Blue Dragon Plus Hands-On

Shu and the gang return with their shadows to fight evil once again.

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A year has passed since the brash Shu and his friends brought peace to the world by defeating Nene, a nefarious Ancient. Blue Dragon Plus continues the adventure now that another nemesis has awakened and threatens the land. The first game was met with mixed reactions because it was a very traditional Japanese role-playing game and didn't introduce anything new or particularly exciting. Blue Dragon Plus deviates a bit from the turn-based formula and takes a strategy approach instead by turning the gameplay into a real-time strategy game. It's not as complex as other RTS games out there; thus, from what we've played, it's fairly linear and straightforward.

The sequel changes up the battle mechanics entirely, moving from turn-based to real-time.
The sequel changes up the battle mechanics entirely, moving from turn-based to real-time.

The sequel has an ominous start; the opening cinematic shows how the world is split open, and from within, we see a network of cubes. A floating cube lands to unleash a giant three-headed shadow dragon as King Jibral and Zola look on with suspicion. The old crew returns to Blue Dragon Plus, and if you haven't played the first one, the game goes out of its way to give you a brief rundown each time a character is introduced. But you might find yourself a bit lost when it comes to the general storyline and why there are giant shadow dragons popping out from behind you. The first game spanned three discs, so it was expected that there would be a lot of full-motion video, but Blue Dragon Plus on the Nintendo DS also includes a lot of fully animated cutscenes, which are quite impressive. There is no voice acting, however, but FMVs do pop up often in between battles, which is good to see on the DS.

Before you even begin the game, there's a tutorial that is highly recommended, considering once the game starts, it's not going to walk you through the basics. There will be helpful suggestions along the way, but if you aren't familiar with real-time strategy games, it might be a bit difficult to get started. Battles are fought in real time, and each character is considered one unit. There are three icons on the right-hand side for you tap with your stylus whenever you want to move a unit individually--as a partial or full group. If you click on an enemy or treasure chest once a character is highlighted, he or she will automatically move in that direction and engage in battle when close. If you highlight a specific character, the bottom screen will show a list of commands that he or she can execute. For example, some characters can provide a boost in defense for their teammates, while others can cast healing or offensive spells. The most important skill, however, is being able to summon your blue dragon shadow, which can deal a lot of damage. After each skill, there is a rest period before you can use it again, so you'll need to plan accordingly. Elements should also be taken into consideration because it's beneficial to exploit an enemy's weakness by attacking it with the opposing element.

For the first hour of the game, there isn't much exploring to do because it is one battle after another, with a story-driven intermission in between. There are frequent save points, but until you reach the giant cube to explore in greater detail, everything is managed for you. Once you have the freedom to move around and explore, you can equip your characters with the treasure items you've picked up along the way to balance them out; you'll want to do this because you'll end up splitting your party into two groups. Each character has his or her own set of skills, strengths, and weaknesses so it's vital for your survival to divvy up the goods to offset character shortcomings.

Epic brawls on very tiny DS screen.
Epic brawls on very tiny DS screen.

Being able to experience so many cutscenes on the DS is fantastic because you get to see Akira Toriyama's character designs come alive and in greater detail. However, the in-game characters are tiny 2D sprites, making them difficult to distinguish at times and harder to select with your stylus. Those familiar with Nobuo Uematsu's work will recognize his style--peppy battle and character themes that exude personality. But because of the limitations of the DS, the music isn't a full-scale orchestrated operation, though it still does its job nonetheless.

Blue Dragon Plus's campaign is expected to provide more than 30 hours of gameplay, and if you enjoyed the previous game, it's worth taking a look. The game is expected to arrive on the DS in March 2009.

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