It seems odd that Blue Dragon Plus, the Nintendo DS spin-off from 2007's not-quite-as-good-as-everybody-had-hoped Xbox 360-exclusive JRPG Blue Dragon, exists. In the West, Blue Dragon didn't exactly set critics, or tills, alight. But in Japan, Blue Dragon is massive. Out there the Hironobu Sakaguchi-designed universe has its own anime series and manga. Perhaps it would be more accurate, then, to say that it's odd that Blue Dragon Plus exists in the West.
For the uninitiated, Blue Dragon tells the tale of a young spiky-haired (of course) lad called Shu, who, along with an eclectic assortment of similarly anime-styled party members, can manifest their shadows into powerful blue beasts (like dragons... see?). These 'Shadows' sprout up from the ground, dealing over-the-shoulder death in spectacular fashion. At the end of Blue Dragon, an evil 'Ancient' called Nene was thought dead, an army of evil robots was thought decommissioned for good and, with the world's core opened, cubes were left floating in space.
Blue Dragon Plus is set a year after those events. King Jibral and Zola, two of first game's main characters, witness a mysterious dragon sprout from one of the floating cubes. Cue impending doom, an inevitable reunion and hours of stereotypically nonsensical JRPG plot unravelling.
If you're having trouble catching up, too bad. And don't expect the game to wait for you either. There isn't one word of dialogue or a single FMV devoted to recounting what went before, or explaining just what a 'Destroy' is, or why everyone's eating spherical souls, or just how the hell are people doing that with their shadows anyway? The game chucks you in at the deep end, introduces characters faster than any RPG I've ever played, and watches gleefully as you sink or swim. Blue Dragon Plus is definitely a game for fans, and doesn't suffer newbies gladly.
The gameplay's a fairly standard mix of isometric real-time strategy and story-progressing cutscenes (in-game and via FMV), nothing we haven't seen on the DS before. Indeed cynics might accuse it of being nothing more than developer Brownie Brown's last DS game, Heroes of Mana, in a Blue Dragon skin. Battles begin with pre-set win conditions - defeat all enemies, defeat big boss - then it's up to you to move your troops, usually no more than a handful at a time, about the arena taking down monsters. At its most basic, selecting a party member by touching it with the stylus, then touching an enemy somewhere on the map will make that character scuttle off for some up close and personal melee. You're able to cycle through characters with a button on the right of the bottom screen (where all the action takes place), select all with another button, or freeze time with another, freeing you up to draw a circle for manual selection.
Unfortunately there are some crippling control, AI and pathfinding problems that you just can't ignore. For one, touching the bottom screen deselects the units you've already selected. So, for example, say you select all units then send them off to attack a monster, then decide you want to change the victim of your attack, you have to select them all again to do it. This just isn't how RTS games work. It can often be extremely fiddly selecting the unit you want, too. Despite the fact you can change the angle of the isometric view, sprites can overlap quite considerably, making swift and accurate character selection a chore. Because of this, cycling through your party members is often the safest way of getting to who you want, but it shouldn't have to be like that.
Even worse, your party will just stand there like dribbling vegetables even when there's a monster standing right next to them. This flaw is most noticeable once you've defeated a monster that's right next to another one. Unless it attacks you your units will just stand there admiring the 16-bit quality graphics.
Most frustrating of all, however, is the awful pathfinding. Talk about taking the scenic route - your units will often move back and forth like demented robots as they try and work out how to get to that monster you've just told them to attack. Pathfinding success seems completely random, too. Some of your units will speed off as the crow flies, others will run around in circles.
Still, you can just about manage. The game's clearly aimed at younger gamers, with Pokemon-quality dialogue and cute, colourful anime characters, so the challenge it poses is never too difficult (rushing the nearest enemy seems to work in almost every scenario). The fact that every character has access to a Medicine skill, which instantly restores some life, tells its own story. So, the frankly shoddy controls and AI are never exposed to a great degree.
Where Blue Dragon Plus disappoints most, however, is in just how bland it is. The characters might have been designed by Final Fantasy creator and JRPG legend Hironobu Sakaguchi, but they fail to stand out from the overpopulated spiky-haired crowd. The plot's predictable, the music's staid and the graphics certainly aren't up there with the best the DS has to offer. In fact, Blue Dragon Plus shares a lot with its big brother, Blue Dragon - we've seen it all before.
In its defence, there's a bright and breezy feel to the game, with a compelling reward structure and skill system that, if you fancy putting in the effort, lets you tinker with character-specific support abilities and Shadow powers. There's nothing here that will surprise RPG fans, and because of the easy difficulty you never really need to employ tactics or strategy, but there is fun to be had in trying out new Shadow powers as your party members level up.
All told, experienced gamers will be better off with Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings, which admittedly suffers from similar problems but is an altogether more captivating DS RTS. Blue Dragon fans will probably be willing to put up with the game's failings, simply because it's more Blue Dragon. Everyone else, avoid.