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.

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