Hironobu Sakaguchi, the father of the famous Final Fantasy series, went on to create his own game studio, Mistwalker, in 2004. This was big news, and when Mistwalker finally announced its first game – Blue Dragon – you could imagine that it was even bigger news. The hype only got bigger when it was announced that two other big names in the industry – Nobuo Uematsu and Akira Toriyama – were working on the game as well.
People eventually began to compare it to Chrono Trigger, a masterpiece RPG of the 1990s (surely, you’ve heard of it?) that all three of them worked on together. Of course, this was hype it couldn’t possibly live up to.
Unfortunately, this hype prevents people from looking at the real strengths and weaknesses of the game. Generally, people will either say “This didn’t live up to its expectation, so it wasn’t that good” or “Of course it didn’t live up to that expectation, so it’s a great game!” I’m not saying that this reflects the reviews of every player, but allow me to take a stab at it.
Blue Dragon‘s story is very simple: Every year, some purple clouds appear in the sky, and bad things happen all over the world as a result. In one particular town, a “Land Shark” (use your imagination) comes and destroys large sections of the village… But not this year. Three friends, Shu, Jiro, and Kluke, have planned to try and take down the Land Shark! In the midst of their operation, however, they realize that the Land Shark is a machine – which flies, ironically – and it flies off with all three of them on board. They then meet the antagonist, Nene, who seems to be behind all the bad stuff that happens.
As they try to make their escape, they find three mysterious spheres, and a voice tells the three to swallow them. When they do, their shadows take super-cool monster forms. They then escape, vow to stop Nene, and start traveling the land doing heroic stuff and meeting new companions.
The gameplay/combat of Blue Dragon is pretty basic: Shu and co. travel along the world map to their next destination (they can also instantly warp to any place they’ve been before, which is wonderful), see some sort of different injustice at every new place they go, and try to right it. There are no random battles, as enemies appear on the map. You can choose to engage in battle with multiple enemies as long as they are in a certain range, and specific groups of monsters will even fight amongst each other – another very cool feature. You can also determine the initiative at the beginning of battle depending on whether or not you engage a monster from the front or the back.
Combat is turn-based, with a class system, meaning that you level up your character as well as their character class. As you level up classes, you gain new skills, and you can then carry them over to new classes (i.e, if you learn the ability for low-level black magic, you can change your class to, say, a Sword Master and still use low-level black magic). Another neat addition is the ability to ‘Charge’ magic (and attacks, if you learn the skill to do so): Charging a magic spell will make it more powerful, but it will take longer to cast, perhaps allowing other allies and enemies to take action first. There are also a few mini-games here and there, which are very fun due to their simplicity and – most importantly – their scarcity (unlike the Final Fantasy games, which shove tedious mini-games and sidequests down your throat these days).
The music and art, created by Nobuo Uematsu and Akira Toriyama respectively, strengthen the game’s light-hearted feel, and the game looks decidedly similar to Dragon Ball Z – and this is no coincidence. The music feels like a roll back to the more melodic, less contemporary music of Nobuo Uematsu’s compositions in the ‘Super Nintendo days’. The more simplistic, energetic compositions compliment the style of the game very well.
So, you might have noticed that I just recounted damn near everything about playing the game that there is to know, while making hardly any qualifying statements. The reason for this is because, while it’s easy to pick out what’s good about the game, Blue Dragon needs to be discussed holistically to truly understand where this game falls short.
Blue Dragon’s real problem is not that it failed to live up to its ridiculous hype, but rather, that its story and the gameplay almost completely contradict each other. In other words, Blue Dragon has almost no target audience that it can appeal to entirely.
Think about it: The story is a VERY simple story. Some kids wanna stop a bad guy, who, for all you know, is just bad for no reason (even though that isn’t the case). The dialogue and script are very competently written, but they contain nothing new or profound. On the contrary, the game seems to proudly call back to the days of Saturday morning cartoons, where the only thing that mattered was that there was a bad guy and the good guys were going to take him down. So what if Jiro knows how to operate every machine the minute he sees it? He’s the smart guy of the bunch! It’s not unlike the way Donatello from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles could build a damned blimp and hide it unnoticed in the sewers. The game confidently and skillfully embraces that children’s action/adventure show flavor and makes no apologies for it.
On the other hand, the combat, while innovative and fun for a turn-based system, is still turn-based. Meaning? It’s very slow paced. It’s fairly long – about 35-40 hours. Also, as it goes with most turn-based RPGs, Blue Dragon has its fair share of grinding – if not to gain levels, then to gain job levels to obtain more skills. In other words, it is the kind of combat that would be boring to someone who isn’t much of an RPG veteran, and may be even a little too difficult.
So, there you have it. The story appeals very powerfully to a very young audience, while the gameplay appeals to an older audience. A child who would be enthralled by the story of Blue Dragon would likely find the gameplay too tiresome, the game too long. An RPG vet who would appreciate the nuances of Blue Dragon‘s turn-based system would likely find the story to be too juvenile to keep their attention very long – Which I can tell you is true for myself; I enjoyed the game well enough, but I could never play it for longer than an hour at a time, two hours tops.
Blue Dragon is a turn-based RPG through and through, and that was known for a long time coming. Other than that, those who ream the game for its sophomoric story are missing the point entirely. Blue Dragon was very well-crafted in each aspect, no doubt about it. The real failing point of the game can be summed up with this one challenge: I challenge anyone to fully and thoroughly appreciate the turn-based combat/class system, while being able to fully immerse themselves in the story like an eight-year old child would be able to. There are probably fewer people than you can imagine. As for you, the reader: if you enjoy turn-based RPGs, then Blue Dragon’s wonderfully-crafted combat will whet your appetite. If you decide to take me up on my challenge, though…Good luck.
The world of Blue Dragon was crafted with great care in every regard. However, the more-sophisticated combat is really weird when juxtaposed against the otherwise kiddish experience.
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One of the best turn-based combat systems the genre has to offer, with a slough of other unique mechanics (and fun mini-games for a change!).
You haven't heard Nobuo Uematsu write music like this since Final Fantasy 4. Immersive, ecclectic, and melodic.
It takes about thirty-five hours to get to the end, and there's plenty of side-quests too, if you're into that sort of thing.
Unfortunately, it's less than the sum of its parts. Even if you enjoy the combat, the childish experience makes it hard to stomach for long amounts of time. If you can handle this, then you'll like Blue Dragon; but, it's definitely not for everyone.