Sunday, January 16, 2011

Blue Dragon... And the Occasional Poo

At times, Mistwalker's Blue Dragon stinks of poo... literally.

The original Blue Dragon for the Xbox 360 had the potential to be a gem, but it falls short in many areas. This doesn't mean the game isn't fun, it's just... a tad bit frustrating. It was released back in 2006 on the Xbox 360 in Japan, and came out in America in mid 2007. To my knowledge, there weren't that many Japanese RPG's out on the 360 at the time, and this game seemed to be promising.

Why? Mistwalker composed a "dream team" of RPG developers. Hironobu Sakaguchi directed from Final Fantasy fame. Nobuo Uematsu composed the score, also from Final Fantasy fame and other works. And alas, Akira Toriyama provided both character and monster designs. His credits belong to writing and illustrating Dr. Slump and Dragon Ball, and creating character designs for Dragon Quest and Chrono Trigger.

So lets first start with character design. Apparently Toriyama has
a thing for poo... quite possibly originating from his other works such as Dr. Slump. The very first enemy you battle in Blue Dragon is a freakin' Poo Snake. Yeah, I said it, Poo Snake.

For main characters Shu, Jiro, Kluke, Marumaro, and Zola, he does a fairly good job. Jiro, in the green, reminds me of Vegeta for some reason. NPC's look alright, but kinda get boring after a while. Also, I could have sworn I saw Bulma walking around somewhere in Jibral.

*Note: The expressions found on these primary characters rarely change throughout the game...

The best part about Blue Dragon is its ending. Not so much because the game actually ended, but because the final boss battles and ending to the narrative were quite exciting. Looking into Blue Dragon's story I didn't know what to expect, but I'm glad I didn't expect much.The plot revolves around Shu, Jiro, and Kluke living on a planet and everything seems to be going just great. Then out of nowhere the sky turns into a purple miasma. My first thought
was Naraku, but no, actually the main villain in this game is THE ULTIMATE ALMIGHTY OLD-MAN NENE (and pet side kick frog parrot dude who *spoiler turns out to be a badass final boss). Hold on a second...
Nene? What the hell kind of name is that?! I played the game with its original Japanese vocal track turned on with English subtitles, and Shu says "Nehneh" wicked fast. I guess you could pronounce his name "Naynay", but we all know you want to call him "Neenee".

Anywho, with that rant out of the way, Shu's living the good life until purple miasma shows up and Land Sharks destroy his village. Cool beans. You're pretty weak so you can't fight the shark but you somehow capture it and use it to fly up to Nene's base. It's not a real shark, it's a robot shark that can fly, obviously. In his base your party of three are told by a mysterious woman's voice to swallow orbs of light, and they do. Congratulations! You know have the ability to turn your shadow into a monster to fight other monsters! Which is actually BADASS.

Here's Shu fighting a huge rat. Who do you think will win?
Over the course of the game you come across a city, a few towns, and a lot of ancient ruins. Unfortunately the ancient ruins all look the same. At first it's cool because the "ancient" ruins are all very advanced and decked out with technology, but hallway after hallway and room after room of the same stuff gets kinda boring.

The story is predictable and you know what will happen next. You chase Nene all around the world, he gets away, and you do it again. The battle system prides itself on the formatting of older JRPG's, which is totally fine with me. Each shadow starts off with its own special skill, and you level that skill up with SP. There's the option of changing your skill to learn all of the other skills, but why would you do that when you're already so strong with your current skill? I was a level 50 Sword Master and battles were going smoothly. I changed Shu to something else and suddenly the game became surprisingly frustrating.

For me, Blue Dragon was frustrating because I wanted more to happen. There are certain elements of the game that I wouldn't mind so much if the story was more engaging and if the monster and dungeon designs weren't so repetitive. Blue Dragon became more of a chore to finish instead of a captivating story that left me wanting more. And what was up with the frame rate at times? Most of the game looked pretty but some of the animation slowed down way too much for an Xbox 360 game. Cut scenes were also plagued by random black loading screens... in the middle of the cutscenes. Why couldn't the cutscene be one long scene?

That doesn't mean there weren't good parts to Blue Dragon. There's got to be some great stuff here to develop an anime television series adaptation, manga, and two sequels on the Nintendo DS. Sakaguchi did an excellent job at creating a new world setting where you follow the protagonists who need to save it. It's simple and lighthearted, enough so that for fans of older Square games and more mature RPG's it may just be too simple.

But like I said before, the ending of Blue Dragon and even the latter half of the game is where it's at. All save for the final dungeon, Nene's fortress. Jesus christ, it was one of the most infuriating experiences needing to battle so many monsters just to get to the final boss. Ironically this is where the best examples of level design take place too... go figure.

With the story being cliche in that the Ancient Civilizations had such powerful technology and they all killed one another, and then the world rebuilt itself, I was sure nothing too exciting would come from it. But then Nene decided to do some crazy ass thing where the planet LITERALLY DIVIDED IN HALF.

And behold! The center of the planet is made up of ancient space cube technology!

Isn't that cool? I thought so too!

Blue Dragon's first sequel, Blue Dragon Plus for the DS takes place a year later after the events of the first Blue Dragon. It features Shu and the gang with some newcomers, and new evil has arrived. It has a strategy RPG feel to it, which is a large turn from Blue Dragon's traditional battle system. The second sequel, Awakened Shadow, takes place after the events of the first sequel. This one's a little different where you create and customize your own protagonist and then Shu and the gang help you.

I really hope these sequels go a little more into the character's backstories and relationships. Blue Dragon sets up Shu and Jiro both having feelings for Kluke. I don't know about you guys, but Shu seems to be more of an older brother figure while Jiro is the shy guy who should be her boyfriend. Besides, that Sahlia girl that Shu saved from killing herself and then gave him a cookie in thanks is totally the girl for him. Yup. C'mon, she gave him a cookie!

As for extra sidequests and achievements, the sidequests seem to be alright and the achievements aren't so cool. Once you get your airship, known as a Mechat in Blue Dragon, you can fly it around and go wherever you want, including new areas you couldn't get to before. These mainly consist of new locales with multiple floors and really difficult monsters to battle (the strongest ones in the game). Defeating these monsters usually leads to getting new gear and items, leading to the fulfillment of achievements. Other achievements require you to level your characters and their shadows to level 99.

Finding every item in the game is probably the hardest achievement, because it means you need to do everything in order to qualify. I'm not sure if this also means finding every item and such scattered throughout the world though. Meaning, every location seems to have items, gold, experience points, etc. that you can obtain by just hitting a button. For example, if you check out the fireplace you may get 10 gold. Check out the stove right next to it and you may get more gold. At the same time you may get nothing, and the game will tell you so. But don't worry! There's a "nothing man" in the game that allows you to trade in all those nothings for rare items. Unfortunately this gets very tedious. Running around and checking out every rock, house, pipe, vent, etc. and constantly pressing A takes time and is probably best suited for completionists.

A side note on the soundtrack. Uematsu does a fine job with supplying a fairly good score for the game. It's not his best score, but a song that stands out is the boss battle music "Eternity". I remember attending the Video Game Orchestra's concert at Anime Boston 2010 and hearing this song performed live. It was quite the experience! Another song that IGN gives a nod to is "Cave". My personal favorite? It may very well be "Happy Birthday", and it plays at the very end of the game.

So would I recommend Blue Dragon? Honestly, probably not. I would rather recommend Mistwalker's other RPG Lost Odyssey. It has more heart, a well constructed battle system, a memorable soundtrack and well-presented story.

So get to it and try some Lost Odyssey, or wait it out for a hopeful release of The Last Story!

Title: Blue Dragon
Developer: Mistwalker
Genre: Japanese Role-Playing Game
Year: 2006
Platform: Xbox 360
Completion: Played through Blue Dragon in roughly 55 hours. Leveled Shu and others to 50. Explored most areas in every storyline dungeon but did not attempt sidequests after getting the Mechat.

- Jared C.

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