It might have a strong identity in some areas--likeable characters, a solid plot, an interesting world to explore--but it's odd how the Blue Dragon series is constantly reinvented with a different style of gameplay in each installment. Whatever the reasoning behind it, the original Blue Dragon's traditional turn-based battles were thrown out the window in Blue Dragon Plus on the DS for a full-blown turn-based tactical strategy approach. Now Blue Dragon: Awakened Shadow takes the series in a different direction with more of a real-time action focus. This latest change of pace brings a few minor changes to the series and makes room for some decent multiplayer opportunities.
Instead of shoehorning you into the skin of one of the established characters of the series, the story centers around your own unique character that awakens with amnesia in a strange underground compound. You kick off Awakened Shadow by creating and customizing your new protagonist before venturing to the surface and being sucked into a meandering quest. The plot takes place several years after the original game. Shu, Kluke, Jiro, and a bunch of the other familiar heroes from the series have all settled in the city of Neo Jabral. All of the land's inhabitants have since learned how to wield shadows, and their use has become an integral part of daily life. However, your arrival on the surface coincides with a peculiar flash in the sky that mysteriously robs the inhabitants of their shadow abilities--except you. Sharing some of your own powers with your newfound friends, you team up with Shu and the gang to figure out who you are and where you came from, as well as find out what caused the strange power drain.
Running around the wild areas and dungeons near Neo Jabral and beyond with your customized party of characters in tow, you'll dive into seamless battles as you encounter monsters in your path. Using the D pad and buttons or the stylus, you can dodge, block, and swing your swords at foes while moving around in real time. A variety of magic-consuming shadow powers can be equipped to heal your party, deliver elemental blasts, and boost stats, among other things. These abilities take a few seconds to execute once they're triggered. While they can be a lifesaver during the sometimes gut-wrenchingly brutal boss battles, they also take a long time to recharge in between use. Character improvement is handled by swapping out shadows you've collected and leveling them up to improve stats in certain areas. Each shadow also has an unlockable set of unique spell powers to acquire. There are a ton of support characters from the series to drop in and out of your current party to suit different kinds of combat situations. All of the characters have their own strengths and weaknesses, and you can assign shadows to them as well.
As added incentive to spend a little time grinding and hunting down rare loot, Awakened Shadow sports a deep item creation and upgrade system that's worth spending some time playing around with--even if only to put some of the junk you accumulate in your travels to good use by forging it into better gear. Weapon recipes can be found through adventuring or simply messing around with weapons. Combining similar-type weapons and armor can boost their attack and defensive abilities. But the real fun lies in infusing weapons with elemental bonuses and concocting completely new items by nailing the proper combination. Some of the more powerful combinations are helpful for pushing through the tougher boss encounters on the first try.
The earliest stretches of the game establish a good story setup, but that momentum quickly fizzles out due to the sheer number of possible peripheral pursuits thrown at you. Awakened Shadow is brimming with optional side quests--so many, in fact, that the main story quests tend to get lost among them. Completing initial quests unlocks main characters for you to recruit into your party, but many others have you wandering around killing random monsters, fetching items, and helping out your pals in often trivial ways. Many of these tasks feel like needless distractions from the main plot. For example, is it really that important to get wrapped up in playing cupid for the other romantically inept heroes? At times, it feels like there's no rush to save the day. That detracts a bit from the game and leaves the overall experience feeling a little unfocused. Once the adventure opens up and lets you venture to other cubes, there's a lot more to see and do, but it's also not always clear what specific objectives you must meet or items you need to obtain to proceed.
A slew of dimensional portals that pop up early on in the game take some time to figure out how to unlock, but overcoming the challenges that await beyond them yields great treasure and increased opportunity for multiplayer runs. These optional arena-style boss battles are tough to beat on your own with support from computer-controlled party members. Once unlocked, you can also take them on with friends in multiplayer mode over the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connections or local Wi-Fi. The support character artificial intelligence is a little daft at times, so trudging into these battles with up to two other friends by your side is preferable. Some of the portals lead to multiplayer dungeons to explore as well. You can also trade items and engage in limited chat options in multiplayer, providing another reason to work through the hassle of exchanging friend codes for online play.
Like many of its other aspects, Awakened Shadow's graphics are on par with other similar RPGs on the DS. The 3D sprites are small and colorful but lack detail, though the frequent animated cutscenes are a little prettier and show the characters better. On the whole, the second Blue Dragon game to hit the DS has its share of minor fumbles. The story hook doesn't pull you through the dense deluge of side quests. There is also inept support character AI to contend with, as well as balance issues with boss battles. Yet despite all of this, it's a reasonably fun experience that successfully gets just enough right to stay enjoyable.