Awakened Shadow is the third RPG game in Hironobu Sakaguchi’s Blue Dragon series. Developed at Mistwalker Studios, this iteration also marks the third completely new gameplay style after the turn-based tactics of the original and the RTS stylings of Blue Dragon Plus. Awakened Shadow has a more real-time action RPG flavour than its predecessors, but when a series swaps styles more often than a quick-change magic act it’s difficult to feel comfortable with any one type of gameplay.
The game starts off with you creating your hero; you choose a gender and then an assortment of features from the range of tiny lips, wide eyes and improbable hairstyles on offer. The list of options isn’t exactly extensive, with the madcap hair colours and styles being the main way to differentiate any two custom heroes – although for the majority of the game this will be a moot point as your character will be wearing a helmet. The character design is handled by legendary manga artist Akira Toriyama, the man behind Dragon Ball Z and Dragon Quest 9, which this game resembles in more than just looks. Toriyama’s artwork lends the game a whimsical charm that really adds personality to this otherwise me-too RPG.
Once you’ve made your little work of anime art and passed a brief tutorial your character wakes up in an unfamiliar underwater base with absolutely no memory. If we’d been paid a pound for every time we’d woken up as a character with amnesia we wouldn’t remember where we’d put all the money. In all truthfulness the ‘I don’t remember anything’ storyline is just old RPG hat now and a shortcut to creating mystery without actually creating a mystery – it shows a lack of imagination.
Somewhat mysteriously, as your mysterious amnesiac awakens in their underwater hibernation chamber a sinister light snatches the power granting shadows of everybody on the outside, which is quite clearly an omen for some oncoming disaster. Strangely when your lad or lass stumbles blindly into the light waving their still-working shadow around like nobody's business, nobody actually seems to think it’s their business. Newborn babies could put two and two together faster than the residents of Neo Jibral. As the only one with a shadow left it is clearly your job to sort this problem out, even though you don’t know what day of the week it is.
The initial part of the main quest in Blue Dragon sees you fighting monsters and fetching items for the characters you meet in towns. Characters will become your friends if you do a good deed for them; befriending a character means that you will share your shadow with them and can choose them to fight alongside you as one of your two AI companions. The motley crew of Shu, Kluke and Jiro return from the previous instalments, as well as a wacky cast of other characters like the ageing battle-mad blacksmith.
The slightly narrow gameplay of the initial few hours opens up once you get your hands on a Mechat, a flying ship capable of travelling between the game's cube worlds. However, once you’ve chosen a cube to land on, the populace always seems to have similar problems that can only be remedied by typical go-here-kill-that-bring-this-back questing. There are some interesting side quests and mini-game moments such as the awesome item fusion pot that allows you to merge unwanted weapons and armour with gems and other trinkets to form powerful new kit. Boss fights also break up the pace a bit, but for the majority of time you’ll be trawling through dungeons laying waste to wildlife and machines.
All the combat in Awakened Shadow is done in real time. Your character can attack with a currently equipped weapon, block, dodge and use special attacks by charging up their current shadow. In Blue Dragon characters don’t have stats, instead all abilities are conferred by shadows, with three available at the beginning each with varying stats and moves. Experience points that you earn level up the shadow following you around, letting them learn new moves and eventually allowing you to access more powerful shadows.
The combat is fun and engaging providing you’ve done the grinding, as should you be under-levelled, even by only one or two, you’ll know about it pretty sharpish. When you run out of HP in a battle it’s not the end of the world as wounded characters are knocked down for about thirty seconds, and as long as one member of the party remains alive, they’ll get back up. However, it doesn’t help that both your AI partners seem to have made a suicide pact, opting for the "rush headlong into battle and ending up prone within ten seconds" plan of action – every time.
With both partners floored most boss battles end up with you running around the arena desperately trying to stay out of the boss's way until your buddies get back up, which is difficult considering that most attacks home in on you even if you’ve dodged out of the way. In these situations even attempting to charge a healing spell leaves you wide open to hits and you’ll often lose the fight by doing anything other than legging it – which to some extent does make battles quite intense, if a little one-sided.
You can even the odds by finding a couple of friends to play with, either over local wireless connection or online. Early in the game mystical doors that house individual boss battles appear throughout Neo Jibral, and tackling these challenges with other players shows off the game's combat in the best light. When you can co-ordinate attacks and healing without having to worry about the AI getting you killed, the tactical combat really shines. If you can’t find any friends to game with you can opt to play with random adventurers; that is of course if you can find any. The matchmaking struggles to find people, and even if you do manage to get a group of mighty soldiers together it’ll all be over quicker than a keg party when the police turn up.
Battles would be a touch easier were they not hampered by the control scheme. Awakened Shadow offers players a choice of two control schemes: a traditional D-Pad input and stylus controlled, but neither seems to feel like the definitive control method. The stylus controls are fine for the movement and menu navigation, but in battles your character can be slow to respond to your deft strokes and taps of the touch screen – meaning you end up dead.
Similarly the button input means that you have to hold the attack button to charge shadow power for special moves, a feat that the stylus method accomplishes with a tap of an icon. This not only wastes valuable seconds, but by having to press and hold the attack button it forces your character to swing their weapon as well, often making whichever boss you happen to be in the process of slaying turn around and clout you in the face. Some combination of the two control schemes seems to work the best. Although it’s not ideal, using button input for combat and movement and the stylus to navigate the menus works far better than using a single scheme. Once you’ve got the knack for combat you can start to enjoy the taxing battles - provided you are levelled up enough, that is.
With Awakened Shadow you’ll probably spend a quarter of your game time just watching it. There is a heavy emphasis on cutscenes and, pretty though they are, the slow pace and hammy dialogue put a dampener on the story telling. There is an option to skip cinematic segments, but doing so often leaves you in the dark as to what’s going on. The music, although not exceptional, does the job nicely, butit’s a shame the same can’t be said for the voice acting. The majority of characters sound overly peppy, like they’ve had too much sugar and a knock on the head, and the dialogue doesn’t help this as it’s just cringe-worthy in places.
Voice acting is only present on certain pieces of dialogue and often only for a single sentence, which can be a bit weird when it’s in the middle of a long conversation, but at least you don’t have to hear it too often. Unfortunately these little gripes and general lack of gusto make most of the narrative fall flat. We can’t rule out that perhaps some of the gravitas of the story was lost in translation, but what we’ve lost in emotional meaning, we make up for with an epic enemy name translation in the ‘Poo Snake’… go us!
Blue Dragon: Awakened Shadow is a bit ho-hum. The majority of its quests feel inconsequential and the battles normally see you scampering away as if the former half of the fight or flight reaction never existed. Though once it finally gets going and you’ve adjusted to its play style there is definite fun to be had in this dungeon-crawling, monster-brawling action RPG, but it will always feel a little middle of the road. There are glimpses of a good game in Blue Dragon, but they, like Shu and company, are constantly overshadowed.