From robots and the terminally-ill, to pigeons and fictional relatives of former Capcom executives, there’s a romance game to cover just about any topic under the sun these days. With that in mind, I’m sure someone out there must have asked, “What if when Dorothy reached Oz, she was confronted by a bunch of eligible studs?” Well wonder no longer, because developer Poni-Pachet has got you covered with OZMAFIA!!, a work of public domain fan-fiction which notably happens to be publisher MangaGamer’s first otome (girls’ romance) title.
Ozmafia opens with player surrogate and Dorothy stand-in Fuka, who finds herself amnesiac in an unfamiliar back alley. The peace doesn’t last long, as she’s pursued as “prey” by a man purporting to be The Big Bad Wolf. Just when we she can’t run any longer, a glamorous man in a fur coat steps out of the shadows to her rescue. Steel flashes and clangs as the two men cross swords, and the wolf is forced to retreat. The glamourpuss introduces himself as Caramia, lion-hearted Don of Famiglia Oz, and brings the bewildered Fuka back to his mansion.
Under the eaves of Casa di Oz’s protection, Fuka meets the rest of the famiglia’s VIPs in the form of Kyrie, the cunning Scarecrow Consigliere, and Axel, the Caporegime Tin Man with a heart of gold. We learn that the town Fuka has found herself in is made up of several districts, each controlled by a different literary-inspired mafia famiglia. Strict control of territory is the law of the land and the streets are rife with gang warfare. That is, with the exception of Sundays, a day of rest upon which all rival factions come together to take part in beauty pageants, throw lavish fondue parties and embark on late-night meteor shower picnics. As you may have gathered, Ozmafia is not exactly what you’d call a gritty crime drama.
As Fuka settles in at her place, the story unfolds in typical visual novel fashion: reams of dialogue with the occasional choice. However, Ozmafia is a romance game first and foremost, so the focus, as well as your choices, aren’t so much on an overarching story rather than which beau takes your fancy. Each Sunday, you can choose who you wish to become closer to, with a little vignette unfolding between Fuka and that person. As Sunday is a free day, you’re not limited to Famiglia Oz and free to spend time with one of many movers and shakers around town. This could be Scarlet, the self-serious gender-swapped Red Riding Hood who leads Famiglia Grimm, chivalric cat-girl Pashet of Famiglia Boots, neutral figures like town doctor Robin Hood, or even Caesar, the big bad wolf who previously threatened to eat you up.
This brings me to my biggest criticism of Ozmafia: the handling of its literary figures is often baffling. Indeed, Ozmafia’s greatest failing is that it attempts to shoehorn in as many public domain literary characters as it possibly can, with little concern for their source material. I previously mentioned that the men of Famiglia Oz essentially have their personalities reversed; the courageous Lion, the Machiavellian Scarecrow, the caring Tin Man. In these three cases, there eventually turns out to be intent and reason behind their shifts in character, but the same can’t be said of Robin Hood as a physician in a plague doctor’s mask, machine gun-toting Hansel with bomb-throwing Gretel, or brothel pimp Dorian Grey who’s far more Marquis de Sade than Oscar Wilde. If Ozmafia had simply resigned itself to presenting a mafioso twist on the work of L Frank Baum’s Oz series, it would have felt more cohesive without sacrificing any of its wacky charm, but the inclusion of most of its non-Oz characters give the impression of a concept spread too thin. That’s not to say they’re not amusing; Pashet, in true cat fashion, can’t stand trips to the vet.
The rest of Ozmafia’s story tends to fluctuate in tone wildly; one night sees Famiglia Oz gun down a group of bandits in a bloody massacre, and upon the next morning go shopping for candy. Fuka doesn’t for a moment question whether the people she’s shacked up might be violent sociopaths, and tags along to the candyshop to a jovial and bubbly tune. Later still, Caramia facilitates a book-burning to an even cheerier piece of music without a shred of irony. The aim is pragmatism, not censorship: his library is full, so it’s “out with the old, in with the new”, though it’s an alarming moment. You can choose to question this, but in the end, Fuka agrees with everybody that it’s a practical solution and they all sit down to eat potatoes together. It’s all carried off with enough earnestness and na๏vet้ to make you raise an eyebrow and laugh, however, certain scenes seem shockingly out of place, like the story arc involving dead male prostitutes that feels juuuuust a tad tasteless.
Visually, Ozmafia is very bright and colorful; its backgrounds sport an orange-hued and washed out watercolor look that’s very attractive. Its large and detailed character graphics are equally colorful and intricately drawn. The game rewards you with a handful of gorgeous, full screen CGs for each character arc you follow to completion. Sadly, I can’t heap any praise on the game’s soundtrack, which is a collection of insipid midi variations of the game’s intro theme, an annoying and infectious ear-worm by Canadian soft-rockers Article One that sounds as if somebody tried to write an adult contemporary ballad using “It’s Raining It’s Pouring” as its leitmotif. The soundtrack doesn’t consist of very many pieces at all, and I had to turn the music off long before I’d reached the end.
To players who can’t get enough of Ozmafia’s characters, the game offers a “true ending” to those who finish every single path in the game — not a nothing task, as there’s ten characters to pursue, most of whom have multiple endings. My first path through the game took about twelve hours, but subsequent playthroughs can be shaved down thanks to the game’s handy option to skip previously-read text. Time investment aside, reaching the true ending asks for a lot of good will: not only is Fuka a bit of a wimpy protagonist, many character routes offer little, if any, conclusion to the game’s overarching plot. The final ending is pretty impressive with lots of twists and turns, but there’s a lot of fluff along the way, some of which still felt inconsequential even after the grand reveal. This “see absolutely everything to get closure” habit that visual novels tend to have is an annoying practice that I wish the genre would drop, as it’s a big ask to have players sit in front of a screen reading a clichéd romance for 50+ hours in search of a cohesive ending. Frustratingly, one of my late-game saves became corrupted for unknown reasons, and the Steam forums were unable to help, so I ended up spending even more time with Ozmafia than I needed to.
Ozmafia is an inconsistent visual novel that’s tough to pin down. It’s very long and not exactly thrilling, but it’s hard not to be charmed by its out-there concept and larger-than-life characters. It’s got a beauty contest in which you compete against a sunhat-clad duck, for goodness’ sake. I think there’s a little room in everyone’s heart for that.