Al Emmo and the Lost Dutchman's Mine has been three years in the making, and its previously projected release date of mid-2005 came and went without so much as an announcement about the delay. What have Himalaya Studios been doing all this time? If the beta version I played is any indication, they've been working hard to make the game as stable and enjoyable as possible within their technological and financial limitations. The result is a refreshingly fun debut release that will finally come out in the next few months.
It may not be the flashiest game this year, but Al Emmo is polished and focused, which is more than can be said for a lot of games with much bigger budgets. Its completeness is due in large part to an entertaining and well-developed story. The game's protagonist, Al, is a 40-something virgin who lives with his parents. He's arrived in the small southwestern town of Anozira to pick up a mail order bride, but when she finds out he's broke, she skips town without him. This leaves Al stranded in Anozira for a week until the next train comes through. He goes into the saloon to drown his sorrows, just as a buxom brunette named Rita Peralto takes the stage and begins to sing…
The first several acts (of nine, total) chronicle Al's attempts to win Rita's heart—or at least a date—as he's continually foiled by a mysterious and dashing Spanish prince, Antonio Bandana. With the game's progression, these romantic foibles take a back seat as Al becomes increasingly entrenched in the mystery of how Rita's father was murdered during an expedition to find a legendary Aztec fortune. The story is loosely based on actual events and locations in Arizona. It was conceived by Himalaya founders Britney Brimhall and Chris Warren, and fleshed out by scriptwriter Daniel Stacey. (If you've played the King's Quest remakes by AGD Interactive, you're already familiar with this trio's work; Brimhall and Warren are better known as Anonymous Game Developers 1 and 2, and Stacey wrote the script for King's Quest 2+ VGA.)
Al Emmo is a third-person, point & click adventure game created with AGS, a free engine that has been used for many amateur titles, but so far only a few commercial attempts. The graphics consist of prerendered backgrounds in 640x480 resolution with 3D character models. The game's cutscenes are divvied up between 3D movies and 2D comics similar to those in the first Gabriel Knight game. Backgrounds range from decent to breathtaking, with a stylized, hand-painted quality reminiscent of the classic Sierra and LucasArts titles of the early nineties. As the narrator constantly points out, the environment isn't all that diverse—there are a lot of red rocks in this parched landscape—but the desert never looked so good with all the flowers, cacti, and winding paths Himalaya's artists have worked into the scenes. Early press materials may have given the misconception that Al Emmo has a traditional (read: tired) western theme, but I found its southwestern locale to be thoroughly unique.
One of the reasons Himalaya went with 3D character models is that they allow actions to be depicted through detailed and often amusing animations. Whether Al's hopping up on a bar stool, squeezing a bottle of mustard into his pocket, or dancing away from a spiky cactus, the animations are often chuckle-worthy and provide some of the highlights of the game. The same models are used in the 3D cutscenes, providing a link among the various art styles. The dialogue portraits, although well drawn, are a little different than the character models, and the characters in the comic cutscenes are a little different still. At first I worried that all of these styles wouldn't mesh well in the game, but as I became more engrossed in the story, the differences became less noticeable.
Al Emmo's gameplay harkens back to adventures of old: heavy on the collection and use of items, with a smattering of arcade sequences and other puzzles thrown in. The gameplay fits well with the story being told, a testament to Himalaya's puzzle design and writing. The puzzles often have humorous undertones—collecting and combining ingredients to make sunscreen for a Baywatch-esque lifeguard, for example. The tasks sometimes border on illogical, but I rarely found myself at a loss for what to try next. Items that can be collected sometimes blend into the backgrounds, however, and without a smart cursor you'll need to pay attention to your surroundings in order to find them. Still, I never felt like the game was being unfair, and except for one small hint on a puzzle that has since been tweaked to provide better cluing, I finished the game without any outside help, and a minimum of frustration.
Anozira may be a small town, but it and its surrounding areas stretch across over one hundred screens. An in-game map makes traversing the landscape much quicker, although with so many hotspots to click on, wandering around the old-fashioned way isn't so bad either. Every hotspot yields some kind of response—often a witty or sarcastic jibe from the omniscient narrator who, as becomes increasingly clear, isn't thrilled by his assignment to narrate Al's misadventures. There are also several optional dialogues with the townspeople and a few Easter eggs, which will no doubt lead some players to take a second crack at the game after completing it.
On the whole, Al Emmo's voice acting is good—particularly John Bell's over-the-top characterization of the narrator—but I could sometimes tell that the same actor was playing more than one role. The game also features a full original soundtrack composed by Tom and Dianne Lewandowski of Quest Studios. The music is very well done, with various melodies that shift to reflect the nature of Al's current situation.
Al Emmo's comic nature may make it seem like a good game for kids, but a number of adult themes (many of which revolve around the local bordello and its Hugh Hefner-inspired patriarch) should make parents think twice. There's nothing overtly sexual, but much of the dialogue and even some puzzles are built on innuendo that could incite embarrassing questions. On the plus side, this risqué humor gives the game a layer of maturity that many adult players will appreciate. There aren't that many comic adventures coming out these days, so it's nice to play one that takes chances with its humor, rather than watering it down for fear of offending.
There's so much more I could tell you about my experience playing this game, but with a demo on the way and the full version following soon after, I'd hate to spoil the surprise. For now, let's just say that Al Emmo and the Lost Dutchman's Mine has been well worth the wait. It was clearly created by people who play and love adventure games as much as we do. Al Emmo is a fairly simple and unassuming title, but for many players who have been left cold by recent releases, it promises to deliver a bit of that classic magic we've been missing.
|Worldwide||September 5 2006||Himalaya Studios|