Blue Dragon Plus Review
OK, the first thing I can say about Blue Dragon Plus for the DS is “the compression is good,” and I'm not just talking about the in-game cinematics. I mean the whole game. It's not like making a JRPG for the handheld is a new concept but shrinking a JRPG done in the tradition of Final Fantasy to fun size is pretty gutsy. A big part of what gamers of this genre love is the epic story and eye-popping graphics and how can anything on a 3-inch screen be eye-popping or epic? Well if anyone can do it, it's Japanese company Mistwalker. Founded by Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, Mistwalker brought us the first Blue Dragon on the Xbox 360 a couple of years ago and have teamed up this go-round with developers Brownie Brown and Feel Plus to bring us a pocket-sized sequel to that title.
Blue Dragon Plus picks up where the first Blue Dragon left off, a year after team of friends Shu, Zola, Kluke, Maro and Jiro have beaten purple, pointy-eared supervillain, Nene, into submission. Zola spots a three-headed dragon Shadow emanating from one of the cube fragments left from the previous year's planetary explosion and is determined to investigate. In short order, Zola, Shu and friends realize their nemesis is still alive and worse yet, an even bigger force is bent on destroying the cube and everything in it. The cube is like a planet unto itself and takes a while to explore. Ancient tombs, incinerators, monster keeps and laboratories offer up a varied menu of monsters, mechs and ghosts to fight as well as something called a “poo snake” (It's exactly what it sounds like. It even has an attack called “methane bomb”).
Characters navigate by way of an overview of the cube called the Route Map. From there you can choose your party's path and scout arenas before entering them. Enemies are shown on the Route Map as orange blips and characters can use special skills available only on the Route Map to knock enemies back, warp to enemy positions or pull enemies to them. These skills give you the power to engage the enemy when you want to or avoid it entirely. Enemies have the ability to move around the Route Map too though and sooner or later you're bound to cross paths.
All the characters in Blue Dragon have the ability to summon powerful Shadows shaped like creatures. The game is named for hero character Shu's dragon Shadow but other characters have Shadows in the shape of bats, cats, jack-o-lanterns and three-headed dogs. These heal, give buffs or cause elemental damage to enemies, not to mention generating some pretty cool special effects. Some of those names may not seem intimidating, but these enemies have Shadows as well and these can easily wipe out an unprepared party. Defeating them hinges on equipping your party members well and using the correct elemental attacks for maximum damage. This is an equipment-based class system wherein you micro-manage a party of stock RPG classes: tanks, rogues, mages and healers will be very familiar to RPG players. They're not only familiar, but a big part of the fun.
A gamer like me loves spending hours changing skills and shopping for and swapping out equipment. What can I say, it's a sickness. Blue Dragon Plus is a great enabler for us because with several shops scattered around the map, arena treasure boxes that drop alternate Shadow prisms, loot drops and mission rewards, there's a lot to tinker with. Moreover, once you get further into the game, a special Mecha Robo Plant opens up that allows you to use all the parts you collected during battle to construct your own Robos. Robos don't level up like the rest of your characters do, so the only way to make them more powerful is to reconfigure their circuits. I have to warn you; following the story, Blue Dragon Plus is good for roughly 25 hours of play but if you're a born customizer like I am, that number may grow significantly. Gameplay can also be prolonged by doing the many side missions which have no bearing on the main story but offer an opportunity to level up and earn money. The only downer about the side missions is that not all of them tell you where to go and so you'll waste a lot of time fighting random battles looking for the right arena.
There are a few downsides to combat as well. It's good that the control system is stupid-simple; character selection, movement and attack commands are all done with the stylus as is all skill and equipment selection. It's also fun scrubbing the stylus madly back and forth to win a fight against an enemy Shadow. It's not so good using the stylus to select individual characters during battle. You can separate out smaller groups by drawing a circle around them but they don't stay selected once you've moved them and there's no way to save party members to different groups. Another issue is that when your party's in the middle of a mega-mashup, it's very difficult to see individual characters let alone select them. Sniff...many a good Robo lost his life because of this. Now for the most bothersome aspect of Blue Dragon Plus; character movement. It's been a long time since I played a game with such pokey characters. Some are faster than others, but overall, you can click to send them in a certain direction and then go grab a snack. It takes characters forever to cross the map and wonky pathfinding only makes it worse. If there's an inefficient way to go, that's the one they choose. The problem is augmented even further by the characters' painful habit of angling around obstacles by way of a series of 90-degree turns.
Luckily, this movement problem isn't enough to ruin the game. Blue Dragon does quite a few things well and these (pardon the pun) overshadow the problem areas. I like that when you lose a battle, you're returned to the Route Map as opposed to seeing an ugly “Game Over” screen and having to reload. I like that you're prompted to save after every battle so you don't forget, shut down and lose progress. I like the variety of maps and enemies which keep the repetition of battle interesting. And what I like most of all are the amazing full motion cutscenes that make great use of both DS screens. You don't expect a cartridge-based portable game to have that kind of cinematic quality and the high level of polish on the cinematics (not to mention the sheer number of them) is impressive. After spending most of your time in the game looking at teeny little bobble-heads, it's a relief to see high-res, fully-animated characters and Blue Dragon makes the most of them. The game's Final Fantasy heritage is fully evident in both the beauty of these attractive little in-game clips and in the music by Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu.
Blue Dragon Plus has a few character movement issues but overall is a fun, easy-to-learn, highly-polished game. It's deep enough for JRPG veterans and simple enough for JRPG noobs both to enjoy. While a thorough knowledge of the previous game story is assumed, it's not necessary to "get" the game. All in all, a worthy offering to fans of the genre.