For as long as I can remember, announcements of the next “Lunar” title meant one thing: remake. I myself never owned a Sega CD, so I was treated to Working Designs’ PlayStation remakes of Silver Star Story and Eternal Blue. We were later told that a PC version of Silver Star Story would be released, but that never reached US shores. Then Ubisoft brought to American gamers a GBA version of Silver Star Story entitled “Lunar Legend” that incorporated a new feature: card collection.
After these two titles had been thoroughly milked, many presumed that the series was ready to die. Yet, a faithful remnant of fans held out for a new title, and around January of 2005, rumors of a new Lunar title for Nintendo’s next-gen handheld were spreading. The news became official soon after that: Lunar Genesis for Nintendo DS would be the first new Lunar title in over a decade (officially, Eternal Blue for Sega CD was the last “new” game in the series, and that was released in Japan in 1994.)
The details continued to pour in, and fans of the series continued to pay close attention. Game Arts and JAM (Japan Art Media) would return to develop the new title, and Ubisoft would be publishing the title stateside. The American version received a change of name from Genesis to “Dragon Song,” conveniently abbreviated as Lunar DS.
Hopes were high, but speculation (based primarily on screenshots and the fact that it was a handheld title) led many to believe that the game would be a failure. I myself held onto hope, even as Famitsu gave the Japanese version a 27 out of 40 in August. Finally, on that fateful day in late September, I purchased the game for myself and started what would become an overwhelmingly disappointing adventure through the world of Lunar.
Before dissecting this game to reveal its deepest flaws, I would like to make the following statement: some games are bad because of what they are, and other games are bad because of what they lack. Lunar: Dragon Song, unfortunately, is a bad game for both of these reasons.
Toshiyuki Kubooka, the Lunar series character designer and illustrator that we’ve all grown to love, returns to draw some more classic characters. The initial appeal to Lunar: Dragon Song is definitely the box art, which illustrates the five playable characters: Jian, Lucia, Gabryel, Flora, and Rufus. Throughout the game, players are treated to the occasional still screenshot Kubooka’s art; each and every one of these screens is beautiful. Also, each and every NPC has a uniquely drawn face, which adds to the charming “anime” style that is so characteristic of the Lunar universe.
However, outside of Kubooka’s lovely artwork, the game’s graphical presentation is somewhere between average and poor. The towns (which are just one still screen with squares you can visit) look nice, and some of the palaces and dungeons retain the grandeur and the looming darkness found in the PlayStation Lunar titles. However, the in-battle graphics are pretty poor. While the character movements are fluid, they are pixilated to the point of no return: it looks pretty bad.
While we’re on the topic of in-battle graphics, there are not very many monster designs in this game. Many of the monsters throughout the game are just the same monsters with a slight color change. This is a classic trick for game developers, but I fear it got overused in Dragon Song.
And oh, I’m sorry, but were you expecting any sort of anime cutscenes? Even the tiniest little character introduction? Too bad, you’re not getting one, even though there’s enough room on the cartridge to have them. Personally, I think it’s a shame, but I understand these people were working under a budget. Nonetheless, it is an offense to the Lunar name to not have them.
With a little work and some more money, the game’s graphical presentation could have been top notch. As it is, it’s not bad, but it certainly isn’t impressive. Thank Kubooka for the work he did, because without it, I wouldn’t have been able to give graphics an 80%.
Let me tell you what I think about the voice acting in Lunar: Dragon Song. Wait, there is none, despite the DS being powerful enough to handle it. Strike one.
Alright then, let me tell you about Noriyuki Iwadare’s impressive compositions for this new Lunar title. Oops, my fault! Iwadare didn’t work on this Lunar title. In the history of all Lunar games, Iwadare had always been the sole composer, but not for this one! Strike two.
I know it’s unfair to judge the game’s sound solely by what it’s lacking. So let’s consider the music itself. The first few songs are simple but effective: from the title screen to the game’s introduction, the all-synth music is soft and pretty. The battle themes are energetic: one might even mistake parts of the regular battle theme as being done by Iwadare. That’s a good sign. But then, the town and dungeon themes are a complete bore, and the game’s ending music was uninspiring. Strike three? No, we’ll let Dragon Song’s sound department bunt and make it to first base. I give it an 80% for sounding pretty good, but it would’ve been a 90% at least with some decent voice acting.
In the past, gameplay for Lunar titles has been simple and enjoyable. In an attempt to be innovative, Dragon Song changes that simplicity. The resulting innovation, however, is of the bad sort. It is a sharp lesson to be learned: “new” cannot be equated with “good.”
Let’s begin with exploration. First of all, the world map and town maps are simply that: maps. You cannot wander around on them. You select the town, dungeon, or building you wish to enter, and you’re there. This was a cheap shortcut used to cut down on development time. To this little trick, I only have one thing to say: lame.
Once you have entered a building, or a dungeon, you can walk or run. But (and here’s one of those innovative-yet-bad decisions) running costs you HP. I understand why this decision was made: since enemies can be seen on the field and are not encountered at random, avoiding them ought to come at some cost. However, I would have preferred the “temporary dash” from previous Lunar titles, or else the ability to run at no penalty. The fact that I lose health when running in a town bothers me.
Earning money in Lunar: Dragon Song is generally a tedious process. Monsters do not just drop money, and though money is occasionally found in treasure chests, the only consistent way to earn money is by working as a courier for Gad’s Express. The trick to earning money through Gad’s Express is to collect useless items (categorized as “sundries”) from monsters. That sounds simple enough! Let’s kill two birds with one stone: go on a leveling-fest and pick up items for Gad’s Express!
…here it comes again…innovation isn’t always good…
Before beginning a battle, the party can either be in “virtue” mode or “combat” mode. Virtue mode allows the enemies to be sacrificed to the Goddess Althena; the player is then awarded with Althena Conduct (a.k.a. experience points), and the characters’ level may increase over time. Combat mode robs the characters of any experience points, and in return can receive one of three kinds of items: tools (healing items,) sundries (for Gad’s Express,) and cards.
Cards can be rather helpful in battle, as some will have effects like “completely revive all fallen characters” or “restore the party’s MP” and can be used about a dozen times before being depleted. Using cards properly can make boss battles extraordinarily easy.
Cards can also be used for a multiplayer mini-game in the “San Coliseum.” The mini-game, which is explained in further detail only in the instruction manual rather than in the game (a common problem in Dragon Song,) is a neat bonus, but honestly: how many people do you know that own Lunar: Dragon Song, much less a DS? I doubt many people will have the chance to play this mini-game under such a limited wireless range.
Other than collecting cards, I found little use for the “combat” mode, and nearly always preferred virtue mode. I somehow managed to find enough money to purchase the best equipment for my characters without doing more than about five deliveries with Gad’s Express. In my opinion, the money-earning system of delivering items is not only tedious, but it is also useless. I completed the game in 20 hours relying entirely on “virtue” mode for battles.
Battling itself can be quite the hassle. Though there is an auto-battle function (and the option to speed up battle animations by holding down L or R), battles where one might wish to employ some level of strategy is nearly impossible. Why? Simply stated, you are not ever given the opportunity to select the particular monster whom you wish to fight. With up to eight monsters on the screen and very few “attack all enemies” abilities, you may have some trouble here. Except, of course, for the fact that this game is horrendously easy if you take a bit of time to level up. I myself never died in a single battle, though I did have to suffer through some outrageously long battles since I couldn’t plan my own attack patterns and strategies.
Finally, I must say that there is a balance issue in the fact that Jian is generally much stronger than anyone else that could be on the three-member party. Play the game for yourself and you’ll see what I mean.
Game Arts developed more than a few new and innovative ideas: many of them flew in the face of conventional RPG traditions. Predictably, the gameplay is pretty shoddy. Though I did not mention every new feature, I will say that those I failed to mention are not impressive, nor are they detrimental: they are neutral and do not affect my score of 72%.
I’ll make this brief. The Nintendo DS was supposed to be revolutionary because of the touch-sensitive bottom screen. This opened up all sorts of possibilities for new types of games, and so far we’ve seen a number of truly unique titles employing all sorts of nifty controls.
In Lunar: Dragon Song, there is one thing (and only one thing) players will do with the touch screen: push buttons in menus. Well, that is, if the player chooses. The player could also just select them by using the directional pad and hitting the A button. Either way works.
Honestly, if you do not wish to employ the new features of the touch-sensitive screen, why not just develop a game for Game Boy Advance? Though the second screen was helpful, I can imagine an incarnation of Dragon Song with just one screen that would not be any worse off for it. What is the deal?
I did not run into any “control” issues, so at least the developers didn’t make any major mistakes. But this is like turning in a solar system model for your senior year science project: you did it right, but it does not impress anyone. Control barely passes with a 65%.
Allow me to split story into three subcategories: plot, character development, and script translation. Now, allow me to demonstrate how each one fails at presenting something either enlightening or enjoyable for the player.
The overarching plot of the game starts off well. Taking place 1000 years before the events of Lunar: Silver Star (Story), the world is run by the powerful beastmen, and humans live on the outskirts as a weaker race. Somehow they’ve reached a peaceful coexistence, but threatening this peace is the Vile Tribe, located in the Frontier. So far, everything sounds typical.
Then a boy named Jian accidentally gets himself involved in the whole big mess and decides he must become a Dragonmaster to save the day. Still typical Lunar.
Telling anything more from here would be to spoil the sub par story, but let’s just say that Jian gets some advice from the dragons along the way, and the advice amounts to a heaping bundle of contradictions, and there is seemingly little resolution. That’s my personal take on it, anyway. The ending is terribly anti-climactic; it would be like ending Silver Star two thirds of the way through with a deus ex machina resolution so that the ending isn’t tragic: just sugarcoated to the extreme.
Also, the overall plot and scenario for the game does create some inconsistencies that hardcore Lunar fans will notice. For example, in The Silver Star (for Sega CD) we learn that the Vane magic school has existed for at least 1000 years: yet it is nowhere to be found in Dragon Song. Also, how could Quark, an elderly dragon from Silver Star, not be found anywhere in Dragon Song? Think about it: if Nall is the White Dragon from the end of Silver Star to the beginning of Eternal Blue (time span: 1000 years), yet he looks young that whole time, shouldn’t Quark be in Dragon Song considering he’s very very old in Silver Star? These sorts of inconsistencies leave a bad taste in my mouth.
Character development goes something like this. Take a boy, put him with a girl. Then take away the girl, but add two more girls. Assume all of these boy-girl relationships are something like what we experienced in Silver Star and Eternal Blue, but without witnessing any situations or dialogue to convince you, and there you have it. In other words, Jian really wants to save Lucia, but there is seemingly no motive as to why.
Furthermore, the Lunar series has always been infamous for having a truckload of dialogue and events. Not so in Dragon Song. In fact, looking back, I can’t remember one single dialogue that I would consider significant to developing a character’s personality. Rather, we are to simply assume that these characters are something like the characters of other Lunar games and run with that. I’m not buying it.
Because I anticipate some aggression towards my extremely low story score, I know some may argue on the game’s behalf, citing the “talk to your party” menu function as a means to learning more about the characters. I admit that there is some presentation of personality in these short dialogues, but they make the characters seem one-sided. I can tell you that Gabryel thinks beastmen and humans should be equal even though she’s a beastwoman, that Flora’s afraid of heights, and that Jian likes to try to do things on his own. That’s about it. Compared to characters such as Alex, Jessica, Mia, Lemina, or even Nall and Ruby, Dragon Song’s characters are totally untapped. At the end of the game, I felt no attachment to any of them. The other Lunar games brought me to a point where I cared about the characters. I am apathetic to each and every one of Dragon Song’s characters (especially Rufus; play the game to see what I mean.)
Finally, there’s script and translation. For American gamers, this is Ubisoft’s department, not Game Arts. Clearly, Dragon Song has been the victim of a rushed localization process. Allow me to give some examples. Throughout most of the game, Gabryel Ryan is spelled as such; but in a few menus, one will see the name Gabriel instead. A certain NPC named Raiban is sometimes referred to as Laban. Random typos can be found on a regular basis when talking to NPCs in various towns. Why? Because Ubisoft did a terrible job in localization, that’s why. Shame on them; they managed to make an already poor game even worse.
I didn’t want to do it, but I had to. Story gets a 52%. Ouch.
RPGFan was founded originally as “LunarNET” (which now exists as its own separate site, owned and operated by Mickey Shannon.) I joined this staff at the height of Lunar’s success, when Silver Star Story Complete was released for PlayStation. If there is one series I love to love, it is this one. Nobody could have any idea how much it pains me to hand out a score that falls below the line of “average” or “acceptable” for this game, yet I must. Lunar: Dragon Song gets an overall score of 68% from me.
Yet, I will leave readers with this one piece of awkward advice: if you’re a fan of the series, go out and buy or rent it anyway. Play the game. See for yourself what it’s like. Why? Because, even though this game was trash, if it gets enough support, then there may be hope for a real Lunar 3 in the future. In Japan, a Lunar side-story was once released called “Magic School Lunar” (a remake of the Game Gear title “Walking School Lunar.”) The game was terrible, and I’m sure that this is the title that marked the end for a totally new Lunar title for the last decade. I don’t want to wait another ten years to play another Lunar “gaiden” that turns out to be hastily made. I want Lunar 3, I want it on a next-gen console, and I want it to be amazing. If we support Game Arts, there is still the smallest chance that it could happen; and I’m still holding on to that hope. Though Jian didn’t teach me how to have this sort of hope, Hiro and Lucia (of Eternal Blue) did, and I’ll do whatever it takes as a Lunar Fan to see it happen. Please join me. Play Lunar: Dragon Song despite its shoddiness and join me in the quest to see Lunar continue.