Blue Dragon Review
Crouching Dragon, Hidden Greatness
Mistwalker’s first game Blue Dragon, envisioned by Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, features characters designed by famed Akira Toriyama and music from veteran composer Nobuo Uematsu. With such big names behind it, Blue Dragon was quickly hyped to AAA status; this game had to be amazing, didn’t it? Sadly, Blue Dragon is victim of expectations that were a little too high. This is not to say the game is bad, it just doesn’t reach the epic status that many hoped that it would.
The story starts with the young trio of Shu, Jiro, and Kluke as they attempt to take down the menacing Land Shark that has been tormenting their village for the past ten years. During this endeavor, Shu and friends find themselves being dragged away from their home and soon end up on a mysterious mechanical base in the sky. It is there that they first encounter Nene, a malicious and wrinkled man with tremendous magical power. Nene explains that he is the force behind the Land Shark and has been tormenting their village just to hear their screams. Hopelessly outclassed, the children attempt to escape and in the process are helped by an unseen ally that grants them the ability to harness the power of their magical shadows. Shu, the light-hearted kid who will “never give up,” possesses a dragon shadow; Jiro, the sapient youth, has a minotaur shadow; and Kluke, the stalwart young lady, is gifted with a phoenix. From here, the party sets out to uncover Nene’s grand scheme and stop it. Along the way, they meet with the Devee child Marumaro, a small humonoid figure that loves to shout, and Zola, a mercenary soldier. The journey these five embark upon is not as deep or epic as many other RPGs out there, but the story is well told. Characters’ pasts aren’t thoroughly developed, but each grows during the quest. Though it does contain a few shocking twists and turns along the way, the overall plot is rather shallow and at times even repetitive. While the story wraps up nicely, some parts feel rushed while others take too long to develop. Overall, the adventure of Blue Dragon is fairly solid, but falls short of epic status.
Blue Dragon‘s class system offers some unique configurations. Each character’s shadow begins with certain classes, with more selectable at certain level intervals. These include straightforward classes like Black Mage, White Mage, and Monk. Also included is the agile Assassin class, the Sword Master, who uses a skill called Magic Sword (though oddly, no sword is involved), the Support Mage that blends buffing of allies and hindering of enemy stats, and the defensive powerhouse the Guardian. Then there is the Barrier Mage that focuses on magic that creates barriers like defensive boosts. The Barrier Mage class also has a skill called Field Barrier which allows characters to defeat lower level enemies without having to battle them. Using this skill does not grant the party experience; instead, each character gets a small increase in skill points for their equipped class. Finally, there is the Generalist class which is a necessity for character customization. By default, a character has a main class ability and three slots for learned skills from other classes. The Generalist will grant access to more skill slots, allowing characters to become more diverse and powerful. The class system is well-developed and most classes are balanced.
In an innovative effort, Blue Dragon also makes attempts to liven up its classic, turn-based combat, though it doesn’t change things drastically. Turn order is displayed at the top of the screen and can be altered by character speed or by charging attacks or spells. By charging, the assigned command will then become more effective, achieving maximum effect if the charge bar is stopped at the appropriate spot. This can cause high magic damage, more potent healing, or a greater physical attack. Furthermore, the encounter system is not random, but instead features on-screen enemies. Equal or higher level enemies will attempt to attack the party, but the party can take an advantage in combat by getting the jump on them. Lower level enemies will often run away or can be instantly defeated with the Field Barrier skill. Blue Dragon also features an encounter circle that will allow groups of enemies to be fought sequentially in one long battle for bonuses. Sometimes using the circle will cause opposing enemy types to battle and defeat each other. These additions make battle a little less cumbersome, but the overall combat system still feels a little dated.
While Blue Dragon does a decent job in freshening up its combat system, it also attempts to bring that level of improvement to its menu interface. Selecting accessories is simple enough, as it is the party’s only equipment, but it doesn’t offer a ton of variety. During combat, interaction is smooth with spells being sorted by magic type and items being sorted into healing, support, or damage dealing items. Out of combat, management is efficient as items are sorted out even more into areas of attack, healing, support, enhancement, and valuables. Saving is handled the same as most other RPGs, allowing saves on the field map or at save points in towns and dungeons. A nice addition is the use of warp devices that are located throughout the world. Once activated, the party can return to one of these locations from most anywhere. One problem area of the interface when playing on a standard television is that many menus have text that can be too small to read clearly. The worst offender is the listing of status effects during combat; they are near impossible to read. What would be a simple process is hindered due to the fact that the text is minuscule. This is most likely not a problem if playing in HDTV, but not every gamer is there yet. Other than that, interaction within Blue Dragon is a decent improvement over what is found in many turn-based RPGs.
For those that might be jumping into the latest generation of RPGs for the first time with Blue Dragon, the improvement in graphics is quite noticeable. Supporting HDTV while still looking nice on standard televisions, the visuals are bright and colorful, but the anime style will not be for everyone. Animations are smooth, cutscenes are impressively massive, character designs are crisp, and locations are highly detailed. For one of the first major forays into this new era of consoles RPGs, Blue Dragon may not be overwhelming, but it does a solid job of starting things off.
Composer Nobuo Uematsu’s soundtrack does two things very well. It creates memorable pieces and it puts them in the appropriate places. The music is wonderful all the way through the game. Listening to the soundtrack prior to the game’s release, some of the music didn’t seem as appealing as it does in the game. Even some of the most annoying work on the soundtrack seem to find its place within the game’s setting. Even Ian Gillan’s screaming of “Eternity” during boss battles makes for an intense and action-packed experience. The final boss music is another fantastic track as well, one of the best on the soundtrack. The game’s voice acting is decent with only the voice of Marumaro becoming irritating, even though the lines are still well delivered. Thankfully, the one major aggravation with the sound is the text-to-speech option, but it can be turned off easily.
Blue Dragon should be rather easy for the majority of the game as long as the characters have decent skills and equipment; however, some balance issues near the end can require hours of grinding as bosses ramp up in difficulty quickly. In this case, levels seem to play a greater importance than strategy in defeating them. This three-disc adventure lasts around forty hours for a basic playthrough with plenty more available for those that wish to see everything. In fact, some of the game’s Xbox Live Achievements require extra playtime, having players maxing out character levels, gathering over one million gold, or topping off characters’ skill levels. Some downloadable content is available via Xbox Live, the first being free and including two higher difficulty settings. The most recent costs 200 Microsoft Points and features six new in-game items to be found. In terms of bonus content, many Xbox Live Achievements are available within Blue Dragon, though sadly most that can be obtained during a standard play require perfect scores on Blue Dragon‘s vast collection of mini-games instead of gaining them for story completion or exploration. Some of the mini-games that are required throughout the game involve button mashing, shooting down flying craft, or firing lasers at electronic moons, none of which are entertaining in the least.
Overall, Blue Dragon is a solid, traditional, turn-based RPG that tries some new ideas that work well, but doesn’t help it truly break out of the pack. The story lacks the depth to be a memorable epic. The gameplay is solid with sprinklings of innovation mixed in, but will likely only be enjoyable to those looking for a classic experience. Blue Dragon is a worthy first try for Mistwalker, but one that will leave most looking for the next adventure instead of reliving this one.