Review / The Wizard of Oz: Beyond the Yellow Brick Road (DS)

A little while ago we learned of a game based upon the classic children’s book The Wizard of Oz. I’m a big fan of the books and the movie and so I was intrigued what this Japanese developed take on the game would be like. Thus, I sent out a request to get a review copy. After this I forgot about the game and pretty much lost interest in it thanks to that. Last week it arrived on my doorstep to my very enthusiastic surprise.

See the idea of the game had intrigued me, but once I had it in my hands I was not so excited to play a small publisher’s Japanese RPG that used a track ball for controls. However, I popped it in as my curiosity got the best of me. So was my initial excitement for the game correct or was my later dourness toward the DS game more on par.

In all honesty Beyond the Yellow Brick Road has almost nothing to do with the original Wizard of Oz except for the fact that you play as Dorothy, Tin Man, Lion and Scarecrow (Strawman in the game) and there is a witch and, obviously, a Wizard of Oz. The story starts off vaguely similar to the original, with Dorothy being whipped away to the land of Oz by a twister, but after that any resemblance to the original tale is completely gone. Oz finds Dorothy unconscious and says that he will send her home if she helps her out with a bit of a witch problem he’s having. The Witch of Winter and her daughters (Summer, Fall and Spring) have been waging battle with him over land and he wants Dorothy (and her new found friends) to find the magical eggs and defeat the witches. The Oz of this game is clearly not entirely on the level, which is especially obvious once you start meeting the ridiculously nice witches.

However, it isn’t just the story that swerves away from the land of Oz, it’s the entire game. The level, enemy and world design has literally nothing to do with Oz. While the four main characters have been given a sort of Gothic Lolita/steampunk makeover, the land of Oz has been turned into a random assortment of cliche enemies including wolves, ghosts, mushrooms and other such sundry things you find in every RPG out there. On top of this the different sections of the world have absolutely nothing in common with the places Dorothy travels in the books or movie. Basically you’re getting a game that could have taken place anywhere and cramming four characters into it that people recognize. Perhaps this is actually what happened, but even if it is, any Oz fan is going to be put off by it.

One of the reasons one might excuse the Oz tie-in is the gameplay, which centers around running down winding paths. The world is split up into four sections with each section having three areas and each area having three levels, which are basically a series of branching paths with enemies scattered in them. Players have to get from point A to point B while running around the semi-maze like maps. I suppose this could be equated to moving around the yellow brick road, except for the fact that there is no yellow brick road for most of the game. The maps are pretty short and uncomplicated too, though they do get harder to organize as the game progresses.

I say organize because you don’t ever get to see an overall map of each level. When the road splits there are signs that players can mark with one of six different symbols. You kind of have to come up with your own code for what each symbol means and then when you find out where a path leads mark that sign with the corresponding symbol (by running all the way back to it) so you can maneuver the map more easily without getting lost. If the game had level maps it would be ridiculously easy, but by implementing the sign gameplay it makes some basic level design turn into a decently interesting gameplay mechanic that makes the game far more interesting.

Another aspect of the game that does this is the controls themselves. Dorothy, who is the avatar for the four-man party and is followed around by Toto, is controlled entirely by track ball on the bottom screen of the DS. Roll the ball faster and she runs, slower she walks. All cornering and stopping is handled by the track ball as well. While obviously not the most precise form of control, like the sign system, it actually makes what would have been a tremendously monotonous amount of running around into something far more interactive. Not that swiping the stylus over a track ball is the pinnacle of excitement in gaming or anything, but it’s a hell of a lot more interactive than holding down on a D-Pad. The track ball also makes avoiding enemies, whom you do battle with when contact is made, a lot trickier. Since you can’t stop and turn on a dime and since enemies charge you it means you have to actually be paying attention to what is ahead of you and how you’re rolling the ball. Both the track ball and the sign system are actually very unique ways of making immensely simple gameplay mechanics a bit more interesting.

Speaking of immensely simple, the battle system is just that. I’m not too in depth on RPG battle systems so this is the first time I’ve encountered one like this, but with only four characters throughout the entire game it’s really easy to use and pick up. Each character has a certain number of “ratio points” and you have four “ratio points” per turn. Each character also has a type of enemy they are strongest against. Thus players get to choose which characters to attack with depending on the amount of ratio points and who will do the most damage. For instance Lion takes two ratio points and does the most damage against brick. So if you had two rock creatures you could attack twice with him. Selecting the right characters in each attack turn is an important part of the battle. Battles are presented in first-person view, with the enemies in a line and a back and front row. Unfortunately the battle system goes a bit too simplistic. You can’t decide exactly which enemy you will attack if there are multiple ones of the same type and the system with put in recommended moves when you go to the attack screen meaning that you can often do something you don’t want to do if you’re blasting through a battle quickly and not paying attention.

It’s pretty standard stuff and immensely easy to use and play through. This isn’t an entirely good thing though as the battles tend to become very repetitive. Once you know the best strategy for an enemy type (and there aren’t that many) you simply have to put the same characters in and attack. The almost too simple aspects of the game are everywhere. There is only one shop that you can access to buy things and it updates every time you beat a world with a few new items, the money system is super simple and thanks to the the ease of almost every battle you rarely use the special moves you have since there’s never a battle long enough to warrant increasing you’re speed or boosting your defense for.

All that being said, the simplistic battle system, constant need for input thanks to the control scheme, mainstream license and bright and decent graphics make this a fantastic game to introduce someone into the world of RPGs with. Since the game is relatively easy, the AI simply knows how to attack and never acts in any way that could be considered cheap and the battle system is quick paced all the complaints that non-gamers who are thrown head first into a 60 hour JRPG fest have go out the window. This could be the marijuana of turn-based RPGs. Once you have them hooked you shove the FF and DQ into their hands and you’ve got a lifelong fan. However, for most gamers who have already fallen in love with RPGs Beyond the Yellow Brick Road will be too shallow to be truly enjoyable.

+ Solid entry game for non-gamers
+ Solid graphics
+ Easy to use battle system

– Really has nothing to do with the The Wizard of Oz
– Too easy
– Repetitive