Blue Dragon Review (Xbox360)

It wasn't difficult to see what Microsoft aimed to accomplish when signing up three of the most legendary figures in the Japanese RPG world, and Blue Dragon is the end product from a trio often referred to in development circles as the 'holy trinity' of eastern game design. Hironobu Sakaguchi (creator, producer, Final Fantasy), Nobuo Uematsu (musical composer, Final Fantasy) and Akira Toriyama (character design, Dragonball Z), have combined to create a starkly beautiful and traditionally rooted RPG experience on the Xbox 360, a rare splinter of Eastern design on an otherwise Western-dominated console. Unfortunately it didn't turn out to be quite the saviour in Japan that Microsoft hoped it would be, but with less pressure and focus in the Western markets, it may just find its audience.

The Clean and crisp visuals are a highlight of Blue Dragon
The games many bosses are complemented by some superbly cheesy J-pop

Right from the start, Blue Dragon shines with an understated and yet vibrant aesthetic quality, quite unlike most of the staple RPG design elements we've come to expect over the years. The title screen epitomizes this, with a simple blank white background, and the game logo nowhere to be found. Beginning a new campaign fades the screen into a sparsely populated and yet highly-detailed world, and following a few cutscenes the player is presented with a myriad of different environmental objects to examine for potential rewards. Uematsu's score compliments the nature of the design pretty well, seemingly holding back on the grandiose themes of previous titles, without becoming too bland as a result.

It isn't long before we're introduced to the main protagonist of the adventure, a young boy by the name of Shu. On first exposure, the character models largely ape the design sensibilities of the environments, displaying a high amount of stylized detail and several loud colour schemes. Animation however is kept to a bare minimum, and lends the game a somewhat awkwardly clinical feel throughout. Think of a design on the completely opposite end of the spectrum to something like Gears of War, and you won't be far off.

Of course this would be no epic RPG without a contrived and overblown plot, and Blue Dragon manages to root itself so deeply into tradition in this regard that it almost deserves no mention. The story itself revolves around Shu confronting a mysterious land shark that plagues his small home village every year, which leads nicely into the discovery of an evil old man (called Nene) pulling strings behind the scene. The rest of the quest involves the usual gathering of party members with the requisite tenuous links to the main hero or villain, and visiting a wide variety of villages and dungeons to level up both yourselves and the titular Blue Dragons, which serve the purpose of magical alter-egos dealing out mana-based attacks.

Even the dark characters are fairly likeable in design alone
The title says it all

The Dragon-based combat system itself is as solid and yet utterly generic as any RPG to come before it. Battles are chosen from an overworld map, with the player able to pull up a small targeting area in which to snag any potential opponents. Choose several enemies of opposing types to battle with, and they will often face off against each other, leaving you to mop up the weakened remains of the winner. Combat is strictly turn-based, and skill development follows the same paths as any other traditional JRPG to come before it. There is a degree of customisation in skill progression on offer, with each character able to level up several different professions and switch between them at will; but it all essentially boils down to the standard genre archetypes.

With a solid combat system, and a lengthy campaign, you'd be forgiven for thinking that this would be a no-brainer purchase for any RPG-starved 360 owner, but unfortunately that doesn't turn out to be the case.

Combat animations, often the most spectacular part of any well developed RPG, unfortunately highlight the technical difficulties which Blue Dragon is prone to experience. Whilst some of the effects are spectacular, the game suffers from some equally devastating framerate drops in the middle of any complex string of effects. These problems occur far too frequently, and unfortunately the rush to release the game to help Microsoft's ailing Japanese campaign is shown clearer than ever in this regard.

Also, although the minimalist design sensibilities of the game are open to praise in some regards, unfortunately the overall effect is one of sterility and lack of character. The beautifully stark environments can only hide a lack of true content for so long, and the effect of simply wandering down a series of re-skinned corridors is all too evident in Blue Dragon. Toriyama's designs are undoubtedly the star of the show, but the game does a fairly awful job of injecting any sense of personality into them. The lack of animation, generic plot and voice-over work belie what could have been a spectacular achivement.

The battle system is solid, if unspectacular
Bright colours and striking design is the hallmark of Blue Dragon

As a product of tradition, it is quite possible that old-school RPG fans will manage to conjure enough enjoyment out of Blue Dragon to make it a worthwhile purchase. Unfortunately, for most people it will represent another missed opportunity to showcase some of the best development work in the world, and yet another next-gen game crippled by a lack of production time. If Microsoft is serious about the Japanese market, it simply cannot afford to continue with undercooked titles like this, and as a title aimed at a niche Western audience, it's unfortunately average in the extreme.

Top Game Moment:
 Initiating a particularly difficult monster battle, and then mopping up the resulting carnage.