Blue Dragon Plus (DS) review
"Blue Dragon Plus is ultimately too well-designed an RTS to allow for the most basic strategies, but at the same time, it doesn’t offer the most complex, either. Simply grouping all of your units together and rushing mindlessly from one encounter to the next often won’t cut it, especially when the difficulty escalates in the latter half of the adventure. At the same time, attempting to formulate any advanced strategies, trying to really make the most of your available unis, will result in aggravation."
Try to imagine this scenario playing out on the touch screen of your DS. You’re in an icy cavern. There are two parallel hallways diverging from the starting point. They’re both connected to a pair of adjacent chambers, each of which is sealed shut by a thick (but breakable) wall of ice. A character in your party uses a radar to identify considerable enemy presence in each of the chambers, and we get a glimpse of the absolutely monstrous robotic beings lurking behind the ice – each one a boss in and of itself, but none of them demonstrating any urge to break free from their respective caves. All seems well, until the opposing robots appear on the other end of the level, making clear their intent to smash open the walls of ice, thereby unleashing the beasts within upon your team. And there you have one of Blue Dragon Plus’s most brilliant – and frustrating – missions.
The concept for this level is ingeniously thrilling. You’ve got to divide your party into two groups and send them down parallel pathways, each with the goal of wiping out a wave of opponents (and then another!) before the walls are torn down and you’re forced to face off against the terrors that reside within the alcoves. The environment sets your team up for a wealth of close-quarters combat, and moderating your units’ moves on both sides of the field – multitasking is at the root of any decent RTS – is key, as the plan fails if either group grows exceedingly weak, or is brought down entirely. Should any of the enormous robots escape from their cells, you’ve got to regroup, revise your entire strategy, and take each of them on with the full force of your entire party. Surely just one of these monstrosities is too strong to fall to anything but your most powerful blow.
In a truly well-executed RTS, this scenario would be exciting, frantic, and a prime example of how to force players to make split-second decisions, strategize on the move, and take pleasure in victory no matter the outcome: Either soak in the glory of having skillfully prevented the ice walls from breaking, or stand triumphant over the foes you tried so desperately to keep from being set loose. But the level’s extremely tight design works as a detriment rather than an advantage given Blue Dragon Plus’s extremely finicky hit detection. Your units operate as if they’re surrounded by invisible barriers that prevent them from moving within two feet of each other, refusing to overlap even if it’s simply to brush past one another. Fighting in a corridor that is approximately two characters wide – yes, I remember it clearly – is a headache-inducer, since rearrangements are virtually impossible. Say the units in the front are getting low on health, and you want to pull them back for a moment. It means you’ve also got to move the units behind them first, and even they will be extremely hesitant to get too close to one another. All of this fumbling, and the only objective on your mind is to get past the enemies you’re attacking now, in order to take down the ones smashing those walls of ice. Frantic turns to frustrating very quickly.
In the end, I had to battle all four of the monstrous robotic beings, each one an already very slow process made even more maddening by the tight confines of the playing field. When I won, instead of feeling triumphant, I felt cheated. Had this potentially fantastic game been easier to navigate and control, it could have saved me an awful lot of trouble. That’s Blue Dragon Plus.
The game is full-fledged sequel (not a spin-off, as you might believe) to the Xbox 360 title Blue Dragon, which I didn’t care for. Its reliance on old-fashioned JRPG tendencies simply didn’t appeal to me, but considering the complete turnaround the series is making on DS, my thoughts on the original game are irrelevant. (The only complaint that still holds any ground is the stale plot, which I remain indifferent to, despite packing far more CG cutscenes than I’ve seen in any DS game thus far.) Blue Dragon Plus ditches the turn-based battles of its predecessor in favor of the real-time strategy mold. Here’s a genre that seems so perfectly suited to the touch screen that you’d wonder why it isn’t attempted more often. Frankly, one of Blue Dragon Plus’s greatest attributes is its simple, user-friendly interface, which is utilized almost entirely through touch screen input, and is more reliant on symbols and icons than words. It’s always great to see developers applying the touch screen – still an altogether new medium in the gaming industry – to genres we’re already intimately familiar with. In Blue Dragon Plus, for example, I can select multiple units by circling them with the stylus. That’s intuitive.
You’ll be controlling far more characters in Blue Dragon Plus than you did in the original, so it’s only fair that each of them be given his or her own Shadow to balance things out, even if this makes little sense story-wise. Shadows, for those of you unaware, are enormous blue creatures that accompany each character and provide magic-based attacks. Each unit, already varying in speed, defense and attack power, will also learn a set of Shadow skills, and the careful and strategic usage of these skills is what will ultimately win battles. Jiro and Kluke are white and black mages, respectively. The pinnacle of their strength comes not from brute force, but from healing and attack spells. The more combat-centric characters, like Marumaro, use skills that boost their stats. There comes a point where you can even equip new Shadows to existing characters, along with a host of new abilities. It’s a deep, flexible system.
Unfortunately, as I hinted at before, the game in practice is too fussy to perform to its fullest. While the interface is clean and efficient, the pathfinding itself is horrendous. Here’s how this should work: I select a unit, I tell him where to go, and he turns and starts walking in that direction. But the more complicated the instructions become, and the farther away the target location grows, the more confused the party seems by what I’m telling them to do. Attempting to move your entire party across the map will send them meandering off in random directions rather than sticking to a group taking the shortest route. Often times they’ll literally get lost until you revise your instructions, leading to far more babysitting and hand-holding than I care for. The game’s leisurely pace seems to suit it well, but not when characters are this hesitant to use their time wisely.
It should be noted that this is not a game-killing flaw – you won’t lose any battles because of it – but, added with your characters’ inability to get close to one another, it makes unit placement a moot point in the Blue Dragon Plus universe. Which is a shame, because with the introduction of each new character, the game actually offers hints on how best to physically utilize them in conjunction with the other units on the playing field. It’s suggested, for example, that Jibral’s high defense makes him well-suited as a “human shield” between other attackers… Helpful advice, perhaps, but good luck actually aligning your units in such a way. Likewise, Jiro’s healing spells have a very limited radius, and he often has to be standing directly next to his intended targets for the spell to hit. Again, good luck actually rearranging your units in such a way that makes this possible.
Micromanagement in this sense is a frustratingly executed element of Blue Dragon Plus, made all the more maddening by the number of genuinely smart choices the game design takes. I was consistently surprised by the varied level design, which usually offers the simple "defeat all enemies" objective but frequently raises the stakes, as well. (The defense missions are particularly intense, as they demonstrate a level of aggression from the opposition that is otherwise rarely seen.) Playing fields are always fairly small but make the most of their space, sometimes even offering puzzles that are incorporated into the battles themselves. Unlike its predecessor, Blue Dragon Plus doesn’t overstay its welcome, but even a 20-hour game can get old very fast if repetition sets in. I give the game credit for keeping my interest despite its flaws.
Blue Dragon Plus is ultimately too well-designed an RTS to allow for the most basic strategies, but at the same time, it doesn’t offer the most complex, either. Simply grouping all of your units together and rushing mindlessly from one encounter to the next often won’t cut it, especially when the difficulty escalates in the latter half of the adventure. At the same time, attempting to formulate any advanced strategies, trying to really make the most of your available unis, will result in aggravation. Blue Dragon Plus is a frustrating experience not because it’s a bad game, but because it’s a good game doing bad things.
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