March 30, 2017

In RETROspect: Beyond Oasis

Once again, the Cartridge Club called upon the genius of the Sega Genesis for March 2017's game of the month, and landed on Beyond Oasis, an "action RPG" developed by Ancient and released on the Genny in 1995 for North Americans. The game is frequently described as "Zelda-like" which is a descriptor that drives me nuts, but nevertheless serves its purpose here rather well. Beyond Oasis is about as much of a RPG as Zelda. In fact, the game makes me think, if Prince of Persia and Streets of Rage had a baby, and then Zelda became its stepmom...
It's true title is The Story of Thor, which is all kinds of weird when you consider the character's name is Ali, and you couldn't name him Thor even if you wanted to (you're stuck with a 3 character limit!). But the truth is, the game has nothing at all to do with Thor or Norse mythology, and to my knowledge the name is thanks to a transcript error.
The game boasts a rather simple design for something called a RPG, but doesn't come up short on design or story, and might even be fun sometimes!
Blah blah blah, spoilers n' such, blah blah blah...

The story of Thor Beyond Oasis is a classic tale of why you should always put your money in gold... er...
Our boy Ali is a shitty prince with nothing better to do but go treasure hunting. While he's at it, he happens across the legendary gold armlet... that talks. The armlet tells Ali his days of boredom are over, 'cause now he has to seek out and defeat whomever has the accompanying silver armlet, which is evil 'cause it's not gold. Okay, I know I'm not doing it any favors here, but the plot is actually quite well done. The game doesn't waste your time with boring details or long conversations, but rather lets you actually play the game, and sort the details out on your own, which is not difficult or convoluted. You get snippets of story in short cutscenes between chunks of play, and the story itself is easy to follow and suits the adventure genre the game truly sports.
One thing I've always loved about games on the Genesis, is that the sprites are often bigger and the settings more "zoomed in" - an excellent feature then, and now that I'm old and going blind. The art in Beyond Oasis is pretty awesome; the characters give me Toriyama vibes for sure. Bosses are ace. The design of the levels, on the other hand, isn't so perfect - sometimes on purpose. It's easy to get blocked by trees and other landscape features, and lining up hits in Beyond is already iffy - much worse when you can't actually see your target or navigate Ali correctly, but more on that later.
On screen at all times you have two meters - which conveniently switch sides so as not to hinder your points of interest - red is your general health, of HP, and the other is your spirit health, or SP, which comes into play when you summon spirits and use their magic. It will slowly drain while the summon is with you, but often regenerates after you dismiss them. If you need a boost while they're with you, there are items for that. Your health on the other hand... well I hope you bought lots of fish.* You will be signaled audibly when your health or SP bar are reaching the point duress.
You might be tempted to slash and kick at everything that looks like it could hold something, but unfortunately, you'll only find success with chests.

*Actually, you eventually acquire items that help with HP (and SP) regen later on!

There is a single small menu on your start button, in which you can access and change your weapon (max 8), which range from your default knife to badass broadswords, bombs and bogus crossbows, but all have a finite amount of uses except the Altknife... well, there are other "infinite" weapons, but you're going to have to work for them;
use items (max 16), which mostly consist of food that'll give your HP or SP bar a little kick, you may eventually find emergency summon points for your spirits, too;
review your status: rank, HP, SP, kill count and gem count, as well as any other key items you've gathered - these things mostly contribute to the rank you're awarded at the very end of the game. You rank up Ali by picking up hearts (sound familiar?) and his stability and abilities will grow, meanwhile there are a maximum of fifteen gems available for each of your spirits... the more you find, the stronger your spirit (and the better your endgame rank);
find a convenient map which will always display a flag indicating your next destination, and a "you are here" marker. Of course, if you always head for the flag, you miss out on a lot of the goodies.
You can also save your game from here, however there will be an X in its place when saving is not an option - usually in dungeons. You won't be able to access most of your menu if you've been hit, but it recovers pretty fast in dire situations. Accessing the menu also pauses the game.

Regarding controls: gotta love the Genesis.
The D-pad does exactly what you think it does. If you double tap, Ali will dash. Either way, he looks like a fucking retard. A - armlet/summon abilities. You'll get instructions after each summon acquisition; B - use weapon and/or talk to people. Same thing. Also your "pick up" action is this button, which is a bit annoying to line up at first; C - jump! Or if you hold it, you can duck. Super annoying when you have to try to do this and something else simultaneously, or any type of platforming whatsoever. Hitting ABC together will dismiss your summon and lastly, there's a book you can find in the castle which explains how to do a spin attack. Most useful!
What's not useful is the way Ancient executed the controls. They're a bit sloppy and undependable, especially, I find, when trying to switch directions or accomplish two tasks at once, i.e. ducking and slashing. Platforming is basically impossible. Much fury.

This asshole.
Again, much like Zelda, bosses in Beyond are usually giant things that need to be hacked away at. There isn't much variety in bosses but they are fun to look at. My least favorite was probably Silver's angry, rock-spewing, xenomorph bird-snake... only because it required running to be successful and fuck running in this game.
General combat is also Zelda-like. Baddies will pop up and wander around the level, mostly doing their own thing until they notice you. Many don't even notice after you hit them. I find lining up hits is a bit of a chore. You get used to it, eventually, but it's still annoying. It doesn't help that you can't move and attack simultaneously. You have to whack an enemy, close the gap and repeat. Or better yet, pin him against a wall or something. Bigger weapons help a lot with the doing away of bad guys, and some enemies can't be attacked the conventional way, like snakes, which have to be kicked or slashed at while ducking. Ugh. Multitasking might be the worst thing in this whole game. Your attacks vary from useless jabs to devastating slashes, depending on your weapon and how you handle the B button (ideally, hold and release for a better attack). Whether there are explicit combos is lost on me, as the amount of enemies you often face means battles just become button mashing sessions in which you hope that something lands.
The good news is, your faults afford you the opportunity to witness your enemy's sweet Street Fighter moves! In fact, Ali has a few of his own.
When you engage an enemy, their health bar pops up to keep you informed, but killing minions rarely nets you anything, so there's no point in taking them out unless you have to (farming, for example. It takes a while to figure out but it can be done!). And in some areas, you'll have to.

The last piece of the puzzle here is your summons. There are four mandatory friends to make in Beyond and you can call upon them to help you in certain situations. Doing so requires a couple things: one - you need to have the corresponding element nearby. For example, if you want to call Dytto, you need to find a body of water or some other form of moisture (steam vents work!) to point your armlet at. Alternatively, there are a few rare items you can find in the game which help call the summons without this caveat. Two - you need to mind your SP meter (the blue one). Calling your summon out will slowly deplete the meter for as long as they're with you, and using their spells will take a chunk out as well. You can refill the meter if you have the right items, but otherwise you'll have to dismiss them and wait for you meter to regenerate. The summons will disappear if the meter reaches 0.
So let's meet the fam!
Dytto - the water summon. She's the only summon with the ability to heal you, so it's important to find her gems. Other than that, she shoots little bubbles and... I don't even remember what else.
Efreet - the fire summon. He's a little wanderlust-y and difficult to work with. He will physically fight if an enemy gets close enough to him, he's got mean dragon breath, can turn into a fire ball, and throws a crazy tantrum if you ask him to.
Shade - the shadow summon. Easily the best summon in the game, he has a number of cool features. When you summon Shade (which you can do in any reflective surface) Ali will fool you into thinking you've had too much to drink... that is, you'll see twins. While you have Shade attached to you, he will take damage for you in the form of SP, rather than Ali's HP. Additionally, you can command your doppelgänger to stay put while you run around, fooling foes into attacking Shade instead of Ali. Lastly, Shadeyboy acts as a sort of hookshot replacement, handy for reaching chests and items. Platforming becomes even more difficult while you have Shade, but the good news is, if you fall/jump off a cliff, he will catch you, and bring you back to the last firm ground you stood on.
Audrey II a.k.a. Bow - FEED ME, SEYMOUR! No seriously, that's all he does. You literally summon Bow just to eat away gates so you can progress the game. He's pretty useless otherwise, although, like Efreet, he will chomp away at any hostiles if they get too close. Don't feed your plants blood, people.

Being a sort of RPG, there's no real scoreboard for players, and the only ranking system is essentially your level, which only seems to affect the game in terms of HP/SP, and Ali's combat abilities, which is nice. But there is a mini game! If you head north from the Water Shrine, you can beat up a wall and participate in the Efreet racing game. Your results from these races net you some pretty good prizes, the catch is... it's infuriating. Well, for me. Someone with more patience will do just fine, but basically, you have to walk Efreet through the coarse for five laps in under two minutes, like a dog show. But as I mentioned before, Efreet is a bit of a wanderer, and doesn't like to follow direction much. You have to get him lined up just right and then use his fireball attack to push him through quickly. The good news is, you have unlimited Spirit Points for this portion, so no need to manage that.

Beyond only offers one difficulty mode, and it's actually pretty fair. To me, the difficulty of the game comes from the mechanical flaws - like lining up hits and fleeting summons - and the handful of legitimate challenges, like low or flying enemies. And that stupid fucking room with the waves that wash you back. Fuck that room!
Mostly, my issue with this game is SPEED! Everything is sooo slow. Walking is slow. Running is slow. And god forbid you should be in water! Holy fuck, the water. And stairs! The complaints roll on... I want a turbo Beyond Oasis.

The cast is about as remarkable as the rest of the game. Basically you just have Ali, whom you play as. He doesn't speak and doesn't have much of a personality beyond his ridiculous walk. His remaining family consists of the King and Ali's troublemaking younger sister. His older sister, Gwyn, mysteriously disappeared... Like my family, they're demanding so I never bother going to see them. Then there's Magneto, a.k.a. "Silver Armlet", your nemesis for the time being. Boy, are we ever creative with names in this game... oh wait! There is Agito the silver, and Reharl the gold. I guess they're kind of interesting. These two are the all-powerful wizards that originally wielded the armlets. Guess which one is the bad guy...

I'm always the first in line to defend the Genesis' sound. Yes, it's different, but that's what made the system so iconic to begin with. It had it's own thing. That said, I'm man enough to admit that Beyond Oasis doesn't sound so good. The mix on this game is a bit iffy, and through my system, would frequently clip. The sound effects follow suit, I never thought I'd want to kick a dog, and running water is literally just white noise. The only saving grace is the little whistle after you save you game. That one's fun. Also the dying screams make me think of what Golden Axe would be like if it were awful.
The actual music isn't terrible. Very suspense-y and adventure-y... not on par with other RPGs of the time by any means, but it does it's job. It's odd that a Koshiro OST would be so bland, and many insist Beyond has a lot of reused material. Don't hesitate to turn the volume down and listen to some podcasts instead.

Also working against its RPG status, Beyond is a rather short game. Granted not many games for the system were terribly long, Beyond Oasis will help you kill 6 to 10 hours, depending on your familiarity and how many of the extras you seek out. There is a bit of eventual backtracking that makes the game feel slow sometimes, but in the big picture, Beyond actually packs quite a bit of content for such a short runtime.

So? It's a Genesis game. That means I totally love it, right? Wrong. While I enjoy the story and graphics, and even the mechanical concepts in Beyond, the truth is, it's full of horrible executions. The running mechanic - which you depend on a lot, and during bosses - is abhorrent. But the summons are cool, right? Kinda. Fun to look at, but virtually useless in combat. Dytto is often not worth the SP to call, and Efreet can't even be depended on to light fires in the Wall Fortress level, I had to use bombs. Shade is your guardian angel, and you will likely depend on him a lot. Audrey II is just there for giggles.
Really, the game starts off quite promising, it's beautiful and quick! The first hour or so of play nets you so much that you really feel you're accomplishing things, but once you hit the middle of the road... good luck. There is little motivation. Except Shade. I find I play the rest of the game in short bouts after that. 1995 Lo may have had the patience for its idiosyncrasies, 2017 Lo has shit to do.

I can't say I recommend Beyond Oasis to too many people. If you have it in your collection and enjoy... Zelda games... pop it in and have a look, but be prepared for a far, far inferior Zelda game.
I understand Beyond is also on those Ultimate Genesis collection discs, which makes me wonder if the tightness of the controls is improved any there? I don't expect the running gets any better but if it at least instigates on command, that would be nice.
At the end of the day, I don't reach for Beyond Oasis much, and I wouldn't fault you for passing on it either. Play Sonic though. Sonic is awesome. And Golden Axe. And Shining Force. And Gunstar Heroes. And Rocket Knight. Fuck, I love this system.

Once again, I don't actually know any LOCHEATS but I'll give you some LOTIPS in its place:
  • If you exit and enter the first village at the bottom of the screen, the vendor there will replenish his fish so you can stock up early.
  • Speaking of fish, whenever you find fish on dry land - the waterfall shrine, for example - stick around and wait for them to die of natural-ish causes... free fish! Well, they're all free, but... y'know what I mean.
  • Also, return to the old man every time you hit up the village. He'll restore your health and the chest usually comes back too.
  • Keep a weathered eye out for pixels that don't look right. There are a handful of hidden doors you can bust open, at least one of which is hiding behind a waterfall.
  • That said, if you see an area that looks like you could squeak through, duck walk! (Duck, and then walk.)
  • You can summon Shade off any shiny surface... including armored foes! And Dytto can be called from the puddle enemies!
  • Shade can also be useful in two-weight puzzles, if you don't want to herd baddies or waste bombs.
  • Bomb fleshy enemies like those weird rats, they cook up nice for some HP.
  • Also, zombies hate fire. Remember that.
  • In my years, I've discovered a few of the secret areas in the game... these are usually necessary if you want to find the infinite weapons (and you want to find the infinite weapons...). Your best bet is to google the location of said items, and if you've got the time, check out the pit in the forest (behind the tree).  

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