Things pick up a little by the time you've completed a pair of slightly laborious fetch-quests to fix the mechat, a flying device which takes you between the floating cubes that make up your world. By that time, you'll have gained the ability to combine items, using ores to make more powerful swords or better armour. Being able to recycle your rubbish to upgrade current items is a nice touch – using two duff swords to make a third more effective is preferable to having to sell all your old tat for a tenth of its purchase price at the local item shop.
It's nice to see any visual changes to your character's getup reflected not only during play but in the story sequences, too. The side-quests do get a little distracting, but completing them means there's a little less grinding to do, though often you won't know that's necessary until you get hammered by an enemy and you realise you're not quite ready to venture into that particular dungeon just yet.
Sadly, that issue is exacerbated by both the paucity of save points and the idiocy of your AI allies. The more quests you complete, the larger the selection of friends you'll have to call on, but all of them behave very similarly during combat. Either they'll take away the potential satisfaction of a hard-won kill by delivering the finishing blow to a boss, or simply stand in front of said guardian, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he's charging up his instant-kill-if-you-don't-get-out-of-the-way-sharpish move.
Characters don't actually die in battle - they're just out of commission for half a minute – but you'll often find them lying on the floor within seconds of battle commencing, as you run around trying to escape the boss's clutches. This makes the toughest encounters tedious unless you're over-levelled, in which case, your best tactic still involves simply staying out of the way and casting healing spells whenever your Shadow power has recharged.
Naturally, these problems are alleviated by teaming up with human allies, though most will struggle to find a Wi-Fi game (it took me seven attempts to find a group to join, and two battles later I was alone once more) and you'll need more than one cartridge to play locally. That said, it's definitely more enjoyable with one or two other players sharing the load, and the episodic structure of the game starts to make a little more sense.
But the similarly fragmented Dragon Quest IX had wittily scripted and engaging mini-stories to tell, and without those, Blue Dragon struggles to capture the player's imagination, meaning you're simply reduced to battling monsters with a couple of friends or strangers. There are plenty of other DS games - Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Echoes of Time, to name but one - that don't just do the same thing in a more entertaining way, but allow an extra player to join in. Four heads might not necessarily be better than three, but it's yet another of a great many reasons why Blue Dragon: Awakened Shadow compares poorly to the peers it so desperately tries to ape.
4 / 10
Blue Dragon: Awakened Shadow is available for DS from 24th September.