“Commissioned by an organization shrouded in mystery, players take the role of a historical expert embarking on a quest to piece together the recipe for a fabled elixir by investigating maps, drawings, alchemical diagrams, and mysterious artifacts.”
I tried for the better part of two years to get a chance to play one of the 500 copies of Tale of Ord that are out there, but never was able to get a chance1Not to worry, a remastered version is currently in development!. So I was very excited when Rita Orlov’s next game, The Emerald Flame, arrived on my doorstep.
The first thing I noticed when playing the game is just how beautiful all of it is. The artwork from the outer box inward is consistently gorgeous and thoughtful, utilizing a hand-drawn watercolor aesthetic. Each time I opened a new part of the experience, I would spend the first few minutes just thumbing through the components and gawping at the artwork. To understate it, the game is just very pleasing to look at.
The experience is segmented into three parts, each of which provided about an evening’s worth of puzzling. I played this one at a relaxed pace, wanting to really soak in the experience while it lasted; I didn’t keep exact track of the time I spent playing, but I it was definitely a few more hours than the six recommended on the box.
I had a few, very minor, quibbles with some of the puzzle work in this game, but overall I had an excellent time with this experience.
The Emerald Flame bills itself as a “narrative puzzle adventure” and much like some of the best Society of Curiosities experiences or The Vandermist Dossier, it manages to tell a complete (and, at times, affecting) story with some smart, economically written prose. It’s a type of writing that’s deceptively difficult to achieve, alluding to a wider world and larger story and giving you just enough of a glimpse into it that you can imagine the rest.
The narrative runs on two parallel tracks, the first is set in the modern day and is experienced through an online chatbot. While not quite at the level of Society of Curiosities (very) impressive chatbots, the chatbot does an admirable job of describing your objectives, checking your answers, and moving the story along. The second narrative track is told through a series of letters between lovers in the 15th Century. The letters are well-written and, in my opinion, provide a more compelling narrative than the modern day framing device.
Overall the experience manages to deliver a conflict, climax, and dénouement over the course of five or six letters and gives you a bit of agency over the ending. Impressive stuff.
The puzzles throughout were clever, fun, and very well signposted. Even when I was stuck, I knew exactly what pieces of the puzzle I needed to solve it, even if I wasn’t sure how those pieces fit together exactly. The length of the puzzles mostly landed in the goldilocks zone, solvable in a “just right” amount of time that left me feeling accomplished and triumphant, but not exhausted. (One or two of the puzzles had some ciphering work that maybe stretched a bit too long, but nothing egregious.) The difficulty ranged from medium to hard, with a mix of difficulty levels in each part of the experience.
Aesthetically the puzzles all fit into the design of the experience, greatly aiding immersion into the experience. However, those aesthetic touches also led to the rare few sour moments in the experience for me: color. Several of the puzzles relied heavily on distinguishing colors, making those puzzles all but impossible for me to solve on my own. It added some frustration to an otherwise smooth experience.
The hint system is online and gives progressive hints and a solution. The system seems to be built using an image gallery, which is a neat hack. One touch I appreciated was the solution validation box, where you could check if you had the correct answer to a puzzle without revealing the answer itself. That’s something I think all puzzle makers should adopt, if they haven’t already.
The Emerald Flame is a masterwork, delivering what is hands down the most gorgeous at-home puzzle game I’ve had the pleasure of playing, with excellent puzzles as well. While the game disappoints a bit on color-accessibility, I give it my highest recommendation.