Review by Iyamtebist
Reviewed: 07/15/13 | Updated: 01/23/14
While I certainly would not reccomend it to everyone, Lunar DS is nowhere near as bad as its haters make it out to be
Lunar Dragon Song is an interesting case. Many people seem to regard the game as nothing more than a test of patience, or a miserable failure. Even fans of the game tend to say that they are fans only because they were able to tolerate the games various annoyances. There are not that many people who say that they liked the game for its gameplay, which I find strange because I know that Dragon Song has of good qualities. There is definitely plenty to like about Dragon Song, but it certainly is not for everyone.
Lunar Dragon Song is a prequel to Lunar the Silver Star and, its sequel, Lunar Eternal Blue. These two games originated on the Sega CD, but have become better known through their remakes on the original Playstation, and since then have been considered two of the greatest JRPGs of all time. Naturally, Dragon Song had a lot of expectations to fill, and if you have heard anything about this game, then you likely know that it fell way short of its expectations to say the least. If by any chance you are reading this and have not played the first two Lunar games, then it is highly recommended that you do so, as they are much better games and should be considered higher priority. If you are still curious then I will assume you are interested in Dragon Song as its own game instead of as an installment in the series. Just know that, if you do not like Dragon Song, then please do not let that affect your opinions on the first two games.
I do not mean to say that Dragon Song is a bad game, but it does have a completely different tone and feel to it, in terms of both story and gameplay when compared to its predecessors. Some of the greatest aspects of the first two games were their characters, NPCs, worlds, and overall atmosphere. A lot of those things, however, were a result of things added into the games by Working Designs, the publisher of the previous two games. Working Designs was known for both putting in much more effort into localizations, and taking certain liberties with the translation. This resulted in some the few games where the localizations were superior to the Japanese originals.
The stories of Lunar one and two are surprisingly unoriginal if you looked at the bare bones outline of them. In the localized versions, the stories were handled in ways that brought a lot more life to them and made them much more entertaining. The Japanese versions, however, had these stories played painfully straight, which eventually led to the series losing popularity in Japan. In fact, the series has lost so much popularity that the 2009 remake of the first Lunar only sold 30,000 copies in Japan.
Now a very obvious reason as to why Dragon Song likely does not have the same feel as the other games, is due to Working Designs going out of business, and the title being handled by a different publisher. Thankfully, while Dragon Song lacks the charm that the original has, it still has a good enough story to stand on its own two feet. The story itself is very straightforward with little plot twists or melodrama. It is not very large scale, nor does it have many complexities, but it has enough to keep you interested. As I have said many times, Dragon Songs Story is not as good as that of Silver Star Story or Eternal Blue, but it would be if those two titles were played as straight as Dragon Song is.
There are many plot elements in Lunar one and two that, if taken seriously, can easily be mercilessly ripped apart and would be unacceptable in a story that takes itself one hundred percent seriously. Dragon Song, however, averts most of these things and focuses mainly on the action, and has very little melodrama and stupid plot twists. What is interesting is that Dragon Song has an entirely different tone from the previous games, yet a lot of plot elements are lifted directly from the first game. The difference between these games, however, is that these twists do not seem nearly as obvious or predictable, and generally make more sense. The main character is also a lot more competent then the main characters of the previous games, and has a much more convincing motivation. The same cannot be said for the rest of the games characters seeing as how they are all incredibly underdeveloped, and do not have any features that make them stand out. Dragon Song is also a really well paced story with few scenes that do not contribute to the story. Granted there are a few parts where the story seems to drag, but overall it is done very well.
In terms of presentation, Dragon Song is fairly standard. The graphics do not look any better than that of Gameboy Advance JRPGs like Golden Sun, aside from enemies appearing on both screens. Towns are basically just menus where you select which building you enter, and they do not allow free movement except for in the buildings themselves. There are no animated cutscenes or voice acting, which comes across as rather jarring seeing as how they were one of the main selling points of the first two games. These things are likely a result of Dragon Song being one of the first JRPGs developed for the Nintendo DS, and the lack of knowledge of the systems hardware at the time. The musical score, on the other hand, is absolutely astounding and several songs in the game made me, immediately stop what I was doing so I could listen to them. Considering that the score was not done by Lunar one and twos composer, Noriyuki Iwadare, this is quite the surprise.
Now this is the part where the game has become rather infamous. When people talk about Dragon Song, they do not talk about the story, technical values, music or any of the other things. It is always the same things every time. You lose HP while running, you have to choose between item drops or experience points, your weapons break, the animations take way too long, etc. The problem I have when people make these complaints is that there is usually nothing mentioned about how they are executed, and the few times they are mentioned, they are almost always exaggerated ridiculously. The ideas do not sound that great on paper, but with the way they are in the game itself, they barely even affect the overall experience.
I will start with the typical, running on the overworld drains your HP, complaint. While it is true that running does drain your HP, it occurs at so slow a rate that I was able to use the run feature just as liberally as I would in any other JRPG, and even forgot that this feature was even there at points. In fact, with the way running works in this game you can easily run by nearly every enemy in a dungeon, and get through them in seconds. The irony of this complaint is that running in this game allows you to easily bypass random encounters, which makes the games backtracking much more tolerable. I may not understand why Game Arts decided to include this feature, but if losing HP at a rate of what feels like one HP every ten seconds is the price, then I would gladly take it over a system that forced you into constant random encounters.
Another common complaint in this game is the dual drop system. Basically what this means is that, instead of gaining both experience and item drops from a battle, you can only have one or the other. Again, this does not sound like a very good idea on paper considering that it would only increase the amount of level grinding needed. What a lot of people do not seem to notice is that all the enemies in the game have their levels scaled to meet you partys current levels, meaning that grinding is rarely an issue to begin with. There are a few instances where you recruit a new character that starts at a low level and requires some grinding to bring him or her up to speed; however, these occurrences happen very few times throughout the game, and when they happen, it takes a very short time to level them up appropriately.
There is one thing about this system that could be an issue to some; this issue being how to know when to use which system. There is a certain pattern that I followed in the game that was an efficient way of using the systems and is something that the game drops several hints about. In addition to the normal treasure chests that you find in dungeons, Dragon Song also has blue treasure chests that can only be opened if you defeat every enemy on screen while in virtue mode, Virtue Mode being the mode that gives you experience. While some might not like having to stop and kill a bunch of enemies in order to get the treasure, the rewards for doing so are well worth it. The items you get from these are usually either the very expensive equipment that can cost way too much in shops or a ton of money that can help towards getting said equipment. In addition to unlocking blue treasure chests, accomplishing this feat also permanently removes enemy encounters from that room until you leave the dungeon, and restores half of the parties HP and MP.
Now the pattern regarding the two systems can be deduced based on when these blue treasure chests appear. That system would be to use virtue mode if you can see a blue chest, and combat mode, the mode that gives you items, when there is not a blue chest to be seen. Playing the game this way can easily help oneself bypass most of the issues that make the game less enjoyable. This was not something that was necessarily difficult to figure it out either. Granted it would have benefited the game if there was an in game tutorial that explained how these worked, but they were at least mentioned in the games instruction manual.
The one problem this pattern brings out is that there are a lot of blue chests later in the game, which does not leave much time to get item drops. The trash loot that is normally dropped from enemies is not that much of issue when you consider the ways to exploit the delivery quests you get that involve minimal backtracking. The main problem is that enemies also drop cards, a very important aspect of the games battle system, and if you are using virtue mode all the time, you could end up missing out on some much needed cards, meaning you have to go back and farm them. Granted it is easily possible to not need to stop and farm cards if you use them conservatively enough. I myself ended up getting most of the necessary cards without having to go out of my way to do so. Overall, the choice is either more grinding or being careful about how much you use the cards you have, although from my own personal experience, I was able to handle the former quite well without any huge issues.
The third common complaint, as well as the absolute bane of everyone who plays this game, is the equipment breakage. This is also an instance where I do not understand why this feature is mentioned so much. The way equipment breakage works in this game is that there is a random chance that, during battle, a characters equipment will break when attacked by a certain enemy. Now I do not know the specific way how it works, but I am sure that everyone agrees that this sounds like a bad idea. In Dragon Song, however, equipment breakage occurs so few times throughout the game that it is barely even an issue. Sure it is annoying to see that your armor just broke and that you now need to reset the game because buying more armor costs too much, but people generally have the habit of saving often when a game allows you to save everywhere. The most progress I ever lost due to equipment breaking was about five minutes.
Also I cannot stress enough that this barely ever happens in the first place. Within the twenty seven hours it took for me to complete this game, my equipment only broke five times, and with some people, I have heard that it happened even less. I will not say that this is not a flaw with the game however. It is something that really adds nothing to the game, only serves to disrupt the games flow, and is something that the game would have been better off without. I am simply letting people know that this feature is not as detrimental to the game as some people say it is.
Then there is the subject of the attack animations. The complaint is that attack animations take way too long and simply make the battles take a lot longer as a result. While this was generally the case with the previous games as well, it is much worse in Dragon Song, in the original Japanese version at least. Thankfully, the localization team added the ability to speed up the animations by holding down the R button, and thank the heavens that they did that because the game would have been utterly unplayable to me if it were not for this feature. There have been some complaints that you should not need to hold down the R button if you are going to be using this feature all the time. While I do agree that this would have been better, I really do not think that holding down the R button is enough to qualify as a major flaw and it just comes across as more of a nitpick. Also one last thing to mention that I do not know where else to fit is that running from battles in Dragon Song requires you to blow into the DS microphone, meaning you will be unable to run from battles if you are playing this on a backwards compatible 3DS.
Now onto some of the less talked about details of Dragon Song. The games combat seems to be rarely brought up as much as the aforementioned flaws, but the combat system in this game is still very unusual and is not one that everyone will like. At first, Dragon Songs combat system looks like an ordinary, Dragon Quest styled, turn based JRPG, which itself is a departure from the combat in the first two games which were displayed in a Final Fantasy styled side view and had emphasis on positioning. There is a rather unusual feature that completely changes the way random battles in Dragon Song are approached, this feature being that you cannot choose which enemy to target. Admittedly this felt quite jarring at first due to it removing a lot of player input seeing as how you cannot even choose which character will attack which enemy with the intention of disposing of them as fast as possible. This also means that you will be using the auto battle feature a lot, so if you are one of the people who hated Final fantasy XIII because of its battle system, then this is not the game for you.
While Dragon Songs battle system does feel rather stripped down and overly simplistic, there are some certain things that are nice about this system. The main thing being that this gives battles a different perspective. Unlike in normal JRPGs where you would focus on one specific enemy at a time, you instead need to view the entire group of enemies as one, and adjust your strategies accordingly. Unfortunately your party members are lacking in their own special abilities, meaning that most of the strategy comes from the previously mentioned cards. These cards have the usual status ailments that, when used, will always afflict the monsters that are susceptible. Despite this, the battle system is still heavily automated, but that is what makes this game unique. For a lot of random battles you are basically keeping an eye on what is going on and occasionally step in when things get messy. Dragon Song may seem like it is playing itself at times but there still is a decent amount of strategy, and I will admit that a lot of the enjoyment comes from the simple pleasure of easily knocking out each enemy one by one.
Boss battles require a lot more strategy and player input and are the highlight of the game, not unlike the first two games. Typically bosses deal a lot of damage and can use multi-targeting attacks that are capable of taking away huge chunks of HP. Once again, the games cards are an important aspect to taking out these bosses and, unlike normal battles, there is much more of a reason to use your white mages stat buffing spells. In addition to that, there are very few bosses that feel out of place in the story, and that they are all accompanied by intense and energetic battle music, which helps make the boss battles feel even greater.
Dragon Song was a confusing game for me review. The reason for this is that it does a lot of things in a really strange way, and for a while, I could not decide whether I found them fun or not. To add further to that, certain thoughts kept pushing me to think of the game positively due to me caring very little about the aspects that gamers commonly slam the game for. Overall I can tell you Lunar Dragon Song does very well in the aesthetical department, and has a well told story, albeit one that is inferior to the stories of its predecessors. Gameplay wise it is certainly a unique and interesting experience, although certainly not one that everyone will be comfortable with. The general consensus from day one of Dragon Songs release was that, regardless of whether it was a good game or not, it fell greatly short of the expectations put on by its predecessors, and that it does not come close to them in quality.
The question, however, is whether or not Dragon Song is a good game without those expectations. While I am hesitant to say that Dragon Song is a great, or even a good game, I will firmly stand by my belief that Dragon Song is not nearly as bad as its haters make it out to be. This, however, begs the question of whether or not I would recommend Dragon Song. There are definitely plenty of JRPGs on the DS that I would recommend over Dragon Song, but assuming that you are specifically curious about this game, there are certainly worse games you could pick.
Rating: 3.5 - Good
Product Release: Lunar: Dragon Song (US, 09/27/05)
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