Blue Dragon is not a game that is going to elicit a strong reaction from you. It's not terrible, or particularly great or memorable, so the most remarkable thing about it is how unremarkable it is. It's big: three DVDs big, thanks to loads of cutscenes and voice clips. But it isn't grand and sweeping, and it isn't particularly charming, either. Blue Dragon is simply "there." If you wanted to play a Japanese role-playing game on your Xbox 360, this will get the job done. If you wanted to play something that makes an impact, you'll need to keep waiting.
The game is held back foremost by the story. Main characters Shu, Kluke, and Jiro have had their village destroyed by a land shark. Oh, not the one from Saturday Night Live. This one's mechanical, and it sets into play the main story, which consists mostly of chasing hypervillain Nene across one of the blandest, most unexciting fantasy worlds in recent memory. The narrative is 50 hours of lukewarm plot development that meanders sleepily along until the third disc. The conclusion packs some excitement, but not enough to justify the preceding hours of boring build up.
As if the poor pace of the story isn't enough, the lead characters are barely worthy of bit parts in better RPGs. Shu mostly pumps his fist and proclaims with a raspy whine that he will never give up, which will at least make you thankful that someone cares about the whole affair. Kluke just widens her eyes and looks sweet, and Jiro's most interesting idiosyncrasy is how he waves his hand dismissively when he casts a spell. The two additions to the party, Zola and Marumaro, manage to make things a little less bland. Zola tries, anyway, with her sultry voice and cool demeanor. As for Marumaro, well, he's an annoying, screechy-voiced feline whelp who will make you appreciate the more boring characters. There are occasional attempts at humor, and you may chuckle in spite of yourself: Marumaro's crush on Zola is an occasional source of amusement, for example. Yet most attempts to establish character are simply forced, so the few quiet moments your party members share have no emotional resonance whatsoever.
Everything else just feels like a struggle to rise above the story, and there are some mild successes in this regard. To start with, there aren't any weapons. Instead, your party members have shadows in the form of--you guessed it--blue dragons, and they do all the fighting and spellcasting on your behalf. It's like having constant summons, and it's fun to watch your shadows pummel the enemy, whether by standard attack or spell. The battles themselves aren't anything special and don't do much with the usual turn-based formula, but there is a decent variety of skills to mess with during encounters.
Blue Dragon tries to stand out from the pack in a few other ways. First you have the class system, liberally borrowed from the similar mechanics of Final Fantasy V. Each character starts with a set of available classes, and as he or she levels, so does the equipped class. Over time, you open up more classes, and you can switch from one to the other at any time, as long as you aren't in battle. It's a flexible system because most spells and skills you earn for one class can be transferred to others. The biggest problem is that your characters, who are already lacking personalities, lose even more individuality; they can be anything you want at any time, and the chances are that they'll be effective in every area. In fact, to earn better abilities and unlock some of the insanely difficult achievements, you're forced to switch out classes all the time. Flexibility is a good thing, but the way it's done in Blue Dragon makes every already-predictable character become an even more generic jack-of-all-trades.
Despite the weirdly generic way your characters turn out, the game also has an "attack circle" battle system, which is where you'll get the most satisfaction from Blue Dragon. You'll never run into any random battles, given that you can pick and choose your fights. However, when you are ready to jump into the fray, you can string encounters together in a chain. You do so by getting close to multiple enemies, pulling a trigger, and choosing to battle everyone in your attack radius. It's a great system that offers a reward, such as increased agility or physical defense, between successive battles. Furthermore, depending on the class and skills you have equipped, some attacks can be charged up by holding the A button, though doing so will likely change the turn order. That's another nifty system, because you will always need to weigh the potential benefit of the stronger charged attack versus handing your foe an earlier turn.
But don't get too excited about the minimal random-battle grind, because instead, you have random item inspection. You can walk up to almost anything and find gold, items, and other things. It's not just a matter of opening the scattered chests or checking out the occasional random barrel; everything is a potential hiding place. It has the double effect of encouraging you to check every single thing you pass in the hope that something is in there (surely it makes sense that gold would be hidden inside a stuffed turkey), as well as giving you plenty of potions and money. It's obviously helpful to have a bunch of stuff, but it's also part of another minor shortcoming: Blue Dragon is super easy. Potions and spells are really cheap, it's easy to get gold, and you'll outlevel the artificial intelligence with a minimum of arbitrary battles. The final disc ramps up the challenge a bit, but you should still be able to get through it without any major difficulties. Thankfully, there are a few minigames scattered around to break things up, which makes for a nice change of pace. You'll attack other spaceships with your own vessel, guard a traveling caravan of wagons, and perform contextual button presses here and there.
The visuals are polished and colorful, but they also lack character. Akira Toriyama's character design isn't nearly as interesting as the awesome, detailed work he did in Dragon Quest VIII. Admittedly, the shadows are pretty cool to look at, as are many of the enemy designs, such as the awesome mural monsters. The battle camera is also well done, and it zooms and swoops cinematically during critical hits and other pivotal attacks. But in keeping with Blue Dragon's nothing-special sensibilities, free-roam environments are endlessly boring and often striking in their emptiness. There are also a lot of blurry depth-of-field effects that make objects in the distance appear all fuzzy when the camera focuses on the foreground. It's overdone and feels like a trick to make the graphics look better than they really are. It's also worth noting that battles often result in a notable amount of sluggishness, which doesn't make a lot of sense, considering that nothing appears to be pushing the limits of the hardware. Nobuo Uematsu's score fares better, mostly because it stays out of the way. His battle rock music is fine, but its repeated so often, it loses its impact.
Blue Dragon may be the first Japanese RPG we've seen in a while on the Xbox 360, but it's also totally forgettable, telling a story that didn't beg to be told in a game that doesn't do much to stand out. If you're into role-playing games, you'll find that Blue Dragon is long and mostly serviceable, but it doesn't give you much back for all the time you'll spend on it. Let's hope there's another RPG for the platform soon that gives us more to sink our teeth into.