Version tested: Xbox 360
We understand the rationale, we really do. The Xbox 360 is going down in Japan in a manner which makes lead balloons look like a sound investment, and Something Needs To Be Done. What does Japan like? It likes Final Fantasy, and it likes Dragon Quest. A lot.
Solution, then; hire the bloke who invented Final Fantasy, the bloke who did the music for Final Fantasy, and the chap who draws the characters in Dragon Quest, and get them to make a game.
Blue Dragon is the result - and perhaps, if you're Japanese and deeply attached to the creations of the three men involved with it, it might tick all the boxes for you. It's graphically stunning (tick), absolutely enormous (tick), and dripping with nostalgia for an earlier age of RPGs (tick - well, maybe).
Blue in the Face
The game starts out in a dusty yet idyllic village somewhere out in a desert, and the intro sequence alone is enough to prove that it's a looker. Environments are lovingly constructed and textured, with a careful balance struck between realistic visual effects and a cartoonish art style. Water sparkles, metal glistens, dust rolls off sand and light gleams off polished surfaces, but it's all handled in an understated fashion which doesn't overwhelm the bright, colourful artwork.
Characters, meanwhile, are rendered in broad, stylised strokes - faithfully interpreting Akira Toriyama's designs, and giving them the appearance of plastic models rather than cel-shading them. It's an effect which works remarkably well; the removal of the heavy black borders seen in cel-shading serves up quite a different effect to that which we're used to with cartoon characters in games, and gives characters a strangely realistic edge.
Less realistic, though, is the unusual lack of facial animation on any of the characters. Their lips move as they speak, but for the most part the rest of their faces are entirely static - which pretty much limits the range of their emotions to those which can be expressed by waving arms and jumping up and down.
It rapidly transpires, however, that that's not a problem. Blue Dragon doesn't make any demands from its characters in terms of emotional range, at least not any that can't be expressed by jumping up and down. The game hinges on a storyline which would be embarrassingly simple in a children's cartoon show - three kids live in a fairly primitive village which is attacked every year by the powerful Land Shark. They decide to take on the shark, and end up being dragged off by it.
Eventually they discover that the "shark" is actually mechanical, and is being controlled by a nasty old bloke called Nene who lives in a flying fortress surrounded by purple clouds. Purple is evil, see? Nene is tormenting the villages on the planet below him, apparently because he's Eeeeeevil, and has an Eeeeeevil plan which seemingly involves pissing everyone off until they go and hunt down powerful artefacts from the lost civilisation whose ruins are buried under the surface.
That's about it. You cover this plot within about an hour of starting off the game, and what remains is a quest all over the planet's surface to visit every clichéd village archetype in the RPG bible and sort out whatever nastiness Nene has been causing there. Each of your characters (your initial three are joined by a fat yellow squeaking idiot who gave us murderous thoughts within a matter of seconds, and later by a young pirate woman who is about the only genuinely likeable character in the whole game) has a paper-thin backstory of their own, but they're every bit as predictable as you might imagine.
Singing the Blues
This is, in other words, a throwback - an archaeological relic of a storyline, excavated from the caves of an ancient civilisation which thrived in Japan in the 1980s and most definitely wasn't more advanced than our own. There is no emotion, no subtlety - no double cross you can't see about twenty miles off, no character with hidden and intriguing motives, no extraordinary backstory to uncover, no political machination or moral uncertainty.
The entire storyline, in effect, is a weak excuse to drag you through the game's locations fighting various monsters and leveling up your characters - and here, at least, Blue Dragon scores some brownie points for itself.
The combat system in the game is nothing if not traditional, being strictly turn-based and heavily focused on the sort of magic and physical attacks which defined early RPG efforts in Japan. The central conceit is that your characters don't actually fight, apart from in the first half hour or so of the game; instead, giant magical shadow-beasts which appear behind them in play do the fighting.
In practice, this is a nice visual effect but has remarkably little impact on how the combat system actually works. You can't control your characters independently of their Shadow beasts, so in essence you just issue turn-based commands as normal, and the Shadows carry them out. You can fiddle with the class of your Shadows, changing and improving their abilities, as you progress - but this, again, is no different in practice to fiddling with character classes in RPGs dating back to the SNES era.
What does work well, however, is the turn ordering implemented by the game. Many attacks can have their power boosted by stopping a progress bar at a specific point; leave it to fill up, and it'll take longer before the attack is carried out, but it'll be more powerful when it does happen. The position of enemy and friendly turns are indicated on this bar, so timing an attack perfectly in between the actions of others becomes quite an art.
Blue Dragon's other main combat system quirk is the ability to capture multiple enemies from the area around you into a single battle. To do this, you extend a circle around your character rather than walking into a single enemy - this adds every enemy group within range of the circle to the battle, which has the effect of creating "waves" of enemies for you to defeat.
This is a clever system, and a good way of clearing out large areas - but it's not quite the high-risk strategy you might imagine, because the game gives you significant power-up boosts between waves. Several waves into a battle, you'll be so powerful that you'll be sweeping enemies aside, not clinging on at the edge of your hitpoints and wondering if you bit off more than you can chew. Enemies in group battles like this will also often attack each other, making matters even easier - although this can be a clever strategy in itself, especially if you're in an area with two tough types of enemies which hate each other.
Deep Blue C
So, the combat system is entertaining enough, albeit not terribly challenging. It'll probably be a turn-off for anyone used to a little more strategy and action in their combat, as it's all terribly slow and ponderous by modern RPG standards, but that's the point to some extent, right? This is, after all, a heavily traditional RPG, designed as an homage to the past.
The problem with that approach is that Blue Dragon is trying to inspire nostalgia for something which we European gamers never experienced. Sakaguchi is trying to recapture the feeling of the early Final Fantasy games, and to a lesser extent, the early Dragon Quest games - which is probably exactly what you want for a rose-tinted retro trip if you're a thirty-something Japanese guy.
On the other hand, if you're a European gamer, you probably didn't play those games as a child - at most, you probably dived into Final Fantasy late in the day with US import copies of the SNES versions. You don't have childhood experiences of hours spent playing early JRPGs - and stripped of its nostalgic value, Blue Dragon just seems primitive, backwards and annoying.
Even Uematsu's music harks back to early Final Fantasy themes, rather than having any of the complexity of his later compositions; sadly, compared to the wonderful soundtracks regularly gracing games today, the music simply sounds dull.
Blue Dragon is more primitive, in many ways, than even FFV, and certainly doesn't have any of the complexity of FFVI. It's as if the last 15 years of progress in the genre never happened, and anyone who has experienced more recent iterations in series like Final Fantasy, Shin Megami Tensei, Shadow Hearts, the Tales franchise and their ilk will simply find Blue Dragon to be a very pretty but terribly outdated curiosity.
Of course, it's certainly one of the best JRPGs the Xbox has ever played host to. No doubt about that. Unfortunately, that's a completely meaningless phrase, a bit like saying that my dinner is the best dinner on my table, Gordon Brown is the best prime minister in Downing Street, and red is the best colour on Mars.
The sad fact is that if Blue Dragon had been released on the PS2, it would have sunk beneath the waves without a trace - written off as a strangely traditional game that had no appeal outside Japan. It's weak and primitive compared even to Akira Toriyama's last RPG outing, Dragon Quest VIII, which was already too primitive for European tastes and was a commercial flop in this territory; we can simply see no reason why anyone who wasn't enamoured with Dragon Quest would even want to consider playing Blue Dragon.
This feels like a lost opportunity. The talent of the three creators who collaborated on this title is unquestionable, and in some areas - the perfectly tuned, if rather shallow, difficulty curve, the absolutely delightful graphics and the occasional piece of inspired dungeon design - you can see the bones of a wonderful game showing through.
However, instead of making that game, these three past masters of the RPG genre clearly chose to go on a self-indulgent nostalgia trip to the games of their youth. In the process, they have made a game which serves as a very poor introduction to the genre for Xbox owners. It's by no means terrible; but without borrowing Sakaguchi's rose-tinted glasses, it's not much fun either.
5 / 10