Here we are, then - the first proper Japanese RPG to hit 360. While we’ve had Enchanted Arms (neat and quirky, but hardly an epic, and so obviously an early stab at 360 role-playing) and some other small-fry Japanese outings that will never reach these shores, Blue Dragon is the first aiming to be in a similar league to Final Fantasy: a gargantuan game world, enough cut-scenes to spend an entire afternoon watching and grand boss fights that arrive on an almost hourly schedule. Oh, and it’s 1080p-enabled, which helps to explain why it’s a game that needs three whole discs.
In terms of the big-name renown involved in Blue Dragon’s making, and how much weight it’ll carry for long-serving adventure fans, the developers involved can boast the original Sonic the Hedgehog and the creation of Final Fantasy on their resumes, the soundtrack has been composed by Nobuo Uematsu, responsible for most of the amazing music that’s gone down in the Final Fantasy games over the years and the characters have been designed by artist Akira Toriyama, responsible for the Dragon Ball Z characters, and those of million-selling outing, Dragon Quest VIII for PS2.
If the aim was to capture the hearts of RPG players not interested in 360, this is about as great and tempting a setup as you could possibly want. Has it all paid off? Mostly, yes, and especially in Japan, where it’s become the fastest-selling 360 title to date. It’s got plenty of color and slick ideas that have clearly been toiled over in a manner that such an epic game demands. The problem (well, it’s not really a problem...) is that it’s still just an RPG, and any of you out there who’ve long been turned off by turn-based battles and other perennial features will see no great revolution here. But you may be intrigued, so don’t stop reading just yet…
The plot is hardly a shocker: a band of youngsters rise up against a threat that’s terrorizing their home village, only for it to result in them embarking on an adventure which sees them saving the world. But once the game’s slightly plodding intro is out of the way, and each of the game’s heroes (initially it’s just Shu, Jiro and Kluke, who are later joined by the slightly mental short-ass Marumaro and royal vixen Zola) have received their iconic shadow-creature forms, you’re off, and Blue Dragon starts to unfurl nicely. While fights are underpinned by age-old turn-based mechanics, there’s more to it all than first appearances suggest.
For starters, while exploring the world, you can see your enemies, and so can usually choose whether or not to start fights with them, instead of simply having to roam and grit your teeth, being flung randomly into a scrap. There’s more, too - you can even attack, paralyze or scare away enemies before they’re even close enough to try and lunge for you. You can attack more than one nearby group at a time, if you like, pausing the game and selecting just who and how many of them you’d like to attack at the same time. The benefits of this are that the more fights you chain at once, the more temporary stat bonuses your team get between each confrontation, and there’s even the chance that, brilliantly, the monsters themselves will start in-fighting.
On top of that, each character’s shadow can be assigned a skill category that unlocks new powers as you level it up, and you can swap between any of the categories as much and as often as you like while keeping those unlocked powers. So there’s some satisfyingly roomy customization to be had, as you select just who gets equipped with what, to best suit how you want to fight.
There’s something quite bizarre on offer, too - you can search nearly any item or object scattered around the game world. The prompts for them are invisible, but you just go up to things and press A to be rewarded with some gold, an item, nothing at all, or even some good bonuses, like extra stats and spells. Trouble is, there are some places where you expect it to work and it just doesn’t, nor can you tell where you’ve searched before, so anyone looking to collect everything this way could be in for a fair bit of backtracking. But if that has put any kind of cramp on your enthusiasm, there are still other welcoming touches to ease it: the game gives you an auto-checkpoint just before boss fights, so you’ve no worry of being caught out cold by some unfair beast.
You can open up multiple warp points around the world - accessible anytime that you’re not in a fight - to help you whizz your way around with minimal fuss. That last feature is very useful for chests protected by magical barriers; you’ll come across them everywhere, and you can only open them once you’ve progressed far enough through the game. A load of trudging back over old ground would be misery-making.
We didn’t find Blue Dragon to be at all difficult to play through (well, aside from the whole it’s-in-Japanese thing; don’t even consider importing if you don’t know some of the language), provided you’re willing to put the hours in and do some overtime leveling and really make the most of each of those skill categories. And even if you don’t do that, your biggest problem will likely be nothing more than some spiky boss fights. The first disc will take you somewhere between 12 and 20 hours to decimate, depending on your dedication - climaxing with a huge battle packed with nearly a half-dozen bosses which feels like the end of the game, but is anything but. As for disc two, it’s shorter, but plenty more interesting; as for disc three, we’re not saying anything.
That’s for you to uncover.
By the end of the first disc, though, you will have been thoroughly exposed to Blue Dragon’s wavering visuals. Sometimes they’re stunning (like the mural town, whose inhabitants are “painted” to the wall and drift across it, or the great castle town where you’ll hook up with Zola) and sometimes they’re drab, but there’s usually enough detail and imagination for it to all leave a lasting impression. Also, there’s a persistent blur to the background, sometimes only a few feet in front of you, which seems to be a trade-off for keeping your character’s immediate surroundings incredibly crisp. That perpetual fuzz may annoy some, and hurt the eyes a bit, but we’re more than happy when the foreground is as flawless to look at as anything out of the gorgeous Viva Piñata.
We’ve no complaints about the superb soundtrack either, though some may have fingers in ears when they hear the boss battle tune, a typically hilarious over-egged cod-rock tune with vocals provided by the lead singer of Deep Purple (No? Ask your dad - or that uncle who never married.) Bizarre, eh? But it’s something you’ll either love and want to download for your music collection, or simply cringe at whenever it fires up; either way, we hope it doesn’t get chopped when the game’s released in the west (mid-2007 for the US, shortly after for us). Different is definitely better than dull.
There you have it - the 360's first legit RPG. It’s long, it’s been very solidly put together, and it can get some serious hooks into you once you’ve settled into its role-playing rhythm, something that won’t be for everyone, but that’s good news, right? There’s already plenty on 360 for those who to go round corners really fast or perform twitchy, heart-in-mouth headshots, and then some.
Blue Dragon definitely has the pedigree and quality to appeal to RPG gamers, however long they’ve been putting the hours in over the years, with enough peculiar touches to keep the old hands engrossed, even if it won’t be the best they’ve ever had. And, if nothing else, this is definitely a very good, very promising indication of the no-doubt rosy things that should subsequently come out of the young but burgeoning relationship between Microsoft and Mistwalker.