So Capcom announced a few days ago that there will, after a decade since the last real game in the series, finally be a Breath of Fire 6. And they have also announced that it will be a smart phone/tablet game. Whereas Electronic Arts practices a casual, accidental cruelty in which they don’t care whether or not their pursuit of every dollar in existence leaves the entire game industry a cultural wasteland and destroys video games as an artistic medium, I think Capcom is by this point actively, maliciously attempting to hurt as many human beings as they possibly can.
Anyway, on with the actual rant.
The DS and 3DS have become pretty much the signature RPG systems of the current age. Sure, you get some RPGs for the Wii, Playstation 3, and X-Box 360, and a decent number for the PC, but as a general rule, the RPG system of the current day is Nintendo’s handheld, at least as far as JRPGs go.* This is just fine by me, since it gives me a chance to get my RPG on during my break at work and generally any other time I’m sitting around waiting for something whilst out of my house and away from my other consoles. The list of RPGs in each of my Annual Summary rants that denote what RPGs I played in the past year would have been cut almost in half in the last few years if I hadn’t had my DS and 3DS available to me.
There is, however, one potential problem with this situation: the Stylus.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Stylus-oriented gameplay can be pretty awesome for most game genres. Nintendo’s seemingly never ending gameplay creativity has brought about a lot of awesome uses for the Stylus in gaming, and many other companies making DS games have also creatively and effectively incorporated the stylus into their works. And even in the case of RPGs, the stylus isn’t necessarily a bad thing, when used effectively. The general pace and play style of RPGs doesn’t fit that of a stylus-oriented game very well, but there are plenty of occasions in an RPG where stylus input can be a good way to do things, like with minigames, or certain puzzles, and so on.
Unfortunately, when a game developer isn’t using the stylus effectively in an RPG, it can get messy. And when they’re doing a REALLY bad job with it, well...then you get The Wizard of Oz: Beyond the Yellow Brick Road.
First problem with TWoOBtYBR’s control system: EVERYTHING is controlled with the stylus. The buttons on the DS don’t actually do anything. Now, this is the problem with the stylus when it comes to RPGs: a developer may look at this highlighted gameplay device of the DS and think, “Well gee, that sure is nifty! I think I’m gonna make my RPG ONLY use the stylus for input!” What I wish they would also think is, “Wait, is the stylus actually going to be the BETTER input choice for every part of an RPG?” Because the answer is that it definitely will not be. Most RPGs, regardless of what side of the ocean they come from, involve a heavy amount of menus in their gameplay. From inventory screens to character abilities screens to dialogue boxes to battle menus, a huge part of most RPGs’ gameplay is handled through selections on a menu. It’s the reason why RPGs are boring to actually play. And here’s the thing: it is faster, less work, and more accurate to select things in a menu using your direction pad and the A and B buttons than it is to tap your way through said menu with a stylus. If the menu is complex enough, hitting the exact menu selection you want is difficult with the stylus simply because that selection is small enough that you may need to be very precise with where you’re hitting the screen to get it. If the menu has enough choices for each selection, you’ve got to be moving the stylus to several places and tapping over and over again just to perform one action. And if it’s a heavily menu-based game, you’re having to do this literally thousands of times through the game’s course. Yeah, in the end it’s not all that big a deal, I suppose, but compared to simply hitting a directional button a couple times to highlight your selection exactly and then hitting the confirm button, it’s quite inconvenient and annoying.
However, that is only part of the problem with this game’s controls. If I were going to rant about a game whose gameplay was annoying for being entirely stylus-driven, I would have more than just The Wizard of Oz: Beyond the Yellow Brick Road to rant about. I wasn’t a fan of The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks doing it, either, even though Nintendo did a great job at making the system work mostly adequately. And the controls for Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood, another all-stylus game, are just plain lousy.
What really sets TWoOBtYBR apart from other all-stylus games, however, is the way you move Dorothy around. Now, you won’t hear me praising Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood about anything any time soon, but I’ll give the game this: directing your character by holding the stylus down in the direction relative to said character that you want them to move in at least seems sensible in theory. It sure as hell didn’t wind up working out very well, but the thought of having your character move toward where the stylus is pointing is, at least, a rational way to go about character movement if you’ve already stupidly decided to only allow the game to be played with a stylus, no buttons. Here, however, is a considerably less obvious and straightforward idea: they’ve put a crystal ball on the bottom screen, and the player drags the stylus across it in the direction that they want Dorothy to move in. The ball will roll for a bit, the character will move forward for a bit, and then as the crystal ball slows its roll, so will Dorothy slow until both halt. This necessitates the player to repeat the stylus stroke incessantly to keep her moving.
I’m sorry, Media Vision, but which focus group was it, exactly, that said they wanted an RPG in which the simple act of just moving a character forward replaced the Up Button with a fucking bowling minigame?
One which doesn’t work all that well, I should mention. Dorothy takes a second or 2 to pick up any real speed, which I admit is only annoying to a player who wants her to get to her next destination quickly--but that would be presumably any player who’s trying to make her run in the first place. She also has to skid awkwardly to a halt after running, rather than stopping just meaning stopping, and her changes in direction are a bit sluggish at times. That said, when I say that these things make this ball-spinning process not work all that well, I don’t mean it in the sense of faulty coding or anything like that. I’m fairly certain that each of these little irritations I mention are intentional, as they make Dorothy’s running realistic. Unfortunately, this is the Totally Unnecessary, Annoying, and Reeking of Stupid Lack of Common Sense brand of RPG realism, like when you have to constantly take the time to repair your weapons to keep them functional (like with Fallout 3, Fallout New Vegas, and the Dark Cloud series), or RPGs with Sprint Meters, where characters can only run for so long without getting tired and having to stop (like with Lunar 1 and 2, or Baten Kaitos 1). This sort of tiny bit of realism typically adds absolutely nothing of value to the game,** and would not be missed if they were not present--I don’t know about you, but I can’t recall ever having heard a Final Fantasy player groan, “Aw, man, this game would be so much better if my sword were disintegrating faster than Dan Slott’s dignity! And why isn’t my character getting winded from 10 seconds of movement? I’m really sick and tired of being able to travel to places in a timely manner! And where’s the “Breathe” button? How can my character possibly stay alive if I don’t press a button to make him breathe every 2 seconds?” Part of the core principle of Suspension of Disbelief is that we, the audience, are willing to let some tiny, irrelevant details of reality slide if it justifiably improves the storytelling process and quality of the product, and this “realistic running” business is exactly the sort of tiny, irrelevant detail that is acceptable to trade away for the sake of the product’s quality--in this case, basic playability and convenience. No one expects an RPG character’s inn stay to actually last a realistic 12 hours instead of the customary 5 seconds, and in the same spirit, no one expects an RPG character’s running to require buildup, gradual turns, and skidding halts.
Even if this stupid ball-rolling-based movement style controlled more pleasantly, though, it’s tedious and dumb in nature. The Crystal Ball barely has a connection to The Wizard of Oz to begin with, to my (admittedly limited) knowledge of the Oz universe--isn’t it basically only a small prop of the fortune-teller in Kansas, from early in the story? And that connection isn’t even relevant to the game, since part of TWoOBtYBR’s departure from the original Wizard of Oz’s story is to eliminate the fortune-teller (and pretty much everything else in Kansas) anyway. And tap-dragging a stylus over the thing over and over again, once per second or so, for half of a roughly 20 to 30 hour game, can be described with many words, but “fun” is not among them. I don’t know who it was over at Media Vision who decided how the gameplay of The Wizard of Oz: Beyond the Yellow Brick Road would be set up, but whomever you may be, if you ever happen to read this, I would like you to know that you are an idiot.
* Although I have to say that for all the many new RPGs that have come out for the DS and 3DS, there are unfortunately few great ones for the system. Of the 36 I’ve played, I’d say only 5 of them (Radiant Historia, Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 1, Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey, Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume, and The World Ends with You) were truly exceptional. The rest range anywhere from pretty decent (Infinite Space and Pokemon Generation 4, for example) to just fucking terrible (Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood and Megaman Starforce 1, for example), with most falling right into the middle of that range and being kinda okay but not really worth playing (Pokemon Generation 5 and The Glory of Heracles 5, for example). I can’t help but feel that the previous signature RPG systems, the Super Nintendo, Playstation 1, and Playstation 2, all had significantly better ratios of quality games per capita. Maybe the newly released Shin Megami Tensei: Soul Hackers and Shin Megami Tensei 4 will tilt the DS/3DS library a little more in the direction of quality, though.
** I guess you could say that the constant decay of equipment in Fallout 3 and Fallout New Vegas ties to the setting of post-apocalyptic decay...but that’s still a bit of a stretch to justify forcing the player to constantly handle this meaningless maintenance busywork.