Yeah, I just got an Xbox 360 Elite. It’s pretty sweet. I’ve been having a blast with it, playing
Gays Gears of War, Lumines Live! and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (gamertag John Mora!). The really neat thing about the 360, though, is the thriving online marketplace, crammed with videos and games. One of the biggest recent touchdowns was a playable demo of FF refugee company Mistwalker’s hotly anticipated epic RPG, Blue Dragon. Is it worth the 1 GB of space on your hard drive and 60 minutes of your time?
Fuck NO. Wow, I was really expecting more from Mistwalker. Why, you ask? The pedigree, for starters. Hironobu Sakaguchi (creator, producer and sometimes-director of Final Fantasy) left Square-Enix, Japanese RPG sweatshop it is, to form his own studio called Mistwalker. He took with him a cadre of the finest RPG talent in an attempt to give every otaku in Akihabara an orgasm. Also because he basically got relegated to the role of waterboy once his nearly $200 million flop, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, beached on American shores.
So The Gooch, as I shall lovingly refer to him from hereon, got a spiffy new company and a fresh start. He’s also got the beloved manga/video game artist Akira Toriyama and venerated FF composer Nobuo Uematsu to follow him. So with more creative control than he’s had in a long, long time, The Gooch sets out to do the impossible: make Japanese people care about the Xbox 360. And he planned to do it starting with an RPG called Blue Dragon. Yeah, not an inspiring title. Wait a sec, it gets even less inspiring.
So after hours of trying to download the huge-ass demo thanks to my finicky wifi, the demo finally landed on my Xbox. So I give it a whirl. My first joy is to find out that the demo is TIMED. You’re given two areas to choose to explore, and only 60 minutes a piece to play around with. Any real reason? I mean, I guess someone could waste their life and keep leveling up on the same enemies forever and ever if there wasn’t a time limit, but it would be so boring and unrewarding, why bother trying to thwart the retarded? So throughout the entire ordeal, there’s a timer counting down to when you must part yourself from Blue Dragon’s warm, loving breast.
Or not, since it’s not that great a time. Where to begin with how this game let me down? Probably first with the battle engine. Maybe it’s my fault for expecting something different from the father of Final Fantasy, but the battle system here is basically Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest with the addition of timed button releases. Basically, (almost) every attack or technique you use can be charged up to be more powerful. But to do that takes more time, and unless you release your attack button at exactly the right spot on the indicator the game gives you, you may not achieve maximum damage. It’s an interesting way to get people to pay attention and involve themselves in selecting shit from menus, that’s for sure. But whereas it seemed fun and integral in something like Paper Mario, it feels unnecessary, gimmicky and undercooked in here. I mean, I understand why they thought they needed something like that. I really do. Because the straight turn-based combat is the same shit we’ve been seeing for twenty years. Hopefully Final Fantasy XII will teach future next-gen RPGs a lesson or two in switching things up.
The next part that disappointed me were the cinematics. The voice acting in this is about on par with Saturday morning cartoons. Everything’s played broadly and over-the-top. I don’t know who the voice director was, but s/he needed to be fired and bitch-slapped for this shoddy job. I mean, the story and characters of Blue Dragon aren’t exactly ripped from Masterpiece Theater, but the modicum of charm and dignity they could’ve retained is thrown out the window by this almost amateurish effort. And the main character, Shu, is totally miscast. Or at least mis-acted. His voice is pitched way too low. Anyone with me on this? Plus, the direction of cinemas here is straight from the Xenosaga film school: just let the camera and characters sit there, boring and vanilla as possible, and make the character models seem like vacant dolls. The scenes are just LIFELESS, not helped by the fact that the pretty character models aren’t flexible enough to give the sort of performance that would help support the drama unfolding before you. I don’t know whether to blame the animators or Akira Toriyama for designing characters that couldn’t express varying emotion. And the script. Hoo, boy. The actors weren’t given any favors with the hackneyed, insipid dialog that was present in the demo, and most likely the final version.
Disappointment no. 3 was the music. Okay, I will admit it: I am not a big Uematsu fan. I’ve always been the guy leaning against the wall in the back, rolling his eyes during discussions of how awesome “Uematsu-san n__n” is. Frankly, I think he’s completely overrated. I can see why he’s popular, I suppose. He makes simple, broad, easily accessible tunes that cry out to be rearranged. Because they’re composed on a fucking Casio. Uematsu is a keyboardist, and his roots in the MIDI scene of the NES days is evident, since his music recordings have barely been updated since then. His technical apex seems to have coincided with the SNES sound chip. FFVII-IX were given MIDI-licious soundtracks, much to their detriment. I only really enjoy Uematsu when it’s rearranged with an orchestra playing it. The FFVIII “Fithos Lusec Wecos Vinosec” album is a testament to how fantastic his music can sound when arranged correctly. I thought maybe with a switch to the 360 that he would catch up to the modern sound capabilities, but he seems to take joy in pissing in my face. The MIDI Uematsu sound is strongly entrenched in the game, if the demo is any indication, and it’s more forgettable than ever. The one indulgence Uematsu grants himself is with the boss battle music, an electrifying guitar-driven rock song with a Japanese guy singing in acceptable English. Yet this annoys me, too, since electric guitars are Uematsu’s most notorious fetish. He’s admitted to wishing he was a guitarist instead of a keyboardist and his battle compositions have always reflected his repressed rock ambitions. Hell, he even has a rock-‘n’-roll side project called The Black Mages that does up Uematsu’s tunes in grand rock excess. Look them up if you’ve ever wondered what “To Zanarkand” would sound like if it had a bunch of wailing guitars and heinous Engrish.
Another really stupid aspect of the game was its issues displaying its graphics. Yes, apart from the issue of whether or not you like the cartoony, almost clay-like models of the characters, the game is gorgeous, stem to stern. But at what price? During battles, crazy graphical effects litter the landscape for no more reason than to say, “Hey! Look at me! Don’t I look expensive?” And then what do you think happens? SLOWDOWN. The game can get so fucking choppy. It’s actually funny, since it makes the button release timing a whole lot easier to exploit. It’s unprofessional, is what it is.
One thing I can sort of give to Blue Dragon are the powers you can wield in the field. You can put up a little shield around yourself that repels weak enemies you’ve already fought at an MP cost. A nifty way to avoid retreading through old, familiar battles (especially ones as mundane as Blue Dragon’s). I assume other sorts of powers will be available in the full game.
The most frustrating part of the demo was the difficulty of the boss I encountered. Not only was he given FOUR OR FIVE attacks in a row, killing most of my party, but once I unleashed my limit breaks (called “Corporeals” here) and defeated his first form, he opened up to reveal several smaller enemies that each got a turn… and hit with enough damage to kill a party member with one blow. Needless to say I died quickly. Was this a true indication of the boss’ difficulty in the final game? Was it just a gimmick to keep people from beating the demo? Fuck if I care enough to find out when the game’s released. I won’t pay $60 for a gussied-up annoying waste of time like Blue Dragon.