A running theme in my reviews for iFanzine has been concern for the quality of narrative in today’s library of increasingly ambitious mobile games. It’s times like this that I realize I should have been careful what I wished for. Western gamers, myself included, often forget that the Land of the Rising Sun is rife with videogames in which storytelling is the main act and not just a sideshow. Commonly known as visual novels, they’re the digital equivalents of interactive “choose your own adventure” books, featuring stories that branch according to player choices. If production values are high, the player is usually treated to devastatingly beautiful artwork and music while the plot unfolds.

Western game publishers have been passing up this richly populated genre since time immemorial, leaving brave Japanese developers to their own devices if they want to buck the trend and bring one of these our way. The difficulty of securing high quality text translation is in evidence throughout the Appstore, and sadly ImageCircus’ debut English language offering remains heavily stricken in that regard despite script revisions in its latest update.

Road to Emerald testifies to the bizarre adventure of Mako Katase, a Japanese high school student unlucky enough to literally get sucked into The Wizard of Oz after picking it up at a bookstore. It looks as if she can make the most of it though, because the world she finds herself in has taken a few liberties with the plot — namely swapping out The Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion, Tin Man, and even The Wicked Witch for prettyboys who almost certainly walked out of some anime to fill each character’s shoes. Choices the player makes during Mako’s adventure determine which of her companions she’ll take back to the real world when it’s time to click those ruby heels together.

Had the visual novel’s Japanese text simply been run through Google Translate, this uncanny adaptation might have risen to cult status as a meme-filled fun fest not seen since the likes of Zero Wing. Instead ImageCircus has taken just enough care to ensure that the text is more or less coherent while still failing to reach the standard that would make it feel natural to native English readers. A severe dearth of punctuation and cringe-worthy attempts at artful description leave the reader with the impression that Road to Emerald‘s script was lifted directly from logs of an Internet chat session in which all participants had been armed with a thesaurus.

The visual novel’s scenario generally conforms to The Wizard of Oz with regard to key plot points (in truth, it seems to follow the 1939 film adaptation more than the book) and I found this more of a hindrance than a help to its appeal. There’s little here that someone familiar with the property will find exciting plotwise; it’s telling that the passage I enjoyed most involves Mako and friends fending off a giant plesiosaur, something delightfully fresh. More of these moments might have gone a long way in improving the player’s experience.

To its credit, Road to Emerald‘s characters and art stills are conveyed with gorgeous anime flair. Its no-nonsense user interface – there’s one button that the player slides in different directions to save progress or review earlier sections of the script – is perfectly suited to both the genre and platform. While the soundtrack didn’t leave me humming any particularly memorable tunes, a suspense theme that plays during Mako’s encounters with The Wicked Wizard adds to the adaptation’s surreal quality since it feels just as well suited to 1980s giant robot anime.

On the downside, Umemaru Tenzin’s beautiful artwork is in short supply. Mako & co.’s facial expressions are simple pastes over their default full-body portraits and a mere ten art stills are sprinkled throughout the game’s multiple paths. Otherwise each path’s approximately four-to-five hour length is visually populated by gratingly low res photographic imagery. The game intermittently crashed while loading autosaves on my second generation iPod Touch, so manual saves are most encouraged if a player’s running this on an older model.

iFanzine Verdict: There’s no doubt that ImageCircus made a brave attempt here – on more than one level – but the effort is severely gutted by the fact that its script has fallen in an uncanny valley between natural English and full-on Engrish. This is hardly a surprising occurrence to iPhone gamers by now, but it’s devastating in a genre that absolutely hinges on high quality text delivery.

If you’re absolutely enthralled with the concept of L. Frank Baum’s Dorothy sharing awkward adolescent romance with a barely post-pubescent Tin Man, Road to Emeraldisn’t a bad place to plunk down the purchase price since its user interface is well executed, and the artwork is excellent. On the other hand, if you have only a casual interest in the visual novel genre, you’ll probably want to hold out for one with higher text quality.

Like the review? Find the game on iTunes!