While Microsoft's E3 conference focused on many of its upcoming titles for its venerable platform, notably absent was Mistwalker and Artoon's soon-to-be-released role-playing game, Blue Dragon. However, while Microsoft may not have had much to say regarding the game during its conference, at home they had a special treat in store for fans: a playable demo downloadable from the Xbox Live Marketplace. Blue Dragon turns out to be a very traditional RPG experience, but is at the same time highly accessible, with a heavy focus on eliminating the tedium of frequent random encounters and level grinding that have plagued previous games cut from the same cloth.
Immediately after beginning the demonstration, I was blinded by a staggering amount of information that I gathered bit by bit from nearby NPCs. Fortunately, it was easy to follow and I was quickly swept up in the customization capabilities the game presents for your five characters. For the purposes of the demonstration, each character seems to have learned to use virtually every skill and spell in the game, but despite this, it's easy to see where they came from and how they were learned. Blue Dragon features an expansive class system, with nine different classes that each character can equip, allowing them to learn and use new skills for those classes. Once a skill is learned, that skill can be equipped while you learn skills from other classes instead. Each character is given the ability to equip three skills of their choosing, and then are given the base skill automatically on which their class is based.
In the demo, you're able to equip a skill aptly titled "Skill +8," which, as the name suggests, allows you to equip up to eight additional skills. While most of these are already chosen for you, a number are left blank, and I quickly became immersed in looking through the wide variety of skills available and figuring out which combinations would be most effective. There seemed to be a few different types of skills, differentiated by the icons beside their names, which I can only assume represented the respective classes they were learned from. Beyond that, there are passive skills which have some general effect on your character, triggered skills which only take effect if certain conditions are met (for instance, Resurrection will revive the character with 50% HP once per battle), skills that let you use spells from other classes, and field skills, which are unique and help you to traverse dungeons with less hardship.
"Blue Dragon mixes the best of the old with the best of the new, and the result is something that everyone can enjoy."
Field skills proved to be a rather interesting feature, particularly since I was given only an hour to traverse the three-floor dungeon, and had already wasted a good fifteen minutes playing around with the skills. As I guided Shu, the plucky main character, through a sterile robotic facility, an enemy soon jumped out at me and I got my first taste of the battle system. In a very traditional, turn-based manner, menu-selections were made, attacks were performed, and enemies died. An interesting feature was the ability to charge attacks to make them stronger, but the drawback is that it also delays the attack a fairly large amount, often several turns, which leaves the usefulness of the feature yet to be seen. After dispatching this enemy, I soon came across another enemy of the same type, and activating my field skill, I was able to destroy the enemy simply by running into him, no battling required. While I didn't seem to gain experience from this action, a box did pop up telling me how much SP I earned, so it appears that this sort of action will be useful for quickly increasing your class ranks.
As I moved through the dungeon, I soon came across two enemy parties at once - a robot and a sabre cat. Using the Encounter Ring, a radius around your character that appears by pressing the right trigger, I was able to engage both groups at the same time, and at this point a Monster Battle occurred. I was able to simply sit back and enjoy the show as the two robots proceeded to devour the sabre cats, eliminating them while at the same time wasting their turns, allowing me to quickly dispatch them without any muss or fuss. Yet another feature designed to speed up battles and eliminate the tedium of frequent encounters.
Soon thereafter I found myself in a battle with four enemy groups of the same type. These guys didn't want to fight each other, but using the party ring I was able to start a battle against all of them. However, instead of appearing together like the Monster Battle, they simply came at me one group at a time, and as I dispatched one group, a slot-machine style menu of bonuses appeared, granting me additional effects for each subsequent battle.
And then it was boss time. While the boss was extremely easy to beat, particularly with my characters knowing ridiculous numbers of skills, it nonetheless gave a good idea of what to expect. When the boss's turn came around, he was able to attack several times before his turn ended, requiring a fairly large amount of healing to recover from it, but defeating him didn't take terribly long. After defeating him, two more floors and two more boss fights followed, as well as numerous cut scenes which seemed to tell a fairly major plotline for the overall story, but thankfully the demo ends before concluding it. All three bosses shared a special battle theme, which was a rock'n'roll style song that clearly sounded Japanese, despite the English lyrics.
One more feature of battle revealed itself during the boss fights, and that's the Tension meter, and Corporeal attacks. Every time a character was struck, their Tension would rise, and when it reached its maximum, a new skill, Corporeal, would be available from the menu. These Corporeal attacks caused the character's shadow (the blue creatures rising up from behind them in screenshots) the ability to temporarily take on a physical form, and deal tremendous damage to all enemies.
After that section of the demo was finished, I loaded it up once more to explore the second section available, an outdoor area that seemed somewhat swampy. Much of the same content experienced earlier was here as well, with the exception that the enemies, the bosses in particular, seemed very partial to inflicting status effects, suggesting that status ailments may be more than simple nuisances, and actually be legitimate concerns. In particular, one of the bosses had an attack that inflicted Petrify on my entire party on the very first turn, causing an instantaneous game over. I was able to restart from the last checkpoint I reached, which was almost right before the boss, but this time I equipped my characters with items that prevented the Petrify status and was able to win with ease.
Blue Dragon looks to be an extremely promising title. In addition to being beautiful to behold, the game is also a blast to play, and features many brilliant and welcome additions to the traditional role-playing genre that help eliminate its problems and support its strengths. Blue Dragon mixes the best of the old with the best of the new, and the result is something that everyone can enjoy. If you own an Xbox 360, Blue Dragon is probably on your list already, but if you don't -- well, this looks like a game worth buying one for.