It’s no secret that Microsoft is starved for some support in Japan. Popularity of the big loud box is quite high in America, but in most cases, it’s barely receiving a passing glance from the people across the sea. As a result of this, Microsoft is seeking some help from certain big names in the Japanese community to develop some exclusive 360 titles. Thus was Mistwalker Studios formed, funded by Microsoft and headed up by Hironobu Sakaguchi, creator of the world-acclaimed Final Fantasy series. Blue Dragon is their first in a fairly robust slate of projects that the studio has coming, all of which fall under the classification of the Japanese RPG. Blue Dragon certainly does not contend with such classics as the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest series, it has more than enough merits of own to stand as a worthy effort, and a hopeful sign of future projects from Mistwalker.
Blue Dragon tells the tale of a boy named Shu and his friends Jiro and Kluke as they attempt to put an end to the tyranny of the maniacal Nene; a man who has menaced their peaceful village for many years. They soon meet up with the plucky Marumaro, who seems to be some cross between a cat, a bat, and a teddy bear. The party is then completed upon the addition of Zola, the essential mature, laid-back, voluptuous swordswoman, who also happens to be the sole adult in the group. The five of them, with the aid of their mysterious Shadows, chase Nene across the world in their attempt to end his reign.
The story has some flare to it, but unfortunately, it is pitifully lacking in substance, or any kind of originality. Hironobu Sakaguchi himself is credited for writing the scenario, and one has to wonder how a man credited with co-writing the stories for games like Final Fantasy VII turned out something like this. There is not a single character, plot twist, or even a line of dramatic dialogue in Blue Dragon that has not been used before-countless times.
The characters, I’m sorry to say, are some of the worst ever to grace a Japanese RPG. All of them have been cut cleanly from the encyclopedia of RPG personas, and placed into the scenario of the game without shame. Shu, the main character, is a painfully stereotypical overeager teenager, and by the end of the game, the only thing we know about his character is that…well…he won’t give up. (And the only reason we know that is because he literally says “I won’t give up!” with annoying frequency throughout the game). Kluke? Well, uh…her parents died. (Go figure.) Zola? Well come on, you have to have at least one stoic, mysterious swordsman (Or swordswoman in this case).
It certainly is not a total loss- Sakaguchi manages to inject some of his dramatic flare in few areas, and it’s enough to keep you playing. Overall, though, the plot is the biggest disappointment in Blue Dragon, especially when you consider the expectations from someone like Sakaguchi.
Luckily for us, Blue Dragon has plenty more going for it. The gameplay mainly sticks to some tried-and-true mechanics we’ve seen before, but it does mix things up a bit with some novel ideas. Combat is turn based, although as has been prevalent in most RPG’s of late, the encounters are not random. Enemies are visible on the screen, and can often be avoided. Pressing X will make Shu attack the enemy on screen, which, if done at the right time, can garner you a back attack or a first strike. At any rate, it will keep the enemy from attacking you first. Also, tapping the left trigger will bring up a large ring around Shu, and you can then choose to attack any and all enemies within the ring. By doing this, you can get certain types of enemies to fight eachother, which is both amusing and useful.
Another feature you can utilize are the field skills-these are skills that characters can learn for use against enemies in the field. With these you can turn invisible to enemies, lob bombs at them, make them chase you, or even annihilate weaker enemies instantly with field barrier. You get no experience points for this, although you are still awarded with skill points.
An interesting twist presented in Blue Dragon is the fact that during battle, rather than watching your party members run up and personally beat on their enemies, the Shadows they possess do it for them. This is nothing major, although it is a bit of a change of pace. At the core though, it still a fairly simple turn-based system, similar to that of Final Fantasy X. It manages to avoid being overly monotonous, however. Battles tend to move fast, and there are plenty of options in battle to work with. The Charge Meter is a neat little feature that allows you to charge magic spells (and physical attacks if you’re a monk), at the cost of placing your turn farther back in the order.
Blue Dragon’s battles are unfortunately hampered by the fact that they are simply too easy. There are a fairly large number of boss battles in the game, and almost none of them pose any kind of challenge to your characters. In fact, the only challenging opponents in Blue Dragon are the optional boss battles that become available near the end of the game. The battle system has a lot of options to work with, but the fact is that you could probably defeat every single encounter, and most bosses by simply pressing the attack button.
Arguably the best feature in Blue Dragon would be its version of the job system. Anyone who has played Square’s classic Final Fantasy V will be instantly familiar with what’s presented here, because the two systems are virtually identical. Fighting battles garners skill points as well as experience points, and these skill points are used to upgrade your shadow. Your shadow can choose from over a dozen different classes such as warrior, monk, assassin, white mage, black mage, barrier mage, and more. All of these classes have a multitude of unique abilities. Skills you learn from one class can then be transferred to another, allowing for some very in-depth customization. While Final Fantasy V only allowed the transfer of one skill, in Blue Dragon, your characters can equip up to twelve. While this may sound like a recipe for characters that will end up as identical cut-outs, this does not happen. The rate at which skills are learned is just right, and thus ending up with characters that share all or even many of the same abilities is not an issue.
The game’s visuals are extremely impressive. The legendary Akira Toriyama, renowned for his Dragon Quest and Dragonball Z artwork is responsible for the character design, and it’s just as impressive as you’d expect. The characters have a sort of doll-like polished look to them. The world itself is a vast, colorful creation, and it is a joy to explore. Battle animations are lavish, and cutscenes are usually very good. Unfortunately the game has the annoying tendency to slow down during certain battles. This isn’t a large issue, although it does seem like it should be a thing of the past by now.
One of the greatest features of Blue Dragon would have to be its musical score. The infamous composer Nobuo Uematsu composes his first soundtrack since Final Fantasy X, and as always, his tunes do a lot to enhance the game. The compositions tend to be all over the map-from Korean-style heavy metal, to Carribbean-style melodies, to orchestra/choir pieces. Overall, it may not live up to some of his past compositions, but it is very memorable nonetheless.
The voice acting is solid for the most part, although nothing exceptional. Kluke, Jiro and Zola are all quite good, as well as the villain Nene. Shu, unfortunately, has a voice even more annoying than his personality, and Marumaro tends to hurt the ears with his high-pitched shriek of a voice.
Blue Dragon may not do much to innovate the RPG genre, but other than the lackluster plot, it manages to nail down many of the mechanics in an attractive, polished package. It has plenty of battling, exploring, customizing, and even a few interesting story elements that pop up here and there. It’s a decent length, too-probably 40-60 hours depending on how much of the optional material you explore. Xbox 360 owners that enjoy a good Japanese RPG would be safe in the giving this a try.