Review by BloodGod65

"Is this a nostalgic adventure, or just stuck in the past?"

There was a lot of hype leading up to the release of Blue Dragon, and with good reason. Not only was it was supposed to fill the RPG gap in the 360 lineup, but the project reunited one of the most famous teams in RPG history. With Sakaguchi (mastermind behind Final Fantasy) at the helm, and Toriyma (Dragonball Z artist) and Uematsu (Final Fantasy series composer) backing him, Blue Dragon had RPG fans on the edge of their seats in anticipation. After all, the last time these three got together, they created Chrono Trigger. But as soon as you put the disc into the Xbox, you'll encounter one of the most basic conundrums surrounding Blue Dragon; is this game designed to convey a sense of nostalgia or is it just stuck in the past?

However, that question really isn't relevant to the story, because it revolves around the same premise you'll find in any other run of the mill JRPG. Unless this is the very first RPG you've encountered, there are no surprises here. A young boy named Shu, along with his friends Jiro and Kluke, decides to go fight the Landshark, a monster that attacks their village every year. They soon learn that the Landshark is nothing more than the toy of one nefarious, purple villain named Nene, who floats around the planet in his flying fortress causing all sorts of trouble. After being taken up to his fortress, Shu, Jiro and Kluke each acquire a strange, magical entity known as a Shadow. Shortly after, they are thrown out of the fortress. Having met the man who regularly torments their village, the quest to defeat Nene begins.

Blue Dragon is, by and large, a typical JRPG. While Mistwalker has tweaked a few elements, the overall structure and flow of the game is identical to any other in its genre. And those minor tweaks do little to reinvigorate a genre that has been around for several decades.

The first tweak is to the most important part of an RPG - the battle system. Blue Dragon has a unique, but still all-too familiar take on the turn-based system. Like hundreds of RPGs that came before it, the system remains fundamentally the same. Actions are entered and a set amount of time has to pass before they take place (excluding regular attacks and item uses), and everyone on screen takes actions until one side is vanquished. The two changes aren't revolutionary, and they won't radically alter the way you approach any situation, but they are worth mentioning.

The first of these is the charge meter, which allows any magic spell to be charged up to increase damage. You'll have to hold a button and release it in the proper area to achieve the maximum effectiveness. The downside is that doing this causes the action to be pushed back further into the turn queue.

The second change is utilized before battle ever begins. By pulling the right trigger on the map, a circle forms around the party. From here, you can choose to fight all the enemies in the circle back-to-back. This means once one group is down, another immediately takes its place. However, during the battles you'll get the chance to gain a variety of different power-ups, such as replenished health or increased accuracy. The upshot of engaging multiple groups is that sometimes you'll get two species that don't exactly get along. In these cases, the opposing groups will enter at the same time and fight it out, completely ignoring your party.

As your characters, or rather their Shadows, level up they'll be able to choose from a handful of different job classes. At first, it may seem like there is a lot of variety, but then the realization that the classes are all very basic sinks in. In essence, you've got a selection of fighters with slightly different attributes along with black, white, support and barrier magic classes, and a generalist class that provides additional skill and accessory slots. Several of these classes could have been combined (barrier and support), while some are worthless (assassin – which gives a few steal commands and useless field skills). Most people will probably pick the most effective jobs and stick with them through the entire game.

Traveling from place to place in the game can often turn into a hassle, because the map isn't well implemented. While moving across the overworld map, this is merely a nuisance, since you can always access a general map that gives you a vague direction as to where your next objective lies. However, the camera set-up here (reminiscent of the isometric camera in Diablo) always makes it hard to figure out where you are going. In dungeons, it's an entirely different story because there is no map, other than the small one on the bottom of the screen. This means it's easy to get turned around (especially in those areas where everything looks alike).

Other than these few changes and annoyances I've mentioned, there really isn't anything that differentiates Blue Dragon from the many JRPGs released every year. In fact, there's little to set it apart from RPGs released a decade ago. While it's not surprising when unknown companies and developers do this, having someone as legendary as Sakaguchi fall into the same rut is disheartening. Mistwalker Studios really hasn't gone out of their way to create a unique title; instead they've just taken what has already been done a thousand times and tweaked a few things.

Despite sticking to a distinctly old-school design, Blue Dragon is on the new, powerful 360, so it would be reasonable to expect it to excel in its technical design. Unfortunately, that's not the case and the game is unimpressive when it comes to both graphics and audio.

The graphics are the biggest disappointment. Here we have an RPG on a next-gen system and it looks worse than some recent games I've played for the PS2 (namely FF12). It's not that everything is jaggy or any similar issues, it's just that there wasn't much effort put into bringing out the system's potential. Most of the dungeons are boring and poorly textured. There are a few special instances where it seems that more than a passing interest was placed on the environments, but for the most part, they're all very dull.

With that said, the character models are almost as bad. I don't think Toriyama could have drawn a sorrier set of heroes if he tried. In most RPGs, the heroes stand out, with fancy clothing, hairstyles, or something else to set them apart from the common rabble. Shu and the rest probably couldn't even make the cut as town NPCs in other RPGs.

I could almost give credit to the enemy designs, because they are pretty interesting and colorful. That is until I realized how familiar they were. Granted, Toriyama has his own, immediately recognizeable style, but the familiarity doesn't come from the style. It comes from the numerous enemies that are carbon copies of those found in Dragon Quest VIII, which also used Toriyama for character art.

My one last grievance comes in the form of a really weird and irritating depth of field trick. While it is true that the human eye blurs things that aren't around the focal point, this is just ridiculous. For anyone who is familiar with the Vaseline trick George Lucas used for Luke's speeder in the original Star Wars movie, it looks about like that. What is really irritating about it is that it is never static. As you move the camera, the focal point varies wildly, causing sections of the screen to blur in and out of focus.

Blue Dragon's audio is worse than the graphics. For anyone (myself included) who has ever wondered why some RPGs come with the original Japanese soundtracks, this game is a perfect example of why that is. Blue Dragon has, without a doubt, some of the most wretched voice acting I've ever heard. To give it a quick break-down, Shu comes off like a twenty year old man who is going through reverse puberty, Marumaro speaks in constant shrieking tones, and Zola (these two being characters acquired later in the story) is one of those “aloof and tough” characters who just comes off as being bored with the script.

The music is alternatively unnoticeable, perfect, and downright overbearing. In some areas, I hardly even knew it was playing, and in others I found myself tapping my foot along with the song. But there were a few instances in which the music is completely grating on the ears, and doesn't match the setting at all. The first of these was when I was exploring an ancient set of ruins. I would have imagined a quiet, thoughtful song and instead got a loud thumping beat. This of course leads me to the single worst video game song in history, which plays during boss fights. It is best described as a terrible mix between pop and faux-metal. The lyrics are almost as bad as the screechy idiot who does his best to seem cool while singing them. Let us speak no more of it.

So the question remains, “Is it a nostalgic adventure or is it just stuck in the past?” To be honest, it's about fifty-fifty. There's no doubt that most of the game is rooted in past conventions of the genre, but this old school approach doesn't hamper the game in the slightest. Rather, the flaws are byproducts of bad design decisions by the developers. At its heart, it is a warts and all romp through the glory days of the RPG.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.5 - Good

Originally Posted: 03/14/08, Updated 07/06/10

Game Release: Blue Dragon (US, 08/28/07)

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