Review: My mind wants to select something to say, but my fingers have a mind of their own. I'd level out by hand, but I can't do that and carry items. I'd run to get help, but I'm afraid I'd slowly die if my legs took me faster than a crippled old granny's.
Game Arts, the company involved with the PlayStation's Lunar 2: Eternal Blue upgrade, have teamed up with Japan Art Media. Apparently, their joint partnership has comprised the plan for tackling what Lunar fans have been anxiously anticipating since, like, forever. Working Designs (the founding publishers of the entire Lunar brand) have been pushing repeats of the first two, and only, Lunar games out the door since its beginning on Sega CD instead of actually putting together official sequels. Now we get one in this brand-new Lunar game. When it comes to sharing development reigns though, does pairing up the experienced Game Arts with Japan Art Media make them the prime example of leading the long-awaited "next Lunar" game toward a brighter future? Evidently not.
If you're a total stranger to Lunar, listen up. In the past, the Lunar series was born of a classic 2D-style RPG. Drawn from the journeying perspective of a young hero and a group of mixed friends (along with a flying feline companion), the story arc from the first game set its sights on Alex venturing down the trail to becoming a Dragonmaster. In the second game, Hiro the hero would fight alongside a demigoddess in search of Althena. Both games featured anime-inspired characters and worlds, telling powerfully emotional tales from a rich tap of voice talent. One real kicker was that wherever the first game started in its time line, the second game leapt 1,000 years into the future. Lunar: Dragon Song does the total opposite of that and sets its sails for a trip 1,000 years before anything began.
Another world, another girl, and another hero willing to stake his neck on the line to save them both. Jian is your typical courier. He's a lazy sack of potatoes. Of course, that's only just this day you'll get to know him as the sleepy-head who's late for his appointment with destiny: a female friend named Lucia. They're about to embark on the longest delivery they've ever been on when their package is stolen by a group of thieving ogres. This is a world where humans and beast people coincide, where the beastmen sneer at the inferior human race, where rumors of Althena's disappearance spreads to the ears of our traveling band, and where a corrupt Dragonmaster sets his sights on bringing doom to a balanced peace. Here, Jian's determined egocentric nature and incredible acrobatic abilities kick in to prove that he is no infallible human by doing what he must to protect his best friend Lucia from the harm that approaches all living things: both humans and beastmen alike.
Turn-based role-playing-games, more often than not, include item and experience accumulation, manual enemy targeting, and the freedom for a character to run around as much as he'd like to without being punished in the process. The makers of Lunar: Dragon Song didn't decide to break just one of these primary factors into pieces. They were stupid enough to smash them all with a representative hammer of development evil. So what does that tell you about Lunar: Dragon Song then? First, Lunar: Dragon Song isn't like any Lunar game you've ever played before, barring the exception of a few long-established elements like the fact that avoidable monsters have always stuck out on the field map before approaching them in a round of fisticuffs. Practically everything else to do with Lunar: Dragon Song refrains from relating to its classical 2D heritage as much as it possibly can.
There are a couple of fundamental issues with the combat in Lunar: Dragon Song. Neither mode of combat (manual or automatic) allow you to target specific enemies, an issue compounded every time your most powerful attacks are wasted on enemies that are already near-death. Also, running away from combat, a simple maneuver that involves holding down the B button, gradually eats away at your life. These changes away from the turn-based status-quo take away from the decision making process. Isn't that what RPGs are all about? At least by using the manual attack mode you can have your characters use magic or items as both actions seem overlooked by the automatic mode.
Items and experience are additional factors that determine Lunar's ruin. Oddly, Lunar offers you the choice between one or the other. The related difference being a Virtue and Combat mode. If you're feeling Virtuous, you'll start to rise in levels accessed by the experience granted. Take the other path, Combat, and you get items to fill your pockets. These aren't trinkets you need to survive off the land, though. Rather, these sundries provide for a different kind of living. Items plucked from the hardships of exasperating battles vary from location to location. All of these miscellaneous mustaches, wood pieces, dolls, feathers, plates, stone gems, and so forth all combine to make you money.
Did I forget to mention that the very asset required to obtain better armors and weapons, health potions and death pick-me-ups are not gotten by fighting? Visit the courier's depot, Gad's Express, in any town and an assortment of package requests await. Every package has to be delivered to a set town and individual living there, where it must meet a certain collect-a-thon requisite in order for the entire delivery to pass. This isn't always an easy joy ride. Every sundry is randomly doled out, depending on which gathering of creatures leaves them behind. For example, the only way you're going to ever get an ice tail is if you roam around one forest surrounding and hope for the best that you meet the white fox-like beast that usually relieves itself of its frozen appendage at the end of a fight. Some items may take what feels like eons before they see the light of day in your collection, as they're not all that easy to sniff out depending on the hopes that the items will end up in your lap as expected.
With the observations so far, you can probably get a good idea for how Lunar: Dragon Song's battles are played out. If not, here's some more specific detail. In this version of Lunar you'll always be standing beside up to three characters. In the beginning there's just two, but later as the game gets tougher you'll have acquired a mass of three. That's all that's permitted, and again is another deviation from the original two Lunars (the first two games eventually featured five in your party). Downing enemies shouldn't be much a problem though, control-wise at least as you'll basically go back and forth between A and B actions (letting you surf forward and backward between simplistic inputs). As the turn-based bouts circle back and forth between three friends hitting one enemy and many enemies (think of groups at about four or more) are able to concentrate their onsets to all characters (strangely enough), what you have here is basically an oversized screen that seems like it's cleverly divided at the double screen hinge (but it's not). The thing is, it's only possible to kill foes who are mounted on the ground level using regular attacks. With the DS double screens in mind, the main battle all occurs on the bottom half of the screen, while on the top window oftentimes a couple or more enemies will float overhead their comrades beneath them. Using just magic (or much later on, Fiona's bow weapon) is the only way your cast of characters will reach these baddies up top. Sure enough though they can still attack you, in another irritating design element. Otherwise, you just have to wait until the bottom guys are beaten dead before they'll sink down when the shoulders they were standing on vanish.
Another thing to know about battles is the card system. These collectible items are about the only welcomed innovative aspect of the game, and are also one of the most inoperative ones at the same time. Cards are received by defeating various enemy types through Combat mode. Once acquired, they're tailored with a specific number of points dictating the overall amount for how many uses they provide before leaving your stash. Some cards let you activate possibilities that cannot be found with any magic spell your characters will acquire (like restoring full health to each party member). Many of them are status based and can be put to use with magic (which unlike cards, are easily restored by finding and activating an Althena statue placed around towns and inside dungeons). They can raise your entire team's attack and defense, cause an enemy to drop their attack power, resurrect an ally, and can operate many other needy statistics that can already be done using the magic powers one of your characters will posses. In other words, the card feature is rather useless.
There was a time when Lunar games were considered brilliant by default. The Lunar games on the 32-bit Playstation showcased graphics in a cute and truly awesome manner (mostly referencing the eye-opening anime clips). Lunar: Dragon Song goes a different way. Tolerable 2D levels are no longer an issue. Instead of modeling itself after Super NES-like superdeformed pixelated characters and fully modeled levels, Lunar cheapens itself by design. No longer can you walk into a town and there stand a whole lot of paths and houses you can literally walk through and by to get to each person and each building. Exploration of the cities within Lunar now reveal singled out buildings that can be entered by dragging the floating Jian statue over one of the squared cursors marking the point of entry on top of an enlarged flattened image. It's kind of like using a mouse to point and click where you want to head to. This results in homes and shops that are less distinctive then they should be. It's not that the buildings are small in every instance. There actually are a couple of places that aren't all dungeons and reach massive sizes. It's the barren and plain touches to these different zones that don't spark much of a craving for more of the same that disrupt the effort. The general art style of Lunar: Dragon Song is reminiscent to Nintendo's own cult handheld RPG series, Golden Sun. In some respects, Lunar on the DS is a 2D game that, from an isometric perspective, almost appears 3D. Crispy models of overgrown trees and shrubbery in the forest levels, and rock formations uprooting in the caverns, and skull ladders to flowing yellow sand in the desert wasteland are just some of the sites that fill in colorful albeit outmoded illustrations of more bland than hypnotic stage dressings.
Everything you see isn't completely wonderful, but then some of it is. Lunar has a sharp but unrefined quality construing a sense of boring. The levels are both large and small, and there really isn't much to see. Heading into the church of Althena at one point gives you a few fairly designed classrooms (neatly lined desks, chalkboards with microscopic scribbles) to navigate while the rest of the erection is built out of a long staircase, arbitrarily fitted pillars, and a whole lot of vacant emptiness. Battles are even worse. Those character sprites you're looking at are standing on top of (or hovering over) shifting backgrounds that aside from spinning every so often have no life. Sure the camera is constantly going left and right to signify some kind of heat of action at work. But what's with the stiff and ugly botanic plants or craggy walls and plainly textured floors? Not faring much better are the dull characters. Monsters and townspeople, and even your teammates are all but ill-conceived beings inside of a downward spiral of bringdowns. These sprites are distinctive, in that you can tell Jian's wearing white bandages around his arm, and that his spiked blue hair is flowing along with him when he jumps back and forth from his fixed battle spot every time he initiates an attack. Yet, comparable to the world, characters are stuck with off-colors. Icky browns, deep greens and blues don't really blend well together. Lunar's once anime indulgence also is hardly much of an influence in this new game. Anime is present and accounted for, but for how much and for how long? At the bare minimum. 2D drawn faces represent a multitude of characters as they converse through dialogue, or otherwise and very rarely in a full-figured non-interactive anime image that covers the entire top window of the DS to show more of important characters. Otherwise, the DS is apparently not the best machine to put a once anime-heavy game on. I mean, this game doesn't even contain any anime cinematics you'd salivate over like the ones the console games had.
Considering that most everything turned out disappointing, thankfully there is one thing Lunar does right. That's the sound of music. The game's ability to mix and match uplifting and moodier orchestral motifs that get integrated through the game's worldly travels does it justice. Sort of odd but a lovely orchestral tune channels through one particular woodland territory. Inside a villainous castle, that happy beat then changes gears over to a nefarious synchronization. Even the one battle theme, which never gets replaced, isn't horrible. Repetitive yes, but it's one of those decent fast-paced rhythms that won't grate on your nerves for being heard. Besides, the song is more subtle than it is in your face. While the music is good, the audio is not. This is the way things are using Lunar's method. Sound isn't all that bad per se. The problem is in what's there and how well it's developed. When each battle persona attacks, you will hear the punches, or the liquidy gushing of an enemy disappearing and reappearing before your very eyes. Your ears will receive the twinkling spark before magic types are cast (blazing fire, healing rain and crunching meteor showers, etc.). Other than in combat instances, you won't get much noise besides maybe birds chirping on your way to destinations, the stomping of Jian's feet, and enemy's shuffling around on the map. More important, what's laid in the audio department overall is sped at a run-of-the-mill rate rather than at one that's exceptionably likable. Oh, and just so you know, Lunar: Dragon Song is not epic in the way that the previous Lunar games provided extraordinary voice talent with. As there are no emotionally stirring anime sequences to lend the story a real kick in the pantaloons, there are no voice actors needed, and therefore none exist.