The Wizard of Oz: Beyond the Yellow Brick Road is such a unique mish-mash of ideas. It’s like Media.Vision decided to create a hotpot of random design elements and dub it an RPG.
The game begins with Dorothy and Toto — both of whom you get to name — being whisked off to the land of Oz by the famous tornado. Once in Oz, the game teaches you the basics of control, and this is where The Wizard of Oz: Beyond the Yellow Brick Road starts to get interesting.
Everything in Beyond the Yellow Brick Road seems to be based around the concept of streamlining. The game is on-rails for one thing. It feels like an RPG-lite for another. Oh, and everything is controlled via stylus, including movement. Movement is handled via a very unique interface on the DS’s touchscreen called a "trackball." Spinning the trackball by swiping it with your stylus in any direction causes Dorothy to walk in that direction. Spinning it faster speeds her up to a jog, and going crazy with swipes makes her sprint.
Something that bears mentioning is just how much fun this is. At full sprint, Dorothy feels like Sonic, and her character is beautifully animated, too. Initially, I was a little skeptical about using the trackball to control movement, but it’s half the fun of the game. Because the game is on-rails, it feels awesome running through areas at full speed, while dodging enemies and watching the environment fly past you. I highly recommend blaring Fatboy Slim’s "Right Here, Right Now" at full blast and playing this game while listening to it. (Sorry Sakimoto!)
Speaking of enemies, they’re all visible in the game. That’s right…no random battles, which is automatically a huge plus in my book. However, since the game is on-rails, dodging enemies can be a bit of a tricky proposition. If you’re sprinting too fast, you’ll likely end up running straight into them unless you manage to alter course from a fair distance away, in which case you’ll nick past them and feel awesome while they eat your dust.
You can’t afford to dodge every enemy though, since this is an RPG and requires the usual grinding and leveling up and earning money to buy items and equipment for your team.
Here’s how battles work: Each battle is divided into "sets," similar to Dragon Quest. During each set, you get four turns to attack your enemies. You have four party members in Dorothy, Scarecrow, Lion and Tin Man. Each of these characters has a "turn ratio" in battle. Dorothy has a turn ratio of 1, which means she can attack all four times in a single set if she’s the only character you take into battle. The same applies to Scarecrow.
Lion, however, has a turn ratio of 2, which means he takes up two of your four turns. This means you can use Lion once, and Dorothy or Scarecrow twice — or once each. Or you can consume all four turns by using Lion twice. Being the strongest of the party, Tin Man has a turn ratio of 3, which means you can attack with him once and that leaves a single turn available for either Dorothy or Scarecrow (3+1). You can change your team in between each set. It sounds a little complicated in writing, but it’s not really.
Each of these characters also has a particular affinity — an element they’re effective against. This list is as follows:
Dorothy — Ghost
Scarecrow — Water
Lion — Shell
Tin Man — Plant
Based on what element your enemies in battle are, you’ll want to choose the appropriate party members to go on the offensive, so you can do the maximum amount of damage.
I called The Wizard of Oz: Beyond the Yellow Brick Road an RPG-lite earlier, and this is because of how the battles play out. Party members automatically target the enemies they’re strongest against, and also use potions to heal each other automatically if they’re low on health by default. This makes it a great role-playing experience for beginners. You can, however, manually control both these options should you choose to do so for strategic purposes. All the default options serve to compliment the game’s streamlined nature, however, and the UI is very easy to understand and use as well. Battles feel very effortless in how they’re controlled.
Beyond the Yellow Brick Road also allows you to mark signposts in the environment so you don’t get lost. While the game is on-rails, there are lots of branching paths that all lead to different places…sometimes an item, sometimes a dead-end or a new area entirely. At each fork in the road is a signpost, onto which you can stamp a symbol from a preset list. Since there are only six symbols, however, you’ll have to plan out what you intend to use each one to indicate — something even the game points out.
Something I’d like to touch upon very briefly is the art. The Wizard of Oz: Beyond the Yellow Brick Road looks great for a DS game. Since everything is on-rails, Media.Vision were able to push a fair number of objects onscreen, and it’s always nice to see people try that on weaker hardware. Dorothy’s character model is really well animated, and just making her run around and make turns can be fun to watch. The environments look really colourful and vibrant as well, with lots of grass and plants and trees lining the roads you travel along. There’s even reflections in the water! So much detail.
The other aspect that’s worth mentioning is story — or the lack of one, to be more precise. Sure, the game follows the overall Wizard of Oz plot more or less, but don’t expect any character development or growth for your party members. It seems like Media.Vision were aiming for a fun, experimental game, and this is what they’ve ultimately delivered as opposed to a traditional RPG.
Food for thought:
1. The trackball really is fun. I almost wish Media.Vision had done away with the RPG elements entirely and made this a platformer instead. SEGA and Bioware, take a good close look. This is how you make a DS Sonic RPG.
2. While The Wizard of Oz: Beyond the Yellow Brick road is great for newcomers to the genre, it also gets tough pretty quickly. Potions in particular become scarce quickly, and you’ll need to grind to acquire / buy more.
3. I love the way Dorothy screeches to a halt if you make her stop during a high speed sprint.