Blue Dragon Xbox 360
Published by: Microsoft Game Studios
Developed by: Mistwalker/Artoon
Release Date: Out Now
Probably the biggest criticism of the original Xbox was that it just didn't have enough RPGs to keep fans of the genre happy. To some extent, this is a complaint that is also true for the Xbox 360 although it's a situation that's only going to improve over the next few months with titles such as Mass Effect, Eternal Sonata, Fable 2 and Lost Odyssey on the way. Before all of those however, we have Blue Dragon. With Blue Dragon being designed by the creator of the Final Fantasy series, Hironobu Sakaguchi, it's fair to say that many fans of Japanese RPGs have been looking forward to the game. It's been on sale in Japan for over a year and finally it's made its way here to Europe.
Once a year Talta Village is engulfed in violet-coloured clouds and attacked by a monster known as the Land Shark. This Land Shark essentially lays waste to the village and has even been known to take the lives of villagers. Two boys, Jiro and Shu, have had enough of this yearly suffering and have come up with a plan to halt the Land Shark in its tracks. The game begins with the plan just about to be put into action. Unfortunately their scheme doesn't going according to plan as the Land Shark escapes from its trap taking Shu, Jiro and a young girl called Kluke (who lost her parents several years earlier in an attack on the village by the Land Shark) away from the village and into the Ancient Ruins. The three children soon learn that Talta Village is not the only settlement to come under attack and many others are suffering at the hands of a megalomaniac by the name of Nene, who is responsible for the destruction caused by the Land Shark.
Naturally you might think that three children would be powerless to stop the evil Nene. In fact Nene captures them with ease and in their first battle, defeats them without even trying and plans to dispose of them. Shu, Jiro and Kluke are helped by an unknown assistant, a strange voice who urges them to each swallow one of the three sphere's that they find aboard Nene's vessel. To begin with all three are hesitant to swallow the spheres but when it becomes obvious that they are no match for Nene's forces, and the voice insists they only way they can save themselves is to swallow the spheres, they finally swallow them. The spheres give Shu, Jiro and Kluke special shadows that fight for them during a battle (Shu's shadow being a blue dragon). After the spheres have been swallowed you'll see the shadows fight during a battle rather than the characters. Of course your characters will develop in a traditional fashion but you also have classes for each of the shadows. After a battle you'll not only gain experience for your characters but also Shadow Points (SP) that enables your shadow to rank up in its class. As the rank for each class increases you'll gain access to skills and other classes. You can switch classes at any time too, thus giving your shadows a wider range of abilities.
If you've ever played a Japanese style RPG you'll find many elements of Blue Dragon to be very familiar. However, there have been some new additions to the classic Japanese RPG formula that help to make Blue Dragon feel unique. Battles play a large part in the game. Thankfully there's none of those annoying random encounters here. You'll see your enemies but they won't attack unless you move within their movement radius. You can choose to engage your enemy either head on or from behind, if they fail to detect you before you attack them. You can even choose to engage multiple enemies at once and there are bonuses for doing so, by holding down the right trigger to bring up an Encounter Circle. Any enemies that are in the circle can be fought. The way it works is that you'll fight the first collection of enemies, get to choose a boost and then fight the next enemy. If you manage to engage enemies who dislike each other they will fight each other first before turning their attention to you. Naturally, fights that involve multiple enemies are going to yield extra experience points and SP but there are times when it's strategically advantageous to engage powerful enemies who have a strong dislike for each other and this adds a nice twist to the battle system. During a battle you'll notice that some attacks and spells can be charged to make them more powerful. The downside of charging is that it pushes your character further down in the turn order so it's possible that your enemies will be able to attack before your character's spell/charged attack is unleashed. Later in the game you have more powerful corporeal attacks that require a tension meter to be filled before it can be unleashed.
Blue Dragon impressed me in a variety of ways. I like the way the battle system plays and that it manages to continue adding depth to the experience until pretty late on in the game with the addition of extra abilities. I like the warp points that enable you to revisit a location instantaneously, which is a huge timesaver if you ever need to collect something you may have missed. Before a boss fight a temporary checkpoint is created so if you are defeated you can simply go back to the checkpoint and not have to go all the way back to your last save point. What I really like about these checkpoints is that you aren't simply dropped back at the beginning of the boss fight. If you want to restock on health items or purchase spells etc. before taking on the boss again, you can. There's a good amount of character customisation options here and some of the skills they can acquire can make things far more interesting. I daresay RPG purists would rather have the characters confined to specific classes, which is a valid argument, but the ability to shape the characters in any way that you want is a welcome one. The game moves along at a nice pace throughout and although it's possible for the game to last as long as sixty hours, it never feels like a needlessly drawn out affair like some RPGs.
I have to be honest and say that I've been looking forward to Blue Dragon for a long time, even before it was released in Japan last year. Whilst I've enjoyed the game, and would play through the game again at some point, there are some elements of the game that have disappointed me. The storyline in Blue Dragon is enjoyable but it does take a while to warm up. Blue Dragon comes on three disks and for at least half of the first disk the story isn't as engrossing as it should be. When you come across items you can interact with, you'll notice an A button icon appears on the screen. This is fine of course and exactly what you would expect. However, there are various objects in the game that you can collect items from and interact with for which no A button icon appears. In the Ancient Hospital Ruins for instance, there are lots of medical instruments, cupboards and cabinets that can be searched for gold, items, shadow points and even experience (which you can give to the character of your choice). Through the course of the game all these extras really add up and it's possible to miss quite a lot of them, due to there being no icon to signify it's possible to examine an item, if you don't search the various locations thoroughly. It takes quite a while before you have the option to take on side quests. For much of the early part of the game it's a linear affair.
The game's difficulty level will probably be the single aspect of the game that most will be unsatisfied with. As you all know, console RPGs usually start off quite comfortably with battles not being much of a challenge but before long you'll encounter enemies who are too strong and therefore you have to engage in the time-honoured art of 'levelling-up' your characters before they are able to tackle the more challenging enemies that await you. No such practices are required in Blue Dragon however. In some ways this is a good thing as it cuts out what can be a frustrating and tedious aspect of console RPGs. The problem is that, even without having to level-up, for most of the time your characters will simply be too strong for your opponents. Only the boss fights offer some kind of challenge and a fair amount of these are nothing to worry about. Some will find this refreshing as it allows you to move through the game at a quicker pace but there's no denying that it means that there are few moments of tension in the game and as such, the battles aren't as satisfying as they could be. I understand that the developers wanted to make the game accessible for all but they should have included various difficulty levels to cater for both the seasoned RPG enthusiast and those who don't want to have the hassle of levelling-up their characters. It's strange that the Blue Dragon demo did offer two difficulty levels but the full game does not.
There is no denying that Blue Dragon looks good. The characters have that unique look about them that's typical of Akira Toriyama, creator of the Dragon Ball Z series. In fact Shu looks just like he was pulled from a Dragon Ball manga with spiky hairstyle. The various environments in the game all look good although the textures are a little bland. The developers have also been over zealous in the use of blurring. It's clear that the developers haven't optimised the game for the Xbox 360. There are various times when you'll notice the frame rate dip. It happens in both battles and when you're moving around outside of battles. Given that the graphics aren't exactly pushing the console, it's disappointing to see frame rate problems. Thankfully the frame rate problems don't spoil the game in any way. The game's cutscenes do look good and there are quite a few of them, which explains the need to have three disks.
For the most part, Blue Dragon is fine for deaf gamers. All of the game's dialogue is subtitled so you'll be able to follow the game's storyline and conversations. The cutscene dialogue is subtitled simply using white text. The in-game dialogue is subtitled more satisfactorily with character portraits and names placed above the text and the text is placed is a black box for maximum clarity. All tutorial messages in the game are given in text. Like most RPG titles the game also makes good use of icons to show status effects during battles. There are verbal prompts when you have been detected by an enemy, when enemies are defeated and when treasure is dropped by a defeated enemy after a battle, amongst other things. These are all subtitled. Occasionally you won't see the text to indicate an enemy has detected you (because it's usually placed next to the enemy and the enemy can be out of sight) but this isn't too much of a problem. Later in the game you'll have access to a Mechat, an airship, and you'll take control of Jiro who mans the gun in order to fire at your enemies. Shu will shout which directions the enemies are coming from and these comments are not subtitled. Fortunately it's not much of a problem as the sequences aren't that difficult but really the developers should have taken time to make sure these comments were subtitled.
For Xbox 360 owning fans of Japanese RPGs, the wait for Blue Dragon has been a long one. After playing the game for the last few weeks I have to say that I've enjoyed the game. That said however, I have to admit it could have been better in a variety of ways. I daresay hardcore fans of the genre will find the game too easy and there is virtually no need to go out of your way to level-up your characters in this game, which does seem strange. Fortunately there are enough enjoyable aspects to help cushion some of the game's disappointments. It's fair to say that Blue Dragon won't go down as one of the more memorable console RPG games but for those who have been waiting for a game of this nature to arrive on the Xbox 360, it's sure to be appreciated.
Blue Dragon should satisfy those who have been waiting for a Japanese RPG for their Xbox 360. The game does have its fair share of flaws but it also has its enjoyable moments too and on the whole it's a game most fans of the genre will appreciate.