s Blue Dragon begins and I leave Talta Village with Shu, Jiro, and Kluke, it’s hard to deny that there is a kind of familiarity underlying the adventure. It isn’t a “been there, done that” sensation though – it is more like the game is reminding me of all the good times I’ve had with role-playing titles over the years. Blue Dragon is far more than a mere exercise in nostalgia, however; it may utilize traditional concepts, but it also expands them, creating an experience that feels like the culmination of classic RPG evolution.
Through the course of the tale, each of the five main characters gains a beastly shadow that is capable of learning a variety of skills, which makes up the central gameplay element: the job system. While not drastically different than the one found in titles like Final Fantasy V, the level of customization this mechanic affords players is incredibly engaging. I never felt like the game was shoehorning my characters into a class, and it is an addictive balancing act to switch among jobs to ensure you have an optimal selection of abilities. Be sure to check the manual to see what skills you’re working toward, since the game never clearly lays out your advancement. Even so, this system always seems to put you a step ahead of regular enemies while still presenting you with challenging boss encounters.
Some of the skills you learn have non-combat applications that meld seamlessly with the game’s overworld segments. Instead of just wandering around waiting to fight, these abilities put you right in the driver’s seat. Some make you invisible so you can avoid encounters altogether, while others make it possible to gain experience and skill points without even entering combat (make sure at least one of your party members gets Field Barrier II as soon as possible).
The core mechanics are presented with a high level of polish, but Blue Dragon lacks the jaw-dropping moments to make it legendary. It is immensely fun to play, but there is a hard-to-define spark missing from the story and events. The plot is by no means a flop; the trials of Shu and company and their conflict against the evil Nene (who simply enjoys witnessing the suffering of others) are relayed with a great deal of intrigue and humor. The tone will even shift unexpectedly from lighthearted to macabre, but there just isn’t much in terms of surprises.
It is difficult to place too much fault on a game for not shattering storytelling conventions, especially since Blue Dragon feels like a well-oiled RPG machine in the way it integrates combat, character growth, and exploration. From its astounding visuals to the constantly compelling gameplay, this experience will make role-playing veterans recall the good old days, and give newcomers the opportunity to start creating some memories.