The Dame Wore Ruby Slippers
February 26, 2009
When I first saw the previews for Emerald City Confidential, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I’m a dedicated fan of adventure games, and I’ve enjoyed all of Dave Gilbert’s recent titles, but Emerald City Confidential seemed like a major departure from his previous works. Partly, this was because the game departed from the budding Blackwell series, instead featuring a new take on L. Frank Baum’s Oz universe, an endeavor that has previously met with varied degrees of success. However, I was also unsure of how the game’s status as an avowedly “casual” title would affect the mechanics of play. While some adventure games feature puzzles with solutions that are downright Byzantine, most adventure games can be controlled with leisurely clicks of the mouse; there isn’t much to simplify for the casual gamer. Thankfully, the title proved a pleasant surprise on both accounts, and should appeal to fans and neophytes of both the Oz mythos and games alike.
Part of my initial unease stemmed from the recent and largely regrettable trend of revisiting children’s fare for adult consumption, from Transfomers to the destined-to-be-awful Land of the Lost. However, a few gems have been mined from this nostalgic dross, particularly when writers have adopted a truly adult (in the mature sense) perspective on their source material, such as in the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica. Emerald City Confidential gains relevance by channeling a similarly creative spirit, peering into the world of Oz through the lens of film noir.
The Oz of Emerald City Confidential remains glamorous from a distance, but it is populated by characters that twist the originals in clever and anarchic ways. The Tin Man has gained a heart, only to have it broken and slowly washed away in drink; the Scarecrow may have the best brain in the land, yet his acumen has turned him into a walking koan; the Lion has gained courage, but uses it to profit from the unscrupulous pursuit of contract law. Thrust into the shoes of Petra, the Emerald City’s only private detective, the player gets to see the world of Oz as a land of considerable intrigue, and the plot is shot through with allusions to some of the more arcane bits of Ozian lore. Given that the canon of Oz titles make the collected works of J. K. Rowling look laconic by comparison, this was no easy task.
The game’s graphics illustrate the action with an almost uncanny resemblance to a picture-book. John Green‘s backgrounds feature lush illustration, replete with vibrant colors well-suited to the fantastic climes of Oz. And the animation, courtesy of courtesy of Utah-based Flash Potatoes, is generally quite fluid and imaginative throughout. The music, by Blackwell veteran Thomas Regin, also meshes well with the changing locales, providing a solid tempo of intrigue throughout the game.
The dialogue throughout is so sharp, clever, and full of verve that you may find yourself ready for a second play-through as soon as you finish. The relevant bits of backstory are woven well into the conversation, and outright exposition is kept to a minimum (although reams of additional information about the history of Oz are made available to the interested player). The voice acting is top-notch, and it plays well with the characters’ winking, often charmingly self-conscious humor. A late-game dialogue with the Lion about the finer points of Ozian international relations is so funny that it merits playing the game by itself.
As for the game’s avowedly “casual” gameplay, the elements that make it accessible to a wider audience don’t detract from the title’s depth. While hardcore adventure game fans may be a little disappointed by the lack of puzzles with tear-out-your-hair difficulty, they will also find an extremely streamlined interface that puts the focus on advancing the story and thinking about the puzzles themselves, rather than worrying about finding details in stray pixels and demystifying whether items require you to “use” them or “put” them where they’re needed. So too, there is very little of the mandatory, time-consuming backtracking found in many adventure games. The only minor flaw to be found is the advancing system of achievements, which occasionally awards your efforts with a pop-up box. These may provide needed encouragement to inexperienced gamers, but at the beginning of the title, the cavalcade of congratulations interrupted the flow of play a little.
Overall, Emerald City Confidential is a great game not only because it tells a first-rate story, but because its elegantly simple gameplay is tremendous fun for gamers and non-gamers alike.