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.

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