The Wizard of Oz: Beyond the Yellow Brick Road
At the turn of the twentieth century it must have been difficult for L. Frank Baum to foresee his seminal work, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz being adapted into a Nintendo DS game, let alone a JRPG. Given the genre’s penchant for ragtag groups of travelers who meet by chance and miraculously share an overlapping goal, it’s really no wonder the property has now been extended in its next logical direction.
Rather than simply retrace the events laid forth by Baum, Beyond the Yellow Brick Road charts its own course through the fictional world of Oz. Other then the minor difference of fighting the Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion and Tin Man before they join your party, Dorothy and Toto’s adventures in Oz remains mostly unaltered until your audience with the Wizard. Upon speaking with him, he enlists your services in reclaiming the various realms of Oz from a quartet of witches who have divided the land he claims are rightfully his.
Each of the four realms of Oz is themed after one of the four seasons and each is divided into a series of dungeons. While Beyond the Yellow Brick Road is a JRPG, it is specifically a dungeon crawler and players will spend almost all of their time in dungeon or in combat. Navigation is handled via stylus and a virtual track ball on the DS’ lower screen, flicking the ball forward will make Dorothy run while swiping backwards will make her slow down. At first the control scheme is disorienting since it provides no effective way to look around the environments or even turn Dorothy around, but as the game plays out its purpose becomes more clear based on the corridor based nature of each dungeon.
Dungeons consist of a myriad of branching paths, enemies and locked doors. At each branch you’ll find a sign post that’ll allow you to select icons to illustrate something about each direction. You can leave a question mark to indicate you haven’t explored a particular direction or a heart to remind you of a healing fountain, but surprisingly you can’t draw your own icons. While you’re exploring you’ll occasionally come across mechanisms that require one of the various spirits you’ll acquire along the way which correspond to the different elements. All that really means is you’ll essentially find talking keys that are fire, water, earth and wind based.
Along your travels you’ll encounter your fair share of enemies that can either be avoided or fought. Combat takes place from a first-person perspective à la Dragon Quest and works on a ratio point based system. Each party member costs a certain amount of ratio points to use and only four points can be used per turn. When selecting your characters you’ll queue up various actions including basic attacks, magic and items. If you don’t select an action manually for each character the game will select whatever it thinks is appropriate for that turn and situation. While that might sound useful, it’ll often cost players valuable items or MP if you forget to change a character’s action. It’s very easy to lose track of what each character is lined up to do during a fight thanks to the backwards combat menu. Simply assigning actions requires multiple menu’s worth of navigation and since the game only supports stylus input you have to manually click each and every option by hand, which takes far more time and effort then the simple days of directional pad inputs and buttons.
Another major issue with combat is you have absolutely no control to attack specific individual enemies. If there are two or more of the same enemy type they’re listed as a group in the attack menu, thus negating the ability to attack a specific monster. Party members will usually attack whoever has the least health, and while that might be useful it isn’t always the most desirable attack. Consider if you’ve queued an attack that hits multiple enemies and you’d like an earlier strike to get a different enemy’s health lowered so the big hit finishes everyone off at once. Monsters will also change position during a fight, which determines whether they can attack and the amount of damage they receive, and your characters will occasionally waste attacks on enemies in the rear position that pose no immediate threat.
In between trips to the dungeons you’ll visit the Wizard who doubles as the only shop keeper in all of Oz. Like any other RPG you can buy and sell various weapons and armor to outfit your party with but even these seemingly simple transactions are made a chore. Inexplicably you aren’t allowed to auto-equip a freshly bought weapon without unnecessary menu diving. While this might be a minor missing feature it illustrates the overall lackadaisical game design found in Beyond the Yellow Brick Road.
In a cluttered RPG market on the DS there isn’t any real reason to recommend The Wizard of Oz. The new story is generic, the exploration hampered by unnecessary backtracking and the dreaded locked door puzzles. An interesting combat system is ruined by the default party actions and clunky menu navigation. This certainly isn’t what L. Frank Baum had in mind, there aren’t even any flying monkeys.