The original Xbox played a lot of great games in its day, from multiplayer first-person shooters to stunning sports simulators. But there's one genre that has eluded Microsoft's consoles, and that's the traditional Japanese role-playing games. While a number of Western developers have stepped up to the plate (including BioWare with Knights of the Old Republic, Big Blue Box with Fable and Bethesda with Morrowind), for whatever reason the major Japanese RPG makers have decided to support the PlayStation brand over Microsoft's Xbox.
This unfortunate reality is something that Microsoft knows all too well. From the onset Microsoft has made it a priority to attract more Japanese companies to the Xbox 360, trying to do whatever they can to make their high powered console more appealing in the land of the rising sun. Two years ago Microsoft took their first steps in this difficult journey to win the hearts and minds of Japanese gamers (and those who love Japanese games), they hired famed Final Fantasy creator, Hironobu Sakaguchi, to develop a number of role-playing games on the Xbox 360. After much hype and waiting Microsoft has finally released their first major Japanese RPG, a cute, if not overly generic, adventure game called Blue Dragon.
Blue Dragon tells the story of three kids (Shu, Jiro and Kluke) who inadvertently go on an epic quest after their small town is destroyed by a robotic land shark. Ignoring their parent's wishes, these three kids decide to do something about this menace and trap the metallic beast ... but not everything goes as planned. After a botched attempt to get to the bottom of the land shark mystery, Shu and gang are introduced to Nene, a creepy old man who with strong magic skills and the ability to manipulate machines. Unfortunately these three kids don't stand a chance at defeating such a powerful magic user, no matter how hard they try the short daggers and fists just aren't going to cut it.
Thankfully somebody is looking out for these three kids. Shortly after meeting (and being defeated by) Nene, the three kids are given these weird glowing orbs that they are supposed to swallow. Against their better judgment, the three kids decide to eat those glowing orbs and see what happens. Did the kids pass out from radiation poisoning or get high? No, instead their shadows turned into giant, powerful blue dragons that could take on just about any opponent that gets in the way.
As you can imagine, the blue dragons are the one thing that sets this game apart from the rest of the Japanese role-playing games. For the most part this game plays exactly like Final Fantasy and a lot of other RPGs from that part of the world; you roam around a map and get into battles against fantastical enemies. Once you're locked in battle the game turns into a standard turn-based affair, each character will choose how they want to act (be it attack, magic, defend, use an item, etc.) and you'll have to put up with the enemy's turn every so often. Where this game differs is in who is actually doing the attacking. For the most part these kids aren't fighting the battles themselves, instead they let their shadow dragons do their dirty work for them. When it's somebody's turn their blue dragon (which is different depending on which character you're using) magically pops out of their shadow as if it was a summoned creature from the Final Fantasy series. From there you can use the dragon to punch the enemy or use magic.
Despite the fact that it takes awhile for the game to actually get going, Blue Dragon has a fairly simple premise that never gets too complex or convoluted. Most of the game is all about you tracking down Nene and defeating him once and for all, something that is apparently easier said than done. Like all role-playing games, Blue Dragon tends to veer off into side missions that have very little to do with your ultimate goal. From time to time you'll have to get yourself out of a sticky situation (such as finding a way out of an old underground hospital), saving a town, or helping a cute little bat-like creature save his family by finding the right medicine. These various missions are standard stuff for the role-playing genre, but some of them just feel like artificial ways of making the game longer than it needs to be.
While Shu, Jiro and Kluke make for an excellent (and well rounded) team, you will eventually meet up with two other adventurers who want to aid you on your quest. These extra characters have been wronged by Nene too, and both bring something different to the table. You find Marumaro fairly early in your adventure; he's a tiny guy whose dragon is extremely powerful. Zola, on the other hand, is a 20 year old mercenary who rarely shows her feelings and seems to have very high connections. With these extra members in your party it's time for you to set out and kick Nene's senior citizen butt.
But not so fast, Blue Dragon is not one of those games you can beat in just a few hours. In fact, Blue Dragon is one of the first Xbox 360 games to come on three separate discs. You heard me; this is a three disc affair. The game itself will take you around 50 hours to complete, and along the way you'll meet a number of interesting (albeit not always memorable) characters and travel all around the large world beating up on evil robots and other baddies.
However, just because the game is 50 hours doesn't mean that it's an interesting trip from beginning to end. The reason the game comes on three discs is because of the liberal use of cinema scenes. While it's not as bad as some games (Xenosaga springs to mind), Blue Dragon certainly has a lot of cinemas ... perhaps a few too many. It's fine when the cinema moves the story along or introduces us to a brand new villain, but there are more than a few cinemas that just feel pointless.
The biggest problem is that the whole story of Blue Dragon feels pointless. In a lot of ways this Mistwalker game plays like a paint-by-numbers RPG, pretty much everything in this game has been done in countless other adventure games. While most of the Final Fantasy games have huge twists and reveals, Blue Dragon never delivers that kind of drama. Instead we get a cliché story that has a hard time filling up a 50 hour game. Even the most "shocking" elements feel like they've been lifted right out of other games, I found myself groaning when one of the main characters was captured or when I had to find my way out of a prison cell. If this is your first Japanese role-playing game these moments won't be as cringe inducing, but for those seasons pros out there it's hard not to wince a little when you get stuck doing menial tasks instead of focusing on the main quest at hand.
Unfortunately the story isn't the only generic aspect of Blue Dragon. The biggest problem I have is that the entire battle system just feels like it was lifted from one of the Final Fantasy games. All of the standard elements are here, from the most common magic spells (fire, water, wind, etc.) to the fact that you can attack, use items, defend, use items and everything else you've been able to do in RPGs for twenty years now. That's not to say that there isn't some originality in the combat, when it comes to performing a spell or using some attacks, a large bar will pop up at the top of the screen and want you to hold the button down to charge up the attack. The longer you hold that button down the more powerful it will be ... but if you hold it down too long you'll end up moving your turn past everybody else (including the enemies). It's important to plan your attacks wisely so that you aren't left defenseless as you charge up your attack. This addition is interesting, but it's not enough to make this game feel like anything more than just a "next generation" version of so many traditional RPGs.
One thing I appreciate is that the game throws away the idea of random battles. Instead of the game switching from the world map to the battle at random times, you will always be able to see the enemies on screen. If you are low on health or just don't want to deal with these enemies you can avoid them by running around them, or you can always run up and push the "X" button to attack them (which will send you into the battle mode). Better yet, if you have several enemies around you can push the right trigger and select several enemies at the same time. By doing this you will fight one long battle instead of several shorter battles. This is a nice feature, but it's not the kind of thing that revolutionizes the entire genre.
Like most role-playing games, Blue Dragon also allows you to customize your character with different spells and items. The game also features a class system that has been lifted wholesale from Final Fantasy V. When you change your class you will be able to use different spells and special attacks, but at the same time you're going to have to level up that class before you can do anything cool. This is a nice option for that want to try out different abilities, but you can go through the entire game without touching the character classes and not have a single problem.
My biggest complaint against Blue Dragon has nothing to do with the weak story or generic gameplay; instead I find myself disliking the characters more than anything. Blue Dragon's characters have been created by none other than Akira Toriyama, best known for his work with Dragon Ball Z. Given his track record it's not hard to understand why the characters have a very anime-inspired look to them, but I never found the characters to be all that interesting looking. The main three characters really annoy me, and as far as I'm concerned the only character I enjoyed looking at was the busty Zola.
But it's not just about the looks; I also found that these characters were very boring. There's really no reason to be interested in any of these characters, and their conversations are beyond dull. And if that wasn't enough, most of the characters have these over-the-top anime voices that just grate on my nerves. I found myself actively hating some of these characters as I played the game, which is not a good sign when you're spending 50 hours of your life playing with them.
When I first saw pictures of Blue Dragon I worried that the graphics would be underwhelming; after all, the game has a very simple look with very little in the way of detail. Thankfully the game looks a lot better in action. Yes the graphics are very simple, but he look of the game is clean and crisp. The art style won't blow you away or anything, but the game's presentation is nice. The game looks especially good when you're battling some of the larger monsters; I love the different camera angles you get to see the action from, that's a nice touch that makes this game look more like a next generation game. Then again, there's really nothing about the game's look that couldn't have been done on one of the older consoles, but the overall graphics shouldn't take away from your enjoyment of Blue Dragon.
Old school role-playing fans who have only owned Xbox products recently will no doubt get a kick out of Blue Dragon. This is a worthwhile game if only because it's the only game of its kind currently available for the Xbox 360. As more and more Japanese RPGs start flooding the store shelves this game will no doubt lose some of its significance, but if you're looking for a role-playing game to sink your teeth into at this very moment then you could do a lot worse than Blue Dragon. Hopefully this is a sign of things to come, because it's about time some of the Japanese companies started offering traditional RPGs to Microsoft's next generation console.
More On:Blue Dragon
With its generic characters, story and gameplay one could argue that this is just an imitation of better role-playing games on the market. But when you're the only Japanese RPG on the console then you're a little less choosey. Blue Dragon isn't a bad game, it's just not worth the two year wait it took to hit the Xbox 360.