One of the earliest seventh-gen Japanese RPGs, Blue Dragon came out for the XBox 360 and was the first game released by Mistwalker, a company founded by Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi. But does it prove to be another worthy title from a legend of the genre, or does Blue Dragon just drag on?
Squaresoft was on pretty shaky grounds in the early 2000s. Final Fantasy: the Spirits Within and Square Pictures proved to be a financial disaster for the company, and their planned merger with Enix led to a shakeup in management, resulting in several prominent names from the Square camp splitting to form their own studios; Hiroki Kikuta formed Sacnoth and helmed up Koudelka, with the resulting franchise (Shadow Hearts) continuing on without his involvement. Tetsuya Takahashi formed Monolith Soft and began work on Xenosaga (and later Xenoblade under the Nintendo banner), and Hironobu Sakaguchi, Final Fantasy's creator, even left the company himself, going on to form Mistwalker. All would become pretty well-known franchises in their time, with Square Enix continuing on to create a broad spectrum of games that found a new audience, but alienated a lot of older fans in the process.
Mistwalker's first project was Blue Dragon, which was announced for the XBox 360 - a strange choice to many as the original XBox was very unpopular in Japan. Still, it seemed like a pretty big deal at the time for JRPG fans, being made by a dream team for the genre - famed artist Akira Toriyama doing the character designs, Final Fantasy's Hironobu Sakaguchi writing and long-time FF composer Nobuo Uematsu doing the soundtrack. While the XBox 360 still trailed far behind its competitors in Japan, Blue Dragon helped moved a significant number of units for it, aided by a special pack-in bundle including the game; it ultimately sold 200,000 copies there. It was also a modest success in other regions, selling about 300,000 copies each in North America and Europe and getting a fair bit of attention as the platform's first Japanese-style RPG. It also spawned a short-lived media franchise, with two sequels on the Nintendo DS and anime and manga tie-ins.
In terms of gameplay, Blue Dragon is very much reminiscent of an older Final Fantasy title, with turn-based action, front and back rows for both your enemy and the party (with those in the back being untargetable by short-ranged attacks), a focus on elemental spells and status buffers, and your characters able to change between multiple job classes that grant them new abilities. There's even a heavy Final Fantasy V element in there, allowing you to mix and match abilities from classes each character has powered up to create powerful hybrids. So you can, say, power up as a Defender to get an HP Up skill, then switch over to Mage and equip that to give that otherwise squishy class more survivability. Some skills are also just worth learning regardless of class choice - the Black Mage's MP Regeneration is one, which causes anyone who equips it to regenerate 1 MP every 10 steps or so; it adds up quite quickly in a game without random encounters. Generalist is also one worth powering up for every character despite its unimpressive stats, as it will unlock slots for special accessories and more skill slots to further expand your repertoire of options in battle. The game is also quite well paced, with few overly long combat animations, dungeons that don't drag on too long and even some nice touches like warning you about imminent boss fights and having enemies only respawn if you leave the dungeon, cutting down on tedious filler battles.
Blue Dragon's gameplay isn't without a few changeups, though. There aren't really "weapons" to equip, as each character instead utilizes a Shadow as the source of all of their attacks and spells, and which all manifest as giant monsterish critters slightly reminiscent of the Jojo series (with Shu's being the titular Blue Dragon). Equipping five types of accessories - necklaces, bracelets, rings, earrings and "specials" - serve to upgrade your core stats and grant elemental resistances. There is a light turn manipulation element in combat too, letting a character delay their turn a bit to deal more punch with their spells (and potentially strike multiple targets rather than just one) by playing a timing-based minigame. Hitting the highlighted orange "sweet spot" on the meter gives an added benefit, reducing that spell's MP consumption and the time until character's next move, so it's worth doing whenever practical to do so. One can also multiple encounters back to back for added benefit - by pressing RT on the field, a circle surrounds the character, and you can select any (or all) enemies in that range to fight next. Tagging multiple parties in this way forces you to endure several battles in a row, but you get semi-random bonuses between rounds (including stat buffs and HP/MP restores) and more XP and SP for winning, so it's worth doing whenever possible. Some monsters can also infight with one another if you do this, cutting down on the total you need to battle and occasionally giving way to some other unique mechanics - for example, the Ice and Fire Wolf Ghosts in the hospital era will negate each other's elements, turning them into much weaker enemies. One can also utilize particular field spells to this end, like a barrier that draws enemies to pursue you further so you can chain multiple fights or a barrier that instantly defeats weaker enemies on contact, saving you a bit of time at considerable MP cost. Also like old-school RPGs, it's to your benefit to click on almost everything - you find items, XP, SP, gold and even stat boosts (instantly applied) in the most bizarre, innocuous places. Even if you get a "nothing" message from your search the game keeps track of that, letting you trade "nothings" for rare accessories late in the game. A few minigames also pop up throughout, with achievements tied to getting a perfect score in them, so if you're going for the maximum Gamerscore it's worth saving before the attempt. (You'll also want to have a guide handy anyway, as there are quite a few missable enemies and items you'll need for full completion).
Blue Dragon's presentation is a bit mixed, however. While the game has Toriyama's charming character designs and a quite imaginative dark world, and a cinematic presentation with camera cut-ins during battle and in dialog, the visuals are hampered a bit by the overused of distance blur - anything that's not the primary focus of a scene tends to be blurred out, even mid battle, so it's like you're viewing the whole game through the eyes of someone chronically nearsighted. Characters also don't get much in the way of facial expressions outside of prerendered cutscenes, which is a little disappointing. The voice acting is decent for the most part, though the dialog can get a bit annoying (though as it's coming from a bunch of dumb kids, it's at least more excusable than in some of the worse Final Fantasy games). Nobuo Uematsu provides the soundtrack for the game, and it is quite good, lending the game quite a bit of atmosphere and some epic combat tunes. The boss theme is a bit of a cheeseball legend among RPG players, being a hard rock tune with with some amazingly goofy lyrics by Sakaguchi (seriously) and vocals by Ian Gillan of Deep Purple fame (no, really). One of the odder elements is an a monotone voice that prompts the player at various times, letting them know they have control of the party again, gained a level, found treasure or had characters rejoin the party, all with short phrases like "Joined", "Playable", "Level", "Treasure" or "Nothing". You can turn it off, but I found it kind of handy - there are more than a few times in other games when I've sat there waiting for a cutscene to continue only to realize that it had ended and I had control of my party again.
Blue Dragon is what it is - an old school RPG with several names behind classic RPGs behind it. It didn't make as many waves as its creators clearly hoped it would, but it's a decent, playable title that draws a lot from JRPGs of the '80s and '90s while having some twists of its own, and while ultimately nothing outstanding, it's still one of the better Japanese RPGs of this console generation. Hell, it looks like a veritable masterpiece compared to dreckwork like Final Fantasy XIII and whatever unplayable garbage Idea Factory was crapping out every six months around this time. It's also still available for pretty cheap both digitally and physically, so give it a try if you have a system it's playable on.
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Platform: XBox 360 (backwards compatibility on XBox One)
Recommended Version: N/A