The Rule of St. Benedict, a book of precepts written in 516, has as one of its mottos the prase ‘ora et labora’–that is, ‘pray and work’. The same phrase may well be both suitable advice and warning for would-be-players of Blue Dragon: Awakened Shadow. You will work. Pray that the end comes swiftly.
Blue Dragon: Awakened Shadow is the sequel to a sequel: the storyline takes place a year after Blue Dragon Plus which itself takes place one year after the original Blue Dragon. Hence, in the world of Awakened Shadow, former-staff member Oliver ‘Joliver “Meta ‘Riddles’ Ridley” Biebtok’ Motok (born at the release of the original title) is a toddling two-year old, and accordingly I named my chibi-style player character after him. This proved propitious, because the character’s limited appearance options, annoying voice, and shonen-style personality ensured that I quickly came to hate him just as much as his namesake.
As pictured above, there is a ‘robust for its day’ (read: ‘rudimentary’) character creation system, primarily due to the hardware limitations of the Nintendo DS and Mistwalker’s direct incorporation of the limited Mii-style customisation options. This is not the only thing cribbed from an existing product: the music was likewise lifted wholesale from the original Blue Dragon. But, in order to deliver the exceptional orchestral soundtrack (composed by Nobuo Uematsu!) of the original title on a small cartridge, the Blue Dragon soundtrack was reduced down into a Nintendo DS synth-chip driven version which, the attentive listener will concur, never gets too close to being bearable. To distract from its shortcomings, the Awakened Shadow soundtrack is supplemented throughout with low-quality voice effects. In order that the player will have a better chance of understanding what they say–an admittedly difficult challenge given the abysmally low bitrate of the sound effects–the developers decided to have the voice clips play constantly during combat, in which they often overlap and cut each other off. Despite the development team’s commendable effort to foster understanding, this reviewer still has no idea what was being conveyed by the voice clips other than, perhaps, cries for the sweet mercy of death. They went unanswered.
The graphics are the sort of thing with which Nintendo DS players will be well familiar: Final Fantasy III & IV, Four Heroes of Light, the remakes of SaGa 2 & SaGa 3, and so on. The characters are chibi, polygonal abominations, with low-resolution textures that natheless find ample opportunity to affect the overall framerate and control response. The result is a game that plays ‘heavily’, even sluggishly in places, and which treats the character polygon models with the sort of capriciousness that would not be out of place in a bottom-drawer Chinese knock-off title from The Plop.
Repeatedly in combat, felled or stunned characters would have their models glitched and pushed around the battlefield because of collision with the monster models. Apparently, not content to kill the party, the monsters in Awakened Shadow literally seek to jump upon them in hobnail boots. This they can never do, and so the battlefield becomes an ice rink of sliding character corpses which the player must chase about in hope of resurrecting them. Truth be told, there is something humorous, albeit macabre, in trying to chase the elusive, ambulatory corpses of the loathesome Blue Dragon characters in order to raise them to life, almost as if they would prefer to stay dead. Understandable, really–not being involved is clearly the least painful option.
In this final entry in the Blue Dragon series, the main characters from the previous Blue Dragon games join the party as AI characters to supplement the player-created avatar. A flash of light early in the game deprives the AI characters of their shadows–such as the titular ‘Blue Dragon’–and only the player-avatar retains the ability to summon a shadow. However, he (or she, if the player desires) can share his shadows with the AI characters. There is an almost Persona-like quality to the Shadows, with their stats and different abilities–but only almost, because the number of Shadows is very small and the complexity of the system is limited. In reality, most of the game can be played with relatively little shadow switching.
Once again, the developers seem to have been cognisant of the lack of depth on offer, and so sought to remedy the situation by adding content. This comes in the form of QUESTS(!), which every RPG fan thinks are wonderful and very great indeed. The quests can be picked up in the QUEST HUB of Neo Jibral, where the player will be spending quite a lot of time. And if a player does not want to play the QUESTS(!), then no problem: they are totally tacked-on and utterly inconsequential to the story line, so skipping them means nothing of value is lost. Of course, this does seem to suggest that the QUESTS(!) are actually garbage and filler, but this reviewer certainly does not want to convey that impression. Indeed not.
As for the rest of the gameplay–and there are about 25-30 hours of it in the main story–Awakened Shadow ditches the turn-based battle system of the original Blue Dragon, which was by far the most appealing facet of the original game. Instead, an Action RPG system is implemented, in which the character runs up to monsters and presses controller buttons to kick and stab them in the futile hope that by so doing the player can defeat the existential dread brought on by pouring the dwindling, finite hours of their mortal existence into the reified drudgery that is the Awakened Shadow cartridge. The attempt can never succeed. The only hope is that–sheltered from all that is good and bright–the player’s limited experience of the world can afford them the delusion that Awakened Shadow is actually a good game, a laudable title, possessed of some meritable quality.
But that is only delusion. In the end, Awakened Shadow is not a good game: it is a depressingly mediocre and poor title, the weakest of a never-more-than-adequate series which was put out of its misery by the underwhelming release of this Final Failure. And so in the ultimate analysis, Mistwalker have proven to be no better than Square Enix in understanding why their games succeed and why they fail: rather than identify the truth that classic gameplay was the single most important thing that kept players (and their money) coming back, the developers fell for the ego-boosting derangement that it was actually the ‘incredible characters’ and ‘moving storyline’ that kept copies flying out the door. The problem with this delusion is that the template for a Traditional JRPG is a trope-ridden psychotic episode, not Hamlet with EXP and a catchy battle theme.
Because, like that famous Danish prince, I, too, could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I play bad games–Awakened Shadow finds no favour here. It is, in fact, something worse than a truly terrible game: it is aggressively mediocre. A terrible game may be worse, but in its terribleness it will be remembered. Awakened Shadow, on the other hand, will be justly forgotten, never to be played by some earnest future gamer. It is the last, mediocre entry in a mediocre franchise–a franchise which began with promises of greatness that went, sadly, unfulfilled.
Title: Blue Dragon: Awakened Shadow
Genre: Action Role-playing
Developer: Mistwalker / tri-Crescendo / Namco
Publisher: D3 Publisher
Platform Reviewed: Nintendo DS
Release Date: 8 October 2009 (Nintendo DS, Japan)