Isn't that cute?
Ever since I learned that Hironobu Sakaguchi was getting back into the business of making RPGs again, I was pretty excited. He's a true eminence within the field, and having his name attached to a game brings with it certain expectations. Then when Blue Dragon was first unveiled, I was impressed -- it had appealing Toriyama designs, a new Uematsu soundtrack, and Sakaguchi promising a return to some of his Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy V glory days in concept. But I still worried if it could live up to the high standards I set for it. Because of my high level of interest in the game, though, I went into blackout mode on it -- no reviewing of media, no reading of gameplay information, no reading reviews. But when I came across a demo of Blue Dragon at E3, how could I possibly pass up the opportunity to give it a try?
From my brief hands on playtesting, I'm pleasantly optimistic. Noisy and bustling demo rooms filled with a dozen games aren't the best place to sample a soundtrack, so unfortunately I have no idea how well Nobuo's latest effort is turning out. Visually, however, I was incredibly impressed. The characters looked great; while they're not the most original Toriyama designs, they all still looked nice. As usual, though, it's with the monster designs where he really shines. The enemies I came into contact with indicated no signs that the creativity the designer has exhibited across numerous Dragon Quest titles had been diminished in his switch to a new franchise. I was also pretty pleased with the backgrounds and spell effects (especially the corporeal shadow attacks, which were highly reminiscent of the flashy summon spells Sakaguchi's team used to show off next-gen power back in the Final Fantasy VII days). And though it's a fairly minor thing, I was especially impressed with the way the game handled conversations with NPCs, bringing up a cinematic-styled closeup of the character talking out its words.
Visuals are all well and good, but story aside, it's the gameplay that makes or breaks an RPG. What I played of Blue Dragon told me that the Gooch still has the magic touch. The turn-based battle system was fast and fluid, but what really set it apart was the ability of the player to control how and when actions play out. When selecting attacks or abilities, the game displayed a gauge showing all of the characters and monsters in the order their turns would pop up. As an icon slid across the gauge, I could halt it at any point to have the character act instantly or to insert the move exactly where I wanted it to fall in the turn queue. And naturally, the longer the wait, the more effective the action. At the end of the gauge was a red section that would increase its effectiveness further if I timed the icon to stop in that area. In all, it made for a really fun way to intuitively control the flow of battle -- it was a nice added strategic element to help shake up typical turn-based conventions.
The other gameplay element I got to play around with is the shadow system, which is essentially Blue Dragon's stand-in for the traditional RPG class/job system. Each character has a supernatural shadow which they use to pull off attack and special abilities. The shadows take the form of different animals and come in different classes like guardian, monk, and so on. By training up the shadow, players can unlock different abilities which they can mix-and-match to customize their characters. This was only a demo, so I was really just tinkering around with this, but there seem to be quite a lot of abilities in the game and a lot of flexibility in this character customization.
As someone with high hopes for the game and who had been isolated from any news or media on it for quite a while, I had a pretty high bar set here. And thankfully, Blue Dragon didn't disappoint me at all during E3. I'm much more eagerly awaiting the full release of the game now.