Back in the 80s and 90s, Sierra pioneered the graphic adventure game genre with popular franchises like King's Quest, Police Quest, Space Quest and the Quest for Glory series. I still remember those days of drooling over previews of Sierra games in magazines, the frantic rush to shove the game diskettes into my floppy drive when I did get hold of them, and then laboring through the notoriously tough gameplay for days on end, sometimes foraging through bulletin boards in the wee hours of the morning searching for clues. So when I heard that Himalaya Studios was planning to releaseAl Emmo and the Lost Dutchman’s Mine, in the mould of classic Sierra games of yore, I was as excited as a very excited person who’s got special reason to be excited.
Al Emmo is set in the Wild West, more specifically in the semi-arid expanse of Anozira. You play as Al, the ruggedly handsome, young and fearless protagonist who’s about to brave the perils and harsh climate (and locals) of Anozira, on a quest to win the heart of the woman he loves. Ok I exaggerated slightly. Al looks vaguely like a turnip that’s been out in the sun too long. And he’s really a forty-two year-old virgin. And the woman he loves is a mail order bride (who he has never met before) waiting for him in a saloon in Anozira. And his grand plan is to prove his manhood by marrying her, and then live happily ever after in the living room of his parent’s house. You guessed it folks, you have another perennial loser in the mould of Larry Laffer on your hands.
Al’s rendezvouz with Ivanna Lottakash in the saloon predictably turns into a disaster, after Al tells her that he lives with his dad (“and mom too, a nice nuclear family”), and can’t buy her a drink because dad didn’t give him his allowance. When the dust settles, Al finds himself stranded in a strange town, without a bride and with a long wait for the next train to take him back home. Not one to be licked by fate, Al perseveres on in his goal of proving his manhood, and soon comes across the gorgeous bar entertainer Rita Peralto, who immediately becomes his new object of desire. There’s a big obstacle in his path however, in the shape of a dashing Spaniard named Antonio, who’s after Rita as well, and has an obvious advantage in every department over our loveable chump. The rest of the game (divided into a total of nine acts) follows Al’s quest to win Rita’s heart and outsmart his unrelenting nemesis, Antonio.
The first thing that struck me … nay jumped right out at me when I started playing Al Emmo was how unique the game looks. Al Emmo looks like a classic Sierra game that went to the spa and got a makeover. And then it went to a boutique and bought a whole new wardrobe. And then it got its hair done. For although at its core it still feels like a classic Sierra adventure, Al Emmo looks vastly superior with a very polished and distinct graphic style with beautiful hand-drawn backgrounds and character caricatures (which pop up in a panel during conversations, much like in a Sierra classic). There are a few 3D pre-rendered cut-scenes, as well as 2D comic book style cut-scenes in panels, which pop up at the end of every act. These are well drawn and look quite good too, if not as unique as the actual in-game graphics.
Al Emmo’s interface is yet another nod to Sierra. The right mouse button cycles through standard actions such as walk, talk, look, use and access inventory, while the left mouse button performs the action. There’s also a very welcome map feature, which allows you to be “teleported” to any previously visited location. Oh, and you get to press Ctrl+Q to exit the game – seems like ages since I used that key combo in an adventure game. Himalaya Studios chose to shun the intelligent pointer-based interface, a staple in most commercial adventures, in which the pointer is highlighted when it passes over a hotspot on the screen. Instead, Al Emmo leaves it up to you to find the hotspots. This seems like a recipe for disaster, and I have to say there were times where I was clicking away at all and sundry on the screen, desperately looking for items to interact with. But Al Emmo makes it worth your while. Almost every little thing on the screen is interact-able, evoking a smart-alec, non-generic response from either Al or the narrator. Some of the remarks, especially from the narrator, just cracked me up.
Which brings me to one of Al Emmo’s biggest strengths – its fantastic sense of humor. Most (allegedly) comic adventure games I’ve played recently tend to recycle the same old adventure game clichés and barely evoke a chuckle. But Al Emmohad me laughing off my rocking chair with knee-slapping funny dialogs, witty wordplay and some hilarious character animation. Sure there are some unavoidable clichés and misses that will have you rolling your eyes, but more often than not, the humor hits the mark. The comic timing of some of the voiceovers, such as that of Al and especially that of the narrator’s, is nothing short of brilliant. The narrator’s banter with Al produces some of the funniest moments in the game. You’d have to be one severely chronic-depressed zombie to keep a straight face at what Al Emmo dishes out.
As Al stumbles along in his quest to win over Rita, he will come across several characters who will help him, such as Kevin the saloon owner, who’ll help Al get a room and keep him up to date on the latest gossip in Anozira; Mayor Trinkwasser who stays firmly planted in his rocking chair dispensing questionable, although occasionally useful wisdom; and Koko the spaced out pharmacist (Freddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist anyone?), who you will visit time and again to purchase several useful items from. In time, a deeper mystery will unravel itself, which will change your perception of Anozira. Without providing any major spoilers, I’ll just say that it has something to do with the mysterious Aztecs and their lost gold.
Undoubtedly, Anozira is no oasis of sanity. You’ll have your fair share of encounters with a multitude of eccentricity, from the likes of dynamite wielding vermin exterminators, suicidal pianists, obnoxious pimply-faced mail clerks, trigger happy Indians wielding bow-and-arrows, and many others. Some of the situations you’ll encounter in the game will have a somewhat adult theme, reminiscent of theLeisure Suit Larry series, such as your meeting with Lou, Anozira’s very own Hugh Hefner, and a side-quest involving a certain well-endowed former Baywatch starlet. One scenario where Al must, to put it mildly, go beyond the call of duty in order to get the dirt on Antonio was particularly memorable.
As far as puzzles go, you’ll need to complete the staple inventory-based side quests that involve finding/using/combining items in sometimes bizarre, but mostly logical ways. One complaint that I have here is that the solutions for some of the puzzles weren’t all that well clued. One quest in particular, involving a termite problem at the mayor’s house, had me stumbling around for a long time till I found out what to do, purely by luck. Another quest, involving finding a hook for a fishing rod was hampered by the fact that the entrance to the location where the hook could’ve been found was not easily visible. That’s where an intelligent cursor which showed possible exit paths from the screen would’ve come in handy.
Oh, and you can die in this game. But thankfully, only towards the end of the game. For those of you who like me have gotten a bit too soft playing adventure games in perpetual God mode without fear of dying, the end of this game will jolt you out of your complacency. In truly inspired Sierra fashion, there are some dastardly timed puzzles and at least one fiendishly hard situation where I perished umpteen number of times. But hey, there’s a reason games have save slots. Al Emmo will certainly have you using them like crazy in the endgame. The game is not all that heartless though – after I’d been fumbling around unsuccessfully with a puzzle during the endgame, I was given the option to skip it and move on.
In summary, I had a great time playing Al Emmo. The game looks gorgeous, tells an engaging story, has fantastic voiceovers and will have you in stitches at some of its many outrageously funny moments. It’s hard to avoid clichés sometimes: Al Emmo is solid gold. Go play it. You won’t regret it.
Final Grade: A