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Nancy Drew: Message In A Haunted Mansion traps you in a ridiculous hotel with an alarm clock for a best mate

The third in the Nancy Drew series doesn't deliver on the promised haunting and is my least favourite so far

Rose talking to Nancy about rennovations in Nancy Drew: Message In A Haunted Mansion
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Her Interactive

It's been a while, but I'm finally back on the Nancy Drew mystery game train. Choo choo, next stop: San Francisco! This has pleasing synergy with my real life, because I'm currently watching through Monk, a popular detective show also set in San Francisco. Mr. Monk would be displeased by the house Nancy finds herself in this time, which is a mansion being converted into a B&B. The owner, Rose, is working on a shoestring budget and has decided that the best player to add to her renovation team is a young-adult woman who's a friend of a friend. It all makes sense!

Nancy Drew: Message In A Haunted Mansion is the third game in the Nancy Drew mystery series of puzzle games, and boy does the weird first-person fixed camera work against you here. It's also a more disappointing plot than the previous games, but it adds in a new time system that, much like Stay Tuned For Danger, is an ambitious move - and in this case I think it sort of works. It's a mixed bag, is what I'm saying.

First, the cast list:
  • Nancy Drew - sort of not a detective really, is she, just kind of freelancing as a painter and decorator this time?
  • Rose Gruen - the owner of the mansion under renovation, and is friends with Nancy's housekeeper, which is how Nancy has ended up here. I consider this to make no sense, but I guess that's how cash-in-hand employment works. Notably terrible voice acting, like the actor read the script for the first time as she was saying it out loud into a mic.
  • Abby Sideris - is the co-owner of the mansion and is obsessed with the supernatural. Her room is a maximalist mess and she does seances. Honestly the most sensible person present.
  • Charlie Murphy - an inexperienced handyman (seriously, Rose?) who is mostly painting the same small piece of wood in the basement. He has the vibe of like, if porn had extras - he's a plucky young man here to fix your pipes, ma'am, but he's not actually competent enough to be allowed near the real action.
  • Louis Chandler - smarmy antiques dealer who is hanging around for unclear reasons, but may as well have "It's me, I am the villain, I did it" tattooed on his forehead. It's so obvious that I don't even consider saying this to be a spoiler.

You can also ring your friends Bess and George to get a hint on what to do next, or a local journalist you know who exposition dumps (and for some reason sends you a letter at one point), but they don't really count as people. In terms of boots on the ground characters, this is a much more restrained list than Stay Tuned For Danger, and it's all the better for it.

Confronting Abby that she's faked hauntings in Nancy Drew: Message In A Haunted Mansion
A secret door opened in a library bookshelf in Nancy Drew: Message In A Haunted Mansion
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Her Interactive

I've maybe buried the lede on what Nancy is up to here. She's around to help with the renovation, sure, but more specifically there have been a bunch of accidents on site that Rose is concerned about, and as a player your raison détecter is: what's up with those accidents? The answer will present itself extremely quickly in the form of some secret, possibly bootleggery hints about treasure, and Abby functions (in concert with the presupposed haunted status of the title, which doesn't even make sense, but I won't rant about that or it'll take up the entire article) as a red herring for the fake hauntings.

It's a bit of a shame, because by the time you start hearing spooky laughter or mysterious shapes disappearing round the corner, you've already debunked ghosts as a factor. The story behind the hidden treasure is actually quite sweet, but the letters are all hand-written and hard to decipher, so it's a time that this game could have benefited from Nancy going full Aloy and narrating how nice the love story at the heart of it all was.

You spend most of your time running between rooms to cross-reference how to play notes on a piano, or write down Chinese words, in service of puzzles that range between extremely finnicky jigsaws to intelligent exploration. I liked a bunch of them and hated a bunch of others, especially one involving a safe lock. That's par for the course. I was shocked that, despite the size of the building being smaller than previous games, I got lost and accidentally spun in circles - because of the weird fixed camera angle thing - more often. It's particularly disorientating in the hotel, because the aggressively neutral hallways of hotels are tough to navigate in actual real life, let alone a video game with click-to-reorient-camera controls.

A diary entry in cursive handwriting in Nancy Drew: Message In A Haunted Mansion
Ah yes, everything is now clear from reading this very legible document | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Her Interactive

The B&B itself is also a hilarious collision of influences and decor styles, the likes of which you would probably only see on a 90s episode of Changing Rooms. People keep saying that it might have been a hotel at one point, but there aren't any records of that time, despite the fact that during your investigation you find many records of that time mentioning that it used to be a hotel, one of them in a book in the selfsame building's library. Also, there is a bar in the basement. Which doesn't seem usual for a regular home that was not a hotel.

Sudden Timed Life-Or-Death Situation
After you've done enough poking around - including having a seance and bypassing someone's computer password by playing a 3D maze game. A note is pushed under Nancy's door telling her to leave. You go downstairs, but find that a small fire has been set in a box in the living room, and must, therefore, source a fire extinguisher (which is kept in a silly place). As Sudden Timed Life-Or-Death Situations go, it's a step down from an IED in a tape player. It's not even really aimed at our Nance.

The reduced scope of Haunted Mansion vs. Stay Tuned does work in its favour as you try to get around. There are no secondary locations, and you're just tooling around the place. There's also an alarm clock in your room that functions as a skip time ability, allowing you to trigger the next cardinal story simply by going to sleep, or wait until Abby has gone out to go through all her weird crystals in her room. I was surprised that the timing system worked so well, and that I didn't get annoyed by it. I loved that alarm clock, dammit.

The more manageable scope helps with the other, more 90s restrictions of the game. I did have to consult a walkthrough again, because these games are hard as nails by today's standards, and sometimes you have to talk to someone, go to sleep for a bit, and then talk to them again to trigger the next event. Doors or chests you've previously unlocked must still be manually unlocked every single time you want to open them, there's still no autosave, and you can still insta-fail at a few rare points. You do have a kind of quest log this time, though! Although it's a briefly updated notebook you keep in your suitcase in your room. You must manually unlock the suitcase every time, of course.

So we can see that Message In A Haunted Mansion is making moves towards the future by giving you your inaccessible notebook (which was useful to me exactly once), and taking the day/night cycle of Stay Tuned and making it a full 24-hour cycle. But when you factor in the reused and extremely obvious plot elements, it smacks a bit of polishing a proverbial. Not a turd, because it's not terrible, but Haunted Mansion is definitely my least favourite so far. But that's okay, because we still have loads of these to go.

Case Rankings

  1. Secrets Can Kill (1998) (-)
  2. Stay Tuned For Danger (1999) (-)
  3. Message In A Haunted Mansion (2000) (New entry)

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