What is it with role-playing games and dragons? Who decreed that when pretending to be a hero in a fantastical world of peril and adventure, our nemesis would be a bad-tempered lizard? Now, ever since the very first days of rolling dice and hoping for the best, they're everywhere. Dragon Hunter, the risible Dragon Lair, Dragon Boost, Dragon Quest. Even Spyro. Spyro!
Blue Dragon - no, not a smuttier cousin to the rest of that list - first saw the light of day on the Xbox 360 a couple of years back but, funnily enough, it feels much more at home here on the DS. The hero, Shu, with his massive head and outsized cartoon features is a more natural fit here. Hironobu Sakaguchi, the creator of the not unsuccessful Final Fantasy series, is behind this effort. He left longstanding employer Square-Enix and went off to form Mistwalker Studios. Blue Dragon struck a chord with the Japanese and became the Xbox 360's biggest-selling game there (not that that's saying much). Elsewhere it fared less well, so its re-imagining here is a bit of a surprise.
It is a welcome one, however. On its previous console Blue Dragon felt lazy and formulaic, and its presentation held little appeal. Here though it feels like a more rewarding game (sometimes too rewarding - more in a bit); a mixture of genres that feels more concentrated in smaller form. Essentially this is a strategy RPG. Battles play out in real-time though - so taking your time to figure out the next move isn't an option - with more traditional RPG leanings in its story-telling system. As such, there's a real adrenaline rush to proceedings, especially for the first portion of the game where you're catapulted through a series of battles at a lightning pace.
Immediately then Blue Dragon Plus is at once exciting and thoughtful, and because the group you use is relatively small compared with other similar games, there's an added sense of responsibility hovering over each move. There's no mollycoddling opener, instead the onus is on you to take the optional tutorial - and it'd be a good idea. Battles start off complex and only get trickier. This is a good thing. Many other strategy titles (you'd better leave the room, Advance Wars) have the annoying habit of drip-feeding you skills and abilities as you make progress, so that it's only when you're about to finish that you're at your most powerful. Here, almost the full spectrum of tactics and moves are open to you from an early stage, leaving it up to you to struggle through, and the feeling of potency and freedom to explore different ideas is very welcome.
Level Up, Up And Away
One way Blue Dragon Plus achieves this is by showering you with Experience Points after every successful battle. There's little better than being handsomely rewarded for beating stuff, and thanks to this you quickly rocket up experience levels. The problem is that it feels unbalanced because there is so much on offer so soon. Your efforts almost feel devalued - there's a detachment similar to the "So what?" you think when, say, you hear about astronomical football player fees.
The pixels and sprites crammed into each screen do confuse things. Scrolling around the busy screen is done with either the D-pad or the stylus, and you can take control of each character by simply tapping them with the stylus, and groups by circling them. The trouble is, the screen is so crowded that it's tricky to select the right person in the heat of the moment.
There are other unwelcome hangovers from the original game too. A certain level of knowledge about the story is presumed, the effect being that you'll be scratching your head for much of its opening, and there's way too much dialogue, much of it cheesy, Littlest House On The Prairie-style parables. The battle-cutscene-battle-cutscene chain is far too restrictive and allows for no form of real exploration. Blue Dragon Plus is strictly battling, levelling-up and story-telling and it can all get a little tiring. But its prioritising of combat - and it is well-implemented, subtle fighting at that - over RPG stock-management makes for a nice change. It's always interesting, usually engaging, and somehow succeeds in being a more refined game in the confines of the DS. Small, albeit niggling problems aside, this is a worthy addition to the DS's ever-expanding strategy RPG library.