SYSTEM: Microsoft Xbox 360
AGE RATING: Teen
“Blue Dragon” arrives to great expectations.
The game was developed by a Japanese studio founded by “Final Fantasy” creator Hironobu Sakaguchi. The characters were designed by Akira Toriyama of “Dragon Ball” fame. And the music was composed by longtime “Final Fantasy” maestro Nobuo Uematsu.
The last time this trio worked together on the same game, the result was the time-hopping “Chrono Trigger,” one of the finest role-playing games of the 1990s and a game that remains a unique classic.
“Blue Dragon” is not bad. The skill progression and battle systems are similar to “Final Fantasy V,” which still has some of the most flexible and satisfying game-play mechanics in the series.
But “Blue Dragon” is no “Chrono Trigger.” The story is pretty basic. Shu, Kluke and Jiro, a trio of teenagers who sound like 12-year-olds, hatch a plan to fight back against the creatures that attack their village whenever an ominous purple storm cloud rolls in.
It’s not long before they discover that their target monster is actually a mechanical troublemaker - when it’s recalled to its floating base ship, the trio is dragged along.
High in the air amid the purple clouds emitted by this flying machine, the group meets Nene, a wicked old man who’s behind all the mischief. They’re smacked down firmly and dumped out a hatch, then mysteriously sucked back into the ship, where they find some glowing spheres.
A disembodied voice urges them to eat the spheres. And this being a video game, they do.
This turns out to be the right choice. The kids quickly find that their shadows have come to life. Jiro’s is a big blue minotaur, Kluke’s is a blue phoenix and Shu’s - well, his is given away in the title.
These dragons reach over our heroes to smite their enemies with a variety of attacks. And this is where the “Final Fantasy V” elements come in.
Each shadow comes equipped with an initial class - Sword Master for Shu’s dragon, Black Magic for Kluke’s phoenix and White Magic for Jiro’s minotaur. There are several other classes that the characters will eventually gain access to, including Support Magic and Barrier Magic, Assassin, Monk, Guardian and Generalist.
Shadows can be assigned new classes at any time outside of battle, as long as their caster has earned them. Each class gains power separately, but each grants permanent skills at certain levels. These can be equipped by a shadow of a different class.
So, for example, if Shu has learned the Level 2 Magic Sword skill and wants to beef up his White Magic, he can switch over to that class and equip the Magic Sword skill along with it.
This system creates a very flexible set of characters (even more so once the initial trio is joined by further companions and their own shadows).
The party makes its way through a variety of outdoor areas and dangerous dungeons, fighting monsters on the way. There’s an element of strategy to this: Players can see their foes wandering the map and can often influence how a fight goes by striking first or picking a fight with adversarial creatures that’ll attack each other. Some skills can affect monsters before they’re fought as well.
So the game is fun to play. But there are distracting oddities, especially in the graphics and sound. The visuals are a mixed bag - though very sharp and highly detailed, they look extremely artificial, as if someone took a bunch of anime-inspired action figures and set them loose in a world where everything looks coated in wax.
Aside from their unnatural sheen, the characters look like Precious Moments figurines by way of “Dragon Ball.” And they sound like the cast of “Rugrats” - the voices get irritating quickly, especially Shu’s. Most of the music is pretty good, but the bizarre boss fight music (featuring Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan on vocals) is some of the most grating squawk rock imaginable.
Any one of these things wouldn’t be an issue, but taken together, they detract from the atmosphere the game seeks to create, making a potentially triple-A title into something less than it could have been.