Review by adburt

"No Masterpiece, but a Solid RPG"

It's no secret that the Xbox 360 has been struggling in Japan. It's predecessor, the Xbox, filled to the brim with Western-style first person shooters, failed to catch the interest of the Japanese market. While there are many reasons for the 360's struggles, a lack of games targeted to the Japanese audience is believed to be one of them. So, what do Japanese gamers like? Japanese-style RPGs! And so here we have the proposed remedy: a shiny new classic-style Japanese RPG. Not only that, but it has big name power behind it. Hironobu Sakaguchi of Final Fantasy fame handled the game's scenarios. Nobuo Uematsu, also of Final Fantasy fame, composed the score. And perhaps most famous of all, Akira Toriyama, of such works as Dragonball Z and Dragon Quest, provided character and monster designs. There would be nothing to stop this Dream Team of RPG talent!

Did the game live up to its high expectations?


Graphics

With Blue Dragon being the first Japanese RPG (the first good one) to appear on a next-generation console, the expectation for great visuals is high. Indeed, the game is simply beautiful. Toriyama's designs are brought to life in a three dimensional world reminiscent of a Pixar movie. Everything has a smooth, soft feel to it. The player can rotate the camera left, right, up and down to examine the lush scenery. The camera has a nice "focus" effect, whereby your hero and his immediate surroundings will be in focus, while features in the distance will appear blurry and out of focus; a nice touch of realism. Unfortunately the camera can only be rotated left and right while navigating the overworld. This means you can't peer into the distance, and the overworld has a certain claustrophobic feel to it. Limited to a straightforward and stale overhead view, the graphics feel bland and boring while navigating the overworld.

Luckily, the graphics shine their brightest during battles. It goes without saying that spell effects look great, but what is most striking is the camerawork. When a character's turn comes up, the screen splits to show the battlefield from afar as well as a close up of the character powering up and getting ready to attack. Spells, special attacks, critical hits, and fatal blows are framed close up with great cinematic effect. Even the most mundane battles appear exciting, to say nothing of boss battles. However there is one trouble: slow-down. It's fairly frequent during battles, and will not go unnoticed. That said, it does not severely hinder the show the 360 is pumping out, and is largely forgivable.


Gameplay

While on the topic of battles, the gameplay in Blue Dragon is equally top-notch. The battles are turn-based. Character advancement is based on "Shadows" that each character equips. Shadows are essentially character classes such as Sword, White Mage, Black Mage, Assassin, etc. In addition to experience points, characters earn skill points in battle, which count toward ranking up their Shadow. Gaining ranks opens up skills which can be equipped at any time, regardless of which Shadow is equipped. Additional skill slots can be opened up by gaining ranks with the Combination Shadow, which otherwise has no skills to offer. The caveat is that independent of character levels, stat increases are also tied to the equipped Shadow and its rank. If you rank up Sword to 20, and decide you want to switch to Assassin in order to learn a new set of abilities, the switch from rank 20 Sword to rank 1 Assassin will significantly drop your stats. As such, the Shadow system feels perfectly balanced. There are costs and benefits to every decision, giving the player plenty of reason to carefully strategize. It is satisfying to see the results of your character growth strategy later in the game, given time to fully mature.

Enemies are fully visible on the field. Battles are initiated when you touch an enemy, or when an attack is launched (by you or the enemy). Enemies wander aimlessly until they detect you, at which point they will either approach and attack or try to escape. Your characters can learn various skills to use in the field to either avoid or to get the jump on enemies. There are plenty of opportunities for back attacks and initiative boosts. Groups of monsters can also be engaged at once, fighting each group in successive battles with combat bonuses (defense boost, status recovery, MP boost, etc) awarded in between. Certain monsters will even fight each other in such instances, leaving less work for your characters.

In both towns and in the field you can examine a variety of objects in search of goodies. Barrels, tables, campfires, trees, rocks, and just about anything else you can find can be quickly perused for goodies. Normally these goodies are inconsequential, such as a few gold, a healing item, or a few experience points. More worthwhile items can be found occasionally. Just so there's no confusion, a voice will chime in to tell you what you found, along the lines of "Item," "Gold…" or "Nothing." In fact this nice woman will chime in frequently in both the field and in battle, notifying you of such situations as "Detected," "Defeated," "Attack Up," and even "Playable." It's certainly a unique feature. The voice is often unnecessary and perhaps annoying, but at other times it seems reasonably informative and convenient, particularly when facing enemies on the field or in battle.


Music

The music in Blue Dragon ranks among some of Uematsu's better works. It's typical RPG fare, and characteristic of Uematsu's style. As such, the music is varied in style. There are also a handful of vocal tracks. Of particular note is the blood-pumping boss battle theme, "Eternity," by Ian Gillan. It's not what you would expect hear in a Japanese RPG, and comes as a refreshing addition.


Story

With top-notch gameplay, graphics, and sound, it is unfortunate that Blue Dragon's story suffers from mediocrity. Thematically the game is simple. The heroes are essentially kids, off on their great adventure. If you're looking for a mature and sophisticated storyline, you won't find it here. The villains simply fit the mold of villains. They're evil and terrorize the world because that's what the game needs them to do so. The heroes in the game are likable, but suffer from a lack of significant development. A few of the characters seem to have interesting backgrounds, these backgrounds are left largely unexplored. What character development there is is along the lines of coming of age. Again, it's largely a kids' adventure. Nothing profound, no great drama. Granted, this approach is likely intentional. The story at least seems fitting for the artistic design of the game. However, the hardcore RPG crowd, for which the game is otherwise aimed at, might be left wanting something more compelling.

Fortunately, what story there is is told wonderfully. CG story sequences look fantastic, and voice acting is excellent. There is also a fair number of plot twists, although how much impact they have is another question. In the end, it's not that Blue Dragon's story is bad, it's just that it's not particularly good either.


Longevity and Replayability

Blue Dragon lasts a healthy 40 hours. In addition to the main quest, there is an assortment of sidequests and optional dungeons worth delving into. A harder difficulty setting, New Game+, bonus items, and a random dungeon generator are available as downloadable content.


Final Thoughts


Overall, Blue Dragon is a strong, polished RPG. However, it falls a bit short of true greatness, mainly due to a lackluster story. Blue Dragon is not a system seller on its own. In Japan the release of the game provided a noteworthy, but momentary, bump in 360 sales. The Xbox 360, and Blue Dragon, remain insignificant in Japan. That said, if you're a 360 owner and a fan of RPGs, you can't go wrong with Blue Dragon. It looks great and plays great.


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 05/14/07


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