The Carmen Sandiego series was a staple of 90's adventure and puzzle-solving gaming, so the chance to return to those heady days on the DS was one we didn't want to miss. Unfortunately, while the new iteration preserves some aspects of the PC originals, it fails to maintain the charm that was the most notable characteristic of the series. The characters are not engaging and the dialogue dull, with some occasional sexual innuendo that seems wildly out of place in a game aimed at children. This is compounded by the various characters feeling very close to racial caricatures, both of which undercut the attempts to position the game as semi-educational.
The graphics are clean and clear, but they lack flair. Everything looks nice enough, presented in classic Carmen Sandiego style, with good delineation between background and foreground objects. Characters stand out from pretty backgrounds in what is essentially the exact same visual style of the original games, as well as the cartoons some readers may fondly remember. Everything looks exactly as you'd expect in a puzzle game for kids — which makes the more "adult" dialogue stand out even more.
In previous Carmen Sandiego games, the integration of the information about the places and people you meet in the game with the puzzles was a fairly important part of the gameplay, but here it just feels tacked on, more like an afterthought than a genuine attempt to include an educational aspect. In fact, there's almost no reason to read any of the tiny amounts of text describing where you're headed.
We might have been a little less concerned about this if the core game wasn't so weak. There aren't all that many puzzles in the game and the only challenging ones are those that require trial and error because you aren't given enough information. This is compounded by the puzzles being uninteresting, mostly consisting of stabbing the stylus at every object on the screen until you access them in the order the game wants you to. This ranges from trying to work out which book on a shelf is the correct one to tapping every item in a lab in a desperate attempt to determine which ones have been arbitrarily set as usable.
The notable exception is the fingerprint collection mini-game, which involves using the stylus as a brush to spread dust on a surface then blowing the dust off, by blowing into the microphone. Unfortunately, you only do this once, and none of the subsequent investigations include anything that has the same degree of simple fun.
The use of the DS's external hardware is otherwise unremarkable, continuing the obligatory use of the second screen, which feels forced, while the buttons have no role in the actual gameplay, leaving the stylus to do all the work. This is a sensible choice, in that point-and-click has always been the style of the Carmen Sandiego games, but given how little goes on in the game, some use of the other controls might have livened up the experience.
The issue of the dialogue being age-inappropriate really permeates the whole game. While clearly aimed at a younger audience in terms of the rather low difficulty, the dialogue and instructions don't really lend themselves to a children's game. The clunky back and forth that passes as witty repartee is of a notably adult tone, though not a very clever one. It becomes a little difficult to tell what demographic the game targets — the simplicity of the challenges suggests a young audience, but the content seems more "young adult". Usually our litmus test is to give the game to a child and get their response, but we weren't sure that the content was all that appropriate, despite the game's "General" rating, so we decided to use a teenager as the lab rat and were unsurprised to be given the game back, sans DS, while they kept themselves better entertained via the console's in-built camera.
Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? is a frustrating game because while nothing is actually bad (though a few elements do come close) the whole package feels overwhelmingly mediocre. While it isn't really terrible, it's unimaginative, dull and unsatisfying.