IGN Review of Blue Dragon Plus
If you look closely, you – like myself – may find a trend lately on Nintendo DS. Over the last year or so, we've seen release lists carrying out a pattern of Zodiac like proportions. It' goes something like this: Petz game, hardcore RPG, Petz game again, hardcore RPG again, Petz game (here comes the trick), niche RPG, and then repeat. True, DS is becoming a serious platform for the younger crowd, but it's also the real deal in terms of the hardcore role-playing fan. I'm convinced that if this system never died, the amount of hybrid designs, strategy "stylus-based" mix-ups, and Square Enix remakes would just keep coming. I'm also not sure I'd ever put my system away.
We've been covering Blue Dragon Plus like crazy over the last few months, and while it's most-certainly falling into that niche category (if it sells like any of Square's latest releases on the system, I'd be seriously amazed), I've also got a special spot in my heart for developer Brownie Brown and their relentless effort to push Nintendo pocket platforms. The developer may not always have the best title on the market – I believe this will be the 3rd low 8.0 score I've given to their titles, including Heroes of Mana, Magical Starsign, and now Blue Dragon Plus – but there's obvious soul in the company's productions, and in an industry that has become fat and lazy, in need of a good (and coming) trimming of the fat, Brownie Brown always brings a special element to its games; effort. The company knows games, and Blue Dragon Plus is yet another piece of evidence to support that fact.
The original Blue Dragon hit the 360 exclusively back in the tail end of 2007, so if you feel like you're missing out on the series for some reason, it may be because the game wasn't nearly as well received here in the States as it was in Japan. Blue Dragon has taken off in Japan though, so we're getting our first sequel here, and it's a fun one. Unfortunately, Blue Dragon Plus doesn't go through much more than a few lines of text to explain what happened in the previous game, so if you didn't go along for the ride on Microsoft's console, you'll need to fill in the blanks yourself. With that being said, I hadn't even played Blue Dragon on 360 before playing Blue Dragon Plus for the first time, and it didn't really bother me. You've got a group of fighters, Dragon Souls to summon as super attacks, and a mix of Brownie Brown pixel art and character designs by Akira Toriyama, creator of Dragon Ball and artist in both Chrono Trigger and Dragon Quest. The game has a great backing in the art department, whether you're looking at pixel or key art, and as a result it's an easy one to get into.
Also aiding in the game's overall presentation, Blue Dragon Plus also brings a huge slew of FMV to the table, using both screens to display what has been estimated to be around a full hour of CG footage within the game. The compression is great, the music – composed by Nobuo Uematsu, known for working closely with the Final Fantasy series – is well composed, though outside of FMV's it's often relying a lot on classic midi tones, and not as impressive as full-on orchestrated music could be. Composer Hitoshi Sakimoto set a precedent on DS with the adapted works of Final Fantasy XII for Revenant Wings, and that soundtrack stands tall over this almost GBA-like style.
In the gameplay department, Blue Dragon Plus is very similar to what you'd expect it to be after taking Heroes of Mana through its paces. Each developed by Brownie Brown, both titles deal with the same general issues that hold them back from being truly amazing on the system, including a few technical hiccups along the way, some pretty questionable AI path-finding issues for controlling units, and the somewhat trying adapted RTS controls for the DS. Returning players will immediately fall into the d-pad controlled camera pan, L and R rotation, and one-click style of the game, but the fact that it controls so similar to its predecessor is part of the reason Blue Dragon Plus just doesn't feel too mature in its overall gameplay. Selecting units in the heat of battle is often relatively tough, due to the amount of characters on screen and the lack of camera pan (they're sprites, so panning in isn't exactly going to add clarity), but the always-awesome lasso design is still in effect, so players can freeze the game's real-time battles, draw a free-form line around all units they want to select, and then resume with those characters highlighted. That aspect works great.
It could be so much stronger though. There's no option to assign groups (you're only working with a few units, but it's still be nice to have hotkeys for one, two, or three of the characters at once), there's no on-screen character icon system for quick-selection based on their portrait art, and every action deselects that unit, so you can't micromanage as quick as you'll want to in the heat of battle. DS is limited, sure, but there are still some options that could be added for the game to really kick ass. One thing I have noticed though, is that while the AI still isn't the greatest – characters will auto-target enemies, or take weird paths through groups of dueling players rather than avoiding map hotspots), the actual pathfinding itself is a step up from Heroes of Mana. Ignore the battle aspects, and you'll find that characters have seemingly no problem moving from one side of the map to the other, even if it means backtracking or taking really obscure routes. They'll get there, and that's a huge step up from Mana, where characters often got in odd loops or collision traps. Not perfect, but still much improved in my eyes.
As far as the core game is concerned, Blue Dragon Plus is a great little package, and one that fans of Revenant Wings or the slightly more obscure Lost Magic will certainly cling onto. You've got your set cast of characters, but unlike Heroes of Mana it's a full-on RTS/RPG, so not only will you do real-time battles, but also have full role-playing elements to deal with. Characters level up (though it's a bit odd, since it's like leveling up in Warcraft, as it certainly feels more RTS-like in nature while battling), you'll deal with equipment, skills, and items, though items actually take a slot from your skills menu. After a few hours of general play you'll also get to a robot battling mechanic (simple, but a nice break from the regular fights and level ups), as well as a few dozen side quests. It's a basic offering, but it's one that's also going to last you a good 25 hours or so to run through.
When it comes to pushing the hardware, Blue Dragon Plus certainly does a decent job, though it isn't up to the caliber of some of the more recent Square Enix titles. The 3D engine Brownie Brown has used previously in Heroes of Mana makes a pretty triumphant return, and does a nice job of giving a 3D look to everything, while also showcasing the teams' impressive sprite work. The added CG footage is a really nice touch, and actually one of the more appealing reasons to pick this one up even if you've already played a handful of real-time quest games on DS, but all in all the game feels like a pretty expected, "what you see is what you get" offering. This isn't a mind-blowing, amazing epic, but its' certainly better than a lot of others like it on the system.
©2009-02-25, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved