Joystiq hands-on: Blue Dragon Plus (DS)

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Joystiq hands-on: Blue Dragon Plus (DS)
After departing from Square Enix, Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi started his own studio, Mistwalker. The small company relies on contracted developers to collaborate on projects, while Mistwalker itself remains lean and back-to-basics. Its first project was Blue Dragon, which, despite being released on the Xbox 360, is also back to basics -- a linear, turn-based RPG with (admittedly high-end) Akira Toriyama character designs that recall the Dragon Quest tradition.

Blue Dragon topped Japanese Xbox 360 sales charts, but still didn't necessarily achieve Dragon Quest-like success. So, along with a merchandising blitz that includes manga, anime, a card game, and toys, Mistwalker has taken Blue Dragon to a system that is much more popular in Japan, and much better suited to both the JRPG and Toriyama's cute designs: the Nintendo DS. Surprisingly, despite the move to less powerful hardware, Blue Dragon Plus is a more progressive role-playing experience than its predecessor, and offers elements of post-Dragon Quest presentation.
Blue Dragon Plus picks up after the events of the original game, with protagonist Shu reuniting with his friends, investigating the appearance of a mysterious, evil Shadow -- a creature similar to the monsters that all the protagonists can summon. The story is told through a combination of old-school text windows and an unexpectedly high number of full motion video cutscenes, spread across both of the DS's screens. The first hour or so of the game is rich with these animated sequences, which show the same high production values as the console version.

The gameplay is best described a a heavily combat-based (with little in-game activity other than fighting) tactical RPG, sort of like Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings. Enemies are spread out throughout large maps, and players maneuver their party around by directing them toward their targets with the stylus. Once a party member comes in contact with an enemy, they will automatically been fighting each other. You can tap on a character and select commands for things like healing, special attacks, and Shadow summoning; otherwise, they'll just hack away at the enemy on their own.

All of this is happening in real time, which means that multiple face-offs might be going on around the map while one character is on the way to a switch to unlock a barrier, while another is off opening a treasure chest. Players must monitor their fighters' health and issue special battle commands while also making sure nobody has broken off to kill a wandering party member. It's sort of like a real-time strategy game, except with much more direct control over just a few individual units.

Different characters have different strengths: Zola isn't much of a fighter, but she's fast, so she is best suited to grabbing all the treasure chests on the map; other characters have strong physical attacks, healing magic, and other abilities. Standard RPG stuff.

It isn't necessary to have played the Xbox 360 game to jump into Blue Dragon Plus. While the story continues from the original, the beginning of the game does an adequate job of introducing the characters and the world, and provides just enough background about the events of the first game that a new player wouldn't be utterly confounded about what's going on. While a lot more complicated than the usual turn-based RPG, the real-time action means that it might be more enticing for people not usually into slow-paced, menu-driven RPGs. We look forward to seeing how the DS audience reaction compares to the 360 audience reaction when the game comes out next week (barring any more delays).
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