Friday, October 23, 2009
Review: The Wizard of Oz: Beyond the Yellow Brick Road
Platform: Nintendo DS/DSi
Developer: Media Vision
Publisher: Xseed Games
# of Players: 1
Rating: E (Everyone)
Thanks to the very wise folks at Xseed, Media Vision's RIZ-ZOAWD has finally come to the US retitled The Wizard of Oz: Beyond the Yellow Brick Road and it's one truly gorgeous JRPG both genre and Oz fans will love. The game balances classic turn-based combat with a great, innovative stylus centered control scheme that's sure to be copied in the future by other developers. Nearly everything about the game is grand and feels just right. What's here is basic enough for entry level players, yet the level of challenge in some spots can make the game tricky enough for RPG veterans to appreciate. This revision of the classic Oz tale doesn't overstay its welcome either, as the adventure clocks in at a decent enough length and has a nicely done ending that resonates long after you've watched the end credits.
Don't even think about the classic film being referenced here (other than the brief, funny opening dance sequence after the WB logo). This all-new story takes Dorothy, Toto and her three odd friends down a completely different path after that familiar twister picks her up and deposits her into the game's strange new world. The game twists the original tale around by getting you to Oz within the first twenty or so minutes with all of Dorothy's traveling companions in tow (and her little dog, too). The Wizard tasks Dorothy and her pals to defeat a number of witches in four different seasonally-themed lands before they can take over the land of Oz. Upon doing so, wishes will be granted, everything will be hunky-dory and Dorothy will find her way back to Kansas... allegedly. But let's keep things spoiler free here, shall we?
You're guided through the stylus-based movement that has you flicking and tapping a trackball on the bottom screen. This control system is perfect, allowing Dorothy to walk, trot, run at full tilt and stop on a dime. You can also turn using arrows to the left and right of the trackball. All her motions are wonderfully animated from head to toe and it's just a ton of fun to get from place to place using this method. Combat also uses the touchscreen, but in a more simplified manner making it accessible to anyone who can read and hold a stylus. When you go into battle, you're allowed to select who you want to participate using a "ratio" system. You have four points total to work with and each of the four travelers is assigned a specific point value. Dorothy and the Scarecrow are one point each, The Lion is two points and the big Tin Man is a big three points. Additionally, enemies have different characteristics each of the four characters are strong against, which adds a bit of strategy to the fighting.
For example, Dorothy is strong against ghosts, the Tin Man is strong against plant creatures, the Lion beats stone-based creatures and the Scarecrow is great against aquatic enemies. While this makes things easier once you remember who's good against what, once in a while the game does mix in a few enemies that can't be defeated by normal means. One of those "enemies" is Io, a wise old gnome/lizard/Yoda-looking creature that teaches you a few much needed magic spells. The only way to get trained by him is to beat him, but he's not going down without a fight. For an old coot with a tail and a cranky attitude, he's got some nasty attacks that can wipe out your team of four in a few turns. If you best him each member learns a new spell. If he wipes you out, it's Game Over and a trip to your last save point. Having a good stock of healing items helps a great deal as does using some of the spells you learn against him in future visits.
One thing you'll notice in combat is the game recommends actions for each character, but you'll need to pay VERY close attention here as you may want to manually heal someone rather than let the game do something entirely different, costing you a character for that battle. On the other hand, the beginning of the adventure is shockingly easy to the point of being quite deceptive. You'll blow through baddies so quickly (and defeat each of your three Oz pals in no time flat) that some of you might think the rest of the game is a total cakewalk. Well, it's most certainly not. I'd recommend leveling up a lot more before you leave that Yellow Brick Road, as the game takes a geometric leap in difficulty in the Spring stages. Of course, as you grow stronger, those wolves, frogs and other formerly major pains will become minor bumps in the road as you go after that aforementioned group of witches the mighty Oz wants taken out.
There's a ton of visual power on display here and this is one of the best-looking DS games to date. You'll see some of the most beautiful scenery on the handheld thanks to some really talented artists and programmers pushing the hardware to its limits. Media Vision has put together a game that practically sings its visuals to you through lush color and tons of detail you'd normally find in a console game. Yes, there's a bit of pop-up, but every area has some jaw-dropping locations with waterfalls, arched ruins and lovely skies all around. Enemy design recalls everything from Dragon Quest (those ghosts cracked me up the first time I saw them) to a bit of Final Fantasy and a few stops in between, yet as a whole, the art direction and presentation comes off as wholly original. The redesigned manga-style Oz characters look spectacular and it's too bad we only see them in that cool opening, storybook sequences or character portraits. The again, having all four heroes running around on screen during the game would have been a bit too hard on the game engine.
The soundtrack is nothing but amazing throughout from the lovely opening song, the different battle music and other choice tunes pumping majestically from the DS speakers. If Xseed had packed this with a soundtrack CD, it would be an even better buy, but as it is,some of you will be popping in ear buds to listen to the tunes once you get into the game. I haven't been to the game's web site just yet, but it would be very cool if Xseed made the entire soundtrack available as a download at some point. Hmmmm... maybe they can start a download service on their site, charging a few dollars for the different game soundtracks from their most popular titles. Time for an Xseed site poll, I say...
My few complaints about the game are minor. Coins are really hard to come by, so you'll be stuck with your starting gear for a while unless you "farm" maps for gold by going back and forth in an easy area and hope for the best. And when you finally do buy new gear, you often find out that the weapons or armor in some treasure chests ends up weaker than the stuff you spent money on a few hours back. At least healing is free if you warp back to the castle and don't mind retracing your steps. As innovative as the controls are, I'd imagine some gamers whining on about the simple combat system, but i say if it ain't broke... don't screw with it.
Too many JRPGs get saddled with some really crazy battle systems that make playing the games more annoying than enjoyable. What's here works perfectly because it doesn't try to be arcane and flabbergasting disguised as "cool" or "innovative." The game works because it's accessible and the only learning curve comes from getting Dorothy to go where you want her to and occasionally not taking the choice the CPU gives you in some battles. If I had to REALLY whine about something, it would have to be with the whole Toto thing. there's a button on the lower screen that lets Dorothy pet him to make him learn "tricks" as the game progresses, but I think he only goes after coins (and he's not too good at that). Then again, the rest of the game was so well explained in-game that I didn't read the manual or poke around online at all to find out what all that heavy petting would really do.
Overall, The Wizard of Oz: beyond the Yellow Brick Road is one of the best DS RPGs this year, hands down. While it doesn't have the hype of a Final Fantasy or a Fire Emblem, nor is it as "epic" in length as those or other franchises, it's definitely a recommended purchase for any JRPG fan. Wizard of Oz book and film fans will adore what's here as well as the game makes excellent use of a fantastic license, looks phenomenal and plays like a dream. I'm not sure if Media Vision has future plans for more Oz games, but that game engine they've cooked up for the game is something well worth seeing in another RPG, that's for sure.