Blade Dancer Import Hands-On

We scoop up a copy of the new PSP RPG from Sony and Hit Maker, which just hit shelves in Japan.

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Last month, we brought you a first look at Blade Dancer, a new PSP role-playing collaboration between Sony Japan and development house Hit Maker. Now the game has arrived at Japanese retail, and stalwart importers that we are, we couldn't help but pick up a copy fresh from the streets of Akihabara (or wherever it was actually acquired). Based on early indications, if you've been lamenting the relative dearth of solid, traditional RPGs on the PSP, Blade Dancer's familiar gameplay conventions and anime stylings may give you one less reason to whine.

As we previously reported, Blade Dancer focuses on a group of adventurers led by the warrior Lance, who hails from the land of Foo (yeah, we don't know either). A malevolent dread knight--one who caused a big heap of trouble during the last great war and then was subsequently vanquished--has returned to wreak even more havoc, and apparently the knight's appearance has also signaled the impending rise of a new demon empire. Yikes. At the start of the game, you'll find yourself in a dream sequence starring a mysterious, ethereal girl (and what self-respecting RPG is without such a sequence?), after which you'll sail to the game's first city to start your adventure.

Exploration of the environment in Blade Dancer is typical for third-person RPGs, with the camera angle swung down close behind your character and a free-look option available if you want to take in your surroundings. The biggest departure here from most RPGs is a targeting system that will place a little icon over any character or environmental element you can perform an action on. In other words, if you want to talk to another character, go through a door, or pick up an item, you'll have to target it first. Potential targets aren't actually indicated when you enter a new area, but it's easy enough to cycle through available targets by repeatedly hitting the square button. In fact, when you enter a new room, you'll want to tap square a few times just to look for interactive "hot spots" that you might not have otherwise noticed. (We found a couple of obscure treasure chests this way, for instance.)

The game's combat is familiar enough, but it's got a couple of unique mechanics to keep things interesting.
The game's combat is familiar enough, but it's got a couple of unique mechanics to keep things interesting.

Once you've left town and are out in the field, it's time to start fighting. Blade Dancer's overworld actually feels a little bit like an MMO, in that enemies are visible on the overhead map and will patrol a fairly limited area as long as you don't disturb them. But if you get too close, the enemy will come after you (much like "pulling" a monster in an MMO), and you'll engage combat only if the enemy then manages to actually touch you. If you've got enough room ahead of you, you can actually run away from the monster until it decides to stop chasing you, thereby avoiding combat. However, the overworld that we've explored so far has been so dense with enemies that we haven't been able to just skip all the fighting to get to our next objective, and besides, nobody ever leveled up by doing that anyway.

After you've gotten into combat, you'll find the mechanics to be quite similar to traditional turn-based RPGs, with a couple of important differences. As we mentioned in our last look at Blade Dancer, you won't expend magic points per se when you use special attacks--rather, you'll draw from a store of "luna points" that start at zero before every battle and build up as both you and the enemies cause damage. While it's nice that the enemies will generate luna points with their attacks, they can also draw from that same stock in order to use their own special attacks. So it won't do you any good to be stingy with your use of special attacks, since the enemies will just get the drop on you and use up the luna points first.

Also, unlike most RPGs, Blade Dancer doesn't automatically queue up the next character's command window when they're ready. Instead, you'll see a meter for each character indicating how close they are to readiness, but once the meter is filled, you'll have to actively select them to access their command list and issue an action. This took us a little time to get used to, since it adds an extra step in the command process, but when you're juggling multiple characters at once, it'll just give you more freedom to tailor your attack strategy to the current situation. You'll need that strategy too, because from what we've seen so far, the game's enemies don't give you any quarter--we were actually killed fairly quickly in the starting area when we let our guard down for just a short time.

If you want to play Blade Dancer in English, you'll unfortunately have to wait until July.
If you want to play Blade Dancer in English, you'll unfortunately have to wait until July.

The game's presentation values seem to have come together well, with pretty good-looking characters and environments, though we would've liked to see a little more detail and variety in some of the level design since the field environments can be a little bland. The game does feature well-acted spoken dialogue, but only during video cutscenes and certain dramatic interactions--regular dialogue with average NPCs is text-only. Finally, the game features a lavish, hand-animated intro sequence, and we hope to see more such video further in the game, to spell out some of the most dramatic moments in the storyline.

We also look forward to exploring some of Blade Dancer's more in-depth features that become available later in the game, such as the weapon-crafting system that will allow you to create new and better armament when your old stuff breaks. Unfortunately, the game is extremely text-heavy, so only the most valiant importers will want to tackle Blade Dancer in its current incarnation. More English-inclined players should wait for the North American release in July, which is being brought to you by Disgaea makers Nippon Ichi Software. We'll have more info on Blade Dancer in the coming months; meanwhile, check out some new direct-feed movies of the game in action.

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