Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Possibly Unique Experience

I mentioned some time ago that I had picked up a used copy of Blue Dragon for a family-wide Japanese roleplaying fix. We have soldiered through the first two discs of the journey and are approaching the title's home stretch. While not a bad game, Blue Dragon does little to pull the player into its experience. The Final Fantasy X meets Shadow Hearts combat and character advancement systems are capable yet unastounding (two different genera of experience points is so 16-bit), and the plot is far from redemptive (did the villain ever actually tell us his name?). Perhaps the worst offense is the lack of sidequests; the first two thirds of the game have Tidus and Wakka scoffing at their linearity. For an explorer like myself, this is almost three strikes in one.

Blue Dragon also boasts a maddening set of Achievements, requiring flawless runs of banal minigames and outrageous amounts of experience grinding. I almost consider the awards for maxing out all job levels to be a badge of shame, but the bestiary completion is unforgivable. Some of the game's enemies only appear when summoned by other foes, and these latter opponents can be killed with one-turn simplicity. This means that, in a sense, players are punished for efficient character building and may never know where to find those missing creatures. I consider that poor, poor design. Although I do not play games for the mere sake of elevating my Gamerscore (note the absence of Yaris and Fuzion Frenzy 2 from my list of played games), Mistwalker almost seems to thumb its nose at the modern Achievement insanity, declaring that only the truly hardcore can claim its prizes.

"Where is the uniqueness here?" the gallery cries. In answer to that question, I have noticed that the most hardcore way to play Blue Dragon might not involve any of the niggling things I wrote above. In a bizarre twist of fate, a player can finish Blue Dragon, all the way to the closing credit scroll, without earning a single Achievement. I am aware of no other 'completable' game with this odd feature; heck, almost all games award a token for simply plowing to the finale.

What makes this 'zero-Gamerscore' approach hardcore? Avoiding Achievements actually makes the game harder, as you must meticulously avoid ambushing monsters and fight multiple opponents one by one by one for the title's full length. If either a back attack or a multi-monster fight occurs, the run is impossible for that particular user, as there is no way to 'relock' an earned Achievement. Experience grinding must be tempered by the inability to hit the level cap, and the player must manage his or her finances to avoid collecting one million gold. Finally, nothing in a player's Gamertag can, in any way, prove that this ridiculous event has occurred; this is a maneuver for personal pride and nothing more. I doubt Mistwalker planned it, but this anti-achievement is of NetHack proportions.

Game well, and note that my list of played games is not indicative of attempting this silliness.

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