emerald-city-confidentialLargeEmerald City Confidential succeeds first and foremost as an adventure because it tells a good story. I cannot emphasize even  nearly enough how much this game has surprised me with its gripping narrative with a fresh take on the already well known Land of Oz and its inhabitants.

Telling the story of Petra, an Emerald City detective, the story is simply wonderful. L. Frank Baum’s books are used to great effect, and it is obvious that the source material is being treated with immense respect. Even players with only a loose knowledge of the books, or even the classic film version of The Wizard of Oz, are sure to get a kick out of this re-envisioning.  The Lion, the Scarecrow and the Tin Man all make appearances here, yet this is not the land of Oz many players will know from the books and films. (Certainly not the earlier and more well known works such as the Wizard of Oz.) Even Dorothy and Toto are distinctively different, making it immediately clear that if we weren’t in Kansas anymore before, we definitely aren’t now. Oz is rotten to its very core.

Somewhat sadistically, it is nevertheless hugely entertaining to see an Oz that has changed, torn apart by war, sullied by years that have been decidedly more cruel than kind. Petra herself is a fantastic protagonist with a hidden agenda of her own: she is searching for her missing brother. To reveal any more of the plot would be to dilute the impact of a tightly woven, gripping narrative. If there is one recommendation for players to try this game out, it would be to experience this skillfully woven tale firsthand.

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To give some context, film noir, whether defined as a genre or simply a set of stylistic choices (an argument for another day) is definitely something that has grown in popularity in recent years. From humble beginnings in the black and white era of cinema, a modern transition into the mainstream for the genre has not always been clear sailing.  Better known in the 80’s and 90’s by a select, cult-following few, (perhaps lovers of Chinatown, or the future-noir cityscape of 2019 in Blade Runner?) it is thankfully now more accepted in the mainstream, with many films happily embracing well-known noir traits to great success. (Such as in the films Se7en and Brick.)

Emerald City Confidential works well then with its portrayal of Oz not only because it embraces these traits, but because it walks the fine line between homage and outright emulation without ever teetering over into tedium. Noir has certainly been used to great effect in adventure games before, with Grim Fandango and Discworld Noir being the most obvious examples, yet it is amazing here that this game so easily encapsulates such a specific atmosphere and ambiance on what is surely a much smaller budget. The short history I have given about noir in film is mined carefully here. Dorothy Gale is now a true femme-fatale in the style of Rita Hayworth, full of hidden agenda and outright deception. Petra’s voiceover is as hardboiled as anything Bogart or Nicholson ever uttered. Even Jack Pupkinhead plays everything ice cold as a black market magic smuggler. (“But ya can’t prove nothin’!”)

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I must openly admit that I am fairly new to the indie gaming scene, often ignorantly assuming cheaper will equal a less polished or less enjoyable experience. I certainly look a fool now, as this game has blown all of these misplaced preconceptions clear out of the water. Creator Dave Gilbert is an independent game designer most well known for his hugely successful Blackwell series. His partnership here between his newly founded Wadjet Eye Games studio and Playfirst seems to have definitely helped him step up his game in a number of ways; on a production value level alone, this game does not look like what one would expect for a measly $10. I would even go so far as to say that this game could easily have been released as a full priced retail product, it is that good. The graphics are beautiful and vibrant, the voice work is of a very high quality and the script is sharp as a knife.

The main faults to be found here would probably only boil down to some small details that betray the game’s indie roots. Some of the animation is slightly stilted and looks limited for some actions. Cut-scenes are all done in-game and can lose some impact due to the lack of any real kinetic movement or cinematic flare. Sometimes the subtitles do not match what has been said, for example the text will be in the past tense, whilst what is spoken uses the present tense.

So, are all of these faults just being picky? In a word, yes. None of these problems come even close to ruining the excellent storyline and presentation of Emerald City Confidential, and when it is then taken into account the asking price of the game, and the smaller size of the production, they practically fade away altogether. This game is an excellent way to spend some time in another world, and this authenticity raises the game well above many other, supposedly more professional offerings. The graphics are stunning, proving that good solid design can beat all of the best technical bells and whistles any day of the week. Sadly, no save spots are offered, meaning that the game simply saves automatically at the beginning of every new screen. This is not a huge issue, although it may annoy some gamers who like to revisit their favourite scenes later on.

Admittedly, the interface and puzzles are very simple, with the first half of the game feeling more like an interactive movie than a full-on adventure game. Only one click is required to look, pick up and interact with the other characters. Inventory puzzles are pretty straightforward as well, and it is usually very clear what needs to be done. Yet this actually works very effectively in some ways; the plot is the main draw here and the simple gameplay mechanics help the player move at a fast pace. The puzzles are not insultingly easy, they just take a backseat sometimes to everything else that is happening. Luckily, before players begin to resent this and feel they are simply clicking their way through an interactive movie, the puzzles step up a gear. The second half of the game is definitely more challenging and whilst it is never likely to truly stump players for too long, it is comforting to know that the whole experience can’t be ploughed through on autopilot.

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To conclude, Emerald City Confidential surprised me, and I believe it could do the same for other players too. The price is more than reasonable, if not actually over generous; the game has excellent production values, voice-work for all the main conversations and will last a lot longer than many other similar indie offerings. The sometimes simple puzzles will never match the same level of complexity that more commercial offerings can provide, and perhaps this is because the game has a very clear linear progression. Still, this design choice works well to aid the story being told and a hint system is always readily available in the rare (and unlikely) case of the player becoming stuck. The inventory and use of magic spells is always fun and logical anyway which minimizes frustration and maximizes the fun factor. This game is all about offering a great experience and in that regard that it totally delivers. Add in some unlockable sketches and artwork and you can seriously not complain for the overabundance of bang you will be getting for a slender amount of your proverbial buck. This could have even been a perfect score if the puzzles were not so simple. The story alone is worth full marks though so please bear that in mind when you read the final score!

Martin’s Score: 4+ of 5 starks

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