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

The Wizard of Oz: Beyond The Yellow Brick Road
Developer: Mediavision
Publisher: XSEED / Warner Interactive
Genre: RPG
Release Date: 09/29/09


As a video game enthusiast who thrives on unique gaming experiences, I must say, God Bless the Japanese. Thanks to the country’s various game developers, we have a game where we roll up the environment surrounding us with some kind of sticky spawn of the stars, another that sees us flying around as a mosquito looking for sweet flesh to draw blood from, and now an RPG game based around Frank L Baum’s immortal classic The Wizard of Oz.

Though creatively different from the exact happenings of that timeless epic, The Wizard of Oz: Beyond the Yellow Brick Road features all the familiar faces in unique new likenesses, and of course, the flying monkeys. After getting wind of the game’s original Japanese release some time ago, I was sold on the novelty of the concept alone. Fortunately, the good folks at XSEED got this green-lighted for the states, possibly to coincide with the Warner Bros. recent release of a super digitally remastered version of the original 1939 film, as their interactive division shares publishing rights to the DS game. For whatever the reason, this charming oddity made its way over here, and I was thoroughly interested in seeing how leveling up along the yellow brick road would pan out.

Story:

Plot wise, The Wizard of Oz: Beyond the Yellow Brick Road mostly models itself after the 1939 film, so the magic slippers are made of ruby in the game, as in the film, while in Baum’s story, the slippers were silver, for instance. But collectively, many aspects of the familiar plot are re-envisioned. Dorothy still gets to Oz by way of a tornado, but it seems Dorothy and Toto live alone on the Kansas prairie, with no sight or mention of Uncle Henry or Auntie Em. Dorothy also doesn’t take out one of the evil witches with the foundation of her house upon her arrival; rather, the ultimate defeat of the witches acts as a sort of overlying goal of the story, and also gives the story more villains to work with, which in turn provides more thematic dungeon scenarios. It’s all necessary for the greater good of keeping things as Oz-like as possible throughout the 20+ hour RPG experience, and it works out well.

At the start of the adventure, The Wizard of Oz himself greets Dorothy and invites her to his castle. During the tutorial sequence, Dorothy will meet all three of her friends, instead of meeting them along the way. The actual plot of the game begins where most would recognize the original story, be it film or book, to begin its final act: where Dorothy and her entourage arrive at the Wizard’s castle, and are promised to have their individual wishes granted in exchange for the West Witch’s broom (film) or magic book (book). Things are generally laid out in a similar fashion, though the game works with the concept that Dorothy and company must do in not one, but three evil witches, which all dare to defy the great Oz’s power.

Other surprises, both new and altered from the traditional stories, will unfold during the game, and it’s all done with good taste and proper respect to the timeless source material. With that said, I believe things would have been even more effective if the story followed the original works a little more closely as far as pacing is concerned. Having Dorothy travelling alone at the start, and meeting each of the friends by way of dungeon sequence or quest would have been a stronger way of doing things than introducing them all with minimum gusto during a tutorial sequence. As it is, the creative take on the story works, and is effectively charming. Some minor tweaks here and there would have made things a bit stronger I think, but what is there carries the twenty or so hour experience nicely.

Graphics:

The colorful and familiar characters of Oz are given a unique spin, design wise, by way of the artist’s interesting redesign of them. The Tin Man, for example, is built like a tank in this incarnation of the story. The game is presented fully in 3D, which I’m always personally leery of when it comes to titles on the Nintendo DS. The 3D in The Wizard of Oz: Beyond the Yellow Brick Road however, is easily amongst the best on the little handheld unit, if not the best period.

The 3D environments are depicted with considerable depth and detail, and the monsters are portrayed with vividly animated 3D models. It is quite impress to see on the DS, and a terrific job was done overall. I believe the visual element of a video game based around the legendary Wizard of Oz should be amongst the most important things to hit a home run with, and the game doesn’t disappoint.

Sound:

Next to the visual splendor that most would feel the need to associate with the various adaptations of The Wizard of Oz, the property as it is has always been associated with the element of music as well. Both the original film and the various re-imaginings, such as The Wiz and Wicked, are musicals, and as such, the music of anything associated with the property is going to be expected to be amazing. Though you won’t find original or remixed versions of the classic numbers heard in the 1939 film in the DS game, you well be treated to a wonderfully composed symphonic score that carries, in equal parts, the whimsy, intrigue, and danger that the game always seems to be knee deep in. Much like certain parts of the gameplay are delivered with a particular Dragon Quest flavor, the score also seems to share the same slightly subdued orchestral quality that has become synonymous with those games.

While there is no voice acting to be heard in The Wizard of Oz: Beyond the Yellow Brick Road, the sound effects are appropriate, and do their job consistently throughout the course of the game.

Gameplay:

For me, the major element of interest in this video game adaptation of The Wizard of Oz is that fact that it’s a full fledged, turn based Role Playing Game. In the twenty or so hours the game will take to complete, Dorothy and her pals will explore dungeons, equip weapons and armor of various attributes, use items, and of course level up by doing battle with Oz’s hostile inhabitants. The RPG elements are generally straight forward, with only a few aspects that deviate from what could best be described as the traditional formula.

Using the Wizard’s castle as a main base, Dorothy and the gang will travel to various locations on the world map to battle enemies, collect items, complete objectives and ultimately advance the plot. Simple mechanics, such as flipping switches, are predominantly the only obstructions you’ll face save for enemy encounters while exploring the meadows, forests, and dungeons of the land of Oz. It’s not overly complicated, and these aspects really do need to be as they are, so overall this works well. With the yellow brick road usually under Dorothy’s feet, the exploration element is sound, and coupled with the strong visual and sound aesthetic, this gives the player a good sense of atmosphere from the product.

As mentioned earlier, Dorothy will meet all her friends during the tutorial sequence at the start of the game. Each one of the four characters, including Dorothy herself, have an advantage over a certain type of monster, and will inflict more damage on said monsters. The turn based battles themselves work with a unique action point type system, where incorporating a specific character into a battle will require a certain amount of these points. Dorothy and the Scarecrow require a minimal amount of points to perform an action, as they typically do less damage, but can act more times in a turn than the Lion or Tin Man, who require more points to act in a turn, but inflict heavier damage and have more hit points. This introduces an extra element of strategy to what is essentially a typical turn based battle, as you’re required to select the characters you want to participate in each random encounter. Eventually, as characters increase in level, their stats will increase and they’ll learn various special skills to utilize in combat. It is generally a sound RPG formula.

Much as the introduction of all of Dorothy’s companions right off the bat ruins the chance for some more dynamic pacing throughout the adventure, having all your characters right at the start eventually accelerates the usually inevitable tedium a traditional RPG experience will put upon the player. The gameplay is truly solid and enjoyable, it just shows pretty much all its cards right at the start, and leaves the advancement of the plot as almost the only element to look forward to as the player progresses. The battle system, try as it may to offer some unique twists by way of an action point system, isn’t exciting enough to carry the experience for long. The simple core mechanics are the most basic of turn based set ups, and they certainly shows their limitations considerably before the halfway point of the experience.

The Wizard of Oz: Beyond the Yellow Brick Road is controlled entirely by way of the DS touch screen. Never will your fingers be required to utilize the pad or buttons. The player moves Dorothy around with an aesthetically interesting emerald green roller ball, which is cute. By rolling the ball at various speeds, Dorothy will increase speed from a walk to a trot to a dash. To slow her down, one has to pull back on the roller ball. It works well enough, but the track ball feature admittedly feels a bit unnecessary for what is essentially an otherwise standard RPG, and many times I wished I could just move with the pad. Selecting options in any of the various menus requires you to touch small scaled boxes, which also is a bit imprecise at times, and generally makes navigating menus more work than if the game functioned with the pad and button inputs.

Replayability:

Like most standard RPGs, The Wizard of Oz: Beyond the Yellow Brick Road will pretty much only last for a play-through. There’s not much to go back to once you go through the game’s twenty hour story. Due to its clever concept, however, I can easily see this as a game players might want to go through again down the (yellow brick?) road, which is more than I can say for many of the traditional RPGs I’ve played over the years.

Balance:

The Wizard of Oz: Beyond the Yellow Brick Road is never overly difficult, partially due to the generally simplistic way it goes about things. Enemies obviously get gradually more difficult, and a boss enemy will sometimes propose a challenge, but the easy going nature of the game seems to be in place purposely, more than likely because aside from curious gamers like myself, the game can generally expect to garner interest from a younger video gaming crowd. In those respects, one should not really expect a strong RPG challenge with The Wizard of Oz: Beyond the Yellow Brick Road. There’s no excessive level grinding necessary, and healing potions are always bountiful. It would have been nice to have a tougher challenge later in the game, but as it is, the steady and low key pace is acceptable, and will allow everyone who wants to give the game a shot to have a good time with it.

Originality:

The developers did their best to include some new functionality with the turn based battles in The Wizard of Oz: Beyond the Yellow Brick Road, while still keeping the mechanics simple enough to understand for younger players who are interested in giving the game a go. Other than that, the game works as a very straight forward, standard RPG, but isn’t especially original. Most of the originality to be had from the product comes by way of the quirky and novel concept, and the way the traditional characters, settings, and story (though altered) fit into place within an RPG game shell, as this is generally quite novel and unique.

Addictiveness:

Your attachment to the game is pretty much going to be solely dependant on how much you like the concept of The Wizard of Oz as an RPG. If you’re a fan of the classic story, film, or any of its many variations over the years, and you’re a fan of RPGs, The Wizard of Oz: Beyond the Yellow Brick Road will definitely keep you entertained and interested for the twenty or so hours it lasts. Honestly, though, both of those interests need to be in place for someone to really enjoy what the game is trying to do. The quirky charm of the concept will be less effective, if not totally lost, on RPG players who don’t have an appreciation or general interest in the source material, and those who are fans of the timeless story and film who aren’t RPG fans will probably be wondering why it’s not an action game.

Appeal:

The release of The Wizard of Oz: Beyond the Yellow Brick Road coincided with the release of a special remastered release of the classic 1939 film, which possibly won it some extra attention. That said, while I’m sure it will pop up on a few gamers’ radars, more than likely, either due to the misconception that The Wizard of Oz: Beyond the Yellow Brick Road is just another run of the mill game put together to highlight the popular film/DVD release, or the belief that it’s just a simple product for younger audiences, many players may turn their noses up at it. These initial impressions might keep The Wizard of Oz: Beyond the Yellow Brick Road away from a considerable number of gamers who might really enjoy it.

Miscellaneous:

I’d like to use this section of the review to praise developer XSEED for giving quirky titles like this, Valhalla Knights: Eldar Saga and Ju-On a chance in the States. As a gamer who is always interested in unique gaming experiences, or at least ones that don’t always follow the rules of what’s currently the top earning franchise of the moment, I appreciate that and love that XSEED is giving gamers the chance to play these games, especially when they’re as interesting as The Wizard of Oz: Beyond the Yellow Brick Road.

The Scores:
Story: GREAT
Graphics: CLASSIC
Sound: CLASSIC
Gameplay: GOOD
Replayability: ABOVE AVERAGE
Balance: ABOVE AVERAGE
Originality: GREAT
Addictiveness: ABOVE AVERAGE
Appeal Factor: ABOVE AVERAGE
Miscellaneous: CLASSIC
FINAL SCORE: VERY GOOD GAME!

Short Attention Span Summary:

The Wizard of Oz: Beyond the Yellow Brick Road is a wonderfully creative take on the classic story that executes itself with ample amounts of charm and playability. The RPG elements might be a lighter than more seasoned players expect, and the touch screen exclusive controls seem slightly forced, but the game is a visually stunning, great sounding, and thoroughly enjoyable RPG experience that is a good time for older and younger players alike. If you’re a fan of the films or stories and you have an appreciation for RPGs, The Wizard of Oz: Beyond the Yellow Brick Road is a game you should pretty much attempt to track down and play as soon as you can, as it’s a surprisingly interesting and creative take on an old classic.

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