Don't expect too much
After months of anticipation, Blue Dragon has finally arrived to western territories, to feed the hunger for a traditional turn-based RPG felt by so many eager Xbox 360 owners. Now that it is finally here, the question remains as to whether or not it was even worth the long wait.
That's somewhat of a difficult question to answer because Blue Dragon comes through on many ends but simply cannot live up to many of the expectations on others. It's disappointing to realize that with so much creative talent behind the production of this title, it falls miserably short on some of the most crucial aspects of creating a solid and rememberable role playing game. It is my personal conviction that most of its shallow essence is the result of a complete lack of vision on behalf of the minds of those who conjured up this attempt at being something great.
When I ponder over the character design alone of Blue Dragon I am reminded of a memorable episode of the Simpsons. Viewer ratings are at an all time low for the Itchy and Scratchy show so the producers decide what the show needs is a new character. Through this process, most of the powers that be are busy "brainstorming" the newest and coolest addition to Itchy and Scratchy by taking a little bit of everything that is popular, or perceived to work well, and mixing it together knowing - or at least believing - that it will be a sure hit. Thus, Poochie the dog is born.
This seems to be what is going on with Blue Dragon. The character design in Blue Dragon, from the playable characters to enemies, are all incredibly generic and created strictly by the book. We have Shu - our spiky haired protagonist, Jiro - a calm and cool clean-cut intellectual boy, Kluke - the cute girl both the guys fight over, Zola - a more solemn bad girl, and of course Marumaro, or Maru for short - the strange looking animal-thing with a devil helmit. All of the party characters have huge round heads with big anime eyes. Since Zola is the "bad girl", she has a skull on her bandana and wears considerably less clothing than the more cute, Kluke. This is just what part of the problem with the design of characters is in Blue Dragon - nothing in terms of design is subtle, but instead shoved in your face in an effort to make you think a certain way. Many times it feels like the designers just accessories otherwise extremely stagnant and dull looking characters. It doesn't stop just there with just your party either, as you will encounter some really corny looking foes. From ghosts wearing glasses, and a T-rex that has piercings and punker bracelets, to a male leader wearing out-of-place looking glasses and wearing a dress. Don't get me wrong; I am all for diversity and experimenting, but it doesn't seem like that is what is happening here. Instead, it just feels like they have taken essentially very boring characters and added these touches to them which they believe will give them personality. It doesn't work at all, and it all feels so very cheap. You can't help but feel that the designers literally had nothing else on their creative minds so they begin taking the Poochie approach by mixing in everything they thought should cover their uninspired traces.
It isn't just the exterior visual appearances either, the personalities form a perfectly cliche army of thoughtless characters you couldn't possibly empathize with. Shu is the wild and adventurous one who acts now and thinks later. Jiro is the opposite; always being reserved and cautious, and somehow always knowing the answer to puzzling circumstances you encounter. Kluke is simply calm and the cute girl with all the emotions, while Zola remains the more mysterious hard-core girl. Or at least, I think we are supposed to think she is hard-core, judging from her transparent presentation. Maru, is the comedy of the five. He's not really human, he's not really an animal, he's just this obnoxious creature who is either constantly shouting or talking in a cute voice. Maru is also fascinated with Zola, which serves not only as an allusion to bestiality, but also as a dominant method of perpetuating the idea that Zola is "so cool". As you can see, we have our full cast of generic characters which are a lot more than simply balanced - they are the result of thoughtless collaborations that attempted to do nothing other than make a game without any real vision or purpose.
Which brings me to another unpleasant issue with Blue Dragon. While its characters are mediocre at best, no more could be said of its dull story. There is no epic or gripping tale here - just an overly generic and overly done battle between a group of youth and a bad guy bent up on taking over the world. Our young adventures are persuaded to swallow these glowing blue orbs, which in turn gives them magical shadows and powers. Of course, robot technology is thrown into the mix, as has been done by so many RPGs in the past it would be virtually impossible to count them all. I cannot begin to imagine just how many games I have played in which the story revolves around some ancient wars in which the technology was superior in the past versus the modern technology. The theme of Blue Dragon is so incredibly bland and played out, you have to wonder why they even bothered making the game when they don't really seem to have any story or lesson they wanted to tell. Typically, creativity is a way to express a theme, idea, lesson, story or concept, but this is one of those times in which it meets none of the above and simply exists for the sole purpose of making a game. While, there are many RPG elements here which can keep you entertained for a long time - such as leveling up, mastering spells, classes and so forth - the core plot and purpose of the game is, sadly, boring. Actually, I took a 1-2 month hiatus from even playing the game since I got caught up in several other games at the same time which kept me more interested. To me, a solid RPG should have a solid and well written story, which Blue Dragon unfortunately lacks.
Visually speaking, Blue Dragon was top notch in most aspects, but several quirks really hurt the appearance of an otherwise excellent looking game. Aside from the generic characters and enemies, everything looks great. Almost all of the character models are very round with almost no jagged edges to be seen anywhere. While playing, I couldn't help but thinking that the character models were so rounded that they nearly looked cartoonish, which is great considering it was that hard to notice any rough edges. A lot of, in fact most of, the textures are high resolution and quite detailed. Unfortunately, a lot of the time you don't get the opportunity to notice just how detailed many textures are due to an abnormal use of over-blurring. Blue Dragon has this incredibly odd interpretation of distance-focus, which makes nearly everything that isn't right up to the screen very blurry. And if it is too close to the screen, then it is also blurry. There is a small field of clarity at all times (including battles), but everything outside of that field is blurred to an extreme. I've actually never seen anything quite like it. My guess is that this was done in an attempt to keep things looking even more cartoonish by making the graphics look simplified. It works to an extent, but much of the time you really wish things wouldn't be so damn blurry. The other issue with the graphics is in fact much more annoying: tearing! Blue Dragon has some of the worst tearing on Xbox 360 out of the more recent games. Every battle is filled with screen-tearing, while many areas of the games also tear frequently, and virtually any area will tear if you swing the camera around quick enough. Since the frame rate is already running fairly high, the developers may have yielded better results had they dropped the frame rate ever so slightly in order to keep vertical synchronization. I haven't been annoyed with screen-tearing in a long time, but Blue Dragon definitely rejuvenated these frustrated feelings again. I have seen worse, but the fact that it does tear so much is still a cause for concern. Many gamers may not even pay attention to it, but for those of you who are also annoyed by tearing, be warned. Though, truth be told, if you put aside the bland characters, the blurriness and tearing, you have some awesome looking visuals that are nearly CGI quality. In that sense, Blue Dragon is a quite a graphical marvel.
You would think that having Nobuo Uematsu on board would ensure a definite aural success. Well, unfortunately that isn't really the case. Don't get me wrong, most of the score is pretty good, but not many of the songs are as hypnotic or memorable as much of his other work is. There are a few pieces that really stand out and get stuck in your head, but for the most part the music is just good. I would have expected excellence, but I can truly only label a few of the pieces excellent. In retrospect, the music still shines in comparison to most other RPGs, and games in general. It's a pity the same cannot be said of the voice acting. Much of the dialog is not only corny, but voiced in overly exaggerated tones. Getting into character is one thing, but a lot of the time it feels like overdoing the character - especially Maru. He can sound cute and funny at some times, but he can come off as really annoying as well. Fortunately, or unfortunately - depending on how you look at it, much of the stories dialog is spoken, which is nice because you already do enough reading in a game of this magnitude.
Speaking of magnitude, I think it is important to recognize the fact that this game is not only three-discs, but didn't necessarily need to be. My feeling is that this game could have easily been fit onto a single DVD if fewer scenes were pre-rendered. Aside from the poor transitions, it is quite difficult to tell when a scene you are watching is real time or pre-rendered (yes, the character models look that good). The only real indicator I had to tell the difference was you know if it's real time if there is occasional tearing since the pre-rendered scenes never tear. It is quite likely that Mistwalker used the three-disc format of the game as a marketing plot to imply that the game was so big that it warranted it, which I don't believe is the case. I'll be the first to admit, that many hard-core RPGers like myself tend to initially think that a game must be huge or long when you hear it is many discs. Since almost every RPG fanatic loves a long game, this can only been seen as a positive thing. So, I have a pretty good feeling that it not only was unnecessary, but was done to perpetuate the idea that the game is bigger than it really is. In reality, it took me no more than 35 hours to complete on my first run, which is a mere fraction of some of the more huge single disc games (Oblivion for example).
Blue Dragon is a good game; not great, but good. It has a lot which is definitely capable of keeping you interested, but you may grow bored of it if you have a variety of other games at your disposal. It seems to be more of a time killer, than real source of enjoyment. There are certain parts that will make you laugh and quite likely many others that will have you saying "give me a break". It's by no means a horrible game, but should not be thought as the great RPG savior the Xbox 360 needed either. While it is definitely better than Enchanted Arms, it doesn't really have much to stand in comparison to on the 360 at the time of its release. If you just want a mindless RPG to get absorbed in, you will find that Blue Dragon can meet your needs. However, if you are looking for something a bit more deep and compelling, you will need to sit tight and wait and see what the future has in store for the Xbox 360. Blue Dragon is not the godsend Microsoft had hoped or pretended it to be, but it is a suitable and enjoyable adventure nonetheless.
Overall Score: 7.5
Gameplay: (7) Traditional RPG with nothing ground-breaking to offer. 30-40 hour adventure, with lots of side quests, secrets and extra bosses as well. Could have benefited from some ingenuity.
Graphics: (8) While blandly designed, the character models are superbly rounded with jagged edges almost nonexistent. It's only a shame that the game has a real annoying blurriness issue and suffers from near-constant tearing
Sound: (8) While Nobuo Uematsu delivers, it's not by any means his best work. Some of the tunes are catchy, but others are just slightly above average. The voice acting is neither great, nor horrible.
Lasting Appeal: (7) A lengthy adventure spanning three discs that could have been one. Lots of side quests and mega-bosses to go back and complete for extra achievements.