I, like many others, grew up suckling the JRPG tit. In the 1990’s, companies like Squaresoft had a near impeccable track record of releasing exceptional titles, many becoming gaming’s most cherished classics. Unfortunately, this generation of gaming has seen this once beloved genre perform a proverbial nosedive; a fiery crash to rival the Hindenburg disaster. There are still JRPGs being produced for handheld systems – the Nintendo DS in particular – but big, console JRPG releases have gone by the wayside. Square merged with Enix, and has performed a mutilation of the Final Fantasy series that makes Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull look like a respectable sequel, while Enix’s wonderful Dragon Quest series remains severely underappreciated and absent from the big box consoles. Other JRPGs have emerged here-and-there on consoles, but most implement action elements, or attempt to stray away entirely from the old formula. Many fans of the genre are simply left wondering, “What the hell happened?”
It’s the deviation from the old formula that is the problem for so many. The gaming community generally preaches innovation, but sometimes the old adage applies: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. It was that old formula; that magical formula that made those games so great. You take an unlikely group of companions, pit them up against some great evil, add in an expansive world with maps, turn-based combat, and a plethora of side missions, and you’ve got yourself the skeleton of JRPGs of the days of old. That is what so many have been demanding. You scour the forums, and you see countless people asking where all the great turn-based JRPGs have gone, and they are met with a reply of cricket songs, and the sound of tumbleweeds drifting across the landscape. Nobody seemed to be listening… except Mistwalker.
Mistwalker, the company founded by Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, released Blue Dragon for the Xbox 360 way back in 2007. Blue Dragon is the story of a group of friends whose village is occasionally surrounded by purple clouds, and attacked by a large beast called the “Land Shark.” The game opens with the friends attempting to stop a Land Shark attack, but end up becoming deposited in some underground ruins, where they discover that the Land Shark is really an ancient machine. The machine then powers on, unexpectedly, and takes to the air with the unsuspecting friends clutching to its back. The machine whisks them off to a giant, floating, mechanical base, which is run by an evil old crone named Nene, who controls the Land Shark and uses it because he enjoys hearing “people scream.”
Unlikely heroes? Check. Great evil? Check. Turn based combat? Check.
The story isn’t exceptional narrative by any means, but either was Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy VII if we are being objective about it. Hell, the first half of Final Fantasy VI – my favorite Final Fantasy – was essentially a retelling of Star Wars. The story, however, does exactly what it needs to do in this format: it provides us with a clear and coherent reason why the friends come together, what their goals are, and who they are fighting. It sets the stage for a grand adventure, without taking itself too seriously or being overly pretentious.
Speaking of not taking itself too seriously, Blue Dragon is brimming with humor – poo humor that is. You fight monsters known as Poo Snakes which, yes, look like snakes make out of colorful dung piles. You will fight giant rats who will sometimes call for backup by squatting down, and farting out their allies. Occasionally a monster will even leave a “small poo,” or pile of poop behind after combat, and if you sift through it, you will cue a text box that says “squish, squish,” and you will find treasure. Oh, those silly Japanese people…
The voice acting isn’t poorly performed, for the most part, but the voices can be rather annoying, and I could see where this might be the turn-off for some people. The character Marumaru can be particularly grating, but it isn’t anything that hasn’t been much, much worse in other JRPGs. If you have an issue with the dubs, or are a purist, the game does offer an option for subtitles and the original Japanese voice talent.
What the game may lack in the voice acting department, however, it greatly makes up for with the incredible musical score. Nobuo Uematsu composed the soundtrack for Blue Dragon, and if you don’t know who Uematsu is by now, then you have obviously, mistakenly stumbled into the wrong article altogether. Uematsu’s compositions are truly exceptional and breathtaking, providing memorable melodies and the perfect atmospheric accompaniment for the setting. Many of the tracks are rather reminiscent of Uematsu’s earlier Final Fantasy work, but I think this is attributed to Uematsu having a unique style and voice rather than any creative ineptitude. Like the Rolling Stones, or Tom Waits, when you hear a Nobuo Uematsu composition, you know it’s him – and he’s fucking incredible.
The boss battle music is an acquired taste, and deviates from the rest of the soundtrack quite a bit. The song, titled “Eternity,” is a very 80’s inspired metal track – a cross somewhere between Iron Maiden and Dio. Ian Gillian, of Deep Purple and Black Sabbath fame, performs the vocal track for the song. As a guitarist, and a music fan in general, I love 80’s metal, with all of its over-the-top shredding glory, but even I was skeptical how this song would flow in the game. During the first boss battle, however, all worry went out the window. “Eternity” pumps the game up to 11, and made nearly every boss battle seem that much more awesome because of it. Again, it’s an acquired taste and might not be for everyone, but I thought it was a fantastic addition to the game.
The art design of the game was done by Akira Toriyama, who also did the Dragon Quest series, Chrono Trigger, and Dragon Ball. The character design is likable, especially if you are a fan of the above franchises, but is far eclipsed by the astounding creature design. There is a good variation of creatures throughout the game, and all of them are unique and interesting to look at. This is an area where JRPGs have always excelled over WRPGs, and Blue Dragon is no exception. There is a boss battle against a giant, evil, sentient tree at one point, and it looks like something out of Tim Burton’s nightmares. The backdrops and vistas are beautiful as well, with plenty of refreshing color. I heard some criticism that some of the environments were somewhat empty and destitute, but I never noticed nor had a problem with that; I thought each of the areas looked great.
The combat is a standard turn-based affair, and that’s a good thing. Blue Dragon implements a job system, much like Final Fantasy V, and your job level is entirely separate from your character level. Your character’s abilities in combat are dependent upon their equipped skills, learned through jobs, and range from fighter type abilities, combat magic, clerical magic, support magic, and generalized static boosts. There really aren’t any surprises here, but it’s all polished and well-done. In fact, I haven’t enjoyed a combat system this much since Dragon Quest VIII on the PS2. You also have the ability to equip different pieces of armor and accessories, and there is a particular job which will grant you more slots to equip items. The menu system takes some getting used to, but it isn’t terribly unintuitive or burdensome, and serves its purpose rather well. Additionally, there are no random encounters, per se, but instead monsters randomly appear on the map, and it’s your choice to engage them in combat, à la Chrono Trigger.
Blue Dragon also offers many side quests, some end-game bosses which are phenomenally difficult (think Ruby and Emerald Weapon), and open-world exploration. Yeah: exploration. Remember in old JRPGs when you would eventually get an airship or something, and you could travel freely around the world, visiting all the places you had been, as well as locations which were formerly inaccessible? That’s what I’m talking about; that’s what Blue Dragon offers.
With all of these qualifiers, why did this game receive such a lukewarm reception? Many critics and gamers alike criticized it for lacking innovation, or for Blue Dragon doing things that have been done countless times before. It was called “generic,” and “unremarkable.” Gamers called it “childish.” Don’t get me wrong; it got fairly good review scores (79/100 on Metacritic), but it has only moved a little over 250,000 copies in the U.S. since 2007. To put it into perspective, the atrocious Final Fantasy XIII has moved nearly 2.5 million since 2010. I have seen countless JRPG fans cry out for a return to the glory days of the genre; a return to form. I have seen countless people say, “Why can’t SquareEnix make another game like Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy (insert variable)?” Well, for all practical purposes, that is exactly what Blue Dragon is!
My entire time with Blue Dragon made me feel the same way I did when first playing all of those SNES, PSX, and PS2 JRPGs that we have all grown to love and cherish. It had that magical formula that current JRPGs are lacking; that magic formula that has been twisted, altered, mutilated, corrupted, and beaten into an unrecognizable pulp, all in the name of innovation. You know why there aren’t more turn-based JRPGs like this? Because when one comes out that gives everyone exactly what they were asking for, it’s disregarded and stagnates on shelves. It comes out and only sells 95,000 copies in the first 10 weeks.
I implore you, if you are a fan of JRPGs – especially a fan of “old-school” JRPGs – go out and get yourself a copy of Blue Dragon. I found a copy for $10 at my local game retailer, which isn’t a big investment by any means for a game that will easily give you 60 hours of gameplay. It’s a fantastic and well-made adventure, and exactly what the doctor ordered if you are a wanting JRPG fan from the old guard, begging to relive the glory days when giants like Cecil, Kefka, Magus, Cloud, and Ryudo walked the Earth.