I want to give this game a better score. I really do. But I just can’t justify myself doing so, even as one of the biggest supporters of the Lunar series. I love this series, and fell in love with the Lunar universe because of two masterpieces that were released on the Sega CD over a decade ago: Lunar: The Silver Star and Lunar: Eternal Blue. I would venture to say that there is probably no bigger Lunar fan than myself. I run the largest Lunar website on the internet: LunarNET. It has been the official website for two Lunar titles, has the largest Lunar community on the internet and houses by far the biggest Lunar multimedia and information library available. To say that I am familiar with the Lunar series is a massive understatement. That said, reviewing this game pains me dearly. It’s not that this is a horrible game, but the expectations for this game were so high. Anything less than amazing was going to fall short.
Let me set the stage…
Lunar: Dragon Song is the first original story in the Lunar series this side of Japan since Lunar: Eternal Blue was released for the Sega CD by Working Designs in 1995. It had a lot of expectations riding on it. Given 9 years of expecting a Lunar III, when it was announced that Lunar was getting a new title to the series, the hardcore fanbase went nuts. After all, it’s the same fanbase that started a giant petition after the cancellation of Lunar: Silver Star Story on the Sega Saturn (before the announcement of a PlayStation port) and threatened to castrate either Victor Ireland or Bernie Stolar, depending on whose side of things you were on. Granted, Dragon Song isn’t Lunar III, but it is a new story to a series fans have all been waiting a decade to see expand. Being one of Lunar’s biggest fans and supporters, I really wanted to see this game succeed. And for more than one reason. In the July issue of Nintendo Power (and two months later in Play Magazine), Japan Art Media (referred to as JAM hereafter) president Mitsuru Takahashi said that if the game did well, the series would see a rebirth, with another title showing the events of the legendary Four Heroes of The Silver Star, and possibly the true Lunar III, set in the future (beyond Eternal Blue), and likely with full Lunar trimmings on a console. It’s more than an understatement to say a lot is riding on the success of Lunar: Dragon Song.
The story of Lunar: Dragon Song is set 1000 years prior to the events of Lunar: Silver Star Story in a time when the Vile Tribe was gaining power in the Frontier. The world is separated into four continents: Caldor (of Caldor Isle fame in Lunar 1), Wrick, the Frontier, and the distant Ghulian continent. Jian Campbell, the game’s protagonist, calls the port town of Searis on Caldor his home. His daily life involves being a courier for Gad’s Express with his best friend Lucia Collins, whom he met one year prior. The game is set in a time when there is a great racial rift between humans and beastmen. The two races not only have to watch out for one another, but more importantly, they have to look out for oncoming attacks from across the Sungrid Bridge, which separates Wrick from the Frontier. The legendary Vile Tribe has been stirring under the leadership of the mysterious Ignatius, and the king of the beastmen, Zethos, has dispatched many great beastmen warriors to the front lines to attempt to combat the Vile Tribe.
While the story is certainly better than many other portable RPGs, it lacks the characterization and dialogue that made Lunar 1 and 2 so great. Often times, little motivation is given as to why a character joins or leaves the party. There were also many times where the game could have taken a break from dungeon hopping to build up character development and the seriousness of the plot.
In addition, the culture of this game compared to past Lunar titles is really scaled down. No longer are there giant libraries to read about past Dragonmasters, the Four Dragons and the Blue Star. Vane is notably missing from the game, and according to Lunar The Silver Star and its remake, Vane should have been around at this time period, albeit much smaller in stature compared to the days of Lemia and Mia Ausa. However, it’s nowhere to be found. The continent of Ghulian promised to be a wonderful and mysterious place to explore, yet it turned out to be fairly insignificant in the grand scheme of things. These are things that fans loved about the past Lunar titles, and they could have built the history and culture of the Lunar universe up so much more.
However, even with a lack of dialogue and characterization, it’s still an intriguing story with at least two major plot twists that delve into the myth and legends of Lunar lore. The game also has a very unorthodox ending, of which I will say no more, for obvious spoiler reasons.
Unfortunately, what dialogue there was ended up disappointing. While the translation itself is pretty much accurate, the localization and dialogue style leave much to be desired. While some of this can probably be attributed to the lack of dialogue on JAM’s development side of things, there are many ways in which things could have been written much more effectively. Even during major plot points, some sentences from key characters come across as awkward and strange. There are also a few typos, even a few within those key plot points that should have been found with a single test run through the game. The Gad’s Express job system even has NPC names two different ways on at least four occasions. In one example, the job had you delivering materials to a “Raiban” when the NPC was actually named “Laban.” Obviously, the name was translated twice, and not the same way. These are errors that seriously should have been caught before releasing the game.
The real problem with this game is the gameplay. JAM tried an entirely new system of gameplay, ditching both the classic Lunar range-based battle system, and even the newer Lunar Legend style, for a dual-mode battle system. Two modes are given for combat: Normal and Virtue. In normal mode, the defeat of your enemies rewards you with items to be used primarily for Gad’s Express. Virtue mode grants you “Althena Conduct” points (experience points).
The game’s absolute biggest problem is the lack of target selection in battle. Mr. Takahashi stated in his Nintendo Power interview that he felt fans would appreciate the simplicity as it would speed up the battles. He was wrong. Half the time, Jian, who is the only character that attacks three times (and also the only character who can really do much damage) will attack an enemy and kill it. Then your two weaker characters will attack an enemy, leaving it barely alive. The next round, Jian will opt to take out the enemy that’s nearly dead instead of an enemy with full HP left, keeping this cycle going until the battle is over. It makes the one or two other characters in the party almost useless (except in boss battle situations) and generally forces battles into an extra round or two. With the range system gone, a large amount of strategy is taken away from the battles, and when you remove targeting from the battles, you take away what little strategy was left. It makes the battle system feel broken and simplistically boring. However, one small feature that UbiSoft added to the game needs to be mentioned. Holding the L or R buttons speeds up the battle by 2 or 3 times as fast, respectively. Pressing them together makes them go 6 times as fast. This may not sound like much, but it definitely helps to speed things up and make the battle system a little less annoying.
One of the reasons for the dual battle system is a new feature to the Lunar series entitled Gad’s Express. Gad’s Express is the courier-based system by which Jian is employed. Jian makes his silver by doing these jobs. The jobs require collecting items in normal mode of battle (or certain items from the two folks selling them in Obleage) and delivering the goods to a specified NPC. The problem lies in the fact that you get absolutely no silver from either mode of battle. Therefore, whether you like the Gad’s Express system or not, you’re forced to do it.
Another major complaint I have with the battle system is that enemies can steal items and, more importantly, break your equipment. This is extremely frustrating when you enter the Frontier and in almost every other battle, an enemy can break your armor which you purchased with an hour’s worth of Gad’s Express job payoffs. I got to the point where I saved after every battle. It shouldn’t be this way. And even if they were dead set on having enemies that were able to break equipment, there should have been a blacksmith to repair them for a small fee. As it is, it adds nothing but more frustration to the gameplay.
The final gameplay issue is regarding the movement around dungeons and towns. JAM decided to have your HP drain by about 1 HP every 5 seconds or so when running. While this is frustrating at first, it really isn’t a big deal after about level 10. In fact, it’s almost a blessing when you get sick of going back and forth between towns for Gad’s Express and want to avoid all battles as you dash through a forest or cave.
These features, such as having to do jobs rather than enemies dropping money or losing HP while running, try to make the system more realistic, but I play RPGs to become immersed in the story. The gameplay should not disrupt that, realistic or not. The gameplay of Lunar: The Silver Star and Eternal Blue on the Sega CD and their remakes on the Saturn and PlayStation had perfectly fine battle systems. In fact, the gameplay and feel of those games were what made Lunar fun, in addition to a wonderful story and great soundtrack. Totally butchering a good battle system to be unique is not cool. As the old saying goes: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Much like the gameplay, the graphics have changed a great deal from the original games. Gone are super deformed sprites (except on the overworld) and a traditional top-down 2D view. They’ve been replaced by a new isometric view that makes me think of what a portable Grandia might look like. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When screenshots were first revealed for the game, there was a groan from most Lunar fans, but the graphics turned out well in motion. The battles could have used a little more touch, but running around the dungeons and towns, I found the isometric view to be fairly decent.
The overworld map is absolutely gorgeous, but for the life of me, I can’t understand why they keep shrinking it with every Lunar release. The Sega CD games had massive overworlds to explore. The remakes on the PlayStation and Saturn shrunk them down a lot, and by Lunar Legend, it was reduced to point and click. Dragon Song is even smaller, but what is there is pretty at least. However, I’d still take giant maps to explore over pretty point and click ones any day of the week. Adventure has always been a trademark of Lunar stories, and having a giant world to explore jives with that far more than tiny point and click maps.
Lunar series character designer and artist Toshiyuki Kubooka was also brought back for this installment in the series. While the game didn’t sport the animation sequences past Lunar games were known for, it did have some wonderful still drawings for each character as they came into the story courtesy of Mr. Kubooka. In addition, all of the NPCs in the game had their own character portraits, which was a nice touch, even if many of them were the same design with different colored hair or outfits.
The music of Lunar: Dragon Song was questionable considering long-time Lunar series composer Noriyuki Iwadare was notably absent as composer for Lunar: Dragon Song, likely due to his work on Grandia III. While the presence of Iwadare definitely gives a rise in musical expectation to any RPG he works on, the composers that were brought in for the game actually did a pretty good job. There are quite a few original pieces in the game that are top-notch. And they remixed a lot of Silver Star Story and Eternal Blue themes into the score as well. Overall, the music still has a Lunar feel. There is also a pretty large range of tracks in the game for a handheld RPG. As you hear new music in the game, a song is added to the Music Hall, where you can go back and listen to your favorite tunes. Sound effects are also well done in the game, from birds chirping in the forest, to lively chatter in the town squares.
Overall, Lunar: Dragon Song is a decent handheld RPG, and gives us a little more history to the Lunar universe, adding to the legends presented in the books of the Vane Magic Guild Library. Just don’t go into the game expecting the quality of Lunar 1 or 2. You will be sorely disappointed. I just hope it’s enough to warrant the creation of the rumored Four Heroes game and Lunar III. Lunar fans have always been hoping against hope with this series, but Dragon Song does a good job of denting that hope. As Lunar: Eternal Blue’s magazine advertisement said ten years ago:
“Hope Springs Eternal.”
Let’s just hope this game is remade and the broken gameplay is fixed.