Friday, June 22, 2007

Blue Dragon has arrived!

Even prior to the release of Blue Dragon, I was already sold on the game. Being a JRPG fan (and a former Final Fantasy Sephiroth fangirl), I knew the promise behind the names Hironobu Sakaguchi, Nobuo Uematsu and Akira Toriyama. Blue Dragon was one of the key reasons for the purchase of our XBOX 360. And I was hoping that it will renew my interest in JRPGs which have diminished due to the long string of monotonous PS2 JRPGs (yeah I had a PS2...).

But when I surf the net and read some of the impressions of people, who probably just watched the cut scenes or took a magnifying glass to stare at Famitsu scans and critique every single jaggy, I get a little annoyed. There are 'some' review sites have gone as far as saying that the game was worrisome. I don't know if they bothered to play the game or even if they understood a single Japanese Kanji character in order to make that claim.



Still there are even some more people claiming that Hironobu Sakaguchi is a has been. A disgraced former employee of the glorious Square Enix of Final Fantasy / Dragon Quest fame who did nothing in his tenure but sit pretty behind a desk and lording over people like Yoshinori Kitase.

Still there are even more people who assume that the failure Blinx the Cat shall also haunt Blue Dragon simply because it was made by the same godforsaken Japanese Xbox supporter, Artoon.

Of course, there are those that can't stand looking at Akira Toriyama art even if their lives depended on it but keep on watching the same generic Shojou and Shonen anime / manga designs.

Despite all those, I still believed that Blue Dragon will be an amazing game. A game which I feel is a catalyst to make the casual gamers realize that the XBOX platform has finally reached its much sought after diverse game library.

And in the end, everything turned out the way I expected it to be and so much more. Now while I can go on and rant about fanboys or whatever (things I do when I'm bored), I'll try to make this review organized as I possibly can, which will be a little difficult since there are so many things I can say about this game!

PLOT:

One of the things that I loathed about some JRPGs (and some Japanese pop culture media) is its plot seems overly pretentious. Save the world and have characters that appear to swim in metaphysical paradoxes and whacked philosophy. With such a heavy plot, some games appear to lose focus and end up as a patched up mess, plowise. But not Blue Dragon.

The story of Blue Dragon was crafted by Hironobu Sakaguchi himself. It's plot is quite simple and straight to the point. You start out as Shu, a teen living blissfully in a far flung village. Once a year, there are these things called land sharks which attack his village. Fed up, with the all the grief and destruction caused by these land shards, Shu and his friends hatch a plan to stop it. And soon enough, dark purple clouds envelope his village, heralding the coming of the land sharks. But of course, not all is what it seems to be and Shu and his friends are all drawn into an adventure not just to save their village but their world.


Plot is typical enough, eh?

Through my 48+ hours of playing the game, Blue Dragon stays true to the very themes that it is trying to promote. The game does not stray from the simplicity of the plot (with an evil corporation popping out of nowhere and other stuff like that) and enhances it with superb pacing and execution. The game does not shock you with earth shattering revelations at every instance but rather builds up all the elements to form a coherent story. It also does not rely on the use of CG cutscenes and realtime cutscenes but encourages to the player to explore the world and talk to its inhabitants to learn more about what's going on and what's currently happening.

Apart from the main plot, there are little side stories throughout the whole game. You can learn more about the characters in the world by conversing with other NPCs. There are also legends that you will have to unravel and BOOKS you have to read! In the world of Blue Dragon there are 3 main books in the world and you'll have to search the world going from shelf to shelf to find the continuation of the story in the books! I had a lot of fun reading the books in the world, specially the book which spoke of a portrait of an automaton. In most JRPGs these 'books' are garbage and offer no appeal to the gamer. But with Blue Dragon, I loved reading them and finding out what happens next, as much as advancing the main storyline.


I mentioned earlier that there are little side stories throughout the game which brings about certain side quests. These side quests are optional which may may choose to complete or not but there are quite a lot of them. Some side quests are simple while others may take long to complete and will have some difficult bosses to face in the end. The presentation of the side quests is nicely woven throughout the plot and exploration of the game. Going through some of them will offer an achievement, some also have certain special items as a reward but for most its just the satisfaction of getting to read what the NPC will say after you complete it.

Without giving too much of a spoiler, there was this one NPC that was saying something to the contrary. Once proven wrong the NPC just goes into a state of shock....throughout the whole game! I certainly, made me laugh! Which brings me to another nice feature of Blue Dragon, the world is persistent! You open a chest it stays open forever (it doesn't disappear). You kill a monster it stays dead (until you leave the dungeon and the place reloads). The game actually keeps track of how many monsters you fought, how you fought them, how many 'nothings' you have explored...and the list goes on and on.

Another that plague JRPGs are the romantic elements thrown in to woo the teenage crowd. While that element is present in Blue Dragon in one way or the other, it does not dominate the story. Rather some dramatic romantic tale set by the moonlight, the game focuses on strong friendship between our main characters. The game isn't trying to win brownie points for dramatics but there are nice heartwarming moments throughout the game.


To sum things up, Blue Dragon's plot is linear, it is focused on telling its tale and not trying to impress you at how 'deep' it actually is. The whole plot is reminiscent of a Hayao Miyazaki anime feature more than a Wachowski brother's film. The game isn't short either. The default JRPG will last around 20 hours (which was how long my gaming time is in Enchanted Arms) but by the time I finished Blue Dragon, I clocked in around 48 hours of game time and I didn't compete all the side quests and get all the achievements yet!

Simple. Heartwarming. Whimsical.

Note: There is an element in the end of the game that surprised me. It was something about the plot always moving forward. ^_~ (HINT) I actually loved the implementation of that element. Oh and rejoice for the ending is as sweet as the whole story. The game has something close to a 5-10 minute ending sequence. THANK GOD, it didn't just flash a 'Thank you for playing' message!

GRAPHICS:

Hands down, this is the best looking JRPG to date. (Eat your heart out Square Enix!)

The art concepts were done by Akira Toriyama, the famed creator of Dragon Ball. While you may not like Dragon Ball art, rejoice that not every town in Blue Dragon looks like something made out of Capsule Corp! Akira Toriyama is known for his unique art style, something different from many of the anime/manga artist which seem to copy each other's design. While the main characters may look like its something off Dragonball at first glance, the rest of the world definitely isnt. Everything from town designs, NPC designs, dungeon designs, monsters, etc etc are very cute and appealing. The monsters in Blue Dragon actually remind me of Pokemon!

The world of Blue Dragon doesn't try to look realistic like Western JRPG games such as Oblivion. It doesn't strap gaudy decorations prevalent in JRPGs like Final Fantasy to appear beautiful. The design of the world is simplistic but well thought of it. There are several moments where I actually stop and just pan the camera around me to look at the world. That's how beautiful this game is. The design of the world also complements the design of the characters and everything else in the game. Things do not look out-of-place in this game, not even the Sheep people!


IMHO, Blue Dragon currently has the best implementation of the world map exploration features. Everything about the world map is beautifully rendered by the game. You do not have a static world map where you're ship is just floating through, in Blue Dragon, the world map is alive and you can see the treasure chests (wether unopened or not) from your vantage point in the sky.

The game allows you to move the camera around 360 degrees. While your main character is moving, the camera adjusts depending on the angle of your character as you pan around him. If you're worried about camera issues, this game doesn't really have it. But alas, perhaps the most noticeable flaw of the game has something to do with graphics. Blue Dragon suffers from some screen tearing issues and slow down, although these things do not really cripple the game, you can actually see it. It's up to you if you consider these things as issues that can ruin the game but for me its forgivable given how beautiful this game is.


Looking at the designs, the game practically looks like a playable Toy Story movie! (Yes, folks we have come to the age of Toy Story like graphics). Blue Dragon doesn't focus on putting as much graphical muscle in textures compared to Gears of War but it has very creative uses for image blurring, lighting and shadows. I hardly saw any major aliasing issues with the game, everything is smooth and looks just right!

Another positive point about the game is how realtime in-game graphics look soooooo close to its CG models. The game has CG cut-scenes but it uses it sparingly compared to real time cut-scenes. While the gamer can probably tell the difference between CG and realtime due to some loading time, for most of the game the transition is quite flawless. There was a time in JRPGs where CG was used so often that its a jarring experience to be pulled out of the cut scene and be faced with a messy realtime render of your character but no longer with Blue Dragon!

As for subtitles, I played the game with Japanese Audio and English text on an HDTV. So I can't really tell if they are readable on an SDTV but based on the comments from other players, the text is readable on an SDTV.

Apart from the graphical glitches, I mentioned earlier, the game is beautiful! While I can go and on and on about graphics, I'll let the pictures I've taken speak for themselves. I made sure not to post so many pictures because the beauty of the world in Blue Dragon is best experienced first hand.

SOUND:

Nobuo Uematsu...enough said!

With Blue Dragon, you can hear Nobuo Uematsu trying something new. The soundtrack for this game isn't just flowing music but also has a mixture of techno beats. I heard the soundtrack prior to playing the game and back then I wasn't really impressed with it but after playing the game the music fits perfectly! The techno beats in the soundtrack fit snugly with the plot of the game. You'll get used to the techno soundtrack and even the rock song playing during boss battles, 'Eternity'. The soundtrack is just right and doesn't get tiring even with long treks in the dungeon or a lot of casual exploration.



Voice acting, is superb. Initially, I thought the Japanese voice for Shu was a little off but that was prior to playing the game. His voice grows on you as you along. There are a lot of spoken dialog in this game and they're executed perfectly in its native Japanese.


I also remember before there were people complaining about the 'world' voice over, which kept on saying 'NOTHING' or 'PLAYABLE', rest assured that if you're annoyed with this you have the option to turn it off like I did.


COMBAT:

Blue Dragon, like most JRPGs, rely on turn based combat. Many people likened the combat style to that of Final Fantasy. While that is true, the biggest difference is the inclusion of the turn/position meter which is shown at the top of your screen when you enter battle. With that meter you can tell when the enemy's turn will be and you can form a strategy on the way you attack. After beating the enemies the game will reward you with money, sometimes they may 'drop' something for you.

Your characters can also learn several character classes. There are more than 5 character classes in the game. Depending on how high your class level is, you learn new skills. Skills vary from black magic, white magic, assassin, etc. They can also be used when you have engaged into turn based combat or with field combat.



Field combat / skills is another fun feature of this game. Since there are no random encounters in Blue Dragon, you can see the enemies in the field. In fact using some skills you can make them chase your in the field or they can run away from you as you approach. You can also choose to fight 5 or more monsters in a single combat instance. What happens is that when you choose to fight more than one monsters you go through one set to the another. But in between sets your party gets a status boost which you can choose randomly.

When in the field you can choose to fight two monsters, which do not really get along, in the same instance. What happens is that rather than fighting you, these monsters will fight each other. Getting enough of this kind of combat is also an achievement in the game. In fact a lot of the achievements are based on the combat system of Blue Dragon.

Regarding difficulty, the game at levels below 50 is average in difficulty. But as your levels increase, the game gets easier for those who are not keen about this, Mistwalker has already released a patch in Japan to fix the game difficulty. However, to date, the Asian region doesn't have this patch yet. While you may breeze through some of the enemies in the game, there are certain bosses throughout the world which are very difficult and these are optional bosses included in the side quests. While most JRPGs are really just a press-one-button experience, the Field Battles / Skills makes Blue Dragon slightly different from the rest.

This is one of the few JRPGS wherein I actually enjoyed the 'grind' and leveling. There are certain skills you can acquire which adds variety to your field battle, particularly the Field Barrier skills.

SIDE QUESTS / MINI GAMES:

Blue Dragon has quite a number of side quests, which I think will come as a welcome relief to many people who are sick of extremely linear JRPGs. Most of the side quests are simple while others require a lot of exploration. Later on the game, you can build ulimate accessories to boost the stats of your characters and you will have to search the world for the items to make it. There are also some very hard optional bosses in the game, perhaps harder than the final boss. (Think of it similar to the Ultima weapons of Final Fantasy 7).



One of the things that the game implements to break the monotony of a JRPG are the mini games! These are simple button pushing games and of course the much talked about mechcat shooting levels. The mini games are quite fun and its a welcome relief rather than just sitting through a JRPG going from one cut scene to the other.

The game gives you a lot of opportunity to complete missed sidequests even at the third disk. However, after you finish the game you cannot reload your save and continue to explore the world. The game also encourages a lot of exploration, you can checkout a rock or a tree to get gold or other items. You can even redeem items in exchange for the number of 'NOTHING's that you have discovered!

PROBLEMS / CONS:

Of course, I'll devote a section to this because this is what most people want to know anyway. There are a few problems in Blue Dragon but none that should hamper your enjoyment of the game. Here's what I can think of that people will complain about.

Screen Tearing - Yup its there and its noticeable. Tearing happens when some of the characters do their attacks and when you pan the camera around.

Slow Down - Slow Down only occurs when there are too many characters on screen or when a cloud passes you by in the world map. But this problem doesn't show itself often.

Ease of battles – This is integral to the game due certain achievements and the Japanese aren't really fans of difficult games (this game was made for the Japanese audience, keep that in mind). Hopefully the patch will be incorporated in the western release and the Asian marketplace will have it as a download similar to Japan.

VERDICT:

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!
(You cannot call yourself an JRPG fan if you don't get this game!)




Whew this has been quite a review and I've written pages! I'm not really one to give a score to the game since I find that system extremely subjective. I'll post my thoughts about it and leave it up to the reader to decide.

But all in all, Blue Dragon, for me, is currently one of the best JRPGs in the market today. Everything from visual presentation to the actual story is compelling. It is the game that most JRPG XBOX 360 gamers, such as myself, have been waiting for!

It has been quite a long wait for Blue Dragon but it was all worth it! If there was any doubt that Hironobu Sakaguchi can deliver, its all gone now! Sakaguchi, through Mistwalker, is definitely back! And for a first effort, Blue Dragon is a stunning game which should broaden the appeal of the XBOX 360 further in the west (and in Japan). Square Enix, better watch out, since their former boss still has his moves after all and he is no longer constrained with having to put chocobos in every game!

After playing through Blue Dragon, you will no longer associate Artoon, with Blinx the Cat either! No doubt, Artoon has created one of the most beautiful JRPGs in the next generation system.

Blue Dragon delivers as expected and offers so much more!
This is it folks! The REAL XBOX 360 JRPG has arrived!

NOTE: All those pictures were taken using a digital camera off a Samsung HDTV.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Our 3RL Adventure --- Why the XBOX 360 is the best console to date



Funny title?

Yep, it certainly is.

For those who haven't been to the live journal site, I'll re narrate what happened to our XBOX 360 here. After a year and two months of wonderful service, our Japanese XBOX 360 finally succumbed to the three red lights of death. While we told ourselves that we are fully prepared to buy a new console, and even set aside money for it, its always painful (well at least for me) to part with money that could have been used for something else. We tried the towel trick and to our amazement it worked. Of course, it sucks when the first thing you do before even playing is to wrap your console in a blanket and leave it on for the next ten minutes. For then minutes the only thing you can do is twiddle your thumbs and pray that the unit isn't getting baked from all the heat.

Luckily at that time, there were people in our country that were good enough to actually service the unit since Microsoft has no official support for the XBOX 360 here. We sent in our unit and additional fans were put in to help the cooling of the XBOX 360. For a few months the unit was back to normal and we were happy. Later on our experts learned that the true culprit of the XBOX 360 was none other than the X-Clamp that holds the GPU to the motherboard. At that time our unit was still working but then it eventually got the annoying E-74 Error. E74, was pretty simple, one time we were playing a GoW online match when all of a sudden we encountered checkerboard graphics. We got nervous and rebooted the machine and after a reboot, the screen flashed the E74.




By this point our 'faith' in Microsoft was shattered. Before we thought that majority of the hardware problems were caused by user negligence. We were so wrong. We treated our console like a king but it still got problems. We were upset that such a wonderful console with great titles was extremely unstable. However, since at that time our unit only had a cooling solution, it didn't really solve the problem brought by the X-Clamp. So we had the X-Clamp removed and replaced with another thing. This was very tricky since there needs to be some specific requirements in doing so. For a few weeks, the solution worked and we thought that our 360 was free from the massive hardware defects that seem to happen to the community. We left for a short vacation in a relatively good mood. But alas it was not meant to be. Shortly after we had our unit repaired for the second time we got the death knell for the XBOX 360, the true killer Error E76.



With E76, you really know that the console is dead. The basic symptom of this error is when a game hangs up after a few minutes of playing. You can force the console to try to load but rather than getting the green/grey start-up you get a creepy version with shades of red. At that time we were absolutely devastated. We just came from a trip abroad and we had so many new games. We also came down with a very violent flu which required us to be hospitalized for a few days. The XBOX 360 dying was absolutely horrible. Eventually we decided to buy a new unit with a longer warranty and we're back in the game.

So enough with the intro...if you're still here, let me get to the gist of the this post.

While we were on vacation we were already looking at other consoles, particularly the Playstation 3 and the Wii. By this point our Microsoft fanboy glasses were off and we were more than willing to get a new console that wouldn't really break. So we went around and tried a lot of demo kiosks and looked at the game selection.First off is the PS3. We already knew it was huge and it didn't really look at great as its predecessors. However, some PS3 owners were raving about certain games such as Resistance looking up to par with some of the best that the XBOX 360 has to offer, at that time in particular, Gears of War. Let me set this straight. It doesn't. I think we spent around an hour in the kiosks (well there was no one else around) trying this game. Gameplay wise it wasn't really anything out the ordinary and it certainly didn't look like it was trying to display the superiority of the PS3 Cell. In fact the game looked poor running against the Call of Duty 3 demo on the XBOX 360 kiosk beside it.

You have to give Sony some credit since their set-up was as huge as their console and running their best Bravia models. The XBOX 360 kiosk looked puny in comparison to the PS3 one but games appear otherwise.

We also tried other games too such as Sonic and Gundam Musuo for the PS3. We even saw the Ninja Gaiden Sigma demo. But what really killed the PS3 for us was none other than Ridge Racer 7.My husband and I are big Ridge Racer 6 fans. We also brought my brother along with us on vacation, and he's another Ridge Racer nut. They have played the life out of RR6 and got practically all the achievements the game has to offer. Not to mention they spent around 100 hours in online play for this game in XBOX live. From everything we read in the Internet, RR7 was really just a souped up version of RR6 with better AI. We expected the game to look exactly like the XBOX 360 version or even better, given the extra development time.

But Sony has made a HUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUGE mistake by not including HD cables on the PS3. The first time we played RR7 was in a kiosk that used standard cables on an HDTV set. The game was an absolute mess. While we were annoyed with the tilt-motion control interfering with our standard analog sticks (yes later on we figured out how to turn the darn thing off), we were shocked at the sheer difference between RR6 and RR7 graphically. Nitrous boosting in RR6 is smooth as butter with the blur effect gracing the screen. In RR7 is was a horrendous mess. Eventually we got to play RR7 on a unit running with the HDMI cables. While it no longer looked as bad as it does on standard cables, it certainly wasn't a step ahead RR6 and once again in some cases RR6 was better in lighting and overall graphics. While I'm not really a graphics whore, when the console is asking me to plunk down around $600 of our hard earned money, I have to criticize it as much as I can to make sure that the purchase is well worth it. And looking at Ridge Racer 7 and the rest of the PS3 games we have tried, the amount Sony is asking for is definitely not worth it. While I understand they have other features like the Second Life version for the consoles, PS Home, and Blu-ray those things come secondary for what a game console is for us...a machine to play videogames.

I will not discount the idea that the PS3 will have better games in the future, probably when Final Fantasy and Metal Gear Solid rolls in by 2008, at this point in time, the machine is certainly not worth it. Buying a PS3 now, at its full price, is a bad investment. Better to buy it later when there are more games available for it and when the rumored price drop occurs.

Next up is the Wii. My husband and I were never keen on the Wii but my brother was interested thanks to the Nintendo DS. We tried the default Wii game, Wii Sports and we lost our interest with the console a lot more. I understand that Wii wasn't about graphics but more on gameplay and the 'revolutionary' Wiimote. But after trying out Wii Tennis, I was scratching my head as to why some people have hailed this machine as earth shattering. The controls were sketchy at best. I was trying to figure out the pattern to hit the ball right but I couldn't get it work. I'm not really a lousy player but there were occasions where I swear I didn't even try to hit the ball but my avatar actually did and scored a point. We also looked at other Wii games but they were not really impressive gameplay wise.

But what really put things in perspective for us, with regard to the Wii, was Guitar Hero II.GHII was all about gameplay. I'm not really a rock / heavy metal fan and more of the mellow music kind, but I found myself drawn to the game. Of course, I eventually got to have a nicer appreciation of rock culture thanks to this game. But GHII is no novelty game that was patched up together. The game had a lot of technical details that make its gameplay highly addictive. Of course, I do know that real Guitar Heroes play REAL GUITARS but GHII gives you the opportunity to feel the thrill of being a rockstar without having to invest a good chunk of your time in learning how to play an instrument. The care on technical details given in this game and the responsiveness of the guitar controller to it makes this game an absolute must have and would probably go down the annals of videogame history as one of the most innovative games of our time.The Wii pales in comparison to Guitar Hero II.

The basic thrill you get out of the Wii is having to wave your arms around rather than having them on your lap while you are playing. You certainly will not do those over-exaggerated moves, such as ducking behind your couch while playing an FPS title, as Nintendo's marketing team would want you to think. You can play the Wii, the lazy way with nothing more than a flick of your wrist. But the games do not reflect the precision needed to make the gameplay challenging. Compared to GHII, the Wii games appear to hold your hand with its automatic, yet faulty, detection. There is not much care, even on the side of Nintendo, in making the games precise. For short, the Wii and its games to me are patch-up games and a novelty. Perhaps one day, there will be games for the Wii that will truly take advantage of its motion sensing capabilities but now its mere novelty.

To sum things up, it took the death of our first launch unit for us to realize that the best console to date is the XBOX 360. We tried to keep an open mind with the other consoles but they really didn't cut it, in terms of price and overall experience.

NOTE: This is wuffy wirting through scytherage since she forgot her account settings :p Next-up will be some of our impressions on games such as Command and Conquer 3, Forza 2 and BLUE DRAGON!!!