Though Blue Dragon can't claim the mantle of the first next-gen role-playing game, a title which goes to Enchanted Arms, it's already well on-track to be the most successful RPG on the Xbox 360. Following the game's recent Japanese release, Blue Dragon sold in excess of 80,000 copies, making it the fourth best selling game in Japan between December 4th and 10th. Furthermore, sales of the Xbox 360 increased almost nine times over those of the previous week, from 4,000 to 35,000. This boost caused the Xbox 360 to temporarily outsell the PlayStation 2, a mighty feat considering the low sales of Microsoft's system in Japan.
Most of this success belongs to the all-star cast behind Blue Dragon. Hironubu Sakaguchi, the man responsible for the popular Final Fantasy series, handled the game design through the recently formed Mistwalker studio. Akira Toriyama, famed creator of Dragon Ball Z, infused Blue Dragon's many characters with his distinctive style. Nobuo Uematsu, renowned for his musical compositions in the Final Fantasy series, scored the game's numerous events.
As if the trifecta of talent wasn't enough, a snazzy hardware bundle further enticed buyers, including an Xbox 360, a copy of Blue Dragon, five collectible figurines, a mini-calendar and a limited edition Blue Dragon faceplate—all selling for the low price of 29,800 yen, which converts to about US$250. However, impressive sales and goodies fail to convey much about the actual game itself.
Without giving too much away, Blue Dragon follows Shu and his friends as they find themselves capable of manifesting their actions through surprisingly powerful shadows. Not long after, the main cast sets off on a grand adventure that, in true RPG fashion, determines the fate of the world.
Mirroring the advances of many other role-playing games, the game lacks random encounters as the monsters are now visible on the overworld and within dungeons. However, Blue Dragon takes this concept a bit further than other games. By creating an area circle around Shu via the right trigger, players engage enemies caught within that circle at the same time, thus combining many small battles into one big brawl. Even better, the food chain is in full effect here—stronger monsters will attack weaker monsters—adding yet another twist to the battle mechanics. Given that enemies stalk Shu throughout dungeons, the area circle lends to a new approach towards battles, in which players lure groups of opposing species together and reap the rewards of natural selection.
Once in battle, Blue Dragon appears to be a traditional turn-based role-playing game. After selecting an action from the menu, however, it must be charged. Holding the A button fills a gauge, with a glowing area representing the point at which the action will be most powerful. This gauge determines when the selected action will occur, with different notches and character portraits indicating who will act in what order. The balance between optimal power and optimal timing adds a whole other degree to battle planning, one made all the more complicated as the charge bar often fills at an irregular pace.
Furthering battle and character development, the character's shadows have a variety of selectable classes they can specialize in. Allowing players to choose which areas a character becomes proficient in, these classes provide characters with additional abilities as they gain Shadow Points from battle. These abilities can then be mixed and matched with others, permitting a nice degree of character customization.
Blue Dragon also places special emphasis on exploration. Almost every on-screen object—a tree, a well, a jar—can be inspected, often rewarding the player with not just items, but stat bonuses as well. These objects bear no special marking, which will leave the diehard player inspecting nearly every object across the three-disc adventure.
For all the smart decisions that went into the game, the Japanese release of Blue Dragon contains one extremely odd feature: a soft female voice narrates the on-screen events. When inspecting an object, the voice audibly reports the outcome, be it "item" or "nothing." When a cutscene ends and control returns to the player, the voice states "playable." With no clear purpose, the function of this voice within the game is questionable and its implementation distracting, something that will hopefully be resolved in the eventual English localization.
As for when that English release will be, Microsoft isn't saying quite yet, nor is there any word if American audiences will receive any of those nifty limited edition goodies. Yet as evidenced by the recent boost of hardware sales in Japan, Blue Dragon's light-hearted charm and role-playing goodness fills a lacking aspect of the Xbox 360's lineup, so expect more details on its domestic release within the coming months.