From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Blue Dragon Plus: The Good, The Bad, The Bizarre

Blue Dragon Plus, published by Ignition Entertainment, is a role-playing game which was released back in February for the Nintendo DS. A sequel to Blue Dragon, in this adventure the main hero Shu meets up with his old friends in order to battle a mysterious new threat. Without totally delving into Spoiler-Land, fans of the original title might be in for a surprise when they see few certain familiar faces.

The Good

From Console to Handheld

Blue Dragon Plus felt good on the DS. There are some games that simply flounder when they meet Nintendo’s current handheld system. Many times it’s as if the publishers took a game from a higher-powered console and stripped it down, the equivalent of smashing an expensive trinket into too-small packaging. Other times it handles like the developers realized that there was this whole touch-screen thing a little too late.

Not so with Blue Dragon Plus. The graphics were pleasing in their Chibi-like brightness, and the characters’ facial expressions next to the dialogue boxes offered a pleasing attention to detail that can be difficult to master when working with such small displays. There was something very engaging and comfortable about using the touch-screen to select the characters by encircling them on the interface.

The real-time “dragon fights” were also immensely enjoyable, as they involved trying to madly out-scribble the AI—and I personally love any time I’m rewarded for spazzing out.

Strategy & Gameplay

Bat Shadow Wind!

If you strip away all the plot, which I think is where Blue Dragon Plus runs into the most trouble, the gameplay is excellent. Generally I’m not a fan of RTS-RPGs, but the commands were easy to use and the spells were visually delightful. There was a heavy emphasis on strategy, specifically in choosing how to split up your team to best optimize survival for each group.

When I tried to game the system (by stacking every available player into one team, and then switching them to the other for the next fight) I was properly punished. That might not sound like a good thing, but it is: there should be consequences for trying to cheat in strategy games, and Blue Dragon Plus definitely forces you to do the work of adjusting your characters according to their strengths and weaknesses.

Lots of Cutscenes

I’m a little more tentative about this point because I think it can be a good thing for some people but a deal-breaker for others. When I was younger, cutscenes were one of my favorite aspects of video games. I loved the character development, and they felt like just rewards for a job well done. There was always something breath-taking about 64-bit Zelda tossing away her ocarina while being kidnapped by a blocky Ganondorf, something magical about the cast of FFX zip-lining into a cheery city landscape to crash a wedding.

Much of Blue Dragon Plus’s exposition is housed in its cutscenes, which may make it more palatable to those who put more stock on the story-telling part of a game rather than wanting a purely interactive experience. I’ve grown less enchanted with the cutscene as a story-driving element as I’ve glutted myself on first-person shooters, but I can definitely understand its appeal for many players. Here, Blue Dragon Plus certainly delivers.

30+ Hours of Gameplay

This is another feature that could go either way depending on the player, but to me a measure of satisfaction (especially in tough economic times) comes from knowing that you’ve “got your money’s worth” out of a game. And as much as we all understand that quantity doesn’t equal quality (something to touch on later), games with too little play-time tend to piss people off more than games with too much. If you can groove to a fairly generic RPG storyline, Blue Dragon Plus will not cheat you out of your fortyish post-tax bucks.

The Bad

It’s the Song that Never Ends…

Think about a time you ate dinner at your grandparents’ house. The food was passable, but nothing really special. Then they insisted you have a second plate. And then a third. And then one more. And here’s one for the road, too. Now imagine instead of your grandparents’ house, you’re playing a video game. Instead of lukewarm starchy tasteless food, you’ve got a similarly bland plot. It’s pretty okay the first time around, certainly not the worst thing you’ve ever experienced… until it’s crammed down your throat again and again.

Blue Dragon Plus devotes too much time to revisiting what happened in the first game of the franchise. I’m sure this is to help out folks like me who never got a chance to play the Xbox 360 version, but there’s a point where a game should be able to stand up without having to lean on its predecessors—and I’m fairly certain that Blue Dragon Plus does, but it’s far too bogged down with trying to waltz a player all the way back to the previous title.

Do we really need more girly mages and manly soldiers?

Mage Girl #1

I brace myself every time I dip a toe into a new RPG. My expectations of the worst generally overpower my hopes for the best. Sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised—while playing Fable 2, I was overjoyed to find out that the one of the main characters is a woman with a wrestler’s build who fights with a hammer. Usually, though, I’m not—and games like Blue Dragon Plus are why.

The majority of female characters are relegated to magic-based attacks or buffing/debuffing. They nearly always have weaker defense scores than the male characters, and only one seems to have formidable melee capabilities. While the magic is fun to cast and watch (it’s all Area of Effect, so different spells have different circular, psychedelic visuals), the archetype of a female skirmisher and female mage as opposed to the strong male warrior is so incredibly trite. The only real exception to this that I encountered was Jiro, a male healer character who I found the most interesting for that reason.

Mass-Produced “Shadows”

Nearly every single character that joins your team has a Shadow. In the realm of the Blue Dragon franchise, this is a big deal. A Shadow is a sort of mystical personification of its wielder that enables them to use magic. The powers afforded by Shadows include blasting the royal hell out of people with fire, increasing your team’s defense, healing some teammates, et cetera.

In Blue Dragon Plus, at least five times, a character is introduced from the previous title (you know this because all the characters remember him or her) and promptly demonstrates that they now “have a Shadow too!” This wasn’t too bad the first time. After all, hey, that sounds like it could be some character development!

By the fifth time it’s impossible to understand how the characters are even surprised any more. But they are. Every time.

I understand the need to give characters Shadows in order to maximize gameplay potential (a character without a Shadow is missing the sort of specialization that makes RPGs, particularly handheld RPGs, work well). But copying and pasting the same surprised reaction for each of the plethora of characters, who all happen to develop this apparently super-important power overnight, is not an acceptable way to do it. There isn’t even any self-referential humor to make up for it. No one ever breaks the fourth wall and goes, “Gee-boy-Bob, isn’t it funny how everyone’s got one of these super-powerful spirit beings attached to them now? At least I used to be special!”

The Straight-Up Bizarre

Out-and-out strangeness can be a godsend or a slap in the face, and its sometimes both at once. With that in mind, I invite you to inspect the following character.

Poo Snake, indeed.

This guy. Look at him. His name is Poo Snake (really) and I met him after saving several poo snakes from being flushed by robots. Upon being released they all joined into one big Poo Snake (really).

And then he joined my party.

He fights with a spear.
and he has a Shadow.

Overall, if you’re looking for some fresh storytelling, you might want to keep shopping around. That said, Blue Dragon Plus presents some of most detailed and intuitive RPG gameplay currently on the market for the DS.

Blue Dragon PlusTitle: Blue Dragon Plus
Developer and Publisher: Mistwalker; Ignition Entertainment
Platform(s): Nintendo DS
ESRB Rating: Everyone (E)
Rent It @ GameFly
Buy It @ Amazon

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