The Xbox 360 has started to accumulate a nice collection of must have games. These are the titles that define not only the genres they represent, but they also do well in helping gamers from all over feel less regret about putting down their money on the X360. However, one genre that hasn't flooded Microsoft's gaming systems is the RPG. While the 360 is no longer in its infancy, there is still an opportunity for a game to stake its claim as the must own RPG for the system. Enter Blue Dragon; a three disc long adventure by the makers of a little known game called Chrono Trigger. Armed with a rich pedigree, is Blue Dragon the answer to the 360s RPG woes? Not entirely, but there's certainly enough game and gameplay elements (albeit borrowed) that will satisfy traditional RPG enthusiasts.
As far as stories go, Blue Dragon's is of the cookie-cutter variety. You begin the game in a small village by the name of Talta that seems like your typical village except for one slight difference; every year for the past decade, a slew of menacing looking clouds have blanketed the village. This ominous change in the weather leads to the arrival of a treacherous monster known as the Land Shark which, for reasons not thoroughly explained, has a craving for destruction. Leave it to a trio of crafty young kids to try and put an end to the yearly visits of the Land Shark as well as figure out what the deal is with those annoying dark clouds. So the journey becomes clear, save the village and then save the world. You've seen this all before.
The cast of characters who you control for much of your adventure are an interesting bunch. The leader of the group is Shu, a small boy with a heart for adventure to go along with a spirited temper. There's Jiro, the intellectual one with two noticeable facial expressions, smug and more smug. Then there's Kluke, the girl with the heart of gold and perhaps a little bit too sugary sweet for her own good. Other unmemorable characters that you will meet along the way join these three. On the bright side, no one in Blue Dragon will be accused of being a Final Fantasy rip off.
Early on in the game, you'll witness a scene that will dramatically change the way you will play Blue Dragon. Your kiddy heroes (through a somewhat convenient turn of events) receive some rather phenomenal looking shadows. Now these things are not mere silhouettes but unique animals for each character. Shu gets a dragon (complete with six-pack abs), Jiro gets a bull, and Kluke gets a phoenix. The importance of these shadow companions becomes imperative to your quest and they especially come in handy when you encounter enemies.
The world of Blue Dragon is large and getting around can be a daunting task. Luckily, Blue Dragon has you covered with different (yet flawed) navigational tools to make your trek across the expansive world seem a little less of a nuisance. For starters, you can rotate the camera around but zooming in and out is automatic and beyond your control. This makes it difficult to see certain things that may be off in the distance or just outside of the camera's range. There is no shortage of maps to make use of but these are not as functional as they could be. When you are traveling along, you can check where you are on the world map by pushing the start button. In some instances, you will get a marking indicating where you need to go next. The mini-map displayed in the lower right hand corner is the best one available. However, it is a tad inconvenient to follow when you have enemies and other obstacles on the main screen that require your attention.
Another gripe that can't go unmentioned is the sporadic placement of save points. In some cases you can expect to travel long distances before you have the opportunity to save. Other times you'll find a save point, a warp stone (which can be used to teleport you to previously visited areas) and the field area in which you can save all in a short distance of one another.
Two types of activities make up the bulk of your quest in Blue Dragon, treasure hunting and battling monsters. The former activity is nothing new in the realm of the RPG. Coming across the occasional potion or tuft of gold while progressing along is a nice, albeit unexpected surprise. In Blue Dragon, the idea of treasure hunting reaches extreme levels. Whatever objects there may surround you, chances are likely that if you search these areas you will come away with some treasure. The novelty behind this is that it limits the amount of gold you'll need to spend getting curative items and the like. You can then put your money towards items that are much rarer to come across, namely spells and accessories. Although you can only get treasure from each item once, you might consider it a sound investment to spend extra time covering every object to see what you can plunder. If anything, doing this will usually at least cover the expenses of staying at an inn.
When it comes to battling, the possibilities of engaging in combat provide an interesting dynamic. Enemies on the field screen are always in view thus, not having to go through waves of random battles. When you see an enemy you wish to attack you can get the pounce on them by using the encounter attack (X button). With a little craftiness, you can head into battles with a good chance to get the first strike. Another method in taking on enemies involves pressing the right trigger. By doing this, a sphere opens up showing you all the enemies within range that you can fight. You can choose to fight one, two or all the enemies on the screen. Although fighting multiple enemies can be time consuming, the rewards of more gold and experience points are a nice incentive. The game is also considerate enough to provide you with bonuses between each battle such as boosting your attack, defense, and even your health. If that isn't enough, there's also a chance that some of the different enemies you encounter will actually fight amongst themselves. Usually the stronger enemies clear out the weaker ones but this gives you opportunities to score a few free hits on your foes before they even bother to retaliate.
Getting back to those shadows that conveniently don't look anything like you, they are far more than mere window dressing. Your shadows become your jack-of-all-trades when you enter battle. They attack enemies physically; they will use spells or items at your request and ultimately they do the majority of the work for you. Consider them like Pokemon except way cooler. The importance of the shadows goes beyond mere fisticuffs however. By winning fights, your shadows gain experience points of their own, which accumulate to give you new skills and spells. This system is largely similar to the one found in Final Fantasy V, where you have an assortment of different classes at your disposal. Giving your shadows a good balance of the different classes is how to guarantee yourself success in Blue Dragon. The downside to this is that it will require time being spent leveling up so that you can actually give your shadows a formidable arsenal of skills and magic. If you don't, you might find yourself involved in some incredibly difficult and prolonged boss battles.
Fighting in itself is straightforward and mostly unoriginal. The turn based style that originated in RPGs dating back to the 8 bit days are on display here. You attack, the enemy attacks, this carries on until either you or they are defeated. Despite its stale premise, BD offers up a few kinks to make the battles more than just mere button mashing. One thing to take notice of when performing certain attacks and spells is a meter that you can fill up. Depending on where you stop, the potency of your attack will vary. It's a unique way to structure how certain battles play out and it takes a fair amount of precision to get the meter at the critical area. The rewards for doing this can include getting the opportunity to strike right away, or to cause maximum damage. Considering this along with how you've leveled up your shadows could determine how easy or difficult your encounters will be.
Two areas where Blue Dragon could have really taken advantage of the Xbox 360s hardware are graphics and audio. In both cases, it appears that Mistwalker was willing to settle with both being extremely well done, but not the best the system or the genre has to offer. Blue Dragon provides an interesting layout. All the characters in the game look like cartoons, and very cute ones at that. They may not be very animated but there's no shortage of them either. Towns are populated with all sorts of different humans and other species, while the enemies range from your cuddly members of the animal kingdom, to less cuddly monstrosities that will take up much of the space on your screen with an intimidating presence. Considering the size of the game, you'd expect more than your fair share of cut scenes and they are delivered with authority. Some of the longer ones might not be worth your while to sit through but you can easily skip through them and get back to your adventure. There's nothing ultimately wrong with the game's character design. It just might rub some gamers the wrong way by being a little too cute for its intended audience.
On the other end of the aesthetics spectrum is the game's audio. Considering the names that are responsible for what you hear in Blue Dragon, it's safe to say that they didn't cut many corners and the result is some incredible scores of music. It's just a shame that there isn't more of them because many get recycled from town to town, battle to battle and so on. The tunes certainly have a Japanese feel to them and none of them are more blatantly obvious then the selection you hear when you face off against a boss. It is truly classic and pays homage to virtually any anime cartoon you can think of.
Keeping with that earlier comment about whether this game meets its intended audience or not, one can't leave out the monotone, feminine robotic voice which appears for all intensive purposes to follow you wherever you go. If that isn't annoying enough it also is keen to announce your every action as it occurs. Regardless of what you do, you'll be flooded with announcements such as "item", "detected", "critical", "playable", "defeated", "rank up" and plenty of other mundane comments that seem really unnecessary and dare I say it, a bit childish for a game that is supposedly geared for teens. Although to give Blue Dragon credit, this little annoyance doesn't really distract you from your playing experience unless you let it. Remember this is a long game and that jezebel voice is with you until the end, for better or worse.
Based on previous paragraphs, it would seem that Blue Dragon might not be that special a game. Anyone who was hoping for an original RPG that would blow away the competition will be disappointed. However, to write off this game as being like every other RPG would be an injustice. Blue Dragon is a fine game for anyone who's a fan of the genre, gameplay is rather simplistic and in a world where the Final Fantasy games try to reinvent the wheel with often unspectacular results, Blue Dragon takes what's been done before, refines it and just makes things work. There are few bells and whistles here. However, what you do get is a three disc long adventure that can grow on you if you stick with it. Gamers may have to wait for a little bit longer for the 360s de facto RPG but until then, giving this game a go won't leave you feeling blue.