Blue Dragon review
Unleashes its shadow


I’ve loved the RPG genre for quite some time now, though these days, I prefer older RPGs. From Dragon Warrior to Chrono Trigger, the 8-bit and 16-bit RPGs have always maintained my interest, and it’s inevitable that developers prefer the RPGs of old too; pretty much to the point where they develop games to recapture those moments. When you actually play through it, there’s a decent amount of “been there, done that” moments, but if you don’t mind that and don’t mind a fairly simplistic story much akin to anime, Blue Dragon is actually pretty good.

The story is simple enough, but actually kind of interesting if you decide to just sit back and enjoy the ride. What’s happening is that the main protagonist, who happens to be some boy named Shu, is resting somewhere in his home village known as Talta Village. One day, though, a land shark attacks, and it manages to drag him and his two friends, Jiro and Kluke, into a huge hole where they discover that the land shark is just a machine. Through some events like driving it to some big fortress, swallowing some spheres which unlocks some magic power known as shadows and meeting with the enemy (a purple Namek-looking thing from Dragon Ball named Nene), they set off on a journey to get back to their home village, as well as stop the villain.

It sounds quite promising. It’s like that of an anime storyline (funny enough, the guy behind the artistic direction (Akira Toriyama) is known for the anime he did drawings for, and even funnier enough, this game has an anime adaptation). It focuses more on what happens than twisting and turning a good plot to extraordinarily epic plots. Another thing to praise is that the plot constantly builds up, all the way to what could’ve been an epic showdown, to a losing fight (possible spoiler)... kind of like many anime in the action genre. Pretty much if action anime is what you crave, Blue Dragon’s storyline will be one you’ll dig.

There are a couple of flaws with the storyline, though. Firstly, it’s a bit slow to start. For the majority of the first disc, it’s basically “Nene screwed us over with environmental attacks and shit every time there are purple clouds in the sky”. It’s not until towards the end of said disc where the story starts to actually progress. From there on, the story actually develops into something good, but until then, the story remains on a constant line, and gets rather boring. Bad news - That lasts about 6-8 hours. Enjoy.

Next off, the characters aren’t all too interesting. The premise of the story managed to keep my interest, but the characters’ personalities themselves just couldn’t quite maintain my interest the way they should. Sure, there’s Shu being an emotionally stunted headstrong guy, and Jiro being smart and resourceful, but that’s about it. The characters just don’t have that “zing” that I often look for in characters. They have some interesting lines every now and again, but nothing that stands out. To put it simply, the characters are only mildly interesting, although not really helping make the first 7 or so hours of this game more interesting. It could’ve been a lot worse, though. The characters could’ve had no personality and just be blank slates with nothing interesting to say.

Since this game goes back 15 or so years into the past, Blue Dragon takes many things those games have and absorbs them. In simple terms, expect exploration, dungeon exploring, turn-based battles and some puzzles here and there.

When it comes to battle... Let me put it to you this way: If you’ve played turn-based RPGs like the first three Final Fantasies (amongst X), you already have a good idea of how Blue Dragon’s battles are going to play out. It’s pretty much I hit you, you hit me, and repeat until one side loses all its soldiers. The formula has been tried and true since the release of Dragon Warrior back in 1986, and it still works well.

There are a few differences between this game and Final Fantasy. Aside from the absence of random encounters (am I the only one who actually doesn’t mind random encounters?), there’s also the ability for a mass encounter. Just press RT while on the field or world map, and fight all the monsters that are within the circle. As an added bonus, if the different monster types dislike each other, they’ll fight each other as opposed to fighting you.

Mass encountering seems like a plausible idea on paper... and works pretty well in execution as well. The one thing I like about this is that it adds a twist to the formula, like adding a dash of LSD to water. There is a catch: if the enemy species like each other or are indifferent with one another, you’ll be encountering the same amount of groups that are inside the circle. Granted that you can get a statistic boost after a group, there’s no perfect/mass healing in between rounds (unless you have the mass HP restoring spell, which is a bloody lifesaver).

Amongst that, there are field skills. Whether you’re throwing stun bombs at them to keep them at bay or using some barrier magic to avoid a few fights with weaker enemies, the concept sounds great! Problem – SOUNDS great. Too bad that it’s really underutilized! A few additional abilities like faster running or an attack to weaken enemies would’ve added a bit of depth to this system, but since that’d just be cheap, getting rid of that perk altogether would be a nice idea. Never really found it to be useful.

Another addition is the charge. When casting a spell or attacking in the Monk class, you can hold A and charge up the attack, though the more you charge, the longer it takes to use, and if you miss the red mark, it’ll be less powerful, meaning it was for nothing. Another welcome addition, I must say.

But how do you actually fight? You fight with your shadows... well, the monsters that appear outside of your party members’ shadows. Your shadows replace the weapons (but believe me when I say that there’s a buttload of accessories, armor and other such items, secret or not, to make up for that), and are also pretty much your fighters. Amongst EXP, you also earn SP, which is used for the classes. The idea of shadows fighting is different (unless you’ve played Persona 3 before), and a welcome change to the usual fists, swords and guns, even if it’s just a sort of aesthetic one instead of a big change in power and stuff.

When it comes to the classes, I’m mixed. On one hand, it’s nice to know that you’re not stuck on a linear leveling path, learning only one set of skills. Unfortunately, it means that if you’re bothered enough to grind heaps, each character will be about the same. Another problem is the fact that the classes themselves feel quite similar to one another, all the while feeling pointless. Support and barrier? What!? Both of those are the duty of a white mage! That’s how it’s been in every other RPG, but nah, Blue Dragon wants to break that rule. Assassin? Cool name, but otherwise, it might as well be lumped in with either the monk or sword classes, since the only real differences would be speed and a couple of stealing abilities.

What about actual navigation? Basically, you follow a path in the dungeons or explore towns with a great camera, allowing for many degrees of vertical and horizontal movement, which is pretty good. Most of the dungeons usually contain treasure chests and (of course) enemies, much like in every other RPG. It’s all fine. But... can somebody over at Mistwalker explain why there’s no vertical camera movement when out on the world map? Sometimes, it gets hard finding a location due to this. The view is overhead, sure, but not forward enough for my liking. It’s a bit of a pain in the ass navigating through the world map because of that.

The last aspect of gameplay I want to talk about is how there’s absolutely no replay value. Blue Dragon is pretty much a one time trip. How so? The lack of New Game + (unless you’re willing to shell a few bucks), amongst the fact that there isn’t too much to do unless you’re willing to spend a decent amount of time finding certain items and grinding to find the secret bosses and get those achievement points (and by decent, I mean a bucketload, bordering on 24 hours a day). There isn’t too much to really do after finishing the game.

Aesthetically speaking, the game looks nice. It sports some nice colors and equally pleasing special effects when the spells are being cast. One thing that really draws my attention is that all the character models look pretty good. It definitely has that Toriyama feel to it, not having over exaggerated clothing or hair spikier than that of Cloud’s or Chrono’s. Okay, sure, Shu, Giro and Kluke look more like NPCs, but that’s the beauty of his style. For instance, in all 3 of the Dragon Ball shows, Goku doesn’t try to stand out too much with excessively fancy garments and chains (unlike SOME PEOPLE!) and spiky hair (well, while he’s normal, anyway). That’s just how the game rolls.

Then there are the menacing looking enemies. I know, I know, most of them look like enemies off Dragon Quest VIII, but even so, they still look cool, and it proves that Toriyama’s style is different from all the rest and recognizable (and that’s a good thing, guys). And trust me when I say... would you rather slime as the main sort of enemy, or poo? Think about it.

Unfortunately, it isn’t up to snuff when talking about the technical aspects. It looks like a PS2 game smeared with Vaseline. The textures aren’t quite on par with the likes of Oblivion or Enchanted Arms; they feel more like something ripped right out of Kingdom Hearts. Another technical hiccup is the lag – when a spell is being casted, or during any move requiring some charging, the framerate goes from a smooth 30 or so frames per second to what I can assume is about 8fps. Usually, these are brief and only a couple of seconds long, but it’s annoying nonetheless.

Of course, that’s in-game graphics. When it comes to the FMV scenes, it feels a bit more like a 360 game. The textures are still a bit lacking, but considering what the storyline and art direction is going for, that’s more acceptable. Lag is non-existent here because the FMV scenes seem to be running on a different, more powerful engine.

Look on the bright side though; the soundtrack is pretty good. Much like any soundtrack Nobuo Uematsu composes, there’s a decent variety (from calm, ambient tunes to upbeat tunes). With variety come varied amounts of enjoyment. I enjoyed the entire soundtrack; I thought each song suited the moments that they were played in. There are a couple of vocal tracks, and one that came as a surprise was the boss tune. It’s not due to how good it is (which is good, but not great as it gets annoying after some time, but damn, it’s catchy!), but because of Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan doing vocals for it. Automatic win, even if he’s a bit more high pitched than normal (then again, the latest Deep Purple album I’ve listened to is Machine Head; maybe I should give the newer stuff a go).

In terms of voice acting, it’s good, but not great. For 3 of the 5 heroes, the voicework is natural sounding and doesn’t grate at your ears. You get the impression that they can actually act very well, and as well as helping draw players into the adventure, it also adds a bit of depth to the characters where lacking personalities should be.

Then there’s Zola’s (the pirate looking lady you meet towards the end of the first disc), which is basically “I AM INDEPENDENT WOMAN HEAR ME ROAR”, and only has a little emotion. Still feels natural, but borders a bit on “I’m bored and just got the script today”. That last sentence could also sum up a decent amount of the NPCs (whether they’re simple townsfolk or key characters) who actually get some spoken lines, but then again, they’re still tolerable. ONE character really *bleep* your ears. Marumaro’s voice is basically as screechy and as annoying as it can be, and every time he speaks, you feel like getting inside your TV and smacking the shit out of his sorry ass.

Yes, there is the option to switch the voice acting language to Japanese (and French, though I’ve never heard that dub, so no judging there). The Japanese voice actors are a bit better than their English counterparts with the exception of Marumaro, who (again) is screechy and the very definition of ear-*bleep*. But honestly, you can’t really say that

Blue Dragon is, if anything, a gateway RPG, or the sort of RPG to just sit back and enjoy. You can’t really expect a deep, convoluted storyline in every RPG known to mankind. It at least flows seamlessly, so unless you expect bucketloads of development, you can’t really complain. What really prevents Blue Dragon from being a classic is that it plays and feels like every other RPG out on the market. Add little to no replayability, and there shouldn’t be any reason to purchase Blue Dragon over the likes of Eternal Sonata, Lost Odyssey or Chrono Trigger.

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