Wizard of Oz: Beyond the Yellow Brick Road Review
Wizard of Oz: Beyond the Yellow Brick Road, the new RPG by Japanese developer Media.Visions, is definitely something most of us didn't see coming, but why not? L. Frank Baum's turn-of-the-century story, with its high adventure, colorful setting and close-knit party of diverse protagonists makes it a natural for gaming, especially for an RPG. And with the whole series of Oz stories to draw upon, developers have before them a vast creative resource. The thing is, the developers of “BTYBR”, while making an entertaining enough game, have failed to fully embrace the fictional richness of the series and ended up somewhat shortchanging both gamers and Oz fans alike.
The game's narrative only bears passing resemblance to the original story. Here, rather than from a kindly aunt and uncle, the tornado sweeps Dorothy and Toto (who you can rename if you want) away from the lonely, hollow existence they've been living since Dorothy's parents died. They land on the yellow brick road and a voice tells them to go see the the Wizard of Oz (who incidentally, looks like the love child of Katamari's King of Cosmos and that terrifying doll from the 70s movie “Trilogy of Terror”). Along the way, they pick up the Scarecrow (called the Straw Man), the Lion and the Tin Man, who for some reason in this version, is like Monty Python's Knights who say “Ni!” and can only shout “Hva!”
As in the book, Oz promises to send Dorothy back home if she can defeat the powerful witches who control the “Land of Magic”. In BTYBR, there are four witches and they're seasonal, not directional; spring, summer, autumn and winter rather than North, South, East and West. None of them is actually evil and all of them hint that Oz himself may be less benevolent than he seems to be. Nevertheless, Oz is Dorothy's only hope of getting home so she and her gang set out to weaken the witches by retrieving for Oz the magic eggs that represent the witches' strength.
In many ways, BTYBR is a standard RPG based on combat, XP-gathering, leveling, items and party mechanics. Dorothy and friends are diverse character types representing (loosely) the usual RPG classes of healer, rogue, dps and tank. Dorothy's the healer of the group and can also grant the other party members powerful buffs. The Straw Man's as close as you'll get to a rogue in Oz, agile, fast-attacking and able to steal items from enemies. The Lion's function is dps and he has the ability to ignore magic as well as perform devastating attacks. Finally, the Tin Man (what a surprise) is the party's tank although he too is highly effective against multiple enemies. In addition to their unique skills, each party member is effective against a particular kind of enemy; Dorothy against ghosts, the Straw Man against water creatures, the Lion against shelled creatures and the Tin Man against plants.
Combat is fairly simple—whatever you run into on the road, you fight. During combat, both your party and the enemy get four turns per round and the number of turns each character has depends on its “ratio” or strength level. A “1-ratio” character like Dorothy or the Straw Man can go up to four times per turn while the “3-ratio” Tin Man can only go once. It's an interesting approach to game balance, on top of the usual accuracy/agility/resilience attributes. Before battle you decide who in your party will fight, pick their actions and their targets, and it's all automatic from there. Some gamers may not like this system, and others may be turned off by the fact that combat isn't so much experienced as implied.
You can't see your party during combat so graphically, the experience is limited to watching your health bars deplete. On the opposing side, with minimal visual effects, all you do is watch your enemies flinch in time with various “whack” sound effects. It's a sensory step above playing DnD at a dining room table, but not by much. Anyway, what's good about combat in BTYBR is that many of the party actions are automatic and party members can be switched out at any time. What's especially nice about the latter is that members not actively fighting can be healed while not taking any further damage and can then rejoin the fight.
As you might imagine, a game set in the land of Oz can't be all about combat; there has to be exploration as well, and that's a key part of BTYBR. Investigating every path in every area is a necessity—not only to collect the eggs you need, but to find helpful elemental spirits, open gates, get combat training and open treasure chests. Be warned; there's a lot of running in this game and what that means to you is lots of stylus action. BTYBR's unique roller-ball movement system forces you to spend hours making jerky little whittling motions in order to get Dorothy where she needs to go. The maze-like roads can be tricky too and there's no mini-map to help you orient yourself so this part of the game can get old fast unless you make good use of the signs found at every fork in the road.
These signs are blank until you approach them, whereupon they can be set to one of a handful of icons that you're encouraged to give meaning to yourself. In my case, anything I discovered to be a dead end got an “X” icon while any path leading to a warp point received a heart icon. It took a little while to get used to this system but surprisingly, it wasn't that bad, even for people (like me) with no sense of direction. Knowing where you're going and where you've been helps immensely in this game, otherwise you could find yourself repeatedly running the same paths and fighting the same battles with the creatures inhabiting them.
The roads in each area are full of hostile creatures, all of whom will attack you if you come near them. You can flee or avoid these random battles but if you want to avoid hours of level-grinding later on, you should take the battles as they come. Enemy types in BTYBR are many and vary according to the season you're in: jellyfish mages, nutty spirits (acorns with eyes), floating puffer fish, club-wielding skeletons and my favorite, “dirty gases”. (Call me immature but to me, there's just something hilariously repugnant about being hit by a “dirty gas attack”)
Defeated enemies grant various levels of XP (although sometimes it's hard to tell why some give more than others) and as you progress through the game, you'll gain levels and encounter martial arts masters who can teach you special skills once you defeat them. These skills, like the Tin Man's “Full Swing” or Dorothy's “Healing Hand”, are essential, especially in the latter half of the game where you can't possibly win without them. It's an RPG, so items help as well and each member of Dorothy's party can use items and equip weapons and armor. Through most of the game you buy items from Oz himself, using gold collected on the road and from dead monsters. Sometimes you find items in treasure chests scattered throughout the land but these items are rarely an improvement on those you can buy.
Wizard of Oz: Beyond the Yellow Brick Road is a solidly-entertaining RPG hampered by a handful of tiresome flaws. First, there's the roller-ball movement mechanism which is novel at first but quickly becomes tiring or even painful if you spend too many hours playing. Then there's all the pre-and-intra-battle stylus tapping required to select items, party members and actions. The tedium of this becomes very pronounced after you've fought say, fifty consecutive battles or so. Speaking of tedium, one complaint leveled at Japanese RPG's—and it's a valid one—is their love for random battles. BTYBR has no shortage of these, and it can be really irritating having to fight or flee every ten seconds. Related to this are the difficulty spikes that occur at every boss encounter which if you haven't previously gone through a sufficient number of random battles, means an utter loss of momentum as you stop for hours to grind levels.
In addition to these control and gameplay-related issues, BTYBR's story is disappointing because considering the source, it could have been so much richer. The Oz universe contains so many weird and wonderful things that BTYBR barely hints at through the strange enemy types you encounter along the way. Thankfully, much of the game's mechanical and fictional lack is compensated for in other ways. For one thing, the party AI is pretty darn good. There may be a lot of micro-managing involved in combat but party members are also pretty intelligent on their own about who to attack and when to heal one another. Another good thing—actually, the best thing—is the graphics. The game is incredibly beautiful by any standards, not just the DS's, and presents a colorful fantasy world anyone would enjoy.
In closing, I have to say that despite the beautiful graphics, it's hard to ignore the game's shallow narrative which fails to take advantage of its rich, original literary source. That said, RPG fans may overlook this marked lack of fictional creativity and the game's few monotonous aspects, to enjoy its considerable hours of solid RPG play.