Hands-On Preview: Because Final Fantasy couldn't really be Sakaguchi's last RPG, now could it?
We all know that Hrionbu Sakaguchi left Squaresoft to form Mistwalker, a Japanese company that is devoted to making some solid RPGs on Microsoft's Xbox 360. This is all in an attempt to convince Japan that the 360 is the way to go in this new generation in the console wars. Blue Dragon is Mistwalker's first RPG for the 360, and is one of many to come in the near future.
Blue Dragon is a story about a young boy named Shu and his dragon... who lives in his shadow. As a matter of fact, Shu has a handful of friends who all have possessed shadows. Yes, this does sound a little bit like Okage: Shadow King for the PS2, but that's about where the similarities end.
Each character uses his or her shadow to do all the fighting. This includes melee attacks and magic. Instead of equipping weapons, players equip a series of bracelets and other accessories to help improve their shadow's attack, defense, etc. Besides equipment each shadow can also join one of ten classes such as thief, monk, warrior, etc. Each of the classes can be leveled up to gain new skills, and classes can be switched at any time. Players are given a good number of skills to equip at a time, and when a shadow learns a skill, it is permanent. That means a shadow using the monk class will keep all monk skills whenever it changes classes. This leads to nearly endless customization possibilities giving players plenty to mess with. Some skills are battle skills, others add or remove status effects, and still others can be used on the map screen to do things such as help avoid enemies.
Fights are performed in traditional turn-based fashion. There is a turn bar at the top of the screen, much like Final Fantasy X and Evolution. Depending on class, players can either attack, use magic, add an element to an attack, use an item, or perform some class specific ability. When an attack is chosen, players then need to select the target. Once a target is chosen, players will see a bar that is for attack charging. The bar has relative positions of the turns of the other players and the enemies as well as an area for critical attacks. In order to charge the attack, players have to hold the A button. It's easy to over-charge attacks and mess up the fight order, so players have to be very careful. Also, Blue Dragon features a special attack known as the Corpus attack. Much like Final Fantasy VII's limit breaks, players will build up a meter as they are attacked, or as they perform attacks. When the meter fills, the normal attack commandis replaced with the corpus command. In these instances, the player's shadows will become real monsters and perform a large-scale attack on all on-screen enemies doing massive damage. Quite often corpus attacks were fight enders, doing over 5,000 damage, and doing it all in the most beautiful way.
When it comes to entering fights, the game feels a bit like Nintendo's classic Earthbound or Paper Mario series. Enemies appear on screen so players can attempt to avoid any attacks. However, if an enemy pounces on a player, the enemy gets the initiative in the battle, and will perform several attacks before the player gets a chance to move. Players can also choose to pounce on enemies using the X button, or pressing the R trigger to open a special menu that will check to see if any enemies are near your circle of influence. If multiple enemies are close enough, players will get the chance to pick and choose who they want to fight, or just fight all of the enemies at once. There are benefits to taking on multiple enemy parties at a time. The major benefit is that when the player extinguishes one party, they will gain a stat bonus before the next group of enemies joins the fight. These range from power boosts to full party heals.
In our hands-on we got to play through the two demo areas. These include one rather simple dungeon which showed off a number of boss fights and a forest ruin area. The dungeon is the easiest to navigate. This part of the demo consists of three floors. Each floor is a straight corridor filled with enemies, and at the end of the corridor lies a boss encounter. The last floor contains a boss fight with a rather unique cutscene leading up to it. The dungeon showed off some great battles, but unfortunately it was lacking in the level design department. Luckily, the next part of the demo more than makes up for that.
The second area to explore in the demo is a forest ruin. Players find themselves in the middle of a giant and well populated forest. The forest contains a number of machines and treasure chests that can be interacted with. Unfortunately there is a giant multi-headed snake that impeded the party's progress in the forest, and despite my best efforts, I could not manage to beat it. This is because it immediately petrifies all players on the field in the first turn, then proceeds to hit any unpetrified characters until they die, with no chance to attack in between.
The graphics look pretty good so far. Everything is sharp and colorful. The character designs by Akira Toriyama (of Dragon Ball and Dragon Quest fame) are well done. The multi-floor dungeon was a little too sparse, but it was such a short level that there is no reason to complain about it. The only major complaint I had with the graphics thus far is the amount of slow down that happens in the game during the fight scenes. Perhaps it was just because this was a demo, but I found the slowdown to be a little bit distracting while moving through the battle menus.
Audio is great so far. The voice acting is good. It's not on the level of Dragon Quest VIII, but as far as voice acting is concerned, it has just the right sound. The boss music is very different. Imagine a rock song with a Japanese man singing in nearly unintelligible English, and you'll have a pretty good idea of what I am talking about. For better or worse, it gets stuck in your head after the first time you hear it.