blue-dragon

WARNING: Moderate spoil­ers be­low

Blue Dragon, a 2007 ti­tle for the Xbox 360, is a game that’s near and dear to my heart. After a videogame‐less child­hood, the Xbox 360 was my very first con­sole, and Blue Dragon was my in­tro­duc­tion to “real” (in my young mind) video games, and to JRPGs in gen­er­al. And for an in­tro? It was not a bad one.

That is not to say that it is a flaw­less, or even ex­cel­lent game. Microsoft, want­i­ng to make a smash‐hit for its con­sole, pulled to­geth­er a team head­lin­ing Hironobu Sakaguchi (fresh out of SquareEnix) for plot and de­vel­op­ment, Akira Toriyama for char­ac­ter de­sign, and Nobuo Uematsu for mu­sic. Sakaguchi’s brand‐new Mistwalker Studios, along with Artoon, de­vel­oped a 3‐disc (!) game tout­ed es­pe­cial­ly for its graph­ics. The prob­lem with bring­ing a bunch of fa­mous folks to­geth­er to work on the same project is that the re­sult is usu­al­ly medi­oc­rity. Did this game es­cape this fate? Not com­plete­ly. This game has flaws, some of them glar­ing. Some as­pects are far bet­ter than oth­ers; some things aren’t quite as ad­ver­tised by the de­vel­op­ers. Blue Dragon is not stel­lar. But it’s good. Not great — but good.

Let’s break it down into its parts.

CREATIVE (Plot, Characters, World)

The plot is in­deed mediocre. Nothing spe­cial. There are some in­trigu­ing mo­ments, but over­all the plot is just okay – not grip­ping, quite sim­ple. The pac­ing has def­i­nite er­rors – it slows down way too much many times, and it can make it hard to stick with the game. At oth­er times, the pac­ing is just fine and makes things worth­while enough.

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Image Via https://www.flickr.com/photos/52684927@N04/

The char­ac­ters, how­ev­er… very sim­ple mo­tives; some de­sign re­cy­cling by Toriyama (see: main pro­tag­o­nist Shu’s hair vs. Dragon Ball. What is it about Toriyama’s love af­fair with spiky hair?); Marumaro’s roy­al­ly an­noy­ing, screech­ing voice (don’t think you can es­cape it by chang­ing the voice lan­guage – it’s worse in Japanese); Shu’s shonen‐spirited “I-WON’T-GIVE-UP!”-ness. In short – very meh. It is saved in part by the women, Kluke – with her dreams of be­ing a doc­tor and her be­ing the ro­man­tic in­ter­est for Shu and Jiro –, and Zola – a scant­i­ly clad pirate‐esque woman who, be­sides be­ing the sex ap­peal, ac­tu­al­ly pro­vides di­a­logue in­ter­est with her cold and cal­cu­lat­ing per­son­al­i­ty. Yes, I re­al­ize, these are very poor rea­sons to be good char­ac­ters – but they are, some­how, bet­ter than the oth­ers. Which says some­thing. Add lit­tle to no char­ac­ter de­vel­op­ment (save Zola) and you’ve got lack­ing char­ac­ter de­sign.

With the world‐building, we’re fi­nal­ly get­ting some­where. Varied races, an im­pres­sive map with neat en­vi­ron­ments and lo­ca­tions, an in­ter­est­ing his­tor­i­cal back­ground for the con­ti­nent, and unique mon­sters to fight (though re­col­ors are em­ployed a bit too of­ten). It would be bet­ter if the bro­ken char­ac­ter de­sign and av­er­age plot didn’t dis­tract from it and bring it down so much. It’s hard for such a won­der­ful world to shine when you’ve got Shu con­stant­ly yelling “I won’t give up!” in the fore­ground.

AESTHETIC (Graphics, Music)

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Image via https://www.flickr.com/photos/52684927@N04/

With the graph­ics, here, fi­nal­ly, is some­thing ac­tu­al­ly as ad­ver­tised. For a 2007 game, the graph­ics are ab­solute­ly beau­ti­ful. The cut scenes are ex­quis­ite, the bat­tle ef­fects awe‐inspiring (es­pe­cial­ly once you get to the disc‐3 me­chan­ic of Corporeal Attacks – more on that lat­er). The an­i­ma­tion team did well on this one. So well, in fact, that the sys­tem it­self stops to stare at it. Lag is a fre­quent prob­lem with both cut scenes and bat­tle se­quences be­cause the con­sole can’t com­plete­ly keep up with the pro­gram­ming or with all the vi­su­al ef­fects thrown in to the bat­tles.

The world may be drawn and an­i­mat­ed beau­ti­ful­ly, but if it only didn’t tax the sys­tem so much, it would be so much bet­ter. I have had the game freeze on me (with my only op­tion be­ing to man­u­al­ly restart my Xbox) nu­mer­ous times be­cause the sys­tem lagged out, in­ca­pable of ex­e­cut­ing all of the de­mands placed on it by the an­i­ma­tions and scene changes. The game re­al­ly could have used some work to make sure the graph­ics were more in line with the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of the con­sole they were work­ing with.

My one is­sue with the graph­ics them­selves is that only the eye­brows re­al­ly move on the char­ac­ters in or­der to ex­press emo­tion. Facial ex­pres­sions are rather sta­t­ic and un­chang­ing, and this can make the char­ac­ters seem strange, even in­hu­man at times.

The mu­sic is gen­uine­ly well done. There are many love­ly, flow­ing pi­ano themes, a fa­vored tech­nique of Uematsu that ac­tu­al­ly serves him well. In‐game, the mu­sic does its job – it is just enough to make it­self no­ticed, and then fades into the back­ground while en­hanc­ing the cur­rent en­vi­ron­ment. Those with mu­sic the­o­ry back­grounds will ap­pre­ci­ate the tech­niques and ef­fects in the songs. The tracks for some of the spe­cif­ic events are re­al­ly good also – for ex­am­ple, a song cute enough to give you in­stant di­a­betes plays dur­ing the scenes af­ter you save the Devee tribe (from whence Marumaro hails – and no, they don’t all screech like him. It’s lit­er­al­ly. Just. Him. Don’t head­desk too hard.).

The boss theme, com­posed by Uematsu with lyrics by Sakaguchi, sounds re­al­ly epic at first, sung with ex­cel­lent metal‐screaming vo­cals by Deep Purple front­man Ian Gillan (the song is the same in Japanese – it’s in English, but it’s good English and not Engrish, as it were). However, the same epic scream­ing gets quick­ly an­noy­ing if the bat­tle drags. Which is of­ten, be­cause how would it be a boss bat­tle oth­er­wise?

The fi­nal boss mu­sic isn’t shab­by ei­ther, and is more bear­able in the long‐term than the reg­u­lar boss mu­sic. Of the three big names brought in to work on this game, Uematsu is clear­ly the win­ner.

GAMEPLAY

Blue Dragon plays as a clas­sic JRPG with some new twists. There is no huge learn­ing curve need­ed to play this game. This is a bless­ing and a curse at the same time; the game has been liked and hat­ed in equal mea­sure for its sim­i­lar­i­ty to clas­sic play and for not be­ing too crazy or tak­ing too many risks. Really, they’re both sides of the same coin, and you can in­ter­pret this how you please based on your own likes and dis­likes – i.e., your mileage may vary. Myself, I fall into the “I like it” camp. Compared to JRPGs I played af­ter this one, it was just dif­fer­ent enough to be in­ter­est­ing, but I wasn’t tripped up by hav­ing to learn a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent and whacked‐out bat­tle sys­tem, and what dif­fer­ences ex­ist­ed were just in­tu­itive enough to fig­ure out rather quick­ly.

Combat is turn‐based with typ­i­cal spell school di­vi­sions (black mag­ic for at­tack­ing, white mag­ic for heal­ing…). Where things re­al­ly get in­ter­est­ing is with the me­chan­ic of Shadows. Each of the main char­ac­ters can sum­mon their shad­ow into a spe­cif­ic mag­ic crea­ture, dif­fer­ent for each char­ac­ter, which acts as the means for their spell­cast­ing and great­ly boosts their at­tack and abil­i­ties. The Shadows also lev­el up sep­a­rate­ly, but along­side, the char­ac­ters: aside from ex­pe­ri­ence (EXP) by which the char­ac­ters them­selves lev­el, de­feat­ing en­e­mies also earns you Shadow Points (SP), which al­low your Shadows to gain Ranks (they synonym’d “lev­el”!) in any or all of 9 class­es, in a man­ner sim­i­lar to a Job sys­tem. Some of these class­es are log­i­cal (Black Magic…), some of them are in­no­v­a­tive (for ex­am­ple the Monk class, which al­lows you to charge your phys­i­cal at­tacks sim­i­lar to how one nor­mal­ly charges spells in this game).

Besides grant­i­ng dif­fer­ent boosts to dif­fer­ent stats, these class­es give you ac­cess to dif­fer­ent schools of mag­ic, and also to unique Skills, some of which have ef­fects in‐town and oth­ers in the field. The Field Skills are re­al­ly fun. You can be in­vis­i­ble, you can throw stun bombs, and at its most in­ter­est­ing is the Field Barrier skill: sur­round your­self with a per­son­al bar­ri­er, just walk up to an en­e­my in the over­world and the en­e­my in­stant­ly dis­ap­pears (at the cost of not gain­ing EXP, al­though you still gain SP; this is great for late‐game grind­ing for Shadow class­es. And no, it doesn’t work on boss­es; that’d ob­vi­ous­ly be too cheaty! As much as we wish it worked…). In the third disc, the Shadows gains a Corporeal Attack, unique to each Shadow, which once charged up al­low you to in­flict mas­sive dam­age. The Shadows fea­ture makes it so that your par­ty is high­ly cus­tomiz­able to your stan­dards, al­though with cer­tain Skills clear­ly bet­ter than oth­ers and cer­tain class­es be­ing ab­solute­ly nec­es­sary (Black Magic, once again…), there is a ten­den­cy for your char­ac­ters to end up look­ing the same any­way.

There are no forced bat­tles, save for boss­es and some chests be­ing guard­ed by crea­tures. Interestingly, there is even a me­chan­ic which, by hit­ting the right trig­ger, the over­world falls still and a blue line forms in a cir­cle around you, giv­ing you the op­tion to fight any or all of the en­e­mies with­in its ra­dius. If you fight mul­ti­ple en­e­mies in a row in this way, you can roulette for buffs be­tween rounds (ex­am­ples in­clude in­creased Attack, Cooldown re­set, or even heal­ing your Magic Points/MP/mana). Even cool­er is some­times, us­ing this Encounter Circle, you may get two mon­sters who nat­u­ral­ly hate each oth­er and will fight each oth­er to death in bat­tle (known as a Monster Fight), mean­ing you bare­ly have to lift a fin­ger, at least for that round.

The abil­i­ty to tele­port (“Warp”) be­tween im­por­tant lo­ca­tions is great, es­pe­cial­ly for the late‐game sid­e­quests, and there are quite a few di­verse mini‐games, which range from stan­dard button‐mashers to cin­e­mat­ic aer­i­al dog­fights. The con­trols are flu­id and over­all ex­cel­lent. The one real is­sue is that, as with the graph­ics, the sys­tem can’t al­ways han­dle the load (es­pe­cial­ly with mul­ti­ple char­ac­ters charg­ing up spells, or large num­bers of en­e­mies) and lag pops up all too of­ten.

APPEAL

Despite the fail­ings of the in­di­vid­ual el­e­ments of this game, it all comes to­geth­er quite nice­ly. Blue Dragon doesn’t have a lot of per­son­al­i­ty or de­tails, sad­ly; but it is easy­go­ing and has its own quaint charm. “Quaint” is a very ac­cu­rate word to de­scribe this game; it is not unique or spe­cial, but still en­joy­able in some small way. The de­fi­cien­cies in plot and char­ac­ter de­sign brings the lev­el down a bit, and the pac­ing is very slow at times, but if you stick with the slow bits through all three discs, the over­all ex­pe­ri­ence is re­ward­ing enough.

The last­ing ap­peal is where the crit­ics dif­fer from the ac­tu­al game play­er; if a game comes to­geth­er well, it sells and is liked bet­ter by the av­er­age con­sumer de­spite any poor rat­ings by ex­perts. The game man­ages to do just enough story‐ and world‐wise to hook you in, even more so with all of the achieve­ments and in­ter­est­ing lit­tle disc‐three side quests.

Oh yeah – the achieve­ments. There are tons of ’em. They range in dif­fi­cul­ty, some be­ing easy (as in sim­ply max­ing your char­ac­ter lev­els and ranks, or just de­feat­ing that side quest boss) and some be­ing hard (a per­fect score on that mini‐game? What?! Impossible!! *restart*). Hunt ’em all down, if you can; if you’re an achieve­ment hound, like me, you’ll be play­ing for a while.

For what it’s worth, this game did in­sane­ly bet­ter in Japan than it did in the U.S., enough to re­lease two se­quels for the Nintendo DS. Probably has some­thing to do with Japanese cul­tur­al­ly in­grained sub­tle­ty (a sub­ject I have per­son­al­ly stud­ied at length), and there­fore a sto­ry that seems slow‐paced to us Americans says so much more to a Japanese au­di­ence. The game still does enough to en­tice American au­di­ences though, so it works.

CONCLUSION

This game was my first “real” video game, so I do have a soft spot for it. But if I were to com­pare this to friend­ships: this is the old child­hood friend who you like dear­ly, but is not your best friend who you do every­thing with. He has his prob­lems, and you know it; but every once in a while, you call him up and you have a nice chat and it makes you feel warm and fuzzy.

And then you go play laser tag with your besties that week­end.

I wouldn’t call this game a “must‐buy” by any means. I’d to­tal­ly un­der­stand if you nev­er got it. But it’d be a shame if you didn’t play it at least once, be­cause it isn’t hor­ri­ble; in fact, I’d say it’s in the top quar­ter or third of JRPGs and of 360 ti­tles (al­beit near the bot­tom of its tier). And if you gave this often‐overlooked game a pass, es­pe­cial­ly if you’re at all a fan of JRPGs or of any of the fa­mous folks who worked on this ti­tle, you’d be miss­ing out on some­thing small but won­der­ful in its own way.

(Disclosure: The copy of Blue Dragon re­viewed by the writer had been giv­en to her as a gift.

Screenshots via Brandon Motz)

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Indigo Altaria
Indigo Altaria has been a devo­tee of Pokemon since Gen 1, what­ev­er gave it away? Within the greater realm of geek cul­ture, her in­ter­ests in­clude lan­guages, cul­tures, world­build­ing, and in­ter­sec­tion­al­i­ty.
Indigo Altaria

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