When Blue Dragon appeared on the Xbox 360 in 2007, there was anticipation among gamers that this would be the title to really break JRPGs into the North American market. Created by Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, Blue Dragon was an epic RPG filled with a cute, anime-style cast of characters. The game’s pedigree seemed foolproof.
Unfortunately, the game ultimately failed to make as big a splash as expected. While it garnered generally positive reviews, critics pointed out that it failed to bring any innovation to the genre. Blue Dragon was painted as a bit of a “by-the-numbers” JRPG, which lacked great storytelling or interesting gameplay mechanics. Others found the game too easy, and criticized some of its characters as annoying or unlikable.
For Blue Dragon’s entry into the portable market, Japanese developer Brownie Brown took a different tack. Rather than a straight-up RPG, Blue Dragon Plus plays out as a real-time strategy game within an RPG framework. While this take on combat isn’t completely new (Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings springs to mind), it is a bold new direction for a series that was firmly grounded in old-school turn-based gameplay.
The game picks up a year after Blue Dragon left off. Hero Shu and his friends are living their lives out in the cube world created at the end of the last game. After witnessing a gigantic dragon shadow emerging from one of the cube worlds, the gang realizes the evil Nene must be back. You’re quickly introduced to party members from the last game: woman warrior Zola, King Jibral, Marumaro, etc. Those who played Blue Dragon will have a more immediate understanding of the relationship between all the characters, but it’s certainly not a prerequisite to understanding the game’s fairly simple plot.
In-game tutorials do a pretty good job of getting you up to speed on the new combat mechanics, and soon you’re off and running to save the world again. So, does Blue Dragon Plus really add to the original as its name implies? The answer may depend on your patience level.
Blue Dragon Plus utilizes the same cutesy anime style of the first game. This is a love it or hate it thing. Personally I don’t have a problem with it, but then again I’m a 34-year old man who collects Disney movies. In the event that you do hate the style, at least you won’t have to look at it close-up; most of the action takes place from a zoomed out, isometric view. While this makes things more palatable for you ‘toon haters, it can also make picking out your units in the heat of battle a tad difficult. Aside from that nitpick, the developers do a pretty decent job of recreating the feel of the first game on a smaller scale.
One aspect of the graphics that is particularly impressive is the use of full motion video cut scenes. It would have been easy to take the quick way out and go with static cut scenes to move the story forward, but instead you get the same high quality full-motion CGI scenes that forced the original game on to 3 discs. I really enjoyed watching these sequences, which are often a rarity on handheld systems.
Two other aspects that are handled nicely are the shadow animations and boss creatures. While the common enemies and arenas can sometimes feel a little repetitive and drab, I loved fighting the larger boss monsters and casting spells via my shadow creature.
Blue Dragon Plus features a score by famed Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu, and is a worthy successor to his score for the last game. It’s nice to be able to focus on a game without being annoyed by overly repetitious or poorly composed background music, and Uematsu’s score succeeds on these merits.
One critique of Blue Dragon on the 360 was the annoying voice acting. Fortunately most of the characters now keep their mouths shut. While you’ll still listen to them during cutscenes, you won’t have to listen to them constantly as you did in the first game.
Control is perhaps where Blue Dragon Plus suffers the most. The game can be played completely with the stylus, which is an advantage with real-time combat that moves quickly. However, the developers made a decision which is almost a game-breaker. Unlike most real-time strategy games, in which selected units stay selected until you specifically select something else, the units in Blue Dragon Plus lose that focus after every single command. For example, suppose you want to move your party across the map. Ordinarily you’d select your units, select a point about halfway across, and once they got close just select another point as your final destination. In Blue Dragon Plus, once you select your units and issue that first move command, that’s it. In order to issue any other command – be it move, fight, whatever, you’ll have to select them all again. It is incredibly annoying, and simply a boneheaded decision.
Another area in which the controls suffer is the atrocious pathfinding. If you select a party to move across the map, it is a total guess as to who will go where. This is particularly troublesome when one character decides to take the scenic route and runs into an enemy while the remainder of your crew are occupied somewhere else. It leads to a tremendous deal of micro-managing, and combined with the problem mentioned above makes the larger battles feel like trying to herd a bunch of toddlers.
While both of these problems can lead to some aggravation, it is possible to settle into a style of gameplay that works, albeit a little uncomfortably. Fortunately enemies tend to move very slowly and stay in packs, so it’s rare that you’ll be completely overwhelmed – smart players will be able to dictate the pace of combat. The fact that you’ll normally be controlling only a handful of characters at a time also makes the annoyances a little more manageable.
Blue Dragon Plus eschews typical RPG overworld exploration for gameplay based on the concept that the world is now broken up into isolated cubes. Shu and his friends are tasked with conquering each cube before the story progresses, which is a neat way to incorporate the mission-based gameplay of tactical RPGs with an explanation that makes sense in the context of the game world. The cube is explored via a simple map screen, in which the party can choose various paths to go down or scout ahead. During this time you can equip characters, view powers, and swap party members around. When the party encounters a room with an enemy, you can choose to fight and the game switches to the overhead mission view where all the action takes place.
Most of the time your mission will be to clear the room of enemy creatures, though there are occasional times where you’ll have to solve simple puzzles or have your characters cooperate to complete the mission. There are usually treasure chests available as well, and – interestingly enough – monsters will open them and take their contents if you don’t get there first. Some of these maps are surprisingly large, especially compared to the slow pace of most of your team members. While that travel time makes for some long battles, it also gives you a little breathing room to plan your strategy and manage your units without becoming too flustered.
One of the game’s most intriguing elements is the fact that your party is split up early on and will remain so much of the game. This means you’ll have to make strategic decisions on how to form these parties to be the most effective. Each character in the game has a certain specialty. For instance, Jiro is a good healing unit, Kluke is strong with magic, and Marumaro is a great melee brawler. Combining units to form a well-rounded team is important, especially since some creatures are immune to physical attacks or certain magic attacks.
This strategy also extends to the combat itself. Certain creatures are weaker against certain elemental attacks, so knowing which unit will do the most damage against these foes becomes critical. Fortunately the game does a good job of visually identifying enemy weaknesses so that you can make these decisions on the fly.
Blue Dragon Plus feels a little uneven, simply because some of the game’s elements shine while others get repetitive or occasionally frustrating. Combat is generally fun, especially as your characters grow and learn new powers. However, this is mitigated by the sometimes aggravating controls or the often repetitive nature of the combat arenas. On the other hand, the storyline stays pretty entertaining throughout, especially with the fantastic cut scenes. Those who are familiar with the original game’s storyline will likely find the plot more compelling than those who are new to the series, but either way Blue Dragon Plus serves up a solid narrative to complement the mission-based structure.
Blue Dragon Plus will take a good 25-30 hours to complete. Whether you find every one of these hours entertaining will depend largely on your tolerance for the control quirks and how much you enjoy the real-time combat. Still, this is a healthy amount of gameplay for a portable title. The game also features a Legion vs. Legion mode which allows you to fight another player, but I wasn’t able to test that out because I didn’t have another copy of the game. While there isn’t a lot of incentive to replay Blue Dragon Plus, you still get more hours worth of entertainment for your gaming dollar than most other portable titles. Blue Dragon Plus doesn’t correct the mistakes of its predecessor, and, in fact, creates some new ones. Despite this, there’s no denying the game’s charm. The game is packed with an epic storyline, fabulous full motion video sequences, and interesting – if not overly complex – strategic real-time combat. The question is whether you’ll see the game’s control irritations as minor hiccups or game-stopping frustrations. Sadly, Blue Dragon Plus, like its predecessor, ultimately fails to be spectacular and falls into the category of “fun but average.” Even so, fans of the first game or those looking for another real-time strategy RPG on the DS should find something to enjoy here.