It's extraordinarily difficult to approach Blue Dragon without some kind of baggage in tow.
There are two key reasons for this; firstly, this game has been hyped by its publisher, Microsoft, as the first Great White Hope (great blue hope, perhaps?) for Japanese style games on the Xbox 360. Even before it appeared in Japan, long before anyone without a working knowledge of kanji could get their chops around it, it was being hailed by fanboys as evidence that the Xbox 360 could win over even the notoriously suspicious Japanese developers who had all but ignored the previous Xbox.
Secondly, the first three names to appear in Blue Dragon's understated credits sequence when you start a new game are all legends in the world of Japanese RPGs. Hironobu Sakaguchi, whose Mist Walker studio is responsible for the design of the game, is the creator of the Final Fantasy series. Nobuo Uematsu composed all the music for Final Fantasy until the most recent games. Akira Toriyama, meanwhile, is the character designer behind the massive Dragon Quest franchise, and Square's cult classic Chrono Trigger.
It's a game which comes loaded with expectations, then. On the one hand, it faces being encumbered with vastly more significance than any game would ever want, thanks to being on the vanguard of the Console War which is claiming casualties among fanboys, loudmouths and idiots in the grim trenches of forums all over the Internet. On the other hand, its famous development team inspire great hopes for the game.
Having mentioned all the baggage, let's try now to leave it all sitting in the hallway. Regardless of expectations, the second you press Start on the title screen, Blue Dragon is just another game. No matter what nonsense "significance" it may be imbued with by platform fanboys, it lives or dies on whether or not it is entertaining, enjoyable, gripping and compelling. Drop the bags. Let's go play.
Pure and Simple
The game kicks off in relatively dramatic fashion, with ominous purple clouds gathering over a village in a rocky desert area. The villagers, who are used to these clouds as an omen of impending destruction, flee to higher ground; sure enough, the village is promptly attacked by a "Land Shark", whose fin is just visible above the ground.
Playing an old man, the grandfather of the main protagonist, Shu, you walk around the various villagers and learn that these attacks have been happening on an annual basis for ten years. You also learn, however, that Shu isn't among the villagers on higher ground. As it transpires, the impulsive Shu and his rather geeky friend, Jiro, have hatched a plan to trap the Land Shark and remained down at ground level.
The two boys are joined by a third playable character, Kluke, a girl whose parents were killed in a previous Land Shark attack. In a largely non-interactive sequence (you sometimes have control, but only to run around briefly and to engage in a single, pre-determined battle), they trap the Land Shark, and are then dragged off by the Shark and into a distant chasm full of ancient ruins.
The story evolves from this point pretty much along classic J-RPG lines. The backwards world in which the main characters live is built over the top of buried ruins of an advanced technological society. The Land Shark is actually a machine, which sheds its disguise and carries the trio up to a giant airship that lurks in the middle of the purple clouds. An evil old man, Nene, lives on this airship guarded by robots, and the three heroes escape from him only by imbibing the power of strange light spheres which grant them magical powers.
The story, in other words, is much more traditional and simple than we've come to expect from more recent RPG titles - and the characters, too, fit into a set of relatively simple archetypes. They all appear to be in their early teens, and you've got the impulsive, determined Shu (whose catchphrase is "I won't give up" - hmm), the bookish, clever Jiro, the headstrong but feminine Kluke... There's even a chaste pre-pubescent romance brewing between Jiro and Kluke. Aww.
Even the villain is on traditional fictional ground - he's largely speaking evil because he likes being evil. Although Microsoft's strange restrictions on what we're allowed to talk about in our previews (anything after a relatively early point in the game is off-limits, apparently) won't let us tell you what his motivations are, suffice it to say that you're unlikely to bat an eyelid.
Now, this might not sound like the most positive basis for a lengthy RPG - and for some players, we're quite certain that it's going to be offputting. Others, however, may well love Blue Dragon's approach, which feels like nothing quite so much as an old Saturday morning cartoon. Given that, it's perhaps no surprise that Blue Dragon has indeed been turned into a children's cartoon in Japan. It may be simple, but simplicity often has charm of its own.
It's not just the story and characters which echo this kind of Saturday morning cartoon simplicity. The graphics, too, focus heavily on strong, clean lines, flat shading and bright primary colours. Akira Toriyama's human character designs are often criticised for lacking in variety, and Blue Dragon will do little to answer such criticism; the central characters and villains are all incredibly similar to the designs Toriyama has used previously in Dragon Quest and in the likes of Dragonball Z.
Jiro has a side parting; that's how you know he's geeky. Nene is old, bald, has pointy ears and purple skin; that's how you know he's evil. Again, however, it's quite possible to categorise this as a homage to a simpler age of storytelling - and one could argue that Toriyama more than compensates for the human designs with some superbly creative creature designs, which look like they've come straight from the copybook of a particularly gifted (or disturbed) ten year old.
Strangely, however, the power of the Xbox 360 is actually used to good effect in Blue Dragon - despite the simplicity of the artwork. Every character, monster and environment is rendered with extremely detailed lighting and bump mapping, and the game uses exaggerated depth of field (much like the focusing of a camera lens) which makes everything feel almost disconcertingly real in places. The overall effect is not dissimilar to Pixar's Toy Story, in fact; the whole world feels like it's made out of animated plastic models. In places, this effect is genuinely stunning - about as far from photo-realism as you can get, and yet spookily real in its own, stylised way.
If anything, Blue Dragon's graphics feel almost exactly like you'd expect a very old J-RPG to look like, if it somehow popped into life. Monsters often sport cartoonish human faces, bright colours are the order of the day, and even the game's magic attacks feel strangely retro compared to the flashy, particle-effect laden spells of modern Final Fantasy titles. A water attack draws a straight column across the play area, taking out a line of enemies; fire breathes forward in a direct line. These are effects from the dawn of J-RPGs, updated but by no means evolved.
That, perhaps, is the true heart of what Sakaguchi, Toriyama and Uematsu have tried to accomplish with Blue Dragon. This is not merely a homage to simpler storytelling, or to the cartoons of yore; this is an attempt to re-create kinds of J-RPGs which this legendary trio are best known for. Toriyama's art is simple and childish, the kind of overstated designs which worked well when you only had a few pixels to play with for each character. Uematsu's music sounds much more like his early, simplistic Final Fantasy work than like the sweeping, epic scores we've become used to in recent years (although there's an utterly dreadful and misjudged rock track with English lyrics in there too, which plays during boss battles and reminds us of Sonic Adventure's woeful audio excursions). It is a joyous, unapologetic exercise in nostalgia - a look back at the early Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest titles, a sigh, and a rose tinted "gosh, weren't games just great back then?".
Because I Can't Forget
Even in the gameplay - in fact, most of all in the gameplay - this attitude seems to come through clearly. Combat is resolutely turn-based, and remains extremely traditional - despite the central conceit of the game. Each character has a mythical beast living in their shadow, such as Shu's eponymous blue dragon, which carries out magical and physical attacks at their behest; however, this is largely speaking a visual effect, rather than having any real impact on gameplay.
You can change the class of your shadow beast, which allows you to access a different set of abilities, but this is really no different to changing the class of your character directly in many old RPGs. Your shadow doesn't take damage or have any statistics which are different from your character stats; the old mainstays of RPGs, HP and MP, work exactly as you'd expect, as do elemental attacks and resistances, items, status effects and the likes.
The sole concession to progress in Blue Dragon's gameplay is that enemies appear on the world map, rather than simply dragging you into random battles unseen. You can even clear all of the enemies out of an entire dungeon, if you wish, and walk around unmolested. The game also sports a clever system which allows you to battle multiple groups of foes; if several enemies are nearby, you can pull the right trigger to select to take them all on at once.
This has a few effects on the gameplay. For a start, between each round of the battle, you get a random stat boost of some description, so you gradually power up as you go along (all of these stat boosts are negated when you've finished beating up all the foes in the battle, however). More importantly, though, some enemy types hate each other, and will fight each other rather than attacking you - so dragging them into a battle together gives you an opportunity for an easy win.
It's a clever system, and a rare stand-out in a game which is otherwise relentlessly traditional. Even the structure of the game owes much to old J-RPGs such as the early Final Fantasies; for the most part, you'll find yourself walking over large stretches of monster-infested land and then through various huge dungeons in order to get to the next five minutes of storyline. In Blue Dragon's defence, though, the game does provide warp points between areas you've previously visited; it's traditional, but it's not stupid.
After our first few hours with Blue Dragon, though, we're filled with reservations about the game. We're suckers for nostalgia, just as much as the next man - and as an exercise in nostalgia, Blue Dragon seems to be pitch perfect, effortlessly capturing the spirit of a simpler age when J-RPGs were the de facto entertainment for a generation of Japanese boys who are now in their twenties and thirties.
However, at the back of our minds, we can't shake the feeling that this nostalgia may well be meaningless to the rest of the world. Let's not forget that Japanese RPGs struggled to crack the western market until the late nineties, and that most of us outside Japan have only been exposed to the world of early JRPGs by later re-releases (many of which have been commercially ignored). It's also worth noting that Dragon Quest, a series which remains very true to its roots in a way which Final Fantasy does not, is mostly unpopular with western audiences.
Whether Blue Dragon will suffer the same fate remains to be seen. We're hugely impressed by the game as a beautifully presented, lovingly crafted exercise in nostalgia; a largely successful effort at re-creating a time when RPGs were simpler, brighter and more child-like. Balanced against that is the question of whether that's really something people outside Japan actually want to re-create, however.
We'll be trying to find out exactly where that balance lies when we review the full game a bit closer to its release date - it's currently scheduled for a September launch here in Europe.