January 30, 2014

That's A Wrap: Blue Dragon

warning: may contain spoilers

Once upon a time, the video game industry's most talented got together to create a fantasy RPG. And it was glorious. I'm glad to say I've finally completed Blue Dragon for the first time and it was much more impressive than I thought it would be. 'RPGs on Xbox' is spooky territory and this was the very first offering from RPG powerhouse Mistwalker. I think it paid off, and this is one of the few diamonds-in-the-rough. I fell in love in minutes. It's an incredibly complex game, but it doesn't feel overwhelming as you play. Nevertheless, I will try to introduce you to all the major components today.
The first thing you may notice about Blue Dragon is that it has multiple discs! I thought we were past this? Not really an issue but an interesting surprise when I first cracked open the case…

When mysterious violet clouds roll in over Talta Village, they bring with them a brutal land shark attack. The small settlement's youth decide they've had enough of these recurring incidents, and this time they are going to capture the monster. Enter the game's protagonist Shu, with his intellectual counterpart Jiro and the impulsive Kluke. They devise a clever plan to save the village, but things don't really go according to plan, and the trio is whisked away on an adventure to discover who is behind these attacks, and put a stop to it.
Hooray for Toriyama! The master's iconic character art is back in Blue Dragon and it's probably the first thing you will notice about the game's visuals. It makes me giggle for some reason. I'm always fascinated by his approach to hair. The character art is diverse and excellent, and also a little surprising! Most RPGs go all out with character and costume design but BD is incredibly simple. In fact, I think the most detail you will find is a skull on one of the character's bandana. Other than that, the graphics are pretty standard for its time. The levels have a cool 3D design, but they aren't too complicated or poor to look at.

I wasn't kidding when I said they brought in the industry's finest. The soundtrack for BD is composed by none other than video game soundtrack magician Nobuo Uematsu, of Final Fantasy fame. Consequently, the soundtrack is absolutely magnificent. In a cool twist, however, the OST is also incredibly varied! There are some classic Uematsu sounds, some weird island diddies, a little heavy metal and the most bizarre boss theme ever. Regardless, the OST keeps you entertained and adds a perfect touch to the game. You really can't go wrong with this guy.
Apart from music, the game also offers dual audio dialogue: English or Japanese. Naturally I chose Japanese, but I have to say I wasn't exactly impressed by the cast in this game. Some of the actors just didn't suit the characters, and I know I'm in no position to critique this, but some of their accents are pretty tragic...
Other than that, no real complaints. If you choose Japanese audio, it will be dialogue only so the rest of the game is in English - including the weird arcade-y element where a woman narrates various things in the game, like when you are detected by an enemy, or when you find treasure. I believe you can turn this off if it bothers you, but I actually like it.

The cast of BD are all young adventurers. Characteristically varied, as per usual in Japanese media. Shu is the tough guy, and the leader of our gang. Paired with the titular Blue Dragon, he begins as a sword master, and makes an excellent melee offenseman for the rest of the game.
Jiro is much more mature than his friends, and spends his spare time studying. Naturally, he begins as your white mage, paired with Minotaur.
Kluke is a vibrant young lady, who demands she be taken seriously in spite of the fact that her hobbies include crying. With her shadow, Phoenix, she begins as a black mage.
Eventually, the crew recruits Marumaro, a very interesting little character from a village a ways away from Talta. His race are called Devee, and they often respond to things with dance. Mary sets out to find a cure for the mysterious disease that has suddenly plagued his village, and the trio team up with him to help, since Maro has a shadow as well - Saber-Tooth - who grants him the monk class. While Maro is loud and rather obnoxious, he's also the strongest (for some time, at least) and learns some of the coolest skills in the game. I was constantly surprised that this little cape-wearing football was my toughest character, and in spite of his idiosyncrasies, he constantly had me laughing, too. For these reasons, Maro claims the coveted title of best character for me.
The last member of our pilgrimage is recruited after the quartet make their way to Jibral Castle. There they meet the quiet and tough Zola, a castle guard, who also has a shadow, Killer Bat. She comes with the assassin class. For the record, these shadows are not common in the BD world. Only a select few "magical" people have them. Our crew inherited theirs from a mysterious voice when they were in peril.
The other side of this cast consists of the evil, purple namek? again with the nameks, Toriyama? Nene, his annoying parrot-like sidekick Deathroy and his mechanical henchman, Szabo. Nene makes use of ancient machines and weaponry to terrorize the people of the planet as he tries to regain his power and take over he world.

So let's talk combat! In battle, you have no weapons or armor and your characters do not physically attack. Instead, they summon their shadows to fight for them! I think this is an awesome concept and a  great "magic story" driver. Otherwise classic turn-based battles. Enemies will appear on the field and attack you (or sometimes flee) in real-time; the game will inform you if you've been detected or if you've managed to lose one's attention. A certain amount of enemies are in each section and once you've defeated them you are free to roam, but if you leave an area and return, the baddies will respawn. It's pretty annoying when they pop-up right beneath you… Battle is instigated by contact which can be approached a number of ways: sometimes they catch you, which can result in a normal battle or a "surprise attack"; if you're quick enough, you can start the battle by jumping into the enemy - which is a strange feature - using the X button or you could try to attack from behind and instigate a preemptive or back attack.
There is one other way to control battles from the field, and that is your field ring. If you press your right trigger, the field will freeze and a ring will appear around Shu. If there are enemies within the ring, you can begin a battle with any or all of them. In the case of multiple baddies in your ring, one of two things can happen: you will fight your enemies in waves, one mob after the other (in which case you get a sweet lottery stat boost between heats), or, you instigate a monster fight. Monster fights are when the enemies you've engaged fight each other as well as you, so sometimes your enemies will take care of each other for you. I think that is so cool! I love this approach to battles. Lastly, once you've opened your field ring, you can use any of the field skills you've acquired and equipped, which can sometimes stun (for example) enemies on the field before you enter battle. The trouble is that this works both ways, some enemies also have field skills and if you crawl too close, they can paralyze or attack you before battle.

And then you are brought to the battle screen.
A very bad screen cap of a battle against Evil Murals.
At the top of the screen is the turn gauge which outlines the order of attack. The bottom features your current party and their HP/MP, as well as a courtesy headshot and reminder of which job you have selected. You will fight with all acquired party members, so you won't have to choose your party beforehand. The player up to bat appears in the top left corner and their shadow will also appear behind them onscreen, awaiting orders. Your battle menu includes:
Attack - melee attack with your shadow.
Defend - self explanatory. 
All Equipped Skills - in this case, sword master Shu can use magic spells with his sword attack (which is curious, since neither Shu nor his shadow hold a sword) and has also learned a skill called Mow Down (which is awesome, by the way). Magic would also be listed here for anyone who has it equipped.
Item - attack, support or heal
Formation - moves the character to the other row (front or back)
Flee - eeeeeek!

The game has a neat approach to spells. Not only do you charge spells to increase their power, but you have to interactively control the charge.
The gauge charges differently depending on the attack. Some power up slowly and predictably, while others are quick and erratic. Of course, charging delays the immediacy of your attack/spell, and the gauge helps you sort this out by showing you on the meter when each person (including baddies!) will attack so you can incorporate charging into your strategy. Not only magic spells use the gauge, some melee attack skills do as well, such as the 'Charged Attack' for monks. Note that you don't HAVE to charge attacks and spells, you can bypass it and attack immediately, but charging increases the strength of the attack. The meter features a small red zone called the "sweet spot" which, when you land on it, is supposed to cause your attack to happen quicker (less wait time) and be more powerful. Honestly, I never noticed any advantage from the sweet spot.
When you take on multiple rows of enemies, you can only fight the front row (unless you have a skill which negates this) which is kind of annoying. The back row of enemies can still attack you but you cannot return fire. I'd have preferred it if you could, even if it were at a disadvantage or something. The only exception is spells that effect the whole field or charged attacks/spells can sometimes catch both rows, but other than that, the game controls who you fight and in which order.
There is one last battle feature, but oddly, you don't get it until the end of the game. For this reason I'll refrain from talking about it too much, but I thought it was strange for them to introduce a new battle component just before the final dungeon. It's pretty badass though!
Winning a battle nets you the usual EXP and SP, as well as money. From this you gain levels and ranks for your job.
Another coolest thing ever: I noticed that the game actually notifies you not only when an item has been stolen, but also when you've earned it back. I love this! I know it's a strange feature but I always wonder in RPGs whether defeating the enemy gets me my item back or not and this game answers that question. Kudos, Mistwalker.

One of the most outstanding aspects of gameplay is how you can examine just about everything in the level - rocks, rubble, vases - and doing so will net you various items, gold or nothing, which is actually a thing you can collect and trade for items later in the game. Also, sometimes after defeating enemies, small orbs or poo - yes, poo - will fall to the ground, which you can investigate for items as well.
But wait there's more! Sometimes when you inspect items you'll actually earn EXP or SP or stat boosts, and you can choose who will receive it. This makes investigating everything very fruitful, but also incredibly time consuming.
It's nice to get so much free stuff, but it does get old sooner than later, yet you feel obligated to keep up with it, and then it hinders your ability to navigate dungeons, since you're constantly investigating features that look identical. Speaking of navigation, it would have been stellar if the game's compass pointed north all the time… y'know… so you could use it. That was atrocious. Also the camera could be finicky sometimes, and I really wish there were a vertical tilt on the over world map. It's laborious to constantly have to check your map to see where the cities are, and would have been nice to just turn the lens up a few degrees to see from Shu's point-of-view. It would also be awesome if you could see more of your mini map, or open it to a fully "discovered" map, but I guess I'm just spoiled.

For those of you interested, I'll include a walkthrough of the menu, although the game does include very thorough tutorials. When you crack open your menu, you're greeted with:
Status - your standard window to your party. Includes level, HP/MP, stats, EXP; as well as the status of your shadow: which job, his rank and SP.
Shadow - this is where you can view which jobs you've unlocked, which rank you are in each job, and of course, you can change your shadow's job. Each character has a shadow: Dragon, Minotaur, Phoenix, Saber-Tooth and Killer Bat, and all characters can unlock all the jobs: Sword Master (self-explanatory), White Mage (healing magic), Black Mage (offensive magic), Guardian (defender), Support Mage (status magic), Barrier Mage (protect magic), Monk (weaponless melee), Assassin (field and stealth skills), and Generalist (a little bit of everything). You unlock a new job every 5 levels, and grow in rank after gaining SP.
Skill - where you equip character boosting skills. Your job comes with one mandatory skill, and you have 3 extra slots (you can gain more with the generalist job) to equip skills you learn from higher ranks. Skills include HP/MP restore, counterattack, stat boosts, steal, etc.
The monk's charge attack (mandatory) is awesome; assassins learn a ton of cool stuff, too. Mages are slowest to learn skills.
Once you have learned a skill you can equip it to any of the other jobs, even if it was a mandatory skill. For example, if you switch your black mage to a monk, your monk can use black magic up to the level that your black mage rank will support.
Accessories - I love the design of this menu, and I like that they didn't go with armor or clothes, but rather jewelry.
You can equip each character with a bracelet, a ring, an earring, a necklace, and if you use the generalist job, one extra "special" accessory, all of which boost your stats and sometimes affect status issues.
Heal -  a rather useless menu in which you can access healing items, including status relieving items, and apply them to any afflicted characters.
Spells - again, pretty straight forward. Basically the same as the heal menu, but with spells instead. These menus are useful for learning what spells/items do what.
Items - breaks all your inventory down into heal, attack, support, enhancement, your spell book (purchased spells), accessories, valuable items (check out the Ancient Phonograph!) and your encyclopedia, which holds your battle records, adventure, monster, item and spell records.
Formation - you've probably guessed, this is where you can arrange your party as you please. I forgot about this for a long time. You can place party members in the front or back row.
Warp - once you've activated a warp terminal, you can return to it quickly, from anywhere, using this menu.
Settings - edit the games settings, of course!
Save - which you can do on the over world map only, but it really should't be an issue as the game is very generous with save points, and auto checkpoints before bosses.

The game's controls are classic RPG controls. Y is menu, B is cancel, A is input and X can be used to jump into enemies. Left stick is, as always, character control, and right is camera. Start will bring up your world map. Lastly, you use your right trigger to bring up your field ring, and your bumpers use field skills.
I have two complaints here: I would have loved a 'pause' button, I know that's a silly request in a RPG but there were a number of times I found myself wishing for one, and more importantly, the sensitivity and accuracy of the field ring made me livid. This was also an issue around locations… essentially, you enter/exit an area long before your map indicates, causing you to leave before you're finished with a certain area. With the field ring, enemies need to be fully exposed (some crawl out from the ground or fall from trees, etc.) with all limbs on the ground to be recognized by your field ring. This was beyond annoying for me.
Come to think of it, a shadow or some other indicator would have been helpful while flying the mechat too, so you could determine exactly why you can't land anywhere you want to, so I guess thats 3 complaints.

BD has a ton of side quests and mini games to keep you busy. In addition to examining every damn thing in every damn level (save for the over world) you can also spend your time looking for warp devices to activate, so you can return to each area with the warp command in your menu. You get the keys for these babies after you take down a boss in the drill machine early in the game.
Surely you'll notice there are a lot of areas and chests surrounded by colored barriers, and the occasional colored wall. This is something you get to come back to much later in the game, and then you can make use of your warp devices to traipse the world once more and unlock all of these barriers. There are also a number of book series' scattered about for you to read. Not terribly rewarding, but a cute way to kill some time.
Then there are a few mandatory mini games, including numerous "mechat" flying shooter games, which remind me of Space Harrier a bit, one where you use lasers to take down multiple Death Stars and another in which you have to protect your village's wagons from enemies on the trail. If you can do these without taking any damage, you get an achievement... yay. There is also a mini game in which you design a ring for Kluke (which you can equip!). You have to "trial and error" your way through to build the best stat-boosting ring possible. It's incredibly frustrating. :)
Eventually, you get a mechat of your very own, and suddenly a bunch of stars will mark various points on your map. If you travel to these places, you discover some new areas, usually chock full of useful items for the end game. Some such items are actually upgrades for your mechat, which is a side quest all its own. You also find a bunch of "mystery parts" you can take to the lab in Jibral for another side quest, or discover the mysterious Aurora Ruins that Toripo is always going on about.
Then there are some other standard side quests, including various optional bosses, and one quest in which you vindicate Guru Guru and reunite him with his lady friend.
Occasionally you'll run into a weird section like the part where the many Death Stars try to mow you down with laser beams. Good times…
There are also a bunch of sides that I did not partake in this time, including dragon slaying, poo killing (ha ha ha) and robot hunting.

The game is not very difficult. I suspect they designed this under the assumption that people would avoid as many battles as possible, so I've not yet found an area that's really worrisome and I'm pretty sure I was under-leveled for most of the game. Also, your characters will learn skills like HP and MP absorb or regeneration very early in the game, and that will help counter your low HP problems. The plot direction is fairly linear, but there were a couple of spots in which I needed to do excessive exploring or consult a guide briefly to find out what to do next.
The real challenge in the game comes from self-inflicted tasks like trying to start monster fights, and perfecting the various mini games (I suck at flying a mechat!).

I clocked 73 hours in BD, but for at least half of that, it felt like longer. I think the time spent examining everything really kills some of the fluidity of the game, but that was my choice. Also, I can report that the game picks up a bit after the first disc and the ending has many twists. The first time I played BD I stopped after disc one (mostly due to chronic never-finish-game-itis) so it should figure that it gets good right after that. If you're finding the game a little slow on the first disc, try to power through it, it does get better.

I really wish more people would play Blue Dragon. I didn't get a ton of responses from people while playing this game and it seems many have overlooked it because it's a 360 exclusive, and that's really a shame. This is by no means the epitome of RPGs, but it's quite fun and whimsical and I'm sad that I couldn't get more feedback from people while I played through. If you enjoy classic RPGs, the artwork of Akira Toriyama, the incredible tunes of Nobuo Uematsu, or anything Hironobu Sakaguchi has ever had a hand in, give Blue Dragon a look. It's incredibly cheap to buy and one of the few Xbox RPGs, it's worth investing some time in. I can certainly sympathize with anyone who feels like the game moves too slowly, but it actually picks up later on and there are a lot of optional things to do, but the game on normal mode is not very demanding so you do not have to participate in these.

  • Defeat all the robots in the beginning of the game. There are many, but they're very easy and it's good early EXP.
  • In the Dead Forest, examining the glowing red plant will restore MP but drain a little HP. It's worth it.
  • Somewhere around Monk rank 25, Maro will learn a skill called Attack Amp. Equip it. It's so totally boss.
  • The names of enemies appear in yellow on the field if they're compatible for a monster fight. Took me 'til disc 2 to figure that out… take advantage of my wisdom!
  • I recommend spending a few hours with the generalist job. You don't get any specific boost from it, but you learn a few skills that are super helpful: accessory +1 and skill +# (depends on rank), which adds that many extra skill/accessory slots so you can do more.
  • Spend some time checking out items and spells. They all have unfamiliar names and weird results, so it helps to get to know them ahead of time.
  • Throughout the game, you collect medals. These can be traded for very useful items when you run into Toripo, who looks like something out of Star Wars…
  • You'll notice when you examine some things you'll get "nothing". This still counts! There is a man outside Jibral Castle who will reward you for certain counts of "nothing" with accessories.
  • Some of my favorite skills: Mow Down (Swordmaster); Attack Amp (Monk); Absolute Counterattack (monk); Double Strike (Assassin); Long-Range Attack (Assassin); Skill+ (Generalist); Accessory+ (Generalist)
  • If you're going to hunt the Golden Poos, I've found that in addition to the mandatory Poo Bracelet and an "attack first" item equipped, all members of the party must stink as well, or only one poo will spawn.

Okay! That was a lot of information to process but, if by chance there is something you want to know that I did not include, just leave it in the comments and I will update with answers!

I'm pretty sure I have all comments enabled, so anyone can leave one, and you can do so anonymously if you wish! Thanks for reading! <3

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