Blue Dragon Plus, published by Ignition Entertainment, is a fairly entertaining and very, very long combination real time strategy and role-playing game for the Nintendo DS. Developers Mistwalker and Brownie Brown did a good job of addressing elements from both strategy and RPG genres, providing lots of maps, abilities and combat units for the strategists, and plenty of stats, story-motivated gameplay and back story for the approximately one-bazillion party members for the RPG-ers. Unfortunately its combination of the two genres falls flat overall, ultimately leaving you with un-innovative, though technically sound gameplay. Blue Dragon Plus boasts a story campaign of over 30 hours, which is a lot of time to spend hunched over your DS, and to really appreciate it, you would have to sort of meet it halfway and show it a certain degree of patience.
Blue Dragon Plus is the sequel to Blue Dragon, a 2007 RPG for the Xbox 360, and its story picks up a year after the events of that game, with very similar premises. Shu, a generic spiky-haired anime hero must set out to save the world from certain doom in the wake of the destruction wreaked by purple-skinned super villain Nene through the course of the first game. For those returning to the franchise, a good chunk of the heroes and villains in this game are familiar faces from the original, and for those newcomers, everybody’s talents and place in the story are explained at length and easy to pick up. The most relevant common element are the Shadow powers the characters have, which are big animal spirits that each party member can summon to unleash special abilities in battle. Shu’s manifests itself as a big, blue dragon-hence the game title.
Feb. 19, 2009
The game takes place on a big mechanical space cube infested with hostile mecha-robos programmed for wanton destruction. Shu and company must investigate the old technology on this cube and shut its down while preventing the robots from escaping and bombing their home city. Also, Nene comes back to life and you get to fight him all over again. There are twists, turns, friends become enemies, enemies become friends…a fairly standard RPG story.
Progression through the game is broken into two parts: individual combat stages and a map screen connecting all the stages and showing how your parties move around between them. The combat stages are where the RTS elements come into play, and generally where the story unfolds, and the map stage is where all the RPG stats tweaking, character adjustment and item organization happens.
Because combat is RTS-style, every combat encounter is a wide stage with a pre-set number of enemies against the members of your party, the number of which changes according to the story and to your adjustments. Now, as anybody who has ever fallen victim to a Zergling rush will tell you, there is strength in numbers in any RTS game, and what this means for Blue Dragon Plus is that there are a lot of playable characters (up to 16 at times). This is mitigated some as the story forces you to split your party up into 2-4 groups to explore different areas of the map, but while a good group size is three or four party members, if the story leads two groups to combine, you can suddenly have 9 characters in a crowded hallway all trying to be part of the boss battle and all getting in each others way. ‚ At its best, its like watching a 16-bit 3 Stooges routine, but at its worst, your best attack units will not be able to reach a monster because they’re stuck behind your healers who are on the front lines for some reason, taking all the damage.
The combat is a pretty basic point-and-click system with the stylus. Characters will automatically engage nearby enemies with a physical attack, and the player can activate more powerful Shadow abilities. These abilities need to be recharged between uses (so you can’t just spam over-powered ones) and are type-sensitive, (so, for example a ground type attack is more effective against flying type enemies). The system is pretty intuitive, but the game still does a thorough job of walking you through the finer points of RTS combat, even giving you tips on how to arrange your units in battle and which ones to pair together for optimal results.
These beginner tips and simplicity of the combat system mean that Blue Dragon is really more an introductory-level RTS game, and doesn’t have some features more advanced players would expect. The stylus isn’t the most precise instrument in the world, and will often select the ability or location just next to the one you were trying for, which, mid-battle, can be a little frustrating. Also, there’s no way to influence a characters point-to-point movement, which means occasionally a unit will decide the best way to get across the map is to wander through enemy territory, unintentionally leading all your enemies right to the rest of your party. And, if you are gearing up for a fight, there’s no good way to ensure that the first person who reaches the battle isn’t your low-defense healer and not the high-defense attack unit it’s supposed to be. The gameplay isn’t rigorous enough that these missteps ever become a real problem, or cost you more than a few HP before you correct them, but they do limit the quality of the RTS elements to a point so that the novelty wears off long before 30 hours have elapsed.
There is a sharp contrast between the amount of time the game dedicates to introducing the player to the fairly simple RTS combat system (a tutorial and most of the opening few chapters) and the arguably much more complex stat and item system (almost none: read your manual). There’s not necessarily anything there that is new to any RPG player, but it’s a familiarity the game assumes of its players, sort of like it’s an introduction to the RTS genre specifically tailored for RPG fans. Items can only be equipped in the map stage in-between combat, which means if you forget before starting a fight, you can back yourself into an unpleasant corner, but once you do start playing around with stats modifiers, healing and attack items and mixing and matching types of party members for streamlined combat, it’s hard to stop. Like any good RPG, there are a slew of stats to be built up (though when there are 16 characters in play, this can get maybe a little out of hand) and plenty of items that can boost your weaker areas, and even unlock shadow abilities of a different type to round out your party (healers can learn powerful attack spells, etc.).‚ There are also plenty of opportunities for exploring the map and power-leveling in between story missions, and, if 30 hours of story and a zillion playable characters aren’t enough, there are side-quests a plenty and the option to construct robotic party members with parts you find on the map. So, if you are the kind of gamer whose favorite thing to do is wander through the tall grass in Pokemon, endlessly capturing and levelling up, you’ll find plenty to play around with here.
Blue Dragon Plus isn’t a bad game; it’s just that at times there’s too much of it. The story relies too heavily on our interest being hooked from the previous game, and it’s difficult to really develop a character well through dialogue boxes, let alone when he or she has to share the stage with 12 to 15 other players. The RPG and RTS elements are for the most part pretty solid representations of the two genres, but the game doesn’t do anything creative with them beyond just throw them together (which was innovative two years ago when FFXII: Revenant Wings came out, but is now just sort of copy-cat). There are some good elements here, and if you have 30 hours to kill, there are certainly worse ways to do it, though there are definitely better ones too. The $30 price tag seems reasonable given just how much game there is here to sink your teeth into, but do some soul searching first, and make sure you have the patience for it.