The Good:

  • The Magic Duel with Mombi, the only fun part of this game.
  • The Gumps.
  • You can set the walking speed in the options…thankfully.

The Bad

  • Characters are flat and uninteresting.
  • Art style is dull.
  • Character animations are stiff.
  • Voice acting is terrible.
  • Puzzles, if they can be called that, are too simple.
  • Quest and Item overlays are annoying and in the way.
  • Quest-based gameplay takes you by the hand during the entire experience.
  • The World of Oz doesn’t feel even remotely “Wonderful”.
  • Characters are too noir, and too little Oz.

Emerald City Confidential is a Point & Click adventure games by Wadjet Eye Games, makers of the amazingly good Blackwell Chronicles series. It’s a noir-style detective story set in the Land of Oz. You play as PI Petra, a deserter from the Ozian army in this post-war Oz.

For a while, as I played it, I thought, “this must have been one of their first games”, because of the glaringly bad design choices, but this is a 2009 game, a couple of years after their first Blackwell game, which I thoroughly enjoyed (and I’m waiting for the next episode in the series to release in the near future).

Visual style looks extremely on the cheap side, reminding me less of Wadjet Eye Games and more of an old Flash browser game, like those you can find on Newgrounds.com. Character animations, which you’d expect to be very fluid in a hand-drawn style, are instead extremely stiff. Characters often take more time than they should in performing actions. Thankfully, you can set the walking speed in the settings, and if you ever find yourself playing, this game, just set it to max.

As for gameplay, the interface is extremely simple. There’s a bar at the bottom with your inventory to the left, your current quest display in the center (with a quest-progress count included, pretty much letting you know how far you are from finishing the game) and your magic spells to the right. Unlike other adventure games where depending on which button you click you either interact or observe, in ECC you only left-click, if it’s meant to be observed Petra will comment, otherwise she’ll interact with it. You select and drag items as is expected, though there are no instances of item combinations or more than one item needed for a particular puzzle, with the exception of the Duel.

Items don't just go to your inventory, they also invade the whole screen, making you want to swat them out of the way...
Items don’t just go to your inventory, they also invade the whole screen, making you want to swat them out of the way…

Speaking of puzzles, the ones in this game are painfully simple, with most of them revolving around exhausting all conversation options, talking to someone else and maybe, just maybe use an item or a spell, all of which have very particular and obvious uses, which in turn make all puzzle solutions obvious. At first, I wasn’t bothered, thinking the game difficulty would ramp up, giving you a few easy puzzles as a tutorial, but I was extremely disappointed to find the same low difficulty level in the entire game. The only puzzles in the game actually worth something, and fun, are the magic duel, in which you have to actually use a few items and spells to overcome it, and last act of the game, Phanfasm Island, and only a couple of puzzles at that, and using the last spell you are given.

Accompanying the simplistic puzzle design is the handholding Quest system. In all P&C Adventure games you have general and specific objectives, sometimes jotted down somewhere in the UI, but they’re vague enough so you have to FIGURE OUT STUFF ON YOUR OWN. In ECC, the quest system is extremely specific, often the objective right-out telling you how to move the story along, the “Take advantage of Cutter” objective being the worst one, since not a second before the Quest pops-up, the character in question is asking what he can do for you in lieu of payment. An additional gripe, new and completed quests come with an overlay (as does each item you collect), a big square taking up the middle of the screen with the quest message and stopping all gameplay while it’s there, completely disrupting what little flow the game had.

These pop up every time you get or complete a quest
These pop up every time you get or complete a quest

Music score is quite forgettable, but the one part of the audio that will stay with you for the whole grating experience is the voice acting, which is thoroughly terrible. Witty, nervous, suspicious or charming characters come off dry as the voice actors deliver their lines without even a hint of emotion. Petra might be the worse of them all, her cynic and sarcastic comments sound exactly the same as her regular speech. Compared to the voice acting in this game, the one in Night of the Rabbit, which I reviewed recently, is Oscar-worthy.

The plot doesn’t really make much sense. Petra is hired by Dorothy to find a guy she’s been shacking up with, who’s on the run from “some very dangerous people”, no specifics, because it’s a noir story, so we have to play the stereotypes. On the way, we find he’s in possession of a very powerful artifact that’s the center of a plot by the losers of the war so they can finally conquer Oz. That’s the whole plot. There are a few twists, but none of them will surprise you, even less considering the game plays to Noir clichés to the letter.

As I’ve previously mentioned, all characters are stiff and dry, partly because their actors but also because they’re badly conceived. Instead of being characters from Oz, with certain alterations to match the tone, in the same way American McGee did for his Alice games, these are Noir stereotypes dressed as Oz characters. Dorothy, aka Dee, because that’s original, is your typical rich dame, with more than a bit of attitude, underhanded and with even more plots of her own. The only “working” character here, even including its performance, is the Lion, now a sleazy, charming and very corrupt lawyer, but he plays only a little part in the plot.

Petra & "Dee", which seems to stand for Dull, Dry or Depressing instead of Dorothy
Petra & “Dee”, which seems to stand for Dull, Dry or Depressing instead of Dorothy

In fact, the predominance of Bad Noir in the structure of this setting is my main issue with the game. With a place like Oz, you could’ve gone for a “Dark Shadows in a Bright City” kind of setting or story. It’s classic and gives you a lot to work with. But instead, this is all dark and drab and completely uninteresting. And worst of all, the AWE that OZ naturally inspires is gone completely; it’s a drab and uninteresting and thoroughly unappealing version of a fantastic land. Even if OZ isn’t your kind of story, pick up any of the books and your mental image of OZ will conflict with the game. Hell, take a peek at the 1939 Judy Garland version, the most known adaptation of Oz, and compared to that, this game’s Oz just doesn’t cut it.

That’s this game’s greatest crime, it’s too much Noir and too little Oz, it takes a wonderfully colorful world and makes it uninteresting, and it’s such a wasted opportunity, because Noir-style corrupt environments can coexist with the world of Oz, being the dark shadows in the bright world, the hidden side of it. But instead, the creators couldn’t marry the two ideas and ended up tearing down what L. Frank Baum created over a century ago. When you realize you can replace The Emerald City in this game with any other in our world, such as New York or L.A. (albeit without the cool Gumps) and it’d still feel the same, you know something’s gone terribly bad.

There’s a lot I can forgive in a game “adaptation”, but doing a disservice to your source material is something I can’t. Emerald City Confidential is a game too flawed to enjoy, by either Adventure Gamers or Oz Lovers, who will thoroughly despise it.

The Mental Attic Score: Don’t Buy It! It’s only worth about $10, but it’s money better spent on something else.

2 Comments »

    • To be honest, before I bought it I read “Detective story in Oz” and bought it, thinking the exact same thing, that this was going to be awesome…I was disappointed, even more because I know these guys can make some really good games.

      Like

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