There's a good reason why you should be interested in Blue Dragon Plus - it's developed by Mistwalker, the studio founded by Hironobu Sakaguchi. Saka-who-i? You know, the chap who gave birth to the Final Fantasy franchise way back when and worked as producer on the series up until IX.
Mistwalker have already released two RPGs for Xbox 360 over here (Lost Odyssey and the original Blue Dragon, both of which were well received critically, if not commercially successful), but this is their first European release on a Nintendo platform.
Oddly, Plus is set a year after the end of the first game, being a continuation of the story and featuring the same set of characters. We say oddly because obviously the original only appeared on Xbox and we can't see there'd be a huge amount of crossover between audiences. Still, a hefty introduction to each of the characters at the start of Plus will fill in the gaps for newcomers, and there's enough of a standalone plot for the game to hold its own.
Therein lies a tail
The story boils down to this: at the end of the last game a band of adventurers saw off the evil Nene and saved their world from tyrannical oppression. Assisting them in their task were their Shadows, beasts held within each character which could be summoned during battle to unleash heavy attacks on enemies. One year on and everything appears peaceful, until Nene rises again after his minions locate his soul (the life essence at the centre of all the Shadow powers in the game). Cue more hardy adventuring from the crew.
The story is delivered through fully rendered cutscenes and text-only nattering between characters. Although there's no voice-acting, the text translation from Japanese is a polished one. A good job too, what with so much dialogue to wade through when you're not scrapping, especially in the opening hour or so while the introductions are being made. (Incidentally, you don't make any dialogue choices, such as choosing a response to a question.)
The cutscenes run across both the top and bottom screens and the final version promises around an hour of video. They're reasonable quality and lend a nice sense of scale to proceedings. For example, early on in the game you're battling a giant Sentinel robot which doesn't look particularly threatening in pixel form, but then you get to see a short movie of it bursting through a ceiling to land in front of your dwarfed party. It's really nice to see the DS pumping this out.
Combat in the Xbox game was a turn-based affair but on DS the scrapping - of which there is a lot - plays out in real time. In fact, you could almost label this a real-time strategy game more than an RPG. When you start out there are just the three people in your party and only a few enemies to face, so things are relatively simple.
However, it's not long before more friends join you, battlefields become crowded and things get frantic. You need to click on an individual character to take control of hem, then select where to move them and what kind of Shadow attack you'll dish out once you've reached your target. It sounds simple enough but certain enemies are vulnerable to certain attack types (as ever with a Sakaguchi game, this is all based around the elements) and you'll need to tailor strikes accordingly.
Then there's the fact that you'll need to do this for each member of your party while the enemy is busy trying to claw everyone's faces off. Some characters have non-aggressive Shadow powers - spells, basically - such as bestowing health or damage protection on all those who fall within the casting radius. It's another layer to the game's strategic element but, truth be told, the sprite figures look rather samey when viewed through the fog of battle and it can be hard to select the person you want if everyone is close to each other.