December 2006 saw the Japanese release of Blue Dragon go off with a hearty roar, earning for the game the honor of Japan's 'fastest selling Xbox 360 title.' So what was all the commotion about? What made 30,000 eager gamers purchase Xbox 360s just to be the first to play Blue Dragon? Well, for one, the game is the first title to ever come out from the Mistwalker studio and the first game in a very long time from Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi. Sprinkle on top of that a musical score from arguably the best videogame composer around, Nobuo Uematsu, and art designs from Akira Toriyama, the famed artist with a penchant for stories with the word 'dragon' in the title, and we have ourselves an all-star team. Most gamers will remember a little game called Chrono Trigger which was the last time these three got together, and we all know how that story turned out. But will history repeat itself? Will Blue Dragon soar? There are only a few days left before we'll find out for sure, but in the meantime, there is still much to discover about this three disc odyssey.
With expectations of great music and great artwork comes the expectation of a great story; style without substance is a big no-no, but does Blue Dragon deliver? The adventure begins with three children from Talta village: Shu, a hard-headed boy with the heart of a hero; Kluke, a kind-hearted girl who wants to heal the world; and Jiro, the brainy one of the group. Their village has been the long-time object of lustful destruction for a strange, unnatural thing only known as the "land shark." Angered and determined to end the attacks, the friends depart on a journey that'll leave them far from home, at the mercy of a powerful sorcerer, and at the beginnings of a budding mystery of mechanized monstrosities. In order to survive all this, the friends have to faithfully follow the advice of a voice in the wind telling them that they must consume the glowing stones that they've now stumbled upon. And upon doing this, the power of shadows is at their command.
"The term 'no random encounters' does not apply exclusively to dungeons alone, but also carries over to the explorable world map."
This leads into the game's battle system where these shadows will do most of the fighting for Shu and company. Each character has a unique shadow: Shu has the dragon; Kluke has the phoenix; Jiro uses the minotaur; and lastly, Marumaro and Zola, two characters that'll eventually join up with the party, will use a saber-tooth tiger and killer bat, respectively. With battles revolving around these shadows, there will be no need to equip characters with weapons or armor, but with accessories only. Customization really begins with the nine job classes for the shadows. Each class levels up individually a la Final Fantasy III, has its own set of unique skills, and can be switched on the fly without losing already attained skills, as well as the ability to equip those skills in conjunction with the newly assigned class.
Battles are turn-based; however, there are no random encounters. The term 'no random encounters' does not apply exclusively to dungeons alone, but also carries over to the explorable world map. Monsters will appear on screen; some are in plain sight while others might just pop up surprisingly. Encounters are usually of the old school variety, meaning huge odds against the player. But the difficulty of the old school battle style, for better or for worse, is left behind; Blue Dragon has actually been criticized for being too easy. Interestingly enough, the game utilizes a mixture of new and old techniques in freshening up the battle experience. For example, something new is the Encounter Ring whereby holding down the right trigger makes a giant ring appear. Any enemy units of opposing types caught in this ring will start to fight one another, leaving fewer enemies for the player to take on. This can be done in dungeons as well as on the world map. Another interesting aspect of the battle system is the tension meter, which acts exactly like Final Fantasy VII's simplistic limit break system. Also, don't forget the ability to 'charge' spells and special attacks. A meter will appear after selecting a spell or skill and then players must hit certain spots in the meter to be able to choose a specific slot in the turn order of that round of combat. This allows players to decide the turn order for how they want their abilities to be dished out; however, to get the exact desired order, some button-timing skill will be involved. Something old would be the use of field skills. Players can use their class-specific field skill to gain an upper hand on the enemy before engaging in combat or even to avoid combat completely. For example, the Assassin can paralyze monsters with Paralyzing Spheres or use the Stealth skill to sneak around foes.
The overall feel of the game is that it's a light-hearted affair with lots of Dragon Quest wackiness. There are poo jokes galore; monsters literally leave treasure in their fecal matter. However, fans of Dragon Quest will know that those games do pack serious, epic, and powerful narrative. In this regard, Blue Dragon follows in DQ's footsteps. The game also incorporates a blur effect that makes close-up or far away objects blurry. This gives off quite a cinematic look and feeling. The characters' facial expressions really help to bring out the emotion in the game.
Also included in Blue Dragon is a Mechat shooting mini-game wherein players will have to shoot down enemy flying ships, similar to the gummiship aerial fights in Kingdom Hearts. Downloadable content via Xbox Live will be freely available by launch day and will include the same updates given to Japanese gamers back in February: harder difficulty settings and a new game+ mode. More downloadable content is also in the works and will include new environments and dungeons.
Blue Dragon will land in North American stores on August 28, 2007. As for Europe, they'll be happy to know that they'll be able to get their copy four days earlier on August 24. If any readers out there still want more information on the game, don't forget that the Xbox Live demo is out there and our staff impression on it is right here.