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The Wizard of Oz: Beyond the Yellow Brick Road
Platform: Nintendo DS
Publisher: XSEED Games
Developer: Media.Vision
Genre: Traditional RPG
Format: Cartridge
Released: US 09/29/09
Japan 12/25/08



Scorecard
Graphics: 82%
Sound: 90%
Gameplay: 85%
Control: 80%
Story: 70%
Overall: 85%
Reviews Grading Scale
 
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Yes, the battle system is very much a Dragon Quest clone. But, that's never a bad thing!
 
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Witches that are actually nice? Who would have thunk it?
 
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Nostalgia! Doesn't it just make you all giddy?
 
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Run, Dorothy, run!
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Kimberley Wallace
The Wizard of Oz: Beyond the Yellow Brick Road
11/07/09
Kimberley Wallace

When I first heard that Media.Vision was making an RPG based on The Wizard of Oz, I'll admit - I was skeptical. The Wizard of Oz is so dear to my heart and connected to my childhood in such a way that I was worried a video game might not be able to do it justice. However, when I popped in my copy and watched the opening screen where my four beloved characters (along with Toto) were dancing invitingly to "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," I immediately felt at ease. The magic that I experienced as a child was still intact and I felt like a giddy little kid all over again. I'll confess, it was a huge nostalgic moment. But more importantly, as I played on, I discovered that The Wizard of Oz: Beyond the Yellow Brick Road (YBR) was not only a solid title, but it also ignited a spark in me that recent DS titles failed to create.

A Twister! A Twister!

Most people are familiar with the Wizard of Oz plot, and naturally, the video game is based on the book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by Lyman Frank Baum. The story is such a classic that I'm sure you've either read it or seen the play or movie adaptations. Therefore, I feel that going into a lot of detail will bore you, so I'll keep this short. The game begins with the focus solely on Dorothy. She and her dog Toto live in the countryside in the house left to her by her late parents. Suddenly, a dangerous tornado rips through her quiet home and Dorothy and Toto both get swept up in it. When Dorothy awakens she is on the yellow brick road, where she is greeted by the Great Wizard of Oz. He informs her that she is in the Land of Magic, and also offers her a gift: a magical pair of red slippers. Additionally, Oz promises Dorothy that, if she follows the yellow brick road to his castle, he will grant her wish to return home. Dorothy's trip up the yellow brick road is a familiar one where she meets her classic companions: Strawman, Lion, and Tin Man. The three are seeking the wizard so that he can grant their wishes as well.

Unfortunately, once the four reach Oz, he's not so quick to grant their wishes. Adopting the "You can't get something for nothing" policy, Oz declares that he will not grant their wishes until they help him out first. He requests that Dorothy and the gang retrieve ten magical eggs for him. These eggs are currently in the possession of four witches. The importance of the eggs is the magical power they possess, and the wizard is concerned that they are in the wrong hands. He also needs them to fully rule the kingdom. This is where Dorothy's main journey begins.

The four witches you have to take on are all related and each are connected to a season. Flora (Spring), Holly (Autumn), and Delphi (Summer) are all sisters and their mother is Protea (Winter). Each witch has her own quirky personality. For instance, Holly is a writer who likes to stir the pot by writing scary stories with her active imagination. I wish that the witches took a bigger role in the game, because you only get small tidbits of their personalities and instantly want to interact with them more often. These four witches are the most unique part about the story, and it's a shame Media.Vision didn't fully capitalize on them.

In addition to the lack of focus on the witches, the rest of the narrative is also sub par. It's very thin and dry throughout. There are a few twists along the way, but they are extremely predictable and don't add much spice to the game. There really aren't any cutscenes; once you complete a major part of the game, the plot advancement is presented to you in a storybook style. This is a unique way to present the plot, especially since the story is based on a book. However, even what's written seems uninspired and very barebones. At times, it's also apparent that the developers took advantage of the fact that the audience is familiar with The Wizard of Oz, therefore the effort to go the extra mile just isn't there. Despite the fact that the game doesn't go above and beyond the call of duty, the strong world of The Wizard of Oz is more than enough to keep the story afloat.

The story just misses out on the little important parts that make The Wizard of Oz so special. For example, part of what makes it such an enduring classic is the characters. You quickly grow attached to Dorothy, the Scarecrow (Strawman), the Lion and the Tin Man in the book and movie. There's a camaraderie that is built up between the characters in these adaptations, mainly due to their quality interactions with one another. In YBR, these interactions are very few, far between, and not done in an engaging way. The game really does take for granted that you already know these characters, and therefore it seems as though there was a lack of effort to create that bond. It's just assumed the bond is there throughout, which is unfortunate because that's what makes The Wizard of Oz really shine. Thankfully, the gameplay is what makes the game stand out, and this more than helps make up for the lack of story and character interactions.

Go, Stylus, Go!

The gist of YBR is getting Dorothy and her friends up different roads. These roads often feel like a maze, with many dead ends and backtracking needed to advance. It can get confusing, but thankfully the game lets you label signs to let you know what direction you've already been in or if there's something worth giving a second look at later. You'll also gain the power of certain elemental spirits along your journey. These spirits will help you break through certain roadblocks while you trek up the road.

YBR also makes the stylus a vital part of gameplay since you will need it to move Dorothy. As you progress up roads, your speed will be determined by how fast or slow you tap the DS screen. There's a green globe in the middle of the screen that you spin with the stylus for your pace, functioning like a trackball. I'll admit, it takes some getting used to at first, but once you discover a steady rhythm, it's actually fairly useful. Your success with controlling your speed with the stylus will also become part of your strategy in the game. If you can move Dorothy fast enough you can often speed past enemies and avoid random battles. This is almost vital as the game not only requires some heavy grinding throughout, but the amount of enemy encounters is quite high. Needless to say, fighting everything will not be the best strategy to progress.

Personally, when I think of how dull going up the roads without the stylus would have been, I fully support its use in YBR. I can't advocate enough that it works for this game, makes it more fun and adds a strategic level to the gameplay. The only time I got frustrated was when my character would get stuck in the environment and it would cause me to end up in a battle I didn't want to fight. Sometimes, there are enemies that are just difficult to avoid.

For those battles you can't avoid, you'll be forced to fight. Thankfully, YBR has a fairly straightforward turn based battle system. Battles will instantly remind you of Dragon Quest, whose heavy influence is clearly visible throughout. To be honest, it's nice to be taken back to a classic turn based battle system when many recent RPGs are shying away from them. Even more wonderful is that YBR has some tricks up its sleeve to make battles go super quick, which is a serious gripe with the average turn based system to begin with.

YBR does this by making you select which party members you want to use in battle at the onset. You have four turn slots, but each character has a different ratio of slots used. Dorothy and the Strawman each take up one slot, Lion takes up two, and the Tin Man takes up three. Therefore, you could use Dorothy once and the Tin Man once or you could even let the Strawman stand by his lonesome self and take all four turns. Regardless, there are a variety of ways you can use your characters, and an extra bonus to this is that if you don't select a character for that turn, they will not take any damage. It works out well because Tin Man and Lion are your obvious power hitters, so using them sacrifices some turn slots, but it might be worth it for their power. Additionally, each character is strong against certain attributes - for example, Dorothy is strong against ghost enemies and the Tin Man is strong against plant enemies.

What also speeds up the battle is before each turn is that you put your chosen characters in these slots and then choose their actions. Everything is done ahead of time, so you'll need to predict what would be the best course of action. The only drawback is that it's hard to plan for the unexpected. For instance, you might consider healing Dorothy because her health is getting low, so you lock that decision in at the beginning of the turn, however, unexpectedly the Strawman gets hit and now has way less HP than Dorothy did. Unfortunately, you're out of luck; Dorothy will still heal herself over the Strawman. I wouldn't call this a drawback, really, since it just makes battles that much more intense - you're never 100% safe while fighting.

Likewise, I'm sure you'd expect a game based off the Wizard of Oz to be easy, to draw in a more casual crowd. Well, think again. Battles can get heated and intense in YBR. Also, if you absolutely abhor grinding for experience, this may not be a game you'll take to. You spend almost the entire game grinding your way up the road, and then sometimes, just to beat bosses, you will need to do additional grinding. The game isn't super hard, but it does present an adequate challenge and will require you to think through your decisions in battle.

The best way to combat the grind is to obtain magical powers. YBR does something interesting; it doesn't reward you with spells just because you level up. You'll have to actively seek out your magical powers. There are three Father Dragons that you need to find throughout different roads. Just finding the Father Dragons isn't enough to get your powers; you'll also be forced to spar with them. These are complex battles where you will need to have a solid strategy intact. Once you complete your training session with a Father Dragon, you will gain access to new powers. My only complaint is that backtracking to find these Father Dragons is very time consuming, especially since you need to be at a certain level to even stand a chance against them.

Beautiful Sights and Sounds

I'm just going to come out and say it: the YBR soundtrack is awesome. It's actually the first thing that initially stood out to me about the game. It's one of those soundtracks I constantly got stuck in my head. That wasn't a bad thing at all, since the music was thoroughly enjoyable. Likewise, the themes for each road perfectly match the setting. There's enough variety to keep things fresh, and the music makes the trek up the roads much more pleasant. The game doesn't have any voice acting, but does feature some quality sound effects along the way. They get the job done, but aren't anything remarkable.

The graphics in the game look good, but are not anything mind blowing. The entire game is fully 3D, and everything from the character models to the environments looks very pleasing to the eyes. Some of the textures are a bit low-resolution, but all-in-all, it's very aesthetically stimulating. The game excels in its beautiful backdrops. The environments display good variety, noticeable especially in the different witches' roads. Each witch had about three different roads to complete, and instead of just falling back on one part of a season to create the atmosphere, there are many aspects to each season implemented into these roads. It's also quite impressive how vibrant The Wizard of Oz world and characters are; everything really illuminates the DS screen. Character models are decent; they mostly stick to The Wizard of Oz trademarks, but some traits are unique to the game.

Why I Loved Following the Yellow Brick Road

The Wizard of Oz: Beyond the Yellow Brick Road is not a perfect game; however, it takes you on a fun enough journey that you'll most likely overlook any imperfections that you may find. It does more right than wrong, and while it may not hit the nail on the head in terms of story, it still manages to completely captivate. It's a fun, twenty-hour romp, and if you're a fan at all of the franchise, it's a must-have. There have been a glut of RPGs released on the DS recently, and I fully recommend that you don't let this one get lost in the shuffle.



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© 2009 XSEED Games, Media.Vision. All rights reserved.


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