When Final Fantasy's creator Hironobu Sakaguchi left Square-Enix in 2002, following the colossal flop that was his flagship series' only venture into Hollywood, nobody knew quite whether his new studio was headed for glory or disaster. Had his simplistic 8-bit Dungeons and Dragons rip-off twenty years earlier been a happy accident? And how much input into Square's output had the man actually had over the following decades? Surely the record-breaking successes of Final Fantasy VII and Chrono Trigger had been down to the worker bee creative force that buzzed around in his esteemed employment, rather than any masterminding from this remote executive producer. Could Sakaguchi really lead the JRPG into a new promised land from his new, semi-retired residence in Hawaii?
Blue Dragon, Mistwalker's first release and an Xbox 360 exclusive, failed to offer an adequate answer to the questions. It was archaic to the point of zombification: an anachronistic product whose waxy 3D characters and sterile environments did little to disguise the worn mechanical cogs that clunked under the hood. It was precisely this conservatism that paid dividends in Japan, where the game became the best-selling Xbox 360 title of the time, but while the unadventurous gameplay may have warmed Japanese hearts towards the ailing gaijin machine upon which it played, Blue Dragon failed to ignite many passions, be they Japanese or Western.
As such, this DS spin-off is unexpected, especially considering the far greater success that Sakaguchi's second release, Lost Odyssey, achieved. But, as the opening moments of Blue Dragon Plus make clear, the super-deformed appearance of hero Shu and his companions, and the colourful, cutesy Toriyama-styled ambiance is much more at home on Nintendo's handheld than it ever was on a Microsoft machine. In part, this might be because Mistwalker has partnered with a different developer for this follow-up. Brownie Brown will be familiar to JRPG fans as one of the sets of hands behind the recent and excellent Mother 3 and its expertise combined with Mistwalker's vision seems to have breathed vibrant life into the Blue Dragon universe.
Contrary to expectations, the game is an amalgam of genres, combining elements of real-time strategy with more traditional RPG character-levelling and storytelling. Later on, you work your way down through the tiered levels of a giant Roguelike dungeon. Missions are set in 3D environments while the characters that inhabit them are detailed pixel sprites, a similar conjoining of 2D and 3D styles to that seen in Heroes of Mana. The titular blue dragons (known as 'shadow summons' in the game), creatures that can be conjured from thin air to aid in battle, are also presented in 3D and, unexpectedly perhaps, the mash-up of visual styles somehow hangs together.
Battles play out in real time and, from the start of the game, require some concentrated micromanagement. You use the d-pad to scroll around the scene or, if you prefer, drag the camera around with the stylus. Clicking on a character gives you direct control of them, and from there clicking on the ground will send them toddling off to that designated point. Selecting any enemy when you have control of a friendly unit instigates an attack and, by clicking icons to the side of the screen you can instantly select all of your units or, if you prefer, draw a Photoshop-esque circle around those you want to group together.
The combat is fast-paced and enjoyable and, because you're controlling a small clutch of named characters rather than vast anonymous squadrons, you care about each unit's fate more than you might in a fully-fledged RTS where your vehicles and soldiers are often dispensable. All of the Blue Dragon cast make a return to the game, with the story centring around the robot Szabo who, at the start of the game, has his steampunk heart literally ripped from his bronze chest and joins the ranks of Nene as a result, the purplish Yoda figure who provides the mythology's antagonist.
Each member of your squadron behaves in a different way and so must be thoughtfully used in play. For example, King Jibral enjoys high defence and sky-high HP, so is useful for drawing enemy attacks, acting as a decoy to allow the strong units with lower defence to flank opponents. Grandpa Fashira, who players of the first game will remember as Talta village's blacksmith and Shu's guardian, has high physical attack and can cast spells to beef up his skills and those of characters around him but suffers from low defence. Kluke enjoys powerful magical attacks, crucial for defeating ghoulish enemies who lack physical properties, but will need to be chaperoned around levels by a healer or protector.
The mix of these character types and attributes introduces complexity to the game from the very first battle and much of the challenge comes from managing units as enemy threats move and respond around them. However, the sprites are small and, while detailed, can be difficult to distinguish from one another in the heat of battle. Too often I found myself fumbling around in search of the healing character, especially when the numbers of units started to ramp up.
Structurally the game is straightforward, mission-follows-cutscene-follows-mission, without much room to explore in between, save for equipping units and managing the vast array of different skills available to each. Mission completion is generously awarded by experience points, which seemingly levelled up the entire roster of characters after each and every fight. This hearty rewarding of effort certainly helps you to feel quickly invested in the game but it's hard to get a sense of value with such large statistical increases flying around from such an early stage.
Of course, the game suffers from some of the same issues that hurt its predecessor, namely the overblown dialogue, heavy-handed moralising ("Running away isn't always bad, especially if it's to protect those you love"). There's very little narrative cushioning, Sakaguchi and his scriptwriters expecting players to have a full handle on the characters and their idiosyncrasies from first touch. But underneath this topsoil grows an interesting strategy RPG, one whose focus on combat over economy is, from what we've seen, both unusual and compelling.
Blue Dragon Plus is due out for DS in March.