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Meandering 'Blue Dragon' is a tough sell

To get to the good stuff in "Blue Dragon," Microsoft's role-playing game for the Xbox 360, players must slog through a dreadfully slow ramping-up period.  The only reason to keep playing is the promise that things pick up on second DVD. And that's a tough sell.
Heroes attack their enemies in turn-based battles with the titular blue dragons.
Heroes attack their enemies in turn-based battles with the titular blue dragons.
/ Source: contributor

One reason the original Xbox failed in Japan was a serious lack of titles that appealed to core Japanese gamers — namely, role-playing games. "Halo," the game that personified the Xbox across the rest of the globe, had zero street cred in Tokyo. Meanwhile, Sony sold zillions of PlayStation 2s under the "Final Fantasy" banner, the world's most successful line of RPGs.

Microsoft, determined not to let the Xbox 360 suffer the same fate, aligned with famed Japanese developer Hironobu Sakaguchi (creator of the "Final Fantasy" series) to create a series of RPGs that would woo the local crowd. The savvy move was only compounded by the announcement that "Blue Dragon," the first game by Sakaguchi's Mistwalker studio, would feature art from Akira Toriyama, creator of the anime phenomenon "Dragon Ball" as well as the best-selling classic RPG series "Dragon Quest."

The result was a very traditional RPG that adheres closely to formulas put in place by beloved early "Final Fantasy" games. And guess what? Japanese gamers largely ignored the game and continued to dismiss the Xbox brand. But now the rest of the world has a chance to see the $59.99, T-rated "Blue Dragon" and experience the game that was supposed to save the Xbox 360 in Japan.

Provided they can get past the first twelve hours, of course.

The opening disc in this epic (which spans three DVDs) is practically a dare. In order to get to the good stuff, like fighting off the wonderfully designed robot minions of archenemy Szabo with a powered-up dragon, you must slog through a dreadfully slow ramping-up period. The uninteresting story, dull dialogue and terrible pacing works overtime to keep players at arms length. The only reason to keep playing is the promise that things pick up on second DVD. And that's a tough sell.

The meandering storyline follows a boy named Shu and his friends, locked in a struggle with a creepy old man named Nene that wants to — wait for it — rule the world. Compounding matters are the heroes themselves, who are not terribly interesting. In fact, the little feline follow, Marumaro, is so shrill, you wish there was a way to vote him out of the game entirely.

The game first perks up when Shu gets the titular blue dragon, a living shadow he can use in battle. Soon, all members of the party have their own dragons that are used in lieu of normal weapons during battle. This is actually a cool feature and the only reason, save for some excellent enemy design, to keep playing. Using the dragons in combat is exciting, especially in the second disc, after you've sufficiently increased their powers.

The battles in "Blue Dragon" are strictly turn-based. You attack. The computer attacks while you watch. Then you attack again, and so on. It sounds dull, but "Blue Dragon" has a few tricks to keep you engaged beyond just mindless button-pressing. If you're clever, you can physically run between enemy monsters in a dungeon and then push a button to engage all of them at once instead of one at a time. These larger battles are harder, but more intense.

You can also choose between using regular, immediate attacks in a battle or charging up a powerful attack. This shuffles your hero's move back in the turn order, but the results are spectacular. Balancing quick damage versus withstanding enemy attacks to unleash a devastating move is a mechanic that never gets old, especially in battle against some of the more captivating monsters.

Toriyama's hero designs may be unexceptional, but his dragon and enemy art is fantastic. The bad guys that haunt the dungeons and forests of "Blue Dragon" are colorful and inventive, especially the living murals and the giant robots.

Xbox 360 gamers seeking a traditional RPG in the vein of the Japanese classics have every reason to be interested in "Blue Dragon," but the game is ultimately undone by poor pacing. Everybody in entertainment knows you hook the audience with a little action and intrigue. Only the dedicated hardcore that survive the deadly first disc will find the charm buried in "Blue Dragon."