Finally, it also has to be said that after Final Fantasy XII, with its slick semi-real-time battle system, programmable AI party members and intuitive targeting displays, Blue Dragon’s separate combat sequences and turn-based combat does feel like a big step backwards. Where Final Fantasy XII bridged the gap between the traditional Japanese RPG and Bioware’s more action-oriented western RPGs, Blue Dragon is very much a return to the classic style. It’s a wilfully retro piece of work.
All the same, I wouldn’t write it off quite yet.
For one thing, Blue Dragon’s gameplay is a little less old-school and fuddy-duddy than it first appears. The meat of the game appears quite old-fashioned; your party – represented by the central hero, Shu – wanders around a world map or a more tightly-focused area map in third-person, in pursuit of particular objectives, while duffing up monsters and collecting loot and experience along the way. However, unlike, say, Dragon Quest VIII, monsters are visible on-screen at all times, meaning that you don’t have to endure the misery of countless random monster encounters on the way through every screen. Instead, you can choose most of your fights, running past some critters, deliberately engaging those who guard treasure, and ignoring any lightweights who flee at your approach. What’s more, by charging into combat with the X button held, you can occasionally catch your enemies off guard and get a free surprise attack.
Admittedly, it might help if there was some indication of how many monsters a particular roaming monster might represent – you can stampede in against a single skeleton to find him, three of his mates and a couple of other visiting beasties, presumably swapping stories of the existential pains of dungeon life – but at least every hour of gameplay doesn’t turn into a turgid swamp of constant scrapping against unseen foes. I wish I could say the same about, say, Dragon Quest VIII.
Secondly, Blue Dragon does combat differently from other games. The idea is that your teenage heroes don’t wield weapons and cast spells themselves. Instead, after swallowing magic globes early on they are able to harness the powers of a massive shadow creature; the titular blue dragon for Shu, and a minotaur and phoenix for his friends Jiro and Kluke. The shadow creatures do all the actual work of combat, and they also lend themselves to an intriguing, flexible class system. Creatures can be assigned certain roles (e.g. swordsman, monk or guardian) and these open up particular combat skills and spell-sets. Your heroes level up through experience, as per usual, but the creature classes ‘rank up’ independently. The effect of this is choice: you can switch between different roles for the same creature if you want the most versatile set of capabilities, or concentrate on a single role per creature if you want to maximise their combat potential in just one.