REVIEW: The Wicked Wizard of Oz

Oz, the Great and Terrible – an enormous metallic skull with mecha-tentacles and eye-sockets containing emeralds – is a self-aware AI tasked with the protection of the people now that the Wizard has left Oz in his hot air balloon. Unfortunately, the AI has concluded that the best method to obey its programming is to aggressively attack any perceived threats, and its target is all of the lands beyond the impassible desert that surrounds Oz. Following on from the conclusion to L. Frank Baum’s novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Jonathan Green’s dieselpunk adventure reunites the four famous companions after Dorothy is mysteriously transported back to the Marvellous Land of Oz. Once again they will travel along the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City, where they meet the megalomaniac AI and learn of its destructive intentions.

This is Green’s second adventure in his ACE Gamebooks series (following Alice’s Nightmare in Wonderland), where classic stories and characters are creatively reinvented with more than a twist or two. The central feature of The Wicked Wizard of Oz is that it can be played multiple times as different characters, with new content written for each individual’s journey. You’ll find four playable characters inside the book: Dorothy Gale, Scarecrow, Tin Woodman and Lion – each with different strengths and weaknesses, and a variety of Special Abilities, such as: Beast Master (command animals to do your bidding), Fearsome (others will quail in fear at your terrifying presence), Lightning Bolts (blast electrical energy from your fingertips), Summon Winds (raise gales and hurricanes to aid you) and The Pen is Mightier (avoid combat by altering the narrative to continue on unscathed). Additionally, there are two exclusive characters not detailed in the book: the Wicked Witch of the West and The Wizard – these were made available to some of the backers of the Kickstarter campaign that funded the project, and can be found with a little effort (although their starting attributes and special abilities will have to be sourced elsewhere).

Characters share the main plot points of the storyline, but there are significant differences in available options and the path undertaken for each character’s journey. As a result of this multi-character structure, an individual game is slightly shorter than what you may expect (especially when compared with some of Green’s other gamebooks), however, there’s never a shortage of action and intrigue, and there’s still a substantial journey to undertake. The bonus here is that you can return to Oz and play again, experiencing the adventure from a new perspective and discovering pathways previously unavailable.

Green has easily proven his steampunk/dieselpunk credentials in both Alice’s Nightmare in Wonderland and his Pax Brittania series of novels, so its no surprise that The Wicked Wizard of Oz reads as an authentic tale of mechanised adventure, where complex machinery and fantastical strangeness meet in a way that suggests it was always meant to be. Green’s writing is dramatically lively and quirky, taking the best of Baum’s creations and then artistically warping their nature and appearance to match his desired aesthetic. Encounters are highly memorable and intelligently designed, with plenty of unexpected surprises and neat reconstructions of favourite scenes and adversaries. You’ll also find quite a few humorous passages in The Wicked Wizard of Oz, plus there’s a decent amount of amusing pop culture references sprinkled throughout the book, which provide knowing, lighthearted moments for those who recognise them.

Some of the unique creations to be found within The Wicked Wizard of Oz include: the bizarre-looking humanoid Wheelers, who move on all fours via wheels, instead of hands and feet; a hulking emerald-enhanced automaton with boulder-sized fists (shown below, left); Tik-Tok, the small maintenance droid sporting a copper moustache and a tin hat; a nightmarish eight-limbed Spider-Changeling assassin with huge fangs and wrongly-jointed limbs (shown below, centre); a monstrous self-driving collection machine with a wrecking-ball and grabber-claw; QUOX, the great bio-mech wyrm with glittering metallic scales; and the wolf-sized, cybernetically-enhanced Toto with steel gin-trap jaws (shown below, right). Plus, you’ll likely meet one or more of the expected Winged Monkeys, Crows, Nomes, Kalidahs, Munchkins, Quadlings, Gillikans and Winkies from the original Oz stories.

Kev Crossley’s intricate illustrations bring many of these bizarre creations to life, depicting all of their appendages, enhancements and general ghastliness with many fine details and excellent draughtsmanship. Crossley is clearly suited to depicting Green’s fantastical mechanised creations, although I do sometimes prefer the clarity of his colourised artwork, as a number of the black & white images included in The Wicked Wizard of Oz can be visually overwhelming due to the confusing quantity of linework they contain. However, that’s nothing more than a minor criticism, as both this book and Alice’s Nightmare in Wonderland provide irrefutable evidence that their collaboration as artist and writer certainly produces exceptional results. Also, It should be noted that any illustrated gamebook genuinely deserves high praise for all the effort and expense involved in their creation.

Inventive and charming, The Wicked Wizard of Oz offers an experience that any gamebook fan should find worthwhile. My previous knowledge of Oz barely extended beyond the 1939 film starring Judy Garland, however, I was easily able to enjoy this as a creative piece of interactive fiction, with some known and unknown Oz elements. It’s not particularly difficult to complete any individual’s story arc, but it will take some time to complete the adventure as each of the included characters, which is how a book of this type should be played. Readers with an existing appreciation for the world created by L. Frank Baum will surely find much to enjoy when revisiting this enhanced, dieselpunk version, with only the fussiest of Oz devotees likely to have any issue with the inventive modifications that have been applied.

Take a look behind the curtain and you’re sure to appreciate the level of detail that Jonathan Green has included in The Wicked Wizard of Oz. The six playable characters each offer something different, and their stories move along at a great clip, constantly introducing new challenges and adversaries. The book never loses interest or momentum, even with all of its multiple complexities, which is an admirable accomplishment by itself. My adventures in the marvellous land of Oz are over for now, but I know that I’ll return at some future time to play again – there’s still so much to discover in this sizeable gamebook!

STORYLINE: Return to Oz to face a tyrannical AI intent on proactively defending its people. A multi-path storyline sees you playing as one of the key characters from L. Frank Baum’s famous world, each offering an individual pathway as you implement their own strengths and weaknesses, and make decisions influenced by their personal motivations. The imaginative dieselpunk twist adds a new dimension to an old and dearly loved series, producing an adventure that’s certainly never ordinary as you seek to defeat the insane AI and halt its maniacal plans of invasion.

GAMEPLAY: Green’s ACE Gamebooks rules and mechanics are functionally similar to the Fighting Fantasy series, so it’s uncomplicated and very easy to use. There are plenty of Agility, Combat and Endurance tests to pass, code words, equipment and allies to collect, and you can replace the rolling of dice with a pack of playing cards (special illustrated cards were available as part of the Kickstarter) to determine random numbers. Create a numbered flow diagram as you play so that you’ll remember previous choices – this will aid you to choose differently when playing the shared sections again as a new character.

PRESENTATION: Overall presentation is very good, although the paper used for the hardcover edition allows excessive show-through. Unfortunately, a small number of typos and formatting mistakes have also made their way into the hardback version – I presume that these errors will also be seen in the first paperback printing. They’re mostly minor oversights that are simply annoying (like the section links that have not been formatted correctly), however, there are instances where important text is either missing or confusingly duplicated and critical section numbers have been omitted, which understandably affects the playing of the game.

REPLAY VALUE: Enormous amount of replay value here – you’ll actually miss most of the story if you only complete the book as one character. Playing as all four (or six!) of the included characters will allow you to fully explore Green’s dieselpunk version of Oz, and these new pathways will also give you the opportunity to make different decisions and then see what results come from alternative choices. The book’s multi-path structure provides great value as each new character opens up even more variety, and there are plenty of hidden side-quests and other rewards to seek out. Interactive entertainment that will keep you busy for quite some time.

Review by Michael Reilly

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