Blue Dragon as a surprising success when it burst onto the scene a couple of years ago, and like any unexpected hit, that means that sequels are inevitable. In fact, two new Blue Dragon games have been released in as many years, with the latest entry being Blue Dragon: Awakened Shadow. This new game once again rewrites the rules of the franchise, but while this whole new direction creates a decent new experience, a lack of polish clearly shows through and mars the entry. This is one of those titles that is fun for a while, but it doesn't have the holding power to keep players engaged for the duration of the adventure.
While Awakened Shadow still features series mainstays such as Shu and Kluke, the traditional cast is actually somewhat pushed to the sidelines with the inclusion of a customizable main character. Right from the outset, players get to create an avatar to represent them in-game, and this created hero then becomes the focal point of the story. While many RPGs may allow players to create a hero, this fresh character is often quickly pushed out of the spotlight in favor of the established cast. That's not the case here, as the new guy (or gal) is front and center throughout the story, which is a nice change of pace.
The plot is mildly convoluted and mostly forgettable. Taking place two years after the conclusion of the original Blue Dragon, the new game finds every layperson able to use Shadows and thus civilization has become dependent on magic and supernatural skills. Suddenly, a flash of light steals away the world's Shadows, and only the created hero can still wield his or her power uninterrupted. As expected, society plunges into chaos, and the townsfolk beg the player (accompanied by the Blue Dragon regulars) to discover the reason for this sudden upheaval and restore order.
The plot quickly falls apart, though, as the game proceeds to dish out quests in a sort of à la carte manner rather than providing any real structure. New challenges are discovered by chatting with townspeople, and it's hard to know which missions are intended to advance the plot and which are being utilized to recruit new party members or find some treasure. Things get doubly hard to follow when early on, mysterious doors begin appearing around the game's home base, each of which leads to a self-contained boss battle but nothing else. If you put away the title for a week and then come back later, you'll likely end up totally lost.
Awakened Shadow also tinkers with the franchise's gameplay mechanics, eschewing the turn-based combat of the original in favor of real-time skirmishes. The controls of this new system are solid, and players can enter commands either via the touch-screen or buttons. Unfortunately, the camera can be particularly finicky, and players may take some cheap hits when swinging it around to see the enemy who is attacking them.
The other big issue with combat is teammate AI, which is extremely spotty. Allies tend to wade right into fights without any strategy whatsoever, and they'll keep hacking away at enemies regardless of their current state of health or magic. Ultimately, players end up babysitting more than fighting, so those who aren't predisposed to healing magic might end up frustrated with how much time they spend healing and how little time they spend swinging a sword.
While the combat in Awakened Shadow is occasionally entertaining, it's clear that this is a first attempt. The fighting lacks much depth or variety, and the behavior of allies isn't up to snuff with the higher pedigree action RPG games out there. It would be nice to say that the system will be improved with the next series entry, but given the franchise's penchant for changing play styles every time a new game is released, the next Blue Dragon will likely be a card battle game or something else exceptionally different.
Even though the combat isn't all that memorable, the game offers a simple but deep crafting system that loot hounds will absolutely adore. Tossing practically any two items into the pot will lead to a brand-new creation, and even when players aren't crafting totally new weapons, armor or accessories, they can gain access to strengthened versions of the weapons they're already carrying. It's easy to lose a lot of time (and gold) in the item combination portion of the game, which proves that it's an incredibly effective setup.
Another major addition that will hopefully stick around for the long term is the multiplayer system introduced in Awakened Shadow, which will feel very familiar to those who have delved into the Monster Hunter franchise. Players can easily jump into a lobby with other human players and then set out on quests and boss fights, which are completely unrelated to the single-player quest. Obviously, jumping aboard a game with other real people eliminates the dunderhead AI, so you can easily get a taste of how much fun the game could be in a perfect world. The only downside is finding a group to play with, as we all know that as games age, their online community quickly shrinks down to nearly nothing if their name isn't Halo or Modern Warfare. Those who can get a group together to play a few missions will likely have a whole lot of fun.
The Blue Dragon series is a lot like a teenager in that it is still trying to find its place in the world and is going through a lot of growing pains in the process. Awakened Shadow is a net positive, but there's almost nothing about it that makes it stand apart from other titles in the genre. Everything is functional, and nothing is extraordinary; the game is interesting, but it's not particularly entertaining. For the curious, the title is a decent rental, but don't be surprised if you quickly lose interest and never get around to finishing. Has the Blue Dragon franchise already begun to fizzle out? Sadly, it's starting to look that way.
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