Reviewed: October 25, 2005
Released: September 27, 2005
Ah yesÖLunarÖjust another reason I kick myself yearly for selling off my old gaming systems, then again, who has time to play massive RPGís on the Sega CD when there are so many new games and game systems flooding the next-gen market.
Thankfully, Game Arts along with Ubisoft have resurrected this fantastic RPG saga and brought it to the most unsuspecting of systems, the Nintendo DS. Not only is this the systemís first RPG, it actually manages to pull off a genre that is typically reserved for the big boy consoles with modest success.
Lunar: Dragon Song is the latest game in a franchise that has seen installments on the Sega CD, PS One, and even the GBA. Admittedly, the gameplay is getting about as dated as the material it covers, but for those that seek a mindless level grinder, look no further.
An RPG is usually the last thing I want to play on a handheld system, especially when Iím looking to jump in for a quick and spontaneous game of just about anything other than an engrossing time-consuming adventure. Even so, I approached Dragon Song with an unbiased mind and plenty of free time, even if it was scattered about in 15 and 30-minute increments.
Those of you who have played Eternal Blue or The Silver Star will already know what to expect from the Lunar universe, and while Dragon Song still takes place in the same world, the time period is predated to a time before all those other games, so donít expect to see or meet any familiar characters.
In Dragon Song you play as Jian, an untried hero who must band together with a group of friends to save Lunar from a powerful evil. When the adventure starts Jian is accompanied only by Lucia, the spellcaster of the bunch. Combat is a mix of melee performed by Jian and his graceful acrobatics, combined with spells and eventually, even more creative combat options as new members are added to the party.
Dragon Song makes adequate use of the features of the DS including the dual screens and even the microphone, which can be used to issue voice commands - more on that in a bit. Unlike other games that usually split the functionality of the dual screens, Lunar simply creates a single tall screen to present a much grander view of the gameplay. In a world that is quickly migrating to widescreen format, it is rather unique to play a game in an opposing aspect ratio.
Getting around Lunar is both easy and problematic and spread across three unique perspectives. You have the large and often confusing world map that shows you the entire lay of the land and any nearby towns. Your party must walk everywhere so it can take some time to get from one city to the next.
Once you reach a city you are given an overhead view that shows all the shops and key locations. You then select the target destination and your party will show up at that location and you may resume manual control of the party. Here you can talk with NPCís and conduct business much like any other traditional RPG. I really liked being able to jump between city locations without having to actually walk there, but this also takes away from the random street encounters and overall immersion.
Dragon Song is surprisingly slow, even by RPG standards. Part of this is due to the default walking speed of the party, and while you can run, doing so actually deplete your health; an obvious attempt to keep you engaged in combat rather than avoiding encounters. I can appreciate this, as I often tend to avoid random encounters and end up woefully underpowered when I reach the boss.
Combat is turn-based and would be rather simple if not for a few complications to muck up the process. There are two modes of combat, each serving very different purposes; experience acquisition and treasure collection. Why these two elements have been divided is beyond me, as it only forces you to fight twice as much.
Virtue mode is the quest for experience and the only way you can level-up your party and advance through the game. In this mode you are shown a checklist of enemies and as each one is killed (or purified) you have a set amount of time before that enemy re-spawns. Only when you have killed all the enemies can you access any treasure.
Combat mode is basically fighting for items. Gads, proprietor of Gads Express, pays for any treasure items that Jian and his party can retrieve, but hereís the catch. Treasure is very random forcing you into excessive combat in order to obtain that rare item that Gads wants. And even though you are fighting countless battles in your quest for that big pay day, you wonít be getting any experience points Ė thatís reserved for Virtue mode.
The Battle Card system is not an entirely new concept but it manages to integrate nicely into the gameplay and is able to enhance the powers and abilities of your party. Plus, there are so many items and weapons that you can always find creative ways to dispatch the enemy.
While the dual screen is put to good use artistically, the touch screen is more or less reserved for menu navigation and as an alternative to moving your characters. And while I was desperately hoping for voice-activated spellcasting or something equally as pertinent, the microphone is about as redundant as the touch screen and mirrors commands you can just as easily do with the buttons.
Dragon Song takes a few hits visually, mostly with the limitations of the DS. Gone are the wonderful animated cutscenes, but there is still a charming old-school RPG flair about the game. The characters and backgrounds all look great and there are some really interesting locations and boss battles that make use of the dual screen, although when objects get caught in that limbo region between the screens things can get a bit weird.
The world is colorful and the sprite animation is nicely done with lots of flashy special effects for boss battles and spellcasting. Thankfully, the font used for the conversations and narrative is easy on the eyes, even on the small DS screen, so you won't get a headache from all the reading you'll be doing.
The extra dimension and use of height adds to the battles allowing monsters in the top screen to only be hit by ranged attacks, at least until they make their way to the lower screen where melee fighters can reach them. Oddly enough, if it werenít for these dual screen scenarios, this game could just as easily have been put on the GBA, and probably better received.
Face itÖyou canít pack a CD amount of speech onto a DS card, so we are left to do a lot of reading when it comes to exposition and conversations. Sound effects are simple and effective, but there arenít a lot of them so in a game that can take you upwards of 20-30 hours to complete you are going to get really bored with the repetitive sounds.
The music is easily the best part of the sound package with charming tunes that really fit with the theme of the areas and even the action. Again, you canít have the quality or quantity of a CD title, but for a handheld system this is pretty good stuff.
Dedicated adventures can easily find 20-30 hours of mind-numbing repetitive gameplay in Lunar: Dragon Song. Sadly, this game could have been so much better if they had just merged the two combat systems together rather than making you fight for experience and money separately.
While there is no true multiplayer component, if you manage to find somebody else with a copy of Dragon Song you can link up wirelessly and exchange any rare items you may have acquired.
I had my doubts going into this review and Iím still a firm believer that RPG games are best kept in the living room and not in my pocket. On those rare occasions when I can break out my DS Iím looking for a quick gaming fix. By the time I get up to speed on where I am at in an ongoing quest, itís time to put the system away.
But for those with hours of free time and undying patience, you might actually enjoy Lunar: Dragon Song. Obviously, your choices for RPGís on the DS arenít overwhelming, so if you canít wait for something better to come along, give this a shot. Itís not terrible, but one can only imagine how good this could have been.