Saturday, October 25, 2014

Blue Dragon Plus game review

According to the wiki entry, Blue Dragon was originally created as a video game by Mistwalker and Artoon studios for release on the Microsoft XBox 360 in 2006. Story design was by Final Fantasy series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, his first title at the Mistwalker start-up after leaving Square Enix. Akira Toriyama supplied the character designs. The game was followed by 2 separate manga, (Blue Dragon: Secret Trick (Monthly Shonen Jump, 2006), and Blue Dragon Ral Grad (Weekly Shonen Jump, 2007). Ral Grad was drawn by the two artists that worked on Death Note, Tsuneo Takano and Takeshi Obata.) A TV anime series ran for 2 seasons from 2007. In the original game, three kids, Shuu, Kluke and Jiro, go up against Nene, an evil leader of an apparently alien race. In order to defeat Nene, the three swallow strange spheres of light that turn their shadows into fighting monsters (a shadow cat, shadow dragon, etc.) The game ends with Nene's defeat.

(All images used for review purposes only.)

Blue Dragon Plus (2008), Grade: B-
BD Plus was the first of two sequels released for the Gameboy DS (the other is probably Awakened Shadow (2010).) I found a copy used at Sofmap for 750 yen ($8 USD), which is a reasonable price for this game. The plot picks up where the first game left off, with the heroes exploring their world following the supposed death of Nene. The universe here is a bit difficult to describe. The planet looks like Earth after it was cut in half at the equator, and the two halves pulled apart for a big cube (an atomic reactor) to sit in between them. Shuu, Kluke, Jiro and Zola meet up at the top of the Cube, with the mercenary Zola working as King Jibral's scout to determine if the Cube is a threat to the kingdom. The group is attacked by mecha, apparently under Nene's orders, and someone, or something, is planting bombs at the bottom of the Cube to destroy it and the surrounding planet. Jibral joins Shuu in the attempt to stop the bombers and defeat Nene again. Along, the way, we learn Nene's backstory, as the last remaining member of his race, who had been put into suspended animation by his lover, Himiko, hundreds of years ago. Himiko's sleep chamber is found, but both of them are suffering memory loss. Through his attraction to Himiko, Nene seems to turn into a good guy and joins Shuu's party to put a halt to the robots trying to kill him off.

(Main turn menu.)

The gameplay is unusual in that as you go, you pick up party members (you can have up to 10 people in one party, 3 of whom are hidden and easily missed), and at one point you have 4 separate parties that you have to switch between as you advance the story. Some of the members are attached to a specific leader, while the others can move freely between teams prior to that team's move. Initially, enemy bomber squads regenerate every 3-4 turns, and start advancing up the Cube, one floor per turn. If they reach the top floor, they blow the Cube up and it's Game Over (towards the end of the game, you destroy the bomb factory, eliminating any new bomber squads, and you can reunite your party members to have just one team). In the storyline, Shuu and Zola head their own teams to advance down through the Cube one floor at a time, from two different routes, while Jibral performs a holding function to block bomber squads entering the Cube from a mid-level floor. Initially, Zola is the only one that can teleport to any shop (4 shops total) in the Cube, making her kind of an emergency backup to block enemies near the top floor, as well as the one buying new supplies.

(Cross-section of the Cube. The orange boxes are all of the rooms that you can visit. The light blue spots are shops. The darker blue spot is the party's current location. The brown spot at the bottom of the Cube is the last remaining enemy location, and represents the final boss fight. Earlier in the game, you can have 3 or 4 parties, and up to 2 wandering monster bomber groups on the map, each taking turns to move and/or attack.)

The map is just a cross section of the Cube. There are 25 story chapters, representing about 20 individual rooms. Once you finish a chapter, you can choose to revisit that room to unlock any treasure chests you may have missed, or to fight specific monsters to complete the side quests. The chests are color-coded and most of them require the associated colored key to open. Meaning that once you get a new key, you have to go back to all the rooms again. Most of the keys are located in chests, while one comes from one of the side quests. I've beaten the game twice (there's no New Game+ here) completed all of the quests, opened all the chests I know of and collected all of the monsters, but the game tells me that I only have 83% of the available chests/items. I'm thinking that what's still missing are items dropped by monsters, which are completely unnecessary to completing the game.

(Shuu: "Let's completely beat them all!")

BD Plus is turn-based when your parties are moving between levels in the Cube (move, stay, fight, shop, reform party). During the battles, it's more of a strategic RPG free-for-all. Both your party members and the enemies attack based on internal move timers, and they do so in real time. There's no weapons or armor per se; instead, your attack and defense stats are boosted by equip-able accessories (wrist bands, necklaces, rings). Each character has 10 command slots, which you pre-assign to use either a healing item, an explosive gem, or a skill you get via your Shadow. As you go up in rank, you get more skills, and caskets in the battle rooms contain monsters you defeat to obtain "prisms" that give you other Shadow skills. These include healing, flare sword, poison, sleep, etc. One of the last casket monsters has the Blue Dragon - an awesome attack skill that delivers massive area damage but can only be used once per battle. Once you use a regular item or skill, there's a recharge period before being able to issue orders to that character again. In general, most of the items, accessories and skills are useless. I just concentrated on having the best healing herbs I could get from each shop, and used healing and cure skills from two of the characters, and Guard Down, Attack Up, Flare, Shine and Regenerate Health from the others. Most of the time, I just aimed the entire party at the closest enemy group and let the AIs fight it out amongst themselves.

(One of the two healers using his Shadow to heal the party.)

One interesting feature of the game is that you can make your own mecha to add to your party. In fact, treasure dropped by the monsters during fights is almost 75% mecha parts. One of the rooms is a robotics plant, where you can choose to activate up to 6 mecha, and then upgrade them. Unfortunately, I never figured out how to boost the number of new parts that could be added to a mecha, and the entire process seemed to just be a big waste of time. I used the base mecha to fill out the parties, and that was good enough in all battles (each party can have up to 10 members, and having more members means being able to speed up the battles). At the end of the game, when your teammates reform into one big party, you'll have a full complement of 10 PCs (if you found all of the unlockable optional party members) and you'll lose the option of using any mecha you created. I think that making the customizable mecha irrelevant to the endgame is bad game design.

(One of the mini-bosses is the Poo Snake...)

Speaking of unlockable characters, you have the option of obtaining Toripo, a mecha designed to look like Akira Toriyama's manga alter ego. So, that's fun, sending Toripo to his death every battle (he's not one of the stronger members of the team). Then, there's the quests. One of the shops has the Quest board, which gives you up to 4 quests at a time, initially. Most quests are along the lines of "bring back 10 pieces of monster meat, or "keep me alive for 5 minutes during an infinitely-long battle". After completing the first 15 quests, the remaining ones fall into the pattern of "bring back specific items dropped by certain monsters that can only be found in one room". Almost all of the quests require repeating the same fight over and over again, and some of them can take hours to complete since item and meat drops are random and may not happen at all during a given fight. Almost none of the quests give you rewards worth the time and effort required (a little money, or a handful of mecha upgrade parts). The main reason for doing the quests is that they ultimately unlock the strongest boss fight of the game, the Spark Dragon. Even with the party at an average level of 85, and equipped with the best accessories in my inventory, Sparky managed to wipe out most of my party before he fell.

(Battle map showing party and monster locations within the current room.)

Overall, the room designs look good, but the floor layouts are intended to slow down character movement. The character icons during battles are too tiny and it's easy to get them confused during melee battles. The monsters are imaginative, but with 150 names listed in the monster book, most of them are just color variations on a theme. The music is great, though, as are the Shadows. One of the party members is the poo snake, an animated unchi, which is good for a few minutes' worth of potty humor. The dungeon layout is a bit too simple, and the menu command system is too complex for the few commands really needed to win the game. The CG sequences are gorgeous, which is a good thing, but there's no New Game+ option for replaying the game with your current Shadows, levels and items once you defeat the final boss, which is a major strike against it. Blue Dragon Plus isn't really a bad game, but it could have been a lot better. It's worth getting used if you like Toriyama's character designs.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Dragon Ball: Origins review

There are currently two chains that sell used games in Kagoshima - Book-Off and the Softmap located in Bic Camera. What's interesting is how inconsistent their pricing is. Within the chain, every shop sells the same title for the same price, meaning that they have a central database that controls pricing. But Softmap and Book-Off have differing valuations of the same title. As an example, Blue Dragon Plus is 1,500 yen at Book-Off, and 750 yen at Softmap, while Radiant Historia is about 1,000 yen cheaper at Book-Off. And, of course since these are recycled games, there's no guarantee what you'll find at each of the 3 Book-Off outlets here. So, I've been visiting various shops to try to find stuff that I want to get, at the lowest price. I'll wait for Puyo Puyo Anniversary to get below 1,000 yen, and I'm trying to decide if I want Blue Dragon Plus (I may get it because the designs are by Akira Toriyama.

(Images used for review purposes only.)

Dragon Ball: Origins (2008), Grade: B
Origins on the Gameboy DS is a fairly accurate retelling of the first couple of volumes of Toriyama's Dragonball manga. Unlike most DB games, this one isn't a Street Fighter-style one-on-one combat game. Instead, it's an RPG similar to Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (same kind of use of tools for puzzle solving). You control the hero, Son Goku, as he encounters Bulma for the first time, and the two of them set out to find the 7 Dragon Balls in order to make a wish. Along the way, they encounter Oolong, Yamcha, Kamesennin, Chichi, and ultimately get into the great battle ring to fight against Jackie Chun. In general, games based on manga tend to have a problem with lesser "filler character" enemies, in that to have something to populate the dungeons and fields, the designers run out of monsters to use from the manga, and start adding their own creations, like snakes, lizards and so on. That's the case here, where Goku has to wade his way through cowboy skeletons, fire-breathing lizards and rabbit gangsters to get to the next boss. While these add-ins don't belong to the manga, they do at least provide some variety to the things you have to fight all the time.

(Opening CG.)

It is kind of ironic that DB was turned into an RPG like this, since the original manga was designed around the idea of "find the treasure" video arcade games, with the possible intent of spinning it off as a game at some point (which obviously has happened multiple times now). In this iteration, the story is divided up into chapters and sub-chapters (1.1-1.6, 2.1-2.7, etc.) In most sub-chapters you have to run through a field or dungeon to get to the exit, while solving certain puzzles or fighting various enemies along the way. Puzzles include pushing large blocks into a river to dam it up, pushing buttons to open doors, riding conveyor belts through a maze, and spinning mirrors to open doors of the same color. Defeating enemies can give you money, skill points or items. Breaking rocks and barrels can net you the same things, plus figurines and jigsaw pieces. You can spend money within your inventory menu shop to get items (healing, power ups or guard ups), weapons for Bulma (machine guns) and some random figurines. There are 200 unlockable figurines within the game, which are simply screenshots of Gokuu, Bulma and the other characters in various poses (after finishing the game, I've still only got about 80 of them). They're useless and add nothing to the game; they're only there for people that like to collect stuff for bragging rights. As for the jigsaw pieces, both Goku and Bulma have "health" and "energy" (ki) pictures, which get filled in with each jigsaw piece (15 pieces for each of the 4 pictures). I didn't notice any obvious changes when the pictures were completed.

(Typical dungeon. Fight the enemies - laser robot - without Bulma getting killed by accident.)

Each sub-chapter gives you a rating when you finish it, from D to A, then S, the faster the better. Getting an A or S rating gives you a rare or super-rare figurine. Again, since the figurines don't do anything, the only reason for replaying a chapter is to find all the treasure chests to get the remaining jigsaw pieces, or to get all S ranks because you're obsessive-compulsive. The fourth sub-chapter in each chapter (1-4, 2-4, 3-4, etc.) generally gives you the boss fight at the end. Subsequent sub-chapters are just subquests, which can be played in any order. Again, the sub-quests are there to give you more figurines.

(Bulma's Health and Energy screen, with both pictures completed.)

The game uses the stylus a lot, mainly for combat. Goku has two weapons, his fists and the expanding staff. Tapping Goku and then tapping the enemy can give you one kind of attack, depending on the weapon. Tapping and then dragging the stylus gives another, and drawing a circle around Gokuu gives a third. You learn new attacks as you go through the story, with Kamehame-ha showing up in chapter 5.1. It's an easy attack to initiate, but it takes about 5-10 seconds to charge, making it bad against the faster enemies (leveling it up does cut down on the power-up time). Mainly, it's good for destroying certain obstacles in the mazes. You can power up Gokuu's attacks by spending skill points on them in the inventory menu, up to level 3 per technique.

(Goku goes were-monkey.)

Overall, it's a good game for anyone that likes the original manga. The designers do take some liberties with the storyline, but the main elements are there, and the sukebe scenes involving Oolong and Kamesennin have been included as cut scenes (you know which ones I'm talking about). Nothing really graphic, but it's still not appropriate for young children or anyone easily offended. The artwork's good, as is the music and most of the character designs. Some of the puzzles can be frustrating, and I don't like the mini-games where you control Kintoen, the flying cloud, in what is essentially a linear "don't hit anything chase". Otherwise, the main point of the game is to get to the big tournament and then fight your way up to face Jackie Chun. Everything else is just filler. Not too bad for 950 yen ($10 USD). There is one complete walkthrough on IGN, and a couple others that are absurdly incomplete and useless (on Gamefaqs). So, it is possible to get all the jigsaw pieces with the help of the walkthrough, but the decision as to whether to race through a chapter to get S rank just to pick up one more figurine is something left completely up to the player (so in my case, the answer is, "not interested").

(Figurines screens. Basically, it's just 200 separate character screen shots. They don't contribute to the game in any way, and many of them aren't good poses.)

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Ten Birth

This event is a bit difficult to explain. When I was coming home after work on Saturday, after swinging by Bouzu Fest again, I headed over to Central Park to find out what the stage being erected earlier in the day was for. It was dark at that point and the area was abandoned except for a few workers. There was an event schedule that mentioned 3 stages: the main stage for the Sunday portion of Asian Kagoshima, and satellite stages in Berg and Pira malls. However, on Sunday, it turned out that Berg  was still hosting the Wine Fest, so I headed over to Piramall, next to the 7-11 in Tenmonkan. There, they had "Tenmon Birth", with various tables set up to sell cosmetics and hair care products. One sign mentioned that this was the anniversary of this part of the Tenmonkan complex.

The stage set sign listed acts from 11 AM to 1:30 PM, which I guess was part of the Asian Kagoshima event, and that Tenmon Birth was scheduled for the rest of the afternoon in the same space. Unfortunately, I couldn't find anything listing the later acts, so I don't know who this woman is.

She started out playing the main theme song from the Johnny Depp "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies, doing at least 4 instruments at the same time, with the 2 keyboards, and the 2 sets of foot pedals. It sounded exactly like the original song, so I was really impressed. Then she switched to a slower song that I didn't recognize, but still playing 4 instrument voices simultaneously. After that, the announcer stood up to introduce the next act, and I left because the wind had changed directions and was blowing volcano ash at us. Even so, it was a busy weekend for events.

I saw 3 clowns working the crowd and making balloon animals.

This is the best view of the full synthesizer.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Kagoshima Asian Fest, 2014

On Friday, the 17th, on the street car, I happened to meet one of the women from the lunchtime English lessons that's conducted at the International Center. She mentioned that she was volunteering as an interpreter for a group of Singaporean students in Kagoshima for the Asian festival being held over the weekend. I hadn't heard anything about the fest coming up, but I was expecting it to be some time soon. The one time I was able to watch it, 2 years ago, I was really impressed by the performance of the Malaysian students. The fest is kind of an exchange program, where students from different countries in the Asian Pacific perform various traditional songs or dances. Since I work on Saturdays, I missed the main performances held in Houzan Hall. But, there was a separate event on Sunday, in Central Park, that included food booths, and an outdoor stage.

Part of the event was sponsored by a travel agency, with employees handing out advertising for various domestic and foreign trip packages. The big plush fish is very cute.

I guess there were a couple hundred people in the park, some just there to play while the weather is good, others to listen to the music, or eat.

Most of the music acts on Sunday were Japanese. This guy is a local folk singer.

He was pretty good, but it's not my kind of music.

The activities booths included examples of various traditional Asian instruments, clothes, demonstrations of origami, and Japanese calligraphy being taught by school students.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014


KKB is one of the local TV stations, and they had a small event on the 18th in the plaza in front of the main train station. I had to teach English lessons from 1 to 3 PM, and I spent some time at Honganji watching Bouzu Meets before going to a store to do food shopping. I didn't get to Amupla until just before 4 PM, and at that point all the stage acts were finished and the crew was working at prepping for something else. I have no idea what, because there were no signs announcing it, and I had to leave to teach another lesson at the same school at 5 PM.

Note that the short guy to the left of the photo, in the weird stretch pants, is a local TV talent that I've seen at other events in Kagoshima in the last couple of years.

The rest of the event consisted of booths advertising some of the TV shows that air on KKB, plus a small goods shop.

Some police drama.

Poster to the left is for another crime drama. The katakana at the bottom of the building case says "Before After"; maybe it's for a show about renovating houses.

I'm not sure if this booth was for a police drama, or if it was a recruiting center for the Kagoshima police department. It's a nice, shiny bike, though.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Wine Fest

This the "4th Wine Festa" (Oct. 18 and 19), but there was one in Berg Mall, in front of the Lotteria, a couple months ago, so I doubt it means "4th annual". Maybe just "4th one this year." I didn't get anything to drink partly because of the prices, but mainly because I still had English classes to teach later in the afternoon.

Like the previous festa, this one has shops selling wine and food, and people sitting around eating, drinking, but mostly talking. There's a lot fewer people this time, though, and no foreigners from any of the cruise ships.

Live music to set the atmosphere included a solo trumpet player doing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow".

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Bouzu Meets, 2014

The weekend of Oct. 18th was really busy, event-wise. We had Bouzu Meets Fes, Kagoshima Asia, Birth of Tenmonkan, KKB Day and the Wine Fest 4. Some of them overlapped so much that I ended up missing a large portion of the stage performances, which apparently were mostly singing and dancing. I've seen all of these events before, so I knew what to expect.

"Bouzu" is the Japanese name for a Buddhist priest. The main Buddhist temple is Honganji, between Tenmonkan and Central Park. They have kind of an "outreach" program where a priest will answer questions on a local radio station, and they also host an event day on the temple grounds once a year in the Fall. This year, it was on the 18th. There were about 20 booths selling food, drinks and local crafts. One booth was run by Aloha restaurant, selling grilled chicken for 300 yen ($3 USD). I bought a piece. It was pretty good, but I would have liked a little more chicken for the price.

One of the priests stood by the front entrance and offered some kind of ashes for people to anoint/purify themselves with.

One booth allowed visitors to dress up as priests and nuns.

Last year, Bouzu Meets had a stage set up in the parking lot where a radio announcer interviewed several priests on a live broadcast, and I was expecting to see that again this time. Instead, the temple had the music inside the main building. Here we have the a Capella group, Atorie Nowa-ru (Atelier Noir?).

There was kind of an outdoor space for music, but it was under-utilized.

The next group consisted of about 10 musicians doing a traditional flute and drum song to accompany a Chinese-influenced dance.

The drum on the right is a lot more elaborate than what I've seen before.

The dancer. He has a very strong dragon motif here.

The event continued until 9 PM. One of the booths had been selling handmade candles, and these may be from that shop.