Despite the fact that she's been around for nearly 80 years now, Nancy Drew hasn't aged a bit. She's still a hip 18-year-old with a boyfriend named Ned, a devoted single father, and a remarkable knack for solving mysteries. The character has a timeless appeal, and the concept of creating adventure games around her is a natural fit. Unfortunately, Nancy Drew: The Mystery of the Clue Bender Society is an overly simple, tedious product that doesn't do the old girl proud by a long shot.
The game kicks off with Nancy Drew receiving a letter from a clandestine organization called the Clue Bender Society. The society is composed, the letter says, of some of the greatest intellects in the world, and Nancy is invited to take part in a test to see if she is worthy of joining their ranks. With the blessing of her very trusting father, she boards a ferry to visit this shadowy group at their mansion on a strange, puzzle-filled island. It's not long before a book containing secrets so powerful that they could threaten the fate of the world is stolen, and it's up to Nancy to find the tome and unmask the culprit. The tale the game tells, with its secret societies, ancient tomes, and mysterious disappearances, has all the makings of just the sort of story that Nancy Drew fans and amateur sleuths should love, and it's told in an effective comic book style.
It's a shame, then, that the game fails to both deliver on the potential of the story and build a compelling game around it. You maneuver Nancy Drew from place to place, picking up items and initiating conversations but rarely being significantly involved in anything. Nancy carries around a cell phone, a fingerprint analyzer, a suspect journal, and other objects you pick up throughout the game, but you never have to figure out the proper time or place to use anything, as Nancy does this automatically. Nor do you ever have to piece clues together and form your own conclusions about any aspect of the mystery, as Nancy takes care of all of this for you. Sure, she is the great Nancy Drew and she probably doesn't need any help, but the game would have been far more engrossing if it made you feel like you actually had some part in solving the mystery.
Instead, all the game ever asks of you, aside from walking Nancy to the next key location, is that you navigate the occasional very simple maze and play the occasional very simple minigame, typically to unlock doors or one of the numerous puzzle boxes Nancy encounters. The most common minigame involves moving some colored baskets to catch matching colored balls that slowly bounce down from the top of the screen. A few others pop up once or twice, but they're all equally simple, and the game really could have benefited from a wider variety of more interesting minigames. You'll also frequently take brief trips via snowmobile or boat. These trips are presented from an overhead view and have you moving left and right to avoid obstacles and stay on a designated path. There's no challenge to them, but they do serve to break up the adventure a little bit.
The game is aimed at younger players, and there's nothing inherently wrong with keeping a game relatively simple so that it's accessible to kids, but too much of Clue Bender Society's design mistakes tedium for simplicity. One thing the game gets right is that it clearly marks any object of interest, so there's never any of the obnoxious pixel-hunting that plagues some adventure games. However, because key items sometimes spontaneously appear in places you may have already visited, you might still find yourself scouring the mansion to see if some vital new clue or object has turned up. It would be one thing if the game gave you some hint that you may want to take a second look in a certain area, but items have a tendency to appear without any notice, and while the mansion isn't huge, wandering around it aimlessly isn't fun. Also, one of your central tasks involves manipulating four different consoles to open doors all over the mansion. Having to run around to four separate consoles instead of just one doesn't make this activity any more interesting or challenging--just more time-consuming.
Despite the time the game forces you to waste running around, Clue Bender Society is still extremely short. The first time through, it's unlikely to take you much longer than three hours. Although there's no incentive to play through it again, if you do play through it a second time, knowing where to go and what to do, it can be completed in significantly less time. Even given the game's budget price, there's just not enough to it to justify a purchase. It's also worth noting that performing certain actions will result in skipping a small but crucial section of the story, making the game a bit shorter still and causing Nancy to refer to clues she's never received and a meeting she's never had. Considering that the story is the best thing the game has going for it, it's too bad the game doesn't do a better job of keeping it straight.
The game's presentation is fine for the most part. Story sequences feature some terrific artwork that gives you a strong sense of the characters and really helps bring the story to life, though some of this artwork is overused during the course of the game. The static environments are nicely detailed, but could have used some movement to make them feel more alive. There's one jarringly bad aspect of the game's visuals, though. At one point, the game switches to an overhead view and you must stick to shadowy areas as you sneak Nancy past a few guards. Oddly, there's no walking animation for the guards. They simply hover back and forth as they patrol the area. The members of the Clue Bender Society may have access to some powerful secrets, but the secret to floating around isn't among them. The music suits the game well but repeats too frequently, and sound effects are kept to a minimum.
The Clue Bender Society doesn't feel so much like a game as it does a very short story through which you advance by performing a series of very basic actions. A simple game would have been fine for younger players and those just looking for an entertaining mystery, but players of all ages will still find the gameplay tiresome and be disappointed that the story wraps up so quickly. As for what happened to the fun that should have been included in this game, it's a mystery worthy of the great Nancy Drew.