During the days of the ill fated Sega CD, the Lunar series roped me in with its charming storyline and loveable characters. The game was something of a next-generation showpiece with a beautiful score (CD quality!) and animated cut scenes. The game has inspired remakes on PlayStation and the GBA. While its combat system was a rather simple, turned based affair, the adventure still holds up today. Dragon Song was an exciting opportunity to build upon the Lunar legacy, but its additions to the gameplay are not always successful or well implemented.
Dragon Song has plenty of references to the Lunar universe but the game is a prequel in the way that Knights of the Old Republic predates the original Star Wars trilogy. The setting is still a world that exists by the grace of the goddess, Althena. Players come into contact with Beast Men, The Vile Tribe, and Dragons, but don't expect Alex or Nall to make an appearance. The story feels like more of a retelling of Lunar than an addition to the mythology and I didn't feel as connected to the characters as I did in previous installments. This is partially due to the very high standard set by Working Designs when they translated the dialogue for Lunar: Eternal Blue and Lunar: The Silver Star Story. Dragon Song doesn't suffer from poor translations; it just doesn't have the charm or cohesive storytelling of the past games.
The main character is named Jian who's joined by a delicate side kick named Lucia. The couple makes a living by transporting packages between trading outposts called Gads Express. Instead of carrying a sword, Jian inflicts damage through acrobatics and his main weapons are the shoes on his feat. Lucia, being a somewhat timid female is of course relegated to casting spells, but she can also bop enemies on the head with an umbrella. More conventional attacks make an appearance later in the game when more characters are added to the team including an archer or a beast master that uses her claws to inflict damage.
There are three basic displays when navigating the world of Lunar. First, there is the world map, which shows all of the continents and places that the character is able to travel to from their current location. When traveling on foot players are only able to walk to adjacent areas, so navigating the map can take awhile. Also, towns are not labeled if they aren't in the immediate vicinity, so traveling long distances can be confusing. The second type of navigation screen is an overhead view of an entire town. All of the major houses, shops, and points of interest in the highlighted location are selectable with the D-pad, and players don't directly control their character's movements until they pick a location. Inside a house or in a town square, players can talk to NPCs, make transactions, and search a few objects in the environment for tidbits of information. The layout is very functional and saves players the trouble of wandering from one side of a town to the other trying to find a shop.
Unfortunately, navigation is hampered by an annoying flaw which is the painfully slow pace of character movement. Enemies are visible in hostile environments like dungeons and avoiding confrontation feels like running through molasses. There is a run function, but using it drains a player's health even in town when there are no enemies present. This penalty is supposed to keep players from completely avoiding combat, but it also forces them to slog through environments at a grueling pace.
Two Faced Combat
While Dragon Song's combat is based on a relatively simple turn based system, there are some additional mechanics that complicate the way players approach a battle. There are two modes to choose from in combat which are differentiated through the use of an icon on the lower screen. Virtue mode allows players to collect experience points through combat and is the only way to level-up your team.
On the lower screen there is also a series of check boxes related to the number of enemies in an environment. When a player defeats one of the buggers, they are considered "purified." Then, one of the check boxes is ticked off and a stop watch begins a countdown until the enemy spawns again. Making another kill restarts the watch, and if every enemy is done away with players gain access to locked treasure chests in that area. This feature would be a positive addition to the fighting if it worked in the background of combat. Separating it out into a completely different mode seems unnecessary.
The second way to enter battle is in combat mode, which is solely dedicated to collecting goods for sale at Gads Express. This is also the only way to make money. Gads offers Jian and his crew the option to collect an assortment of items in return for cash. Almost every town has a Gads, and the deliveries are usually in between relatively close cities. This sounds simple enough, but the requirements for most of the jobs are insanely difficult to fulfill. Items are doled out at the end of battle in a mostly random manner. Certain enemies are more likely to drop a range of items, but exact quantities can never be determined. This means that players are forced to engage in a huge amount of repetitive battle that is only sporadically rewarding. And remember, experience is not given in combat mode so if you spend an hour fighting for an item that never materializes your characters remain unchanged.
If money were also rewarded at the end of a battle or if items were inexpensive, I wouldn't have a problem with this system. However the weapons, armor, and tools in Lunar are pricey and have a tendency to break. This puts Gads Express at the forefront of the game, and forces players to engage in an assortment of mindless fetch quests.
The nuts and bolts of combat are decent, although the pacing drags in this area as well. Thankfully, the developers included the option to speed up animations by holding down the R trigger. Players have normal attacks, spells, and the ability to use monster cards that work like summon spells. These cards are randomly obtained through combat and become necessary for success, especially in more difficult boss battles. Because players cannot select their targets, battles have a very structured "tit for tat" feel. An "auto fight" option is available and after a few hours with Dragon Song gamers will find themselves using it regularly.
Touch the Moon
In terms of unique DS functionality, the touch screen can be used to move characters and navigate the menu system. This is just as easily done using the D-pad and face buttons so there's no good reason to bust out the stylus. Yelling into the microphone causes a player to escape from a battle but this adds very little to the RPG experience.
Lunar's visual style is a throwback to old-school animated RPGs from years past. It certainly doesn't push the limits on what is possible on the DS, but it has a simple allure that matches its gameplay style. Dragon Song could benefit from voice work and animated cut scenes especially because these were two of the most attractive features of the original titles.
The battles are presented in two dimensions, although a rotation effect is used to give the impression of a three dimensional space. Enemies often span both screens but this feature isn't always successfully implemented. Flying enemies buzz around the top screen and can't be hit with melee attacks until they float to the ground. Some characters disconcertingly sit in between the two displays resulting in some floating heads and disjointed bodies.
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