I despise Japanese RPGs, don't you? Identikit stories, Identikit characters, and identikit battle systems. Playing RPGs made by our Eastern friends can be so repetitive. Once you've played one, you've played them all.
All except Blue Dragon that is.
While at first glance Hironobu Sakaguchi's new title may seem like his previous games (eg. The Final Fantasy Series), there is much more hidden away in this epic than meets the eye.
Oh, and when I say "Epic", I mean "EPIC!" Blue Dragon is the first Xbox 360 game to be shipped on more than one disc… It's on a whopping three discs with roughly 80 hours of game play, and the great thing is that Blue Dragon costs the same price as all other 360 titles.
The story is your standard RPG fare – an ancient civilisation held the power of magic, ancient civilisation disappears, years go by, violent clouds appear over the sky, ancient machines attack friendly villages, little boy from one of the villages goes on a quest to stop it and discover the true story behind the ancients, finding friends to join his quest on the way, yadda yadda yadda. Nothing out of the ordinary there, it's all standard RPG crap that we've all seen a million times before in different guises.
In the first hour of game play, you feel deja vu in many respects, and the only thing that seems to be different from other RPGs is the beautiful graphics that fill your screen with light and colour. Even the hauntingly beautiful soundtrack penned by Nobuo Uematsu, sounds like it would fit into any other RPG, including the Final Fantasy games that Uematsu-san is famous for scoring.
So far in, I'm not impressed. the graphics are admittedly jaw dropping in places, but everything else feels so staid that it really feels as if I've played this game before. Everything is so traditional, it was like the developers were afraid of adapting the barriers of the traditional Japanese RPG incase they alienated their audience (which, of course, is the Japanese market, which Microsoft created this game for in the hopes that it'd help shift a couple of systems over there), and decided to go for a "hey, me too! PS2 isn't the only machine with these kinda games ya know!" approach to the title. The controls, searching for items in boxes, lengthy cutscenese, and even the turn based battle system seem to be lifted from every other RPG under the sun.
Then, all of a sudden, the differences between Blue Dragon and other games start floating subtly into play.
I can't help but give a tiny spoiler here, but after around an hour of play, and are trapped in a flying fortress, your party is forced to swallow a ball of light, and then this once staid and identikit game evolves along with it's characters. Shu, Kluke, and Jiro — the childhood friends from Talta Village — swallow the light, and their shadows transform into beasts that help them on their quest. Shu gets the Blue Dragon, hence the name of the game, Jiro gets a Minotaur, and Kluke gets a Phoenix.
These beasts change game play, fighting, and the storyline considerably. It's almost as if before you got them, you were wearing blinders without noticing, and then, once they are removed from your eyes, you see the world in a whole new light.
It's hard to explain the features exclusive to Blue Dragon without spoiling the story line, so I know this might be a little vague, but I don't want to ruin the game for you.
Let's start with the world map, shall we? You know in most RPGs, you're walking around in the big world map, and the plot leads you to traverse back to a place you've already been, usually forcing you to back track for hours through areas you've already been through, just to get a new item or to talk to a new guy to push along the plot (not to mention a crafty way of extending the length of the game)? Blue Dragon doesn't want to piss you off like that, It has a warp system! Hoo-frickin'ray!
Once you've been to an area and have used a warp key, you can travel back to that area at any time you wish. This is a lifesaver. It's hardly an innovative feature, but it's one that RPGs usually ignore, making some games so ridiculously monotonous that it feels more like work than an enjoyable moment in your game. I was relieved to see that Blue Dragon threw that tradition in the trashcan.
That leads me to another pet peeve in RPGs. You know when you're walking around in an RPG's world map and monsters pop out of thin air and attack you with no warning, and zero way to avoid the battle? Well, not in this game. Monsters wander around the map just like you do, and this opens up new ways of attacking and being attacked.
You can avoid battles if needed, because you can actually see where the monsters are (Other RPGs take note), and if you do decide that you want to tear the monster's a new one, you have several new ways of doing it. Thanks to analog controls, you can push gently towards the enemy, sneak up behind it, and attack him without the monster realising you are there, giving you a huge advantage in battle – not to mention an achievement if you do it 100 times. Who would have thought an RPG would take on Splinter Cell elements?
Also, you don't have to fight just one monster at a time like you do in most games. If you push the RT button, you can bring up an attack ring, and select multiple monsters to fight at once. These monsters might help each other and attack you, or they will start a “Monster Fight,” kill each other, allowing you to obliterate whatever is left after they fight. It's such a simple little addition but it works so beautifully. Fighting in this fashion makes enemies seem to have their own personality, and differentiates the hundreds of enemy types considerably.
Once you've decided what you're going to fight and how you're going to fight it, you're led into the Battle System. Like the rest of the game, at first glance it seems like it's been ripped out of every other game, but there are neat little features added in to evolve the mechanics. You can either attack normally or charge up an attack for more damage. The longer you charge, the longer it takes for you to get your next turn, and actually changes the turn order.
This give-and-take can totally change how battles are fought and won. You can also assign formations across your five characters, placing your fighters in the front line, and your support characters in the back, reducing their damage, but also reducing their strength and range. Also, your characters aren't restricted to gaining experience in any particular class, so you can teach fighters to use white magic, or assassins to learn barrier attacks, or anything else that your current battle requires – another great feature, which really opens up your options.
When your battle is done, and you've come out the other side of it relatively unscathed, if you jump into another battle, you can get a combo bonus! The more battles you fight in consecutively, the more chance you have of getting a random bonus. This could be restoring your health and magic, increasing an attribute, or learning a new spell. Also, your experience is multiplied by the amount of consecutive battles you fought.
But that's not all. I've saved the best for last… Don't you hate it when you're spending a good block of time in an RPG searching the scenery for items, and end up getting "Nothing" pop up time and time again? Without spoiling the story too much, I'll just say that time taken getting "Nothing" is time well spent.
Blue Dragon certainly has a lot going for it, and certainly has enough in the way of new features to make it stand out from the crowd, but that's not to say it's not without it's faults.
The prime problem is it's cutscenes – not only are a lot of them totally unnecessary, they are too long and take up too much space on the discs, and once they are finished, you're set back in control in illogical places. Let's say for example you kill a boss, You'll get the cutscene, the game will load and drop you back in control. You then walk through the door directly in front of you, the game will load again, and then you walk a few steps, and another cutscene will kick in. Why not just make the whole thing into a single cutscene before dropping you in control? It's illogical, and annoying.
While the game may be spanned across three discs, they seem to be mostly filled with speech and cutscenes. You can select speech in three languages — English, Japanese with English subtitles or French — so all speech in the game and all cutscenes are in triplicate to cater for the different languages. Basically it's unnecessarily inflated, and if it wasn't for all these languages, the game would likely fit on a single double layer disc. Next time, I hope that Sakaguchi-san will make up his mind and either release it in Japanese with English subtitles, or in plain English language – not both.
Another problem (this will affect all you achievement whores), is that the game has a lot of mini games. While this isn't a problem in itself, the way the game handles them is. Many of these little snippets of game play will be sandwiched between speech or cutscenes, and sometimes you won't notice that you're supposed to be playing until it's too late. To add insult to injury, many of the mini games don't have checkpoints before them, so if you don’t realise you're supposed to be playing, you might not be able to reload the checkpoint to try it again. I've missed a couple of achievements this way, and it's very annoying to know that something as simple as a checkpoint or even a "get ready" message could have avoided this.
All in all, Blue Dragon will appeal to fans of the Japanese RPG genre, and also has unique qualities that set it apart from the genre in many ways that might appeal to gamers who aren't such huge fans of RPGs. Just stay alert in the endless cutscenes incase the game expects you to play in the blink of an eye! If you do miss those cutscenes, just think to yourself "It could be worse, I could have bought Two Worlds instead!"
Blue Dragon is available now on Xbox 360 for $59.99 in America, and £39.99 in Europe.
Blue Dragon has been rated suitable for ages 12+ by the PEGI for Bad Language and depictions of Violence.
Blue Dragon is rated T (Teen) by the ESRB for Alcohol Reference, Crude Humor, Fantasy Violence, Mild Language, Mild Suggestive Themes.