Retro Review: Blue Dragon, Hello my Old Friend
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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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