[5 May 2009]
Hands up, who here can name at least five decent RTS games on the DS? Don’t rush all at once. There’s no prize (mainly because I am too poor to afford one), so my review will have to do.
The DS situation is beyond a joke. Western companies have ignored it despite its success in the American market. The cheap development costs and short production time should mean that publishers should be all over it especially in these hard economic times. Yet, outside of Japan, you would think that most game companies have never heard of it. Where are the Command and Conquers and the Total Wars? Some lay the blame on the demographic that the DS appeals to not being interested in anything other than brain training games, new entries in the Mario franchise, or those Ubisoft Imagine Fashion thingies. Others say that Nintendo’s marketing has been so geared toward casual gamers that it has alienated the core gamer. This situation is not helped by the current debate over whether Grand Theft Auto Chinatown Wars is actually selling or not. In any case, the lack of genres representing Westernized gaming has lead to the Japanese trying to fill the void, but, try as they might, such substitutes are no substitute for the real thing.
Mistwalker has hardly had a smooth ride recently as they have released two Xbox 360 exclusives, Lost Odyssey and Blue Dragon, neither of which bombed, but they hardly set the charts on fire either. This modest success and spiralling HD budgets seem to have lead to the cancellation of a third 360 exclusive, Cry On and more of a focus on handheld development.
Though this version of Blue Dragon is a sort of pseudo sequel to its 360 counterpart, the gameplay has been altered completely, and, if you’ve actually read the review up to this point, you should know what genre the game can be categorized as now. As far as the story goes, one year after the events of the original, it seems that some robots are up to no good on a cube shaped planet where there’s this awesome power and all the older characters…. Well, you get the picture. It is a Japanese RTS. An example of the nature of the writing is the shock your team experiences when they encounter another shadow user (a massive dragon you can call upon to help you out in battle). In the original game, very few characters had this summon-like power. Here nearly everyone does, but do I really need to go through another, “Oh wow dude, you got a dragon too?!” over and over? The gimmick is pretty obvious early on; there’s no need to continuously assault my intelligence. Luckily, these constant interruptions are told via some lovely FMV pieces, which are always a welcome surprise on the DS. However, some of the beauty of these scenes is cancelled out by more ghastly artwork courtesy of Akira Toriyama of Dragon Ball and Dragon Quest fame.
Controversial as the claim that Toriyama’s artwork is ghastly may be because of the ubiquitouness of pointy ears and noses, raised eyebrows, tiny mouths, feline eyes, and, of course, spiky hair, it would be easy to confuse Toriyama’s designs with any number of less skilled anime artists. The groteque exaggeration of some of these traditional anime features isn’t helped at all by the characters lack of personality and their bland, forgettable dialogue.
Some of this familiarity and simplicity mars the gameplay as well. Generally, RTS games tend to include epic large scale battles; here you have four teams of four units, and you micromanage each unit as battles progress. Though, there is very little of the latter. That’s hardly a bad thing, but it decreases the game’s scope and depth dramatically, resulting in battles becoming monotonous and simple point, drag, and attack affairs. The challenge is hardly… well… challenging, In fact, the real frustrations come from the controls and interface issues.
It’s here that you’ll be thankful that you’re only playing with a handful of units. The characters look too similar, and in the heat of the battle, it becomes increasingly frustrating to pick the right one for each task. Trying to heal your team when they’re on the verge of death—can I select my healer please? No? Why simply because he/she is hidden somewhere amongst a large group of dragons and robots and I can’t find her/him. Though the shoulder buttons can be used to rotate the camera, if the character that you are looking for gets lost amongst the chaos constant stabbing of the screen till you find him is your best bet.
Other peculiar design decisions include the speed of movement. The evil guys are planning to take over the planet, and you have to try and halt their diabolical scheme, though, you wouldn’t think it based on the nonchalant pace your team move at. Hopping along playfully without a care in the world completely defeats any urgency that the narrative may have created. You’re saving the world man, get a move on!
Does the game really have to be paused every time a robot calls in re-enforcements; doesn’t that completely undermine the REAL TIME STRATEGY aspect?
Another frustration is that the team at your disposal lack brains. Units often wander into packs of enemies and allow themselves to be beaten up without resistance, or they stroll by foes blissfully unaware of their presence, ignoring safer routes. At other times, they stand idly by as team mates are set upon by large swarms of robots and patiently wait for your command having just completed your previous input. They then might decide to take a break by hiding behind each other. Rather than walking around team mates to get to their goal, they won’t budge an inch till you re-direct them. The fact is they won’t do anything unless you tell them to.
When you add a weak story and characters that lack personality, you may as well be playing with a bunch of crash test dummies. The characterization seems to match the less than complicated AI, resulting in characters that are written and play as shallow, empty plastic shells.