With Final Fantasy producer Hironobu Sakaguchi at the helm of Mistwalker’s first RPG, I began Blue Dragon with excitement. As a fan of his previous work, I looked forward to what I hoped was his newest enthralling tale. I quickly learned, however, that my expectations were too high. While Blue Dragon presents fantastic character growth and battle systems, the game’s story and characters are uninteresting and devoid of emotion.
Blue Dragon opens in the mundane, sandy Talta Village. As enigmatic, violet clouds obscure the sky, a mechanical shark appears in its yearly attack on the village. The main hero, Shu, attempts to confront the “land shark” to stop the destruction once and for all. Aided by playable characters Jiro and Kluke, Shu and friends temporarily succeed, but are soon carried away to the depths of the nearby ancient ruins, and then transported to the villain’s sky fortress. There, the heroes learn of their opposition and the power of magic, in the form of Shadows, left over from an ancient civilization.
The plot unfolds and sees the characters traversing mountains and ancient ruins in search of the villainous Nene and his flying cloud-spewing machine. After the first hour of play, the player realizes that the potential behind the story is drowned in poor story-telling and the lack of any real action. Until the second half of disc three, very little occurs at all. Before then, the characters are on a seemingly endless quest to track down the villain. Derivative, shallow, and immature, the story evokes little to no emotion. The conclusion presents much-needed action, but it’s so over the top it’s laughable, and far too late.
A bland plot is excusable with the presence of complex characters, but Blue Dragon disappoints again here. Even by the conclusion of the game, the player knows very little about each of the characters, including details of their personalities. Beyond an underdeveloped love triangle, the interaction between the cast of characters is uninteresting and sometimes silly. Very little change occurs within the characters during the course of the adventure. The non-playable characters are even further bereft of memorable personalities, and the dialogue is unsophisticated.
From the derivative ancient civilization that serves as the background of the story to the cast of uninspired, forgettable characters, Blue Dragon’s plot disappoints. Plot snags a 60%.
Fortunately, the game is playable due to an entertaining battle system. For the traditional RPG fan, Blue Dragon offers a wealth of fun. The battle system involves a party of up to five characters fighting turn-based style against a host of enemies. Basic options such as “Attack” and “Defend” are present, but as players begin to gain skills, more options appear. The majority of skills, such as “White Magic” or “Support Magic,” require the charging of a gauge that determines both how powerful the attack will be and how long it will take to cast.
Skills are obtained through each character’s Shadow. At the end of each battle, each character earns experience points as well as skill points for their Shadow. As its level increases, skills become available based upon which class is currently equipped, such as Sword Master or Monk. More classes become available as character level increases. A player must decide which skills to equip on each character to create a balanced party; a limited number of skills can be equipped at any one time. This mix-and-match strategy provides engaging gameplay to make up for the poor storyline. This strategy, however, is almost entirely unnecessary due to the insultingly easy difficulty.
Indeed, the major issues with gameplay in Blue Dragon result directly from the game’s difficulty. The game stands as one of the easiest I have ever played: death was unknown, and enemies rarely attacked at all. In most battles, the enemies were killed before they could attack. Without difficulty, no strategy was necessary, and sometimes the battles became repetitive and boring. Tactics only became necessary during the optional side quests and bosses, which present a perfect difficulty for such extraneous achievements.
Other gameplay mechanics are useful in fleshing out this superior aspect of the game. The ability to see enemies on the field before entering battle is a twist on random battles. Some skills allow for field affects to effect the monsters, but often they’re too underwhelming to make a difference. Multiple monsters can be encountered at one time leading to either several consecutive battles with a stat boost in between, or a “monster battle” in which the enemies fight one another. Unfortunately, the latter occur at an infrequent rate, and the decrease in difficulty isn’t needed. While there are no weapons to equip (Shadows usurp their position), accessories are useful and plentiful. The inclusion of a world map, a cache of optional side quests, and small additions like a multitude of searchable objects assist the solid gameplay.
Other than the insultingly easy difficulty, Blue Dragon’s gameplay does everything right. Gameplay: 89%.
The arguably stylized graphics found in Blue Dragon add to its childish appearance, and never hamper the gameplay, but do little to impress. Environments aren’t particularly detailed, but an array of different atmospheres are included. Cutscenes are well rendered, though they frequently pause to allow for additional content to load. Animation is fluid and unobtrusive, and in-battle effects are passable, if unremarkable.
The characters, designed by Dragon Ball Z artist Akira Toriyama, are some of the worst I’ve seen in an RPG. The playable characters look like uninspired NPCs, particularly Jiro and Kluke. The villain looks like a tall, purple version of Yoda, with Yoda being the more intimidating one. Non-playable characters are no better; their appearances are as uninteresting as their personalities. The enemies are well designed in general, with the exception of the feces-based monsters that only serve to exemplify the game’s immaturity. Additionally, during the last half of the game, much pallet swapping occurs, and it’s a rare event to see a brand new enemy.
With deplorable character design, yet inspired, if unoriginal, environments and enemies, and smooth cutscenes, Blue Dragon’s graphics mix the good and the bad. The graphics department earns a 75%.
Nobuo Uematsu’s soundtrack for Blue Dragon will no doubt recall memories of PlayStation Final Fantasy games in the player. The soundtrack as a whole rates as one of the better in the JRPG library. The music quality is excellent, and the tracks cover a wide variety of sounds. While the soundtrack is sometimes overused and isn’t so memorable to cause one to hum it after playing, the music may be the only part of the game that evokes any emotion in the player.
Vocal tracks are the exception; Uematsu should stay away from vocal tracks for the remainder of his career. The final battle music is atrociously cheesy, but the worst transgression here is the regular boss battle track. As important and frequently played as the boss battle music is, Uematsu should have worked to make it enjoyable. Instead, it is a mess of horrendous lyrics sung by Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan.
The sound effects won’t detract from the experience, except for the occasional annoying alarm that seems to be a staple of RPGs. Blue Dragon employs much subtlety here; I can’t remember the sound effects, which is most likely a compliment. Voice acting, however, is average for a JRPG. Entirely unbelievable, its neither laughably bad, nor surprisingly good. The only voice actor that I wanted to smother was that of the playable character Marumaru with his ear-bleedingly annoying screaming.
Despite a few foibles, the soundtrack works well, though the voice acting leaves something to be desired. Music gets 80%.
Control is typically of little consequence in traditional RPGs, but when Blue Dragon throws in a few mini-games to sidetrack the player for a few minutes, control becomes an issue. While they’re somewhat entertaining, they suffer from clunky control. Obviously Mistwalker didn’t spend much time polishing these rather minor mechanics. Additionally, I found the field controls frustrating. The player can jump toward the enemies on the field to initiate battle, sometimes as a first or back attack. Shu infrequently slipped right under the enemies if he jumped when they weren’t fully on screen. As a minor complaint, it may not effect a more patient gamer.
The few control-sensitive aspects of the game are unpolished, but fortunately don’t waste much of the player’s time. Control earns 75%.
After playing Blue Dragon, I cannot toss the suspicion that Mistwalker crafted the game for a young audience. Possessing no cute charm, however, the game instead has an irritating, sometimes stupidly silly aura. Combining insulting difficulty, a simple story, over the top and cheesy plot devices, and extreme accessibility, the game undoubtedly exists for ten-year-old gamers new to the genre.
Much of Blue Dragon had me cringing, yet the gameplay enchanted me long enough to complete the game and all of its optional dungeons. The fan of the traditional JRPG will find the battle system and character growth engaging enough to warrant a playthrough, but don’t expect anything out of the storyline or characters except an occasional chuckle. Overall, Blue Dragon offers an above average, traditional RPG, though only the superb gameplay puts it over the mark of the uninspired and average. Mistwalker’s first earns a 77% overall.