle Creek, where pretty much the only extra detail included is a fire that flickers. Don't get me wrong, the graphics do what they are designed to do fine, and aren't inferior to other games in this series. They are just very utilitarian overall. They rarely allow for closeups of objects, the environments don't contain a lot of eye candy, and the character models don't include a whole lot of nuance.
At the end of the day, Nancy Drew: The White Wolf of Icicle Creek is everything we have come to expect from this series of games. It has nicely enmeshed puzzles peppered throughout the game, a number of quirky characters to interact with and a solidly written dialogue, even if some of the voice work delivering it is shaky this time around. The make-work projects are mostly optional, thankfully, though it's surprisingly unclear that this is the case, which may needlessly throw unsuspecting players off. In both content and presentation, we are not really getting anything out of the ordinary, for better or worse. With a few improvements in the interface, Her Interactive shows a diligence to keeping their venerable series moving forward, though really not in a significant way. The end result of The White Wolf of Icicle Creek, then, is another solid and safe, if certainly predictable, Nancy Drew adventure.