Retro Review: Blue Dragon, Hello my Old Friend

Indigo Altaria is here to bring you an retro introduction to an old friend, Blue Dragon for Xbox 360. Blue Dragon is pleased to meet you!

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.
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