When the name Wizard of Oz pops into your head I am sure the last thing you think of is quirky JRPG. Well the guys and gals at XSeed Games are looking to change that perspective with their latest DS effort Beyond the Yellow Brick Road. While it may not seem like an obvious fit, the JRPG style actually really works here. The story is obviously skewed from the original classic, and the art style is certainly a bit more eccentric than the classic Judy Garland movie, but once you begin your path around the magical land of Oz it becomes quite addictive. The main problem the game ends up suffering from though is the fact that it never quite can decide just who it is aiming for.
In the beginning you might believe this is going to be a retelling of the classic tale. You start off with Dorothy’s house being whisked away by a tornado and touching down in the peculiar world of Oz. This time out though you get to meet the Wizard himself right from the get go, as he tasks you with a quest to defeat each of the four witches of seasons. Along the way you will encounter and recruit your three companions; cowardly Lion, heartless Tinman and of course the man without a brain, Scarecrow. As a retelling of the story it actually works out surprisingly well. The dialogue is well delivered in book form, and there is even a bit of spoken conversation for some of the characters. Overall I enjoyed the story and it kept me entertained well enough to not simply hit the skip button constantly.
The battle system is built off of the ratio system which means each character is allotted a set number of battle points. Each round you are given four points to distribute, which means that depending on who you choose to attack with, will determine how many attacks you can deliver. For instance Dorothy is the weakest character so she possesses one battle point. If you really wanted to you could attack with her four times per round, but also note if she is the only one attacking, she will be the only one taking damage. This adds a layer of strategy that, while juvenile, really does add some excitement to the battles.
In addition to ratio the game also uses elementals by creating a system that gives each character advantages against certain types of enemies. For instance Dorothy is strong against ghosts while Tinman seems to have the most effect against vegetation. This is a traditional system, but with only four characters the well runs dry far too quickly. Battles end up being a bit too quick and simple once you figure out the exploits, but RPG newbies will likely appreciate the lack of complexity. There are some spells to learn, but to be honest none of them are really all that impressive. Standard attacks will get you through the game and dying will not be a common occurrence, so if you are OK with that and love the lore, there is quite a bit to enjoy here.
Amazingly the entire game is controlled by the stylus. Not in the traditional sense mind you, but instead developer Media Vision has crafted a track ball on the touch screen that allows you to control the movement of Dorothy and her party. It works much like what you would expect, the faster you spin it, the faster they move. At first I found myself all over the place as it tends to feel a bit loose, but once I got the hang of it I actually prefer it to more traditional methods on the DS. The menu system also allows you to perform all the typical RPG tasks in one convenient screen. In fact this is one of the cleanest, and easiest menus to navigate I have seen in an RPG to date. You can tell that the developers really wanted to deliver a user-friendly experience.
Another really cool feature that I liked about the game was the ability to mark street signs and areas on your map for notes and reference. This makes backtracking through the game much more accessible, which is a good thing as there is a ton of back and forth quests and puzzles. There is also a button for Toto, but it really serves no purpose outside of amusement. The rest is standard RPG fare with collecting money to purchase new equipment and of course level grinding to earn new attacks and spells. The core game will run you somewhere between 20-25 hours depending on your skill and determination, but once you have ventured down the Yellow Brick Road; there is little reason to make a second trip.
The most impressive aspect of the game though is its presentation. For starters the visuals are probably some of the most impressive I have seen in a DS RPG to date. Characters are vibrant and sport fantastic animations. Enemy variety is great and the environments all host a theme that is not only pleasing to play through, but also extremely easy on the eyes. The music is equally impressive with themed pieces for each area. As I mentioned the voice acting is minimal, but what is here is decent. Sound effects are top-notch and the overall presentation of the game really feels like a big-budget DS game.
The Wizard of Oz: Beyond the Yellow Brick Road is really a conundrum in the gaming world. Not only is it based on a hugely popular license that really has no prior gaming history; it is also being presented in a fashion that you would least expect. The most surprising part of all is just how enjoyable it really is. While the game is much too simple for the hardcore RPG player, casual fans and newcomers will adore the simplicity and entertainment the title brings with it. If you are looking for a solid JRPG that you don’t have to have a PHD in Final Fantasy to enjoy this is your game. Of course the fact that it is based on one of the most beloved stories of all time doesn’t hurt it either.