Anybody who's been following the Nancy Drew games for at least a few years now will know that the Nancy Drew games declined in quality after "Last Train to Blue Moon Canyon". Gradually, the games have been working their quality back up and back down, until "Warnings at Waverly Academy" was released and took them almost straight up from there. After two awesome games which held the classic quality rather well ("Shadow at the Water's Edge" and "The Captive Curse"), I had a feeling that "Alibi in Ashes" would become one of the best Nancy Drew games of all time and also a very unique game in and of itself. After finally playing it, I would say that it's a very good game.
In "Alibi in Ashes", Nancy finds herself framed for the arson that destroyed the River Heights Town Hall. The game is very fast-paced with the plot, and the opening shows Nancy in some of the greatest danger she's ever faced while she's trapped in the burning building (it's super easy to die, even from the beginning). In most of the game, Nancy's held captive at the police station, but she is still a playable character and is able to sneak around and use some of the police equipment to help solve the case. Her friends Bess, George, and Ned handle questioning the suspects and obtaining materials used for solving the case. Can these four friends work together to clear Nancy's name before her undeserved bad reputation causes all of River Heights to loathe her for good?
While the plot isn't the strongest one presented, it's definitely very unique, and it's nice to see Nancy solving a high-profile crime again. One thing I missed about the classic games was the fact that the criminals seemed much more dangerous. Games 1 - 13 especially held onto this, as they used plot devices such as murder, death threats, theft, and kidnapping. While game 11 lacked nearly all of these in the plot, the culprit did still have a lot of motivation to do what he/she did and used some pretty ruthless tactics to attempt to achieve his/her goal (and having one game lacking high-profile crime among 13 is actually a refreshing change of pace). After game 13, the culprits generally focused more on vandalism and sabotage only. While types of vandalism and sabotage were in the classic games, the culprit usually had some kind of stronger motive to do what he/she did and would use more extreme tactics to accomplish their plans. The lone exceptions in the modern games were "Legend of the Crystal Skull", which brought back a murder mystery, and "The Phantom of Venice", which focused on a European theft ring. Several of the plots in both classic and modern games also focused on finding a lost treasure or document of some kind, and while those kinds of plots make good games, they do get repetitive after awhile. Thankfully, the previous three games (and now this one too) have lacked this, so it's getting to the point where another "treasure hunt" wouldn't be all that bad for a new addition.
The graphics in this game were a mixed bag. They weren't as strong as the graphics in some of the previous games, but they were still incredible. All of the scenery and backgrounds were beautifully done - Nancy's house was especially breathtaking. Overall, I really can't complain about the graphics in the scenery. Some of them are so realistic that they look like actual photographs.
The characters were typically very nicely rounded and well-animated too. Most of the cast members (especially the suspects) were much more smoothly animated in this game than most previous games, and several of them used very realistic body language. I felt the lone exception to this was George when she's seen by another character in Nancy's home, as I thought she looked a little too "cartoony" compared to everybody else, and much less realistic than she did in the previous games she appeared in. Bess and is also given a slightly different look - while she still looks pretty realistic, she definitely looks like she's lost weight and grown her hair out a little since she last appeared in "Shadow at the Water's Edge". However, Bess's changes *are* possible in real life, as people can gain/lose weight and change the length of their hair. Whether or not one prefers their old looks or their new looks will depend on the viewer's taste (personally, I prefer old, just because those are the looks I've come to know them by).
Game play in this game is also a somewhat mixed bag. Surprisingly, there weren't very many puzzles in the game. The few that were there were very nicely integrated, though. None of them were super hard, save maybe the last one. If you're tired of the crazy puzzle madness that most of the modern games have been guilty of, this one's definitely for you. However, if you're one who enjoys puzzles, or is looking for a good balance between the plot development and puzzles, you might be disappointed here. I personally thought having less puzzles was a bit a good thing, as solving puzzle after puzzle after puzzle in most of the previous installments did get old after awhile. Also - as there are fewer puzzles, the game is pretty short overall. Don't get me wrong - there are games that are far shorter, but this one is shorter than most. I finished the game in about 6-ish hours, and most of the games took me somewhere around 1 - 3 days on the first play. I didn't mind the short length, as the two games before it were pretty long for me, but some people might not care for the short length very much.
The overall lack of puzzles was made up for with the fact that the player uses *actual* police forensics. This game features true police forensics more so than any other Nancy Drew game before it. While assuming the roles of Nancy, Ned, Bess, and George, the player will dust for fingerprints, listen in on conversations, watch and listen to recordings of the suspects, analyze data about what could've caused the fire, and so much more.
The exploration is very nicely done, and while there aren't very many secret passageways and the like, there are still some cool places to explore, break into, and listen in on. I would definitely have liked to be able to explore just a little more, especially in Nancy's house (the foyer, the living room, an upstairs hallway, and her (completely re-decorated) bedroom are the only rooms in her house available for exploration). Other areas open for exploration are the police station, the local ice cream parlor, a news van, and an antique shop. All of them are very well-decorated and fit into the story, but I definitely wanted to see a little more of River Heights, especially since there are over 50 locations on the map. This is kind of like a "Secret of the Old Clock" move - lots of places on the map, but only a few can be explored.
This game features more playable characters than ever before. The player can assume the identities of Nancy, Bess, George, and Ned in order to solve the mystery. The four must work together to accomplish certain tasks, and all of them have their own special skills that come in handy. I really liked being able to play as so many characters for a change, especially as Ned, since I've wanted him to be playable for a long time now. Now, we can finally say that all of Nancy's regular friends (Ned, Bess, George, and Frank and Joe Hardy (of Hardy Boys fame are all playable characters in the Nancy Drew series.
Every friend has his or her own strengths and weaknesses, and each one must be used in order to solve the mystery. While there are tasks that any of them can complete, a few of them require a certain character. Likewise, the responses that some of the suspects have to certain questions very well depend on which playable character they are conversing with. For example, Alexei will refuse to talk to Bess, because she accidentally breaks a priceless artifact of his while visiting his shop. Deirdre has a huge dislike of Nancy, Bess, and George, so she'll be more catty and less open with them, but she's always willing to flirt up Ned and tell him what she knows. This was a very tasteful touch, as it made the game more realistic. People generally respond differently to different people in real life too.
My sole complaint about the character switching would be that in order to switch from character to character, the character being played as must call Nancy back, and then have Nancy pass the case to a different character. For example, if the player wants to switch over to George while playing as Ned, Ned must call Nancy and tell her that he's passing the case on to her. Then, the player will be Nancy, and Nancy must call George and pass the case to her. It would've been a lot easier and more practical if Ned were able to call George directly from his phone and pass the case to her himself (the other characters can call each other on their own phones, but they cannot pass the case like Nancy can).
Lastly, regards to game controls - if you're worried about any third person in this game, worry no more! Thankfully, this game is just about entirely in first person. While we do see characters driving their cars, we do not control their driving at all. We just click on the desired destination on the map, and the character will automatically drive there. Think along the lines of "Ghost Dogs of Moon Lake" or "Danger on Deception Island". While Nancy did have to operate the boat and bicycle (respectively) in these games, the player didn't have to actually *control* her from the air while doing it.
The characters in the game are very well-developed, and none of them felt out of place what so ever. Everybody had a very vital part in the storyline, including the supporting characters that were not suspects or playable.
There are four suspects in this game: Brenda Carlton, Deirdre Shannon, Alexei Markovic, and Antonia "Toni" Scallari. Brenda is a crime reporter for the Heights Nine News Team, who is known for using extreme tactics to "spice up" her stories in the past. Deirdre is a spoiled rich girl around Nancy's age whose father is commonly trying to motivate her to be a good helper like Nancy; as such, she's typically at Nancy's throat for all Nancy has (especially Ned). Alexei is a slightly eccentric old man who owns an antique shop in River Heights, and has a very dark and disturbing past regarding his reputation with the town. Toni Scallari is a woman running for the city council while maintaining her own ice cream parlor; she is delightful to converse with, but is oddly defensive about the idea that Nancy might really be guilty of the crime.
The suspects in this game are *all* very well-developed. None of them had motives or actions that I thought were left unanswered, and all of them had a very solid reason to do this to Nancy. However, unlike the vast majority of the modern games, the culprit in this game is not obvious from the beginning. Instead, the case is slowly unraveled, and the most suspicious suspect always changes until the big revelation in the end. There were times when I even wondered if Chief McGinnis could've been involved, or possibly a culprit from a previous game back for to get revenge. I loved finally having a case in which I didn't have a strong feeling that one specific suspect was guilty from almost the beginning, only to find out that my suspicion was correct. This is truly a remarkable feature that the classic games have held almost exclusively.
In addition to these suspects, a large number of supporting characters and allies of Nancy play a role in the game. Chief McGinnis is a prominent character, as he is the police chief of River Heights who keeps Nancy in custody until her innocence is proven. Carson Drew (Nancy's dad) finally makes a second appearance as a phone friend, and he does all he can to help Nancy get out of prison. I *LOVED* having him along again, as he hadn't made an appearance since "Secret of the Old Clock". Hannah does not make an appearance, but she is mentioned a number of times and sends Nancy a package. As stated before, Bess, George, and Ned are major characters in the game, and I thought working with them as well as being able to talk to Carson and Chief McGinnis were truly the high points of this game. There wasn't a useless character in the bunch.
Unfortunately, the soundtrack doesn't have anything remarkable. However, it doesn't have anything that's annoying. All of the music fits well into the game, and none of it's ever a bore or annoyance to listen to. It's just that none of the songs are necessarily very memorable, like the soundtracks of some of the previous games. There are also songs that remind me of other songs. For example, I thought the music heard in Nancy's house sounded kind of like a mix between the music heard in Aunt Eloise's house in "Secrets Can Kill" and the music exploring the farmhouse in "Trial of the Twister". But hey, since it kind of seems like the producers were going for a "greatest hits" feel by making references to every single Nancy Drew game before "Alibi in Ashes" being present in the game, maybe this is what they were going for. Regardless, the songs were still nicely organized and fit the game. Overall, it's a decent soundtrack.
So, is "Alibi in Ashes" a perfect game? No, it's not. But, is it a remarkable game? Some would say otherwise, but I'd say so. The fact that this installment makes *so* many references to all of the past games makes it truly feel like the milestone it is. Nancy's finally gotten to game 25, and she's also gotten her games back to the quality the classics held. I can definitely tell that the producers put a lot of work into this game, and despite a few setbacks, I had lots of fun. "Alibi in Ashes" is probably one of those games that the player will either love or hate. If you want my advice, I'd recommend taking both the positive and negative aspects I've stated into account, and then decide whether it's worth your time and money based on your own personal preferences. I doubt this is a game *everybody* is going to enjoy, but I personally love it. Happy sleuthing!