As a franchise, Blue Dragon has seen its fair share of "re-workings" since it first made an appearance as a jRPG back in August of 2007 on the Xbox 360. It's simple, traditional, yet addicting gameplay shone through the multitude of shooters and 3rd-person titles that littered the console, garnering a generally positive reaction from the gaming community. With its success both in Japan and overseas, two different manga and an anime were green-lighted, as well as the real-time strategy, Nintendo DS "sequel" Blue Dragon Plus, and now most recently, Blue Dragon: Awakened Shadow.
Forgoing both traditional jRPG and real-time strategy mechanics, Blue Dragon: Awakened Shadow jumps head first into the realm of action-RPGs, marking its second appearance on the DS. Can Shu, Marumaro, and the rest of the shadowed gang shift into a world of hacking and slashing? Or should it keep its feet firmly planted in its traditional jRPG ways?
Jumping right into the campaign, which is pretty cut and dry (in terms of the general story, that is), you'll find yourself in control of a customizable character, giving you multiple hair, facial, and other options for making the character your own within the beautiful artwork by series veteran Akira Toriyama. You awaken from a long slumber in a world unbeknownst to you, where Shadows have become the source of everyone's power, whether it be for saving the world or tilling the land. Your wakening sparks a series of events that leads to everyone losing their beloved Shadows, except for yourself, which puts you in charge of uncovering the truth behind these strange occurrences. The story unfolds quite well, but it takes a series enthusiast to really make any sense of it, as the plot takes elements from the previous two games to continue the story. Even if you have played Blue Dragon and Blue Dragon Plus, you may still find it a bit difficult to follow what's going on, for the game is littered with localization errors up until its very final moments.
When it comes down to it, Awakened Shadow is a hack and slash RPG that keeps to the Blue Dragon namesake, but borrows liberally from such greats as Diablo and the new (and cheap!) Torchlight. Instead of skill trees, each Shadow - the Minotaur, Dragon, Beetle, Mecha- Robo, Devil, Phoenix - has its own set of skills that are akin to the atypical classes we've seen in other games, such as warrior, healer, or supporter. It puts a slightly new spin on action- RPG classes, as each Shadow is interchangeable with any of the 9 supporting characters, but it's honestly the same old system with a new coat of paint.
The touch screen is forgone for traditional controls, as you'll repeatedly attack with the face buttons and perform skills by holding down the attack button and cycling through your move set. It's not perfect, for regular attacks are much more effective, quicker, and require no cooldown, but the skills pack a nice little additional punch when needed, and are fairly easy to pull off. However, direct damage abilities are, for the most part, useless, especially since you're forced to remain stationary and withstand a beating from the enemies surrounding you as you select and perform a skill.
While leveling your shadows is one key to surviving the Cube World, you'll also have to heavily customize your equipment on a regular basis by utilizing the finely developedcrafting system. Using a piece of equipment, either a weapon, piece of armor, or accessory, and another of the same variety or other special items, you can strengthen your arsenal. Continuing to upgrade the same piece of equipment will eventually move it to the next grade, ranging from "D," being the lowest, to "S", being the highest. It's relatively simple, but it makes the dungeon crawl much more enjoyable as you'll be finding items left and right to strengthen your equipment or make brand new weapons and armor to help with the throngs of enemies waiting for you in each Cube. There are also hundreds of different kinds of weapons, armor and accessories for you to discover, allowing for a very large amount of customization that fits each and every Shadow-class and play-style.
Along with the somewhat incomprehensible story, Awakened Shadow boasts some other less than desirable problems. While the games looks beautiful - it's definitely one of the best looking games on the Nintendo handheld - the graphical tax on the DS is quite noticeable, as slow down is fairly frequent when in highly populated towns or when there is "too much" going on within any one of the dungeons, and with the amount of enemies you'll encounter, this happens more often than not. The music is great, but is completely rehashed from the previous two games, and the sound effects and very minimal voice work is nothing to write home about. Another problem arises when your shadow levels up. Similar to how performing abilities forces you to stand still, leveling does the same, which provided many cheap, game-ending deaths. It's certainly not a deal-breaker, but when your entire team levels at the same time, and they subsequently die because you're not allowed to move, it's more than a little frustrating, and something that should have definitely been developed more.
However, one aspect of Awakened Shadow that was developed well is the multiplayer. On top of the already lengthy single player story that clocks in around 30 hours, longer if you complete the optional bosses around Jibral, multiplayer adds a hefty amount of co-op missions that can be tackled by up to three people, but are not for the light-hearted. Besides an extra couple of dungeons, the missions are super-powered bosses that will cause instant devastation without some serious grinding in the more difficult single player dungeons. Friend codes are a necessity to connect over WiFi, which can cause problems if you're 24 and don't exactly have a bunch of people around you that own both a DS and the game. When you do connect, however, multiplayer is a challenging blast that provides huge bonuses in the form of high level equipment and rare items to craft the best weapons and armor in the game.
Blue Dragon: Awakened Shadow is quite the lengthy Diablo-esque ordeal that exhibits decent combat, a large amount of sidequests, and superb multiplayer options, yet it fails to achieve its true potential. The consistent slowdown caused by the beautiful visuals, combined with a story that isn't easily accessible for newcomers, and rehashed music keep it from being a must-own title, but if you're into the Blue Dragonlore and have a desire for grinding, then you shouldn't pass it up.