|Blue Dragon (2007)
Available for: Xbox 360
Only the second turn-based RPG to be released for the Xbox 360 (and the first that fans of the genre will actually enjoy), “Blue Dragon” has been a long-time coming. Released in Japan more than eight months ago, the title has finally arrived on American soil with more expectations than even the greatest game could meet. For starters, “Blue Dragon” has been designed by three of the most influential artists in Japanese history: writer Hironobu Sakaguchi (creator of the “Final Fantasy” series); composer Nobuo Uematsu (also of “Final Fantasy”); and artist Akira Toriyama (of “Dragon Ball Z” fame). To compare the game to their earlier work would only make it sound more negative than it really is. The first multi-disc game for next-gen consoles (a whopping three discs), “Blue Dragon” stands as one of the best-bang-for-your-buck purchases of the year. While it’s true that it still has its share of warts, it remains the most thrilling RPG experience you’re likely to have until the next “Final Fantasy.”
The story isn’t much different from every other RPG title of the past 20 years – a group of kids with extraordinary powers sets off to save the world – but it does tweak the experience enough to make it worthwhile. In this version of the classic model, we’re introduced to three friends: Shu, Jiro and Kluke. Upon the arrival of the Land Shark (a destructive machine marked by the annual appearance of violet storm clouds), they do the unthinkable: they attack it. Scooped up by the shark-like rock (which turns out to be a ship in disguise), the trio are briefly introduced to, and then killed by, its captain, Nene – a strange cross between Frieza and Piccolo (of “DBZ”). Nene’s reasoning behind the attacks is pure and simple: he enjoys listening to the screams of the villagers.
As you’ve probably figured out by now, our heroes aren’t really dead. After their bodies are dumped by Nene, Shu and Co. awaken to discover that they now possess the power to control magical shadows that mirror their every demand. Shu’s is a blue dragon (hence the title of the game), Jiro’s is a blue minotaur, and Kluke’s is a blue phoenix. With these newfound abilities, the trio sets off to track down Nene and exact revenge, picking up allies along the way (including a yellow cat creature named Marumaro who sounds an awful like Ms. Swan from “MAD TV,” and a purple-haired pirate named Zola) that prove to be far more effective than anyone in the core group.
As a rule of thumb, RPGs have been (and always will be) about one thing: upgrading, upgrading and even more upgrading, and “Blue Dragon” doesn’t disappoint. There are virtually limitless combinations to make your hero a better warrior (from learning new spells to adding stronger accessories), but the main focus of the game is in the shadows themselves. In that respect there are nine different classes to choose from, all of which have their own advantages. The main three are the most straightforward of the group, and the reason why your characters begin with them. Sword Master is for warriors, White Magic is for healers, and Black Magic is for those of us who love to blow shit up (as good guys, of course). The other six include Guardian (for those who want to act as the decoy of the group); Monk (for using powerful charged attacks); Assassin (for increased agility and heightened looting skills); Barrier Magic (for nullifying enemies); Support Magic (for making your Black Magic even more badass); and Generalist (for those who never picked a major in college, but still want to play along). Seriously, though, while Guardian is the weakest of the nine classes, it does offer one pretty cool advantage: the ability to add more skill slots to your character. While others will be limited to a paltry four slots for the course of the adventure, the Generalist can keep adding on cool shit to make up for the lack of a menacing attack.
As for the game as a whole, “Blue Dragon” doesn’t exactly offer anything new to the genre. With the exception of the shadows (which are actually a lot like the guardian spirits from “Final Fantasy VIII”), it doesn’t differ too much from its predecessors, aside from a few small changes. The biggest one is probably the absence of random encounters. Forever a nuisance in RPGs, the ability to actually engage an enemy when you want to (at least 95 percent of the time, anyways) is a godsend that not only marks a necessary evolution for the genre, but a move towards common sense. Sneaking up on opponents also yields in-battle advantages, while the attacking positions of your characters (and your enemies) is conveniently located on the top of the screen.
It’s all very trivial, though, when you consider that the combat itself remains stale and unchanged. To this date, I still can’t understand why more RPGs haven’t moved to the real-time battle system that made “Tales of Symphonia” such a great game, but perhaps I was in the minority to think so. It sure made the experience a lot less tiring when you had a friend to play with, and I can only hope that Namco is secretly working on a sequel. But if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? Well, sort of. The main problem with the current combat system isn’t that it’s not fun (because it can be), but rather that you do so much of it in the early moments of the game with little reward. To think that the player has absolutely no idea what’s going on during the entire first act (or the first disc, for that matter) is a bit startling, but “Blue Dragon” more than makes up for it in the end when the story finally comes together on discs two and three. It’s a necessary progression that’s evident in most titles these days, but a valid complaint nonetheless. Still, if you’re aching for some great RPG action, it’s hard to deny that “Blue Dragon” delivers in spades.