TOKYO--Hironobu Sakaguchi may have departed the shores of Square Enix, the role-playing-game giant he helped bring to prominence with the Final Fantasy series, but he hasn't gotten out of the RPG game entirely. Sakaguchi affirmed his commitment to the genre today during a visit to his new company, Mistwalker Studios, at which time he gave us an early look at his upcoming Xbox 360 RPG, Blue Dragon. In production at Blinx developer Artoon and featuring character designs by hallowed manga artist Akira Toriyama, Blue Dragon looks as though it'll nicely help fill the need for Japanese-style role playing on Microsoft's forthcoming console.
Blue Dragon revolves around a group of adventurers from whom have inexplicably sprung gigantic, monstrous, tangible shadows. That may be hard to wrap your head around without actually seeing it in action, but just imagine a big bluish monster rising up behind each character, and you'll be on the right track. The main character, a spunky kid named Shu, will journey along with his companions to discover where exactly these shadows came from and how the group can be rid of them--if it turns out that they actually want to lose the shadows at all, considering they're pretty useful in a fight.
Of course, this being an RPG, there's also some important world-saving business that needs to be addressed. Shu's world is full of ancient machinery, remnants of a lost civilization that nobody alive knows how to use. A villain has appeared to take control of these engines of war to gain complete dominion over the world, so it'll be up to Shu's group and its shadows to stop the menace and restore order.
Sakaguchi began the presentation with a demonstration of Blue Dragon's environments, which are whimsically designed to fit with the game's brightly colored, cartoonlike art style. One area featured a row of quaint houses alongside a river, while another was set in a canyon village built right up the face of a rock wall, with houses connected by a network of walkways. The environment demo wrapped up with a fly-through of a dank cave setting that contained a subterranean lake, complete with small islands covered by a waving, luminescent green grass.
The level design in Blue Dragon will obviously showcase a higher level of detail than what we've seen on current-generation consoles. We saw close-up views of trees with individual leaves, a house front with extremely high-res textures, and some of the most realistic-looking water in recent memory, with ample specular highlights reflecting the sunlight overhead. A Mistwalker rep showed off how the designers can influence the motion of the water, including the direction of the current and the speed of the waves, by tweaking a few variables. Sakaguchi also said more filmlike effects, such as depth of field, will be added as development continues. Our glimpse at Blue Dragon's world was brief, but it looks as though the game's fanciful environs will sport a good deal of liveliness.
Next up was a look at the characters of Blue Dragon, along with the interesting new technology that will drive them. Shu is clearly a Toriyama-designed character, with his wild hair and martial arts-style clothing reminiscent of the artist's Dragon Ball property. He and the other characters in the game will move using an algorithmic animation system that will interpolate movements based on the way you control them. For instance, when you're running Shu around and you begin to turn, his eyes and head will be the first things to move, before he actually shifts his body and posture to change direction. Changing between walking and running will occur smoothly thanks to the engine's blending of the animation. The character animation even features a localized 3D motion-blur such that only the character, not the entire screen, blurs just a little bit when he or she is moving at high speed. The subtle yet significant effect of all this is that the characters' animation looks much more realistic and natural than we've seen in RPGs on lesser systems.
We also got a glimpse of some of Shu's companions, as well as their shadow familiars. Among Shu's allies will be a silver-haired girl who seems to be dressed as a pirate (what with her skull-emblazoned bandana and big hoop earrings) and a squat, goblinlike creature with green skin and a pointy-eared hat of some sort. Each of the characters will feature his or her own unique shadow: Shu will naturally command a giant dragon, while the goblinlike character (named Maromaru in the Japanese version) will wield a great shadow tiger. We saw an animation test depicting the shadows' attacks. They'll stretch out to great lengths to strike at enemies, and, again, this animation will be generated dynamically by the engine based on the positioning of your character and his or her target.
The enemy designs in the game look unmistakably Toriyama, too, as Sakaguchi showed off a giant blue rat and a comical robot with a spherical body, clownlike face, and long, spindly limbs. Even these early enemy models featured some nice effects that RPG fans should find pretty striking (we did, anyway). The rat, for instance, was covered in bristly, dynamically applied fur, the kind you've mostly seen in feature computer-generated films. The robot was similarly impressive, with environment and specular maps making its surface look highly reflective and realistic. Of course, these enemies will take advantage of the same advanced animation system that drives the playable characters.
Mistwalker isn't really talking specifics about Blue Dragon's gameplay at this point, but Sakaguchi did let slip that some sort of job system will be available that will let you choose what kind of attacks your shadows specialize in. The two classes mentioned were monk (likely a fighter of some kind) and wizard, which will obviously focus more on magical attacks. As you fight, your shadow will level up and gain new abilities associated with the job it's currently using, and any learned abilities will remain available if you want to change your shadow's job later on. It was mentioned that your choice of job will even affect the appearance of your shadow. So a monk shadow will be big and burly, while a wizard shadow will understandably be a lot thinner and more fragile-looking.
Though no actual gameplay of Blue Dragon was shown, what we saw during the technical demonstration certainly indicates a positive direction for the project. The game will also feature a soundtrack by RPG composing legend Nobuo Uematsu (and if we'd gotten to hear any of his new music, we'd have told you about it already). In fact, Blue Dragon represents a reunion of sorts, since Sakaguchi, Uematsu, and Toriyama all worked together previously on the Super NES RPG Chrono Trigger. And if memory serves, that one was pretty good. Blue Dragon's release date is as yet unannounced, but now we're certainly eager to see if it can live up to its prestigious pedigree.
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