"I can't believe I'm actually playing this."
It's one thing to be wowed by pre-rendered visuals in a movie. Maybe you were hit by Advent Children, bowled over by The Incredibles, and just plain stunned by the CGI artistry in Transformers. The movies I mean. The related games don't quite live up to the same polish of the big screen, and it seemed almost an accepted loss that there would have to be a big downgrade for the sake of interactivity. Well no more.
Blue Dragon is incredible to look at. While the character designs are kept to the animated standard of simplicity, their detail in self-shadowing, animation, and above all expression transcends what's previously been possible in the videogame genre. This attention to detail radiates outwards to encompass every aspect of the experience. The menus are slick and functional, to the point they just feel "right." The enemies are colorful, as cute as they are menacing, and not afraid to show off their fluid animations mixed with a little motion blur. Plus the infamous "poo snakes" are still in the game, with their coiled bodies resembling a cartoonish coil of...poo. Environments are composed of paths and small clearings so common to RPGs, but full of little details, like patches of grass and scattered chest to provide the occasional item boost.
It's all for nothing if it doesn't have the gameplay. The demo Microsoft have released for their E3 bash shows off some pretty high level characters with way too many abilities to play around with, but it's fantastic for a overview of the battle system that'll be more gradually be developed and explored in the full game. There are no real random enemies. The various vicious bastards pop into the field trying to take you by surprise, but still can be avoided. You can smack them to get first shot in the fight, or get smacked for an early beating. What's new and neat is the ability to lasso into multiple enemy groups, and if they don't happen to like each other, they'll battle among themselves with you taking pot shots from the sidelines.
The battle system itself might seem like pure traditional stuff at first glance, and it certainly has elements of that. You can attack, block, use items, and run away, plus the skills related to whatever class your shadow has equipped. That's the huge blue thing hovering in the air behind you, which will do most of the work for you. Various classes allow you to use sword skills, elemental spells, heal magic, set nasty traps, and boost the stats of your team mates. All of this is played out according to the initiative bar at the top of the screen, but what really makes these battles dynamic, complex, and ultimately interesting is the ability to charge all your skills and attacks. When you pick your healing spell or elemental devastation, you'll be presented with a bar that will charge up and delay your attack to wherever you let go of the button. For example, the main character Shu has a Mow Down skill that clobbers everything in the front row. So if your current enemies are set with one in the front and two in the back, it would be a bit of a waste to use, but if you charge up and delay his attack long enough for an ally to take out that front man, the rest move up, and walk right into the path of his unleashed fury. In addition, each attack has a sweet spot. So if you charge it just to the right level, which is sometimes tricky to do, the results will be explosive.
CG quality visuals, a haunting musical score, a kickass battle system, and a storyline with real heart. Blue Dragon has had funding the likes of which other games can only dream of, but it's been put to awe inspiring and innovative use. It's taken the classic Japanese RPG formula, refined it, and draped it a world with a true sense of magic. This is the RPG gamers have been dreaming of ever since they started at a small lump of pixels meant to represent a dashing hero. It's the product of a truly vivid imagination, masterminded by two of the greats of the RPG and manga world, and it's coming all too soon to the Xbox 360.