For JRPG junkies, the mid-Naughties brought about dark and desperate times, with the shiny new Xbox 360 playing host to a slew of shooters, sports titles and not a whole lot else. Then, like a solitary ray of sunshine piercing the ominous grey skies, Blue Dragon arrived: a game with a pedigree powerful enough to cause foam-at-the-mouth excitement. Born in the mind of Hironobu Sakaguchi, the creator of the Final Fantasy series, Blue Dragon was considered the first 'next-gen' JRPG. Although welcomed by the starving role playing community with open arms, it wasn't without its flaws, and certainly not a patch on Sakaguchi's 2007 offering, Lost Odyssey. Still, it was a quality product, and in no way deserves a title like Awakened Shadow soiling its good name.
The third game to bear the Blue Dragon name takes the spotlight off Shu and his cohorts and shines it on a nameless character cobbled together in the menu screens preceding the start of the story. No matter the arrangement of eyes, skin tones and hair styles you mash together, your character will always look natural alongside the rest of the game's cast, as if Akira Toriyama himself had designed the character. Ultimately, though, your choices within this customisation framework are trivial. Your character's funky hairdo is covered with a helmet or hat for the majority of the game, and nobody's ever going to see the colour of his eyes with the small 3D models that constitute the game's graphics.
After a brief tutorial in which players wrestle with basics of combat as Nene - the series' iconic purple villain - your character awakens from a deep and dreamless slumber. Not surprisingly, he's gone and done what all too many JRPG heroes do, and lost his memory. Surfacing from the mysterious underground compound where he slept, he finds himself in the kingdom of Neo Jibral, where he bumps into Shu and company. Two years after the events of Blue Dragon, everybody can now summon Shadow Guardians; in the first game it was only the protagonists who could do this. That said, your character's arrival coincides with a blinding flash of white light, which robs the town of its abilities, rendering it powerless against the hordes of monsters lurking at its gates. Given that our amnesiac hero is the only person able to use a Shadow (his being the titular Blue Dragon), he's drafted into a quest to discover the source of the light and restore power to the town.
Your character isn't expected to do this all on his tod, however, and is joined by numerous allies along the way, including Kluke, Jiro and Marumaro from the first game. They won't join without reason, however, and must first be goaded into helping in the form of a side quest. The recruitment process is fairly uninspired, and simply involves talking to a character and solving whatever problem they might have. Usually this involves fighting a bunch of monsters on their behalf, after which they'll offer their services as thanks. You might assume that because everybody's lost their shadow abilities that they'd be pretty useless in battle. Not so. With an unexplained power, our hero is able to 'share' his Shadow with his friends, allowing them to call upon huge blue beasties of their own. This 'sharing' of powers is top of a list I've put together titled, "Plot Devices in Awakened Shadow That Don't Make an Ounce of Sense". It's a long list.
Unlike the original, combat takes place in real-time - a welcome new direction for the series. Simple sword strikes are executed with a tap of the A button, whilst holding it down a little longer will unleash your character's Shadow. From here, a range of powerful spells and healing magic can be cast, after which your Shadow will return to whence it came. Defensive moves are mapped to the B button, and can be used in conjunction with the d-pad to roll your character in a desired direction. Combat on the whole is a solid enough affair, if a little sluggish. Shadow moves seem to take an age to execute, and evasion is equally as unresponsive. Party AI is frighteningly bad too, with characters who are bewildered by the concept of evasion and end up getting themselves killed every five seconds. Still, there are worse things in this game than combat.
Given the fact that I'd sculpted my character with my own hands (or at least tapped the relevant body parts with my own stylus), it would have been nice if he shut his mouth and let me simpy infer his side of conversations. This is standard protocol for player-created characters (with the exception of Mass Effect and a few others); avatars trump characters whenever customisation's involved, I've always felt. Awakened Shadow ignores this philosophy, however, with a protagonist who converses with all the conviction of a plank of wood. He offers blindingly obvious observations, gets excited about the most mundane of things and uses the words 'woah' and 'huh' with alarmingly frequency. The rest of the cast are no better, collectively contributing to one of the worst scripts I've had the displeasure of reading.
Localisation is to blame, of course. Throughout the adventure, others will refer to your character as "they", which is the source of much confusion. It surely wouldn't have been that hard to add a line of code into the game to differentiate between male and female characters; I'm not sure if the fault here lies with the translators or with the original coders, but either way it's a botched job. The script is also riddled with spelling and grammar mistakes too, and generally reads like it was written by a linguistically-challenged six year-old.
Thankfully, Awakened Shadow does have some redeeming qualities. Equipment changes are reflected in your in-game appearance, a fairly in-depth item synthesis feature makes sure that old equipment will never go to waste, and up to three players can join your game world for multiplayer monster-slaying antics. And yet thanks to the combination of character customisation and cutesy anime visuals, there's something distressingly familiar about Awakened Shadow. It's a poor man's Dragon Quest IX; a game that shamelessly takes from Square Enix's recent epic, but fails to create an experience that's half as good.
It upsets me to speak about a Blue Dragon game with such venom - this is a franchise I'd really like to see succeed. The truth of the matter, though, is that Awakened Shadow is a sub-par RPG, with sub-par role-playing and sub-par storytelling. Considering the game combines the talents of both Mistwalker and tri-Crescendo - two incredibly experienced studios when it comes to JRPGs - Awakened Shadow can only be considered a major disappointment. My advice would be to forget it ever happened, and to keep those fingers crossed for a proper Blue Dragon 2 release in the near future.