Set two years after the events of the successful Xbox 360 exclusive Blue Dragon, and a year after the Nintendo DS follow-up, Blue Dragon Plus, the next in the series, Blue Dragon: Awakened Shadow makes an attempt (albeit small) to move away from the stereotypes of its predecessors and the RPG genre in general.
For the first time in the series, Blue Dragon features a customizable player character, reserving the original characters of Shu, Jiro and the others as friends and party members. It also showcases some fun new gameplay mechanics to really shake things up. At the very least, it’s nice to see some risk-taking going on in this game, but it’s tough to say whether or not this is enough to make this sequel shine.
The story of Blue Dragon: Awakened Shadow follows the path of a customizable main character, which you choose the appearance of before the narrative begins. Your character wakes up in a chamber, seemingly having slept for a long, long time, with no memory, and is immediately thrown into an adventure when they reach the surface, as everyone in the town — including Shu, Jiro, Kluke and other familiar faces from the previous games — have lost their “Shadows” and so the source of all their power. The Shadows, often in the form of an animal spirit — hence the title — are the source of spells and magic in Blue Dragon, and surprisingly enough, you are the only person in the kingdom to be left with theirs. It is then that the story really begins, as you must join up with the old heroes to investigate the mystery of the missing Shadows.
Having your own character to customize really helps you to get immersed in the story, plus the fact that there are plenty of quests and side-quests means there is always something to do, even if it seems quite laid-back at times. One disappointing factor is that you can’t play as your teammates; you only rely on them to help you out at crucial moments in battle, which can leave much to be desired. There is, however, the Combine System, which allows you to use all of the loot you pick up on your adventures (which in true RPG style is plentiful), and combine them together to create powerful weapons and other equipment. Making good use of this system means you should always stay powerful and have no trouble with monsters you are faced with, despite the poor AI.
The cutscenes in Blue Dragon are also plentiful, and come in varying styles, including in-game as well as full blown CGI animations, which make use of both of the DS’s screens, and really gives it a wow factor. The in-game graphics themselves are average for a DS game, and are quite colorful and pleasing to the eye, although many of the environments look quite samey, and would have benefited perhaps from a bigger effort to make them unique and memorable. One thing that stood out in my mind was the characters themselves. Their textures are detailed and rich in colour, and even in close up look clear and stylized, without the sharp polygonal modeling that can sometimes be rife in a DS title such as this.
Furthermore, the animation — especially prominent when making use of the Shadows — is also clear, imaginative and colorful. There are a wide variety of creatures featured in Blue Dragon too, with humans, robots and animals all becoming major characters, whether it be a team member, a civilian, or a Shadow.
Despite the not-so-original texturing and layouts of the environments, it was surprisingly easy to find your way around without getting lost. Making use of the top screen for a map is a good way to make sure you always know what’s going on — especially because of the pointers directing you to where the quests are, so you never feel completely lost.
The main thing that sets this game apart from other RPGs is the fact that battles are done in real time. All attacks are selected with one button, either simply pressing for a basic attack or holding down to cycle through a menu to choose Shadow powers, with other skills such as Block activated using the D Pad or stylus. This gives the game a seamless feel, and allows you to feel much more in control of the character and his actions, making it even more addictive!
The skills that are available to you are handled in a fresh new way in Blue Dragon, as your character is essentially skill-less — it is your Shadow which does all the hard work. Luckily, you can switch the Shadows in the party between each of the characters and also decide which skills you equip to each one. New skills are unlocked when you level up — meaning you can specialize your Shadow however you like. Each spell has a cool-down, so more powerful spells can’t be used in quick succession — allowing you to plan out your fights and giving a new level of depth to the seemingly simple combat system.
Death works in the same way — with no resurrection skills to speak of until the later levels of the game, you must rely on the 30 second cool-down until you are automatically resurrected, which can often bring up some tense situations as you hope the AI can keep the fight going until you are alive again!
The portal doors which pop up all over town serve as good grinding opportunities and often give the best loot. These use an arena type level set-up, which presents the player with tough boss battles and are the best place to take advantage of the multiplayer capabilities of the game. Getting your friends to team up with you is surely the easiest way to negate those AI issues (you can rely on your friends to heal you at crucial points, or at least yell at them if they don’t), not to mention it being lots of fun.
It is these issues with AI which present the most issues with difficulty in Awakened Shadow; it’s difficult to rely on characters to do the right thing at the right time. Apart from this, however, the difficulty curve is pretty constant, and you shouldn’t be faced with anything out of reach, providing you maintain your gear and make use of the excellent combination system.
Although the narrative and gameplay seems pretty straightforward, it is by no means boring, and is more a case of “Easy to learn, hard to master”. One thing’s for sure – despite its problems, which sadly make it only a good game rather than a great one – this is one of those games you could spend hours on. It’s fun, addictive, and something refreshing in an otherwise “stuck-in-its-ways” genre.
Things We Liked: Imaginative storyline. Being able to customize your character. Being around all the old faces from previous games. Colorful, stylized art. Crisp, clear character models and portraits. The real-time combat system. The fantastic combination system. Multiplayer boss fights.
Things We Disliked: Incredibly frustrating AI party members. Environments could have benefited from being more differentiated and unique. Not enough Save Points (although I think this wouldn’t be an issue if I weren’t so used to auto-save features!).
Target Audience: RPG fans. JRPG Fans. Fans of previous games in the series. People who are looking for something a bit different in the RPG genre. People who like to take their gaming on the move to pass some time (this game could be a godsend for long train journeys). People who are willing to look past some clunky gameplay and AI issues to enjoy a good narrative.
(Blue Dragon: Awakened Shadow – Developers: tri-Crescendo, Namco Bandai, Mistwalker. Publisher: D3Publisher. Available on Nintendo DS. A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes. Unfamiliar with CFD!’s review system? Read our newly revised explanation here.)