Lunar: Dragon Song is not only the first fantasy role-playing game for the Nintendo DS; it's the first brand-new game in the Lunar series since Eternal Blue, which came out on the Sega CD way back in 1995. The name alone is enough to catch the attention of old-school RPG fans, but unfortunately Dragon Song fails to live up to its pedigree.
The story in Dragon Song takes place 1,000 years before the events in the first Lunar game, Silver Star. If you've played previous games in the series, you know that the goddess Althena is responsible for creating the world of Lunar and keeping it at peace. Keeping the peace is a tough task because the world is inhabited by two races, the beastmen and the humans. The beastmen are distinguished by their pointy ears and gruff nature, while the humans are slightly more intelligent but are relatively weak in battle. The main character in Dragon Song is Jian, a teenage boy who makes it his mission to prove that humans are every bit as strong as beastmen. After a bit of conflict between the two races, they realize they have more in common than they thought, and without spoiling the story we'll just say that the humans and beastmen eventually figure out that they have to join forces to defeat a new force that's threatening the world of Lunar. That new force is known as the Vile Tribe, which consists of a group of evil beings from the badlands known as the Frontier. These people are lead by a corrupt and powerful dragonmaster named Ignatius, who wants to enslave Althena and take over the world.
There are five playable characters in the game, but you don't get to choose which one to use at any given time. Your party is dictated entirely by the story, and you can have only three characters under your command at a time. The cast of playable characters consists of two human healers, two beastmen fighters, and Jian, the main character. The healers can cast a few magic spells to support the other characters in battle, and the beastmen each have one special attack that hits all the enemies onscreen. Jian has no special abilities except that he's an exceptional acrobat and loves to stand on his head, which somehow lets him attack three times each turn instead of one.Once you get about 15 hours into the game you'll get a few magic rings, which Jian can equip to cast basic elemental spells. He can only equip one ring at a time though, so he never has more than one spell to cast in any given battle.
The missions are fairly linear in this adventure. You can take a variety of side missions to earn money by defeating enemies and collecting and delivering items to people throughout the world. Otherwise, the story missions are pretty basic. You'll have to visit temples to gain powers, pass various trials to prove your worth as savior of the world, and, of course, save the damsel in distress. The story takes several hours to really get moving, but you can talk to the members of your party at any time if you need more info about what to do or where to go next. Most of the world is inaccessible until you complete certain tasks, and some missions require you to backtrack through several areas you've already visited.
Dragon Song has a basic turn-based battle system where you can fight with up to three characters against as many as seven enemies. On the map, you'll see enemies running around, and if you touch one of them you'll be drawn into battle. You can try to run away from the enemies on the map by holding the B button as you move. Unfortunately, you are limited to sprinting only short distances, since prolonged running will drain your hit points. Supposedly this is to add realism to the game, but nobody plays role-playing games for realism, and in practice the limited running is just frustrating. Once in battle, you have an over-the-shoulder view of the action, and the enemies show up on both the bottom and the top screen.
There are two different battle modes in the game. In combat mode, as you defeat enemies you won't earn experience, but you'll get all kinds of random items that are required for certain quests. In virtue mode, you earn experience as you battle enemies. When you're in virtue mode, a clock counts down after each battle. If you defeat another enemy before the clock resets, you can move on and keep fighting until you've cleared the entire area of enemies. If the clock does reset, enemies will start to reappear. Once you've cleared the area, you gain a few hit points and magic points, and you can open special blue treasure chests that usually contain useful items such as armor or weapons. For the most part, you can stay in virtue mode and level up your party, but for some quests you'll need to switch over to combat mode. Having split battle modes seems unnecessary, since just about every other role-playing game manages to dish out both experience and items with a single battle system.
The battles play out the same whether you're in virtue mode or combat mode. You can choose an action for each character, or if you want to take a hands-off approach you can set the battle to automatic, and your characters will keep attacking until they or the enemies are dead. You can even speed up the battles by holding the right shoulder button. Somehow the inclusion of automatic battles and a speed-up feature seems like an admission of the fact that the battles in Dragon Song are too long and boring. Since there isn't much magic to speak of in the game, you'll mostly just attack over and over until the enemies die. You'll probably be using that speed-up button often, since the battles seem to take forever. In fact, it would have been nice if there were an option to toggle the high-speed battles so you wouldn't have to hold the R button all the time.
It doesn't matter how powerful your characters are, when you're fighting a group of seven enemies it's going to take a while to finish them all off, especially since you have only three characters on your team, and at least one of those always seems to be too weak to inflict much damage. The most egregious oversight of the battle system is the lack of a targeting system. When you choose to attack you have no control over which enemy your character will attack, which is extremely frustrating because you can't focus damage on a specific enemy. Since there are so many enemies in battle, there are times when you'll want to take out a healer or a particularly powerful fighter. Instead, you have to whittle away at the little guys while the bigger enemies eat you for lunch.
In another new, if not original, twist on the Lunar series, this game introduces a collectible card system. As you fight, you'll get cards representing the enemies you defeat. When used in battle, the cards have effects like poisoning enemies, temporarily increasing your stats, or allowing you to escape from battle. Some cards can be used when you aren't in battle to regenerate hit points or magic points or to avoid enemy encounters, while some cards can't be used at all and are just in the game for you to collect and show off to your friends.
Using the wi-fi connection of the DS, you can connect with a friend for a scratch battle. In these battles you choose one of your cards to go up against one of your friend's cards. The cards stay in the top screen, and on the bottom screen there's a grid with several squares on it. Using the touch screen you can "scratch" off squares to reveal an action icon. Once both players have revealed an icon, the two cards battle based on what icons were scratched off. So, if you scratch off a lighting bolt your card will fry your friend's card for big damage. Each card has a certain amount of hit points, and if your card reaches zero points you lose that card to your opponent. Once you lose a card in multiplayer, you can't use it in your single-player game, so you have to be careful when you're choosing cards to use in battle. These scratch battles are usually pretty brief and they aren't all that entertaining because there are only a handful of different actions your card can perform.
The world of Lunar looks as good as ever in Dragon Song. The out-of-battle character sprites are detailed, and they animate well when interacting with one another. Most of the non-playable characters are cookie-cutter sprites with different-colored hair, but they do a fine job of making the world seem lived in. The in-battle character sprites look blurry and pixilated, but the enemies look colorful and fairly sharp. The character and enemy designs are about standard for a role-playing game. You'll fight all the requisite creatures, including dragons, oversized insects, and blobs in every color of the rainbow. As mentioned earlier, some of the enemies take up both screens. It doesn't look bad when the enemy is large enough to prevent the gap between the screens from detracting from your view of the monster, but when a small enemy is split between screens, it looks awkward.
The environments are nicely drawn and show off a decent amount of variety. You'll explore lava caves, barren deserts, overgrown rain forests, and ornate temples. It would be nice if you could explore more, but you can access only certain key points on the world map. When moving between those points or from building to building in one of the few towns in the game, you'll simply see a few highlighted squares representing areas that you can visit. There's still a lot of room to move around in the world of Lunar though, and overall the game looks quite a bit more vibrant and detailed than an average Game Boy Advance game, but you won't see any flashy visual effects or eye-popping cutscenes here.
The sound is pretty good throughout Dragon Song. You'll hear appropriate--though somewhat weak--battle sounds to accompany the onscreen action. There are also plenty of ambient noises, like birds chirping in the forests and icicles falling in frozen caves. The music is great at times, and it changes to fit each of the different environments in the game. The only tune you'll tire of is the battle theme, and that's just because you'll hear it loop endlessly in the long battles.
Dragon Song doesn't do a good job of taking full advantage of the unique features of the DS, and while that doesn't detract from the game at all, don't expect to be issuing voice commands or slashing at enemies using the touch screen. You can use the touch screen for everything from navigating menus to moving around the map if you really want to, but it's much easier to just use the D pad and buttons. The only voice command available is escape, so if you want to run from battle you can just blow into the microphone.
Lunar: Dragon Song takes the now-classic role-playing formula and tosses in a few new ideas for the sake of trying something new. Unfortunately, the end result is a game that's convoluted where you want it to be simple, and shallow where you wish it had some depth. Even the most devout Lunar loyalists will have a hard time enjoying this game.