Hands-on: The Wizard of Oz: Beyond the Yellow Brick Road

With tons of excellent RPGs on the Nintendo DS to choose from and more always on the way, it’s getting tough to keep track of them all without counting yourself into a coma. On the other hand, it takes something as innovative, lovely and just plain fun to play as Xseed’s upcoming The Wizard of Oz: Beyond the Yellow Brick Road to snap someone like me out of that snoozy state and wish for a working time machine. While the game isn’t set to hit stores until the fall, I was fortunate enough to get some hands-on time with an English build at a recent Xseed Games press event here in NYC.

Japanese developer Media Vision (of Wild Arms fame) has put together a charming, challenging all-ages RPG that features gorgeous 3D graphics, an intriguing combat system and trackball-based movement I can see other developers “borrowing” for their future games. The game initially follows the plot from the classic film and L. Frank Baum book, but everything from the anime-style character designs to the turn-based battles are distinctly classic JRPG. The build I played had two saves, one with a two-member low level Dorothy/Scarecrow and the second with all four travelers around level 28.

Although you get the four principals early on (Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion, of course) the game isn’t just a rehashed trip to a familiar OZ that has you taking down the Wicked Witch of the West at the end. There are four large seasonally themed maps to explore and a variety of enemies and bosses to face off against.The DS’ top screen displays the game world while the lower screen is taken up by the huge trackball you’ll use to guide Dorothy about. A light flick of the stylus will send her walking, while a good top to bottom roll will send her rocketing around as if she’s on roller skates. While it’s possible to fly past enemies with a little practice, you can also run straight into them and start a turn-based battle scene. Here’s where things get strategically interesting.

Before a battle actually starts, you choose who’s going to participate and the order in which they fight. Each character has a numerical rating from one to three stars and you’re allowed up to four stars total. Dorothy and the Scarecrow are rated one star, the Lion is two and The Tin Man three stars. Once you’ve chosen your active members and which attacks, magic or items they’ll use, the battle commences in typical first-person turn-based fashion showing your enemies onscreen with your party’s status boxes below. While Dorothy seems to be more of a healer-type, she can definitely dish out a beat down when need be. The Scarecrow is no slouch either when it comes to the fisticuffs, but the much stronger Lion and Tin Man can plow through multiple enemies like a tornado through a Lego farm set. You can also let the game automatically fight for you, a great thing when grinding away on weaker enemies.

Early on, the game doesn’t seem so tough, with plenty of weaker enemies scattered throughout the first map. However, you’ll find that zipping past too many enemies or too quickly through a few battles can be hazardous to your party’s health. As you get closer to an new area’s gateway, you’ll start to run into the occasional higher level pack of enemies that can knock an under-leveled party out in nothing flat. When I tried the higher level party save, I ran into a really vicious spectral enemy with a ton of health who was practically immune to any regular, magic or special attacks. I managed to escape from the battle, but upon returning to the game world, ol’ ghostypants was still lurking in the area a wee bit too close for comfort.

Visually, the game is an absolute 3D masterpiece for the DS. By limiting movement to the different types roads, paths, boardwalks and such, Media Vision was able to bring the rest of the environments to vivid life. Colors pop off the screen, all the character models look great and the backgrounds practically sing with detail. If it weren’t for the second screen and trackball, you’d almost think someone squeezed a PlayStation 2 emulator into the DS. There are also some beautifully illustrated storybook sections that tie things together (and makes me wonder if there’s actually going to be an anime coming down the road one of these days).

The music (by Hitoshi Sakimoto and Michiko Naruke) is also solid, but don’t expect to hear any of the familiar songs from the film. There’s a new (and very pretty) song for the main title theme, but other than that, you won’t hear any voice acting pumping out of those DS speakers. All the dialog is text-based and from what I saw and read, translated excellently. Of course, if this ever gets ported up to the PSP down the road, I’d expect a fully voiced cast taking advantage of the UMD format (but hey, don’t quote me on that).

All in all, it’s hard not to be impressed by the game and all this Oz needs is hardcore JRPG fans, Wizard of Oz fanatics and anyone else with an interest in quirky games the entire family will love to jump on the bandwagon and sing its praises. September 22 is right around the corner, which means pre-ordering this gem is a must if you fit into any of the categories above. Of course, I’ll be back with a full review of the final version, so stay tuned…


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