Review: Blue Dragon: Awakened Shadow (Nintendo DS)

Blue Dragon: Awakened Shadow box artBlue Dragon: Awakened Shadow
Developer: Mistwalker, tri-Crescendo
Publisher: D3Publisher
Genre: RPG
Release Date: May 18, 2010

Blue Dragon: Awakened Shadow is the sequel to the XBox 360’s Blue Dragon, but don’t fret if you’ve never played the original; there’s plenty of exposition around to make sure a newcomer isn’t lost. In fact, that’s just what the customizable protagonist is””a total newbie to the world of Blue Dragon. Said feature, combined with Nintendo Wi-Fi capabilities, allows players to meet up and explore dungeons together, in addition to playing through a more standard single-player scenario. But even with these new features, how good is this game really? Let’s run through the list and find out.

Story/Modes

The story begins two years after the original Blue Dragon. A short opening scrawl even sums up the last game’s events so a new player isn’t lost on the basics. After one brief summary of Shadow power, you’re given a hint about a person who’ll possess enough of a Shadow to change the whole world.

CustomizationAfterwards, you’re thrown into the make-a-character mode, wherein the first thing you must do is choose whether you’ll play as a boy or as a girl. You can then choose your character’s eyebrow and eye type, hair style and color, mouth type, voice, and an emblem that will represent you in all the menus you’ll be seeing later. The number of options you have are somewhat limited, but then, this is on a handheld system. From there, you can type in whatever name you want, and then the game proceeds to… not show your character in the first scene. Phooey.

Instead, we’re introduced to two tutorial guys who awaken in their futuristic laboratory. They immediately set out to find it, no further elaboration given. After some exploration, they find where they believe it is, disappear behind a set of doors, and scream. The scene that follows formally introduces your character, who awakens somewhere else in the lab in much the same way as the likely doomed tutorial duo. You have little knowledge of what came before you fell asleep or even of where you are now, so you trek through the lab to find those answers. Instead, you find an elevator that brings you onto the outskirts of the city of Neo Jibral. No sooner do you spend a few mere minutes exploring the place, a bright light flashes and everyone loses their Shadows, their source of power and magic. The only one who escapes this widespread theft is you. Soon after you meet Shu and a few others from the original Blue Dragon, you discover that you may be sharing your Shadow with them, further confusing everyone and yourself over what is up with you. As if that weren’t enough, your attempt to retrace your steps through the lab in which you awoke winds up making strange doors of various designs appear all over Neo Jibral. So much for finding answers.

The main quest is now obvious: you must solve the mystery surrounding what is going on, all while you try to piece together just who – or what – you are. The two are likely connected somehow. I don’t know to what degree, but unless this story pulls a half-way decent twist – like, say, the two tutorial guys turn out to be the villains because they’re fed up with being beginner’s fodder – there won’t be much of anything that will blow the mind of the average player. This is assuming one doesn’t dismiss this story as a self-insert Mary Sue/Gary Stu fanfic with a professional coat of paint on it, never mind that you are the Mary Sue/Gary Stu. At least your character comes off as a genuinely sweet naïve every-kid, and that’s more than I can say for Standard Shounen Hero Type 1″”I mean, Shu.

Rating: Decent

Graphics

From just once glance at the cover, you can tell that Akira Toriyama of Dragonball fame has contributed to the art design. The cover also clues you in on how the characters are illustrated; they’re drawn in a super-deformed style, complete with exaggerated head sizes and short limbs. The characters retain these proportions as polygonal models that blend right in with the 3D environments that are spread throughout the game. A good friend of mine remarked that the quality reminded him of PlayStaion One games, and indeed, it almost does. The 3D environment either turns transparent or becomes invisible if the characters ever run behind a wall that would otherwise hide them from the player’s view. This is great because, while you can rotate the camera left or right, you can’t adjust it up or down. And to top it off, the frame rate is pretty consistent. The game seems to suffer from some slight lag depending on how expansive a given map is, but you’ll likely not notice this as you play. Vibrant colors decorate everything from the scenery to the monsters.

If the options you had in the make-a-character mode felt limited, then you’ll be happy to know that your character’s outfit will change depending on what equipment you’ve given him/her. Yours is the only characters whose appearance will be affected like this, though; your other potential party members retain their default looks regardless of what you throw on them. The other downside to this is that putting on a set of equipment with the best stats you’ve come across at a given time may also net you a character who looks tragically mismatched. For example, putting on both the Hunter’s Gear (F) and the Jibral Helmet will yield a decidedly stupid-beyond-stupid-looking girl protagonist. So while each individual piece of equipment looks fine enough, certain combinations are downright Cringe-Worthy (note the caps).

Aside from that, though, the graphics quality is surprisingly good for a handheld system.

Rating: Great

Sound

This game features some voice acting, but there’s not a lot of it. Just… if you’re going to have this feature in a game, why have only half a scene voiced at best? Grunts, screams, and short phrases during battle are one thing because the voices are appearing in a consistent place. However, it’s a bit jarring for the voices to suddenly be replaced by a basic text-message sound in the middle of a cutscene. The small amount of voice acting that’s present is done well enough to not grate on the ears. Fortunately, you have the option to turn off the voices by accessing the Config in the main menu.

Every other sound bite does its job and is thus neither spectacular nor painful, and the music is pretty good. You have the option of muting the sound effects and the background music if you so wish, but you might want to leave former alone at least in order to preserve some of the sound cues during a battle.

Rating: Mediocre

Control and Gameplay

CombatThe game can be controlled either with the DS’s buttons, with the stylus, or with a combination of the two. In practice, you’ll wind up using the buttons more because you have the most immediate access to them. Face it, what are you going to do sooner? Pull out the stylus and touch it to the lower screen to move your character to the exit, or are you going to slide your thumb over the directional pad to do the same thing? This isn’t to say that the stylus is unresponsive””far from it. It’s just faster to reach the buttons, and this is vital for a game that plays like an action RPG.

When you’re in a town like Neo Jibral, the button functions are very easy to figure out: use A to select choices and items, talk to people, or inspect anything marked with a special symbol (e.g. a question mark, an exclamation point, et cetera); use B to cancel selections; and use either X or press the blue square icon in the lower right-hand corner of the touch screen to open up the main menu, called the Camp. You can use the triggers to rotate the camera around the 3D environments; in the Camp screen, you can use them to scroll through the different tabs that are present in the various menus. Switching between different pieces of equipment is easy whether you use the buttons or the stylus, and color-coded E’s inform you of what exactly is equipped on you and your party members at the moment. This also means that you won’t be confused over, say, which set of Hunter’s Gears you should be keeping and which ones you should be dumping or selling. In the shop screen, the colored E’s are replaced by a tiny bar split into three sections, one of which will be colored; said section is a substitute for the E. If you’re running out of room in your inventory, you can either sell your excesses or dump them into an old-school Resident Evil-style item box, whose contents can be accessed at every single identical box you come across. Everything you do, from dungeon crawling to managing items to fighting enemies, is shown on the DS’s bottom screen.

Speaking of fighting enemies, how does the battle system handle? You press the A button to attack with your weapon, and you press and hold the B button to block. Pressing and holding down A fills up your Shadow meter to give yourself access to your Skills (a.k.a. magic). You can choose what Skill you’ll use by tapping either left or right before you release A; doing so will let loose the Skill you’ve chosen. Similarly, you can make your character roll away from an enemy attack by holding down the B button and then using a directional. As long as you hold B, you can roll all day long or until you need to do something else, like heal your allies. The in-game tutorials, in addition to filling you in on all the combat basics, will inform you of which colors indicate an elemental effectiveness bonus on certain enemies (e.g. bird-like enemies are weaker against wind attacks).

Remember those doors I mentioned in the Story section above? Those doors are not entrances to other dungeons; they are instead entrances to boss chambers, and you have access to only a limited number of them at the very beginning. The others are blocked off in various ways, and your only hint on how to access them later lies in how you need a certain item to uncover the barrier surrounding them””a classic locked-door scenario. Once you go through one of the doors, you’ll run into a tough enemy you definitely don’t want to take on alone. Defeating this foe earns you plenty of experience and a cool item. The game also records how long you took to finish the battle so that you can, presumably, try to beat your time in the future. You can either beat the boss with the in-game characters at your side or with friends via Wi-Fi as many times as you like.

You level up not your characters, but your Shadows, who’ll gain stat boosts and new abilities like in any other RPG. You can then equip these blue beasts to your characters, whereupon they adopt that Shadow’s specialties, strengths, and weaknesses. The exact Skills you can line up for yourself aren’t limited by what Shadow you have equipped at the time; I’ve been able to use skills from each of the three starting Shadows with ease. Setting up your Skills works just like how you equip your weapons, helmets, and armor; you do a basic click-and-drag motion between the main list of skills or equipment and a here’s-your-current-lineup-of-gear bar at the bottom of the screen.

If you don’t know whether to sell or drop an item, you can take a third option””that being, combine them together at Yasato’s Shop. For instance, you can use a Big Ring and a Ruby to make a Fire Ring, which then gives you a boost on any Fire-based attacks you use. In fact, you can combine a myriad of items with various gemstones, like the aforementioned Ruby. How often you use this feature depends largely on how useful you think the combined items are.

You don’t need to worry about losing your way in a given location because the top screen displays the map. You can affirm your current position by looking at the map and observing in what direction the blue arrowhead””the marker that indicates you””is facing. Other important locations, such as shops, available quests, and special access points, are indicated or labeled accordingly. Additionally, the top screen displays your stats and other info while you’re in Camp, as well as your character model in the Equip screen.

Need a break from playing? Then find yourself one of those blue- or gold-colored cubes you’ll spot scattered here and there because they’re the save points of the game. What’s the difference between the two? The gold-colored cubes allow you to save and that’s it; the blue-colored ones give you additional options, such as returning to the main lab in Neo Jibral””an easy escape from a dungeon if I ever saw one””or switching around your party members in case you need to bring in someone with better offense or defense for the obstacles ahead.

All of this may sound a bit overwhelming since there’s so much information coming in at once here, but in practice, everything runs smoothly. The in-game tutorials explain the mechanics of the game pretty well, and they come at a good pace. After trying out whatever new feature has been introduced, you’ll find yourself ready to tackle the main adventure in no time.

Rating: Great

Replayability

Equipment ScreenGiven that you can customize your character’s appearance and abilities in a variety of ways, the potential for replayability is certainly high. Do you want to be a bruiser or a healer? Would you rather confront the enemies head on, or would you prefer to hang back and support your other party members? Who would you like to bring with you among Shu, Kluke, Zola, and the others? All those questions can be answered based entirely on what your preferences are. That said, you can’t deviate too far from the general path presented to you. Thus, rather than choosing in what direction you’ll travel to reach Point B from Point A, you’re choosing what you want to take with you as you go down the same basic road as every other player who picks up this title.

Within a given run through the game, you can retread through dungeons you’ve cleared as many times as you want. Not only will the enemies respawn each time, but certain treasure chests will somehow have new contents within them even if you plucked them clean before. Never mind that there’s no logical explanation for the treasure chests to refill themselves; you have the opportunity to find more items that can, at the very least, be used as vendor trash. The path is there and includes a minimum of fuss. And much like a good majority of this game, it’s up to you whether or not you want to take it.

Rating: Good

Balance

The game is balanced fairly well. The enemies don’t become too tough too fast, so you’ll be able to run along pretty smoothly. You can’t escape the grind game, unfortunately, even if you have the best equipment you’re going to have for the time being. At least you won’t have to gain ten levels or so to take out the next boss; more than likely, you may have to gain just one or two. In other words, the length of time the game forces you to spend to improve the stats of your Shadows won’t last long enough to feel like a chore.

Rating: Good

Originality

At the core of all of this is an action, hack-and-slash RPG whose online aspect shares some vague similarity with that of Phantasy Star Online. You have a central hub to which you’ll return after traversing through a dungeon, and you can either go through an involved single-player mode or hop online for some multiplayer fun. Putting on the layers that make Blue Dragon: Awakened Shadow look at least a little different from the rest yields only a few results: the characters aren’t that far removed from some basic archetypes; the setting is standard medieval European fantasy fare; and the plot, as I elaborated upon before, can be accused very easily of being a Mary Sue/Gary Stu-insert tale that happens to have been developed by a group of professionals.

With that said, I’ve found the characters to be endearing to at least some degree””Shu included””and I’m honestly intrigued enough in the story to see what unfolds next. I can’t speak for everyone, though, and what I may find to be mildly interesting or irritating may set off an impressive fan-gasm or rant rage in someone else. I think I’ll stay on the conservative side in the scoring here and say that, due to a lack of anything that is truely outstanding, this could a hit-or-miss.

Rating: Mediocre

Addictiveness

I feel like playing the game right now, so that should tell you something about how addictive it is. The battle system is fun, and – speaking as someone who tends to play RPGs more for the stories – I want to see what the next plot point will reveal. I have to admit that part of me wants to figure this out because I want to see if I called it right or if a genuine twist really is somewhere along the way. How interested you may remain in this game will depend in large part on how much grinding you have to do just to pass the next dungeon, but as I said before, I haven’t found this element to be too excessive so far.

All in all, I’d say this game could have you glued to the DS for a while, assuming you can sink your teeth into it.

Rating: Good

Appeal Factor

I covered some of this before, but let me elaborate on it. Stories or games that have a lot of clichés are very much hit-and-miss these days because so many people carry a strong attitude of been-there-done-that. This title is no exception. For instance, Shu is the hot-blooded, ne’er-give-up, simple-minded hero that is very common in anime and manga; as such, he’ll either grate on your nerves, make you smile and laugh, or mean little to you, depending on what you think of that kind of character. You could say the same for just about every other character you run into, but unless you were born in the last decade or so, you’ve probably seen these kinds of characters before.

As I said in the beginning, though, the game seems to know about the clichés it has in both its plot and its characters and has long decided to roll with it all. Whether or not you can forgive the clichés for being obvious because of that depends on how you feel about them. A cliché that’s written well won’t feel trite and overused, after all.

On a similar note, what you think of the combat system will depend on your general opinion of hack-and-slash games because that’s what this is at its core. The online component””the whole fact that you can play with your friends””depends on what you think of such a feature. I personally never cared for it anytime I saw it. Those who are interested may be wondering if the online part will feel like an MMORPG. If that’s the case, then let me ask this: why aren’t you playing the MMORPG, which likely has a wider arrangement of customization options than this game?

The bottom line here is, this is a pretty good game, but you may not have the patience to try and see it if you find nothing to grip you.

Rating: Mediocre

Miscellaneous

World MapWhen I talked about the controls earlier, I mentioned you could switch between using the buttons and the stylus. From my own experience, I’ve used the stylus only in the menu screens as that’s about the only practical place to use it. The buttons are required for battle because you have, say, no other way of dodging attacks outside of using B and down. Since going from dungeon exploration into battle happens in real-time, you’ll likely keep your fingers near the buttons so you can be ready to fight at a moment’s notice. At the end of the day, you’ll likely play through the whole game with the buttons alone.

Also, something to note about the combat system is that you can only control your character; the other party members are controlled by an AI. The AI is smart enough to know when to heal but not when to dodge enemy fire, so you’ll need to keep the Heal Skill handy in order to keep your allies alive. If you or your allies are ever knocked out, don’t worry too much; you’ll awaken after a ten-second count down, though the actual time depends on whether or not you’re still in combat (e.g. the timer speeds up if you’re outside of a fight). Your health and magic points regenerate during and outside of battle, so while you still run the risk of a Game Over (i.e. you and your party members fall), you won’t have to buy a huge number of recovery items every time you go into a dungeon. Obviously, anything I said about the AI doesn’t apply if you’re playing online with friends who’ll have the same dodging capabilities as you.

And if there’s one last thing I must mention, it’s the typos. Goodness, the typos. I haven’t gone through a single scene where there wasn’t some copyediting mistake. Granted, the ones I’ve seen are small. They’re more in the vein of extra spaces appearing between words at random intervals, run-on sentences resulting from missing punctuation, at least one instance where two words lack a space between them; and every set of ellipses – the infamous dot-dot-dot – floats in the middle of a line like the M-dashes I just used, rather than being level with the basic period. Compounding this is the oddity wherein all of the characters will refer to yours with some variant of they, a clear effort to avoid pronoun trouble given that you could be male or female – never mind that no one does this in real life. Other games that allow you to select your gender would at least have slight edits in the script to accommodate whatever choice you’ve made. Here, they just didn’t bother, and these errors and oddities are going to ruin your suspension of disbelief.

The bright side to this is that I’ve yet to see an instance where a sentence is missing a word that really needs to be there; thus, I haven’t seen anything quite like “Attack while its tail is up!” versus “Don’t attack while its tail is up!” for those who remember the first boss of Final Fantasy VII. In other words, you won’t be confused about what to do anytime soon.

Rating: Mediocre

The Scores
Story/Modes: Decent
Graphics: Great
Sound: Mediocre
Control and Gameplay: Great
Replayability: Good
Balance: Good
Originality: Mediocre
Addictiveness: Good
Appeal Factor: Mediocre
Miscellaneous: Mediocre
FINAL RATING: ENJOYABLE GAME

Short Attention Span Summary

Blue Dragon: Awakened Shadow is the hack-and-slash RPG sequel to the XBox 360’s Blue Dragon, whose cast of characters return. You take on the role of a new and fully-customizable character whose search for identity makes up the bulk of the plot. The game boasts an online feature that will allow players to explore dungeons and defeat enemies together. However, this game falls short in that there isn’t quite enough of an original bend to it to really grip people at a reliable rate; everything from the characters to the general story to the core combat system has been done better by other games (e.g. Dragon Age: Origins). That said, while it doesn’t do anything too original with all it presents, at least it knows this and runs along with it. A pity it couldn’t have been a little more than that, though.

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