“Blue Dragon” has the sort of dream-team pedigree that could only be formed in a board meeting. Commissioned in hopes of boosting the fortunes of the Xbox 360 in Japan, where it has sold very poorly, as well as amongst fans of Japanese-style vidgames around the world, the title seems to have everything going for it: It was written by the creator of the world’s most popular role-playing game, features characters designed by one of Japan’s most acclaimed cartoon artists and music by one of the country’s top game music composers. But the end result is more construct than creation, a work that strives to hit all of the right notes but forgets to weave them together in a way that gives the end product some heart.
“Blue Dragon” stars a trio of children fighting to save their world from annual attacks carried out by a mysterious man in a flying fortress. Game opens with clouds rolling into the children’s village and the three standing up to the threat only to discover it is actually a machine. They ride the machine to an airship where they confront the ship’s captain and are easily defeated. In the process, their shadows are transformed into monsters they can control. When the three make it back to land, they begin a journey to their village on which they must fight monsters, befriend other victims of the annual attacks and sharpen their skills. The plot, written by “Final Fantasy” creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, is the thing that “Blue Dragon” does best. Delivered in lengthy and beautifully crafted full-motion animation, the long and intricate storyline unfolds over the course of the 40 to 50-hour long game that comes packed on three separate DVDs.
Game’s art style is recognizable to any fans of Akira Toriyama, the man who created popular anime series “Dragon Ball Z.” The children verge on anthropomorphic, with over-sized heads and large eyes. Though it fits well with the storyline and the tone the game takes, the art seems to be geared toward an audience perhaps too young to master “Blue Dragon’s” complex mechanics.
Gameplay is essentially broken down into two parts: Players will find themselves either running around the world looking for things to do, people to help, and better stuff, or they’ll be fighting bad guys. Both modes are very derivative of other Japanese role-playing games. Roaming the world of “Blue Dragon” can be a visually appealing thing to do, but for the first half of the game, it’s far too restrictive. There’s not much choice about where to go and what to do. When the world finally opens up midway through the opus, it feels too late.
Fights are similarly uninspiring. As with most Japanese role-playing games, each move in a battle consists of carefully thought out turns, rather than fast-paced button pushing. It’s all about finding the right sort of attack and balancing one’s spells and weapons. The idea of using the three main characters’ shadows, which take the forms of a dragon, a minotaur and a phoenix, as living weapons is an interesting idea, but in practice it doesn’t give “Blue Dragon” much more depth than many similar titles that came before it.
Given the paucity of quality Japanese-style games on the Xbox 360, Microsoft may have been just looking for “Blue Dragon” to be a solid genre entry, rather than something truly original. To some extent that strategy has been borne out. Though it has hardly become a pop culture phenomenon like “Final Fantasy” or “Dragon Ball Z,” “Blue Dragon” has sold relatively well in Japan since it came out there eight months ago. But given how little it has to offer over competing Japanese imports, it’s unlikely the game will find a big fan base in the U.S.