While the name Kojima may be most freely and popularly associated with Metal Gear Solid, the acclaimed Japanese game designer has proven that he's got some range, specifically with the Boktai games for the Game Boy Advance. Apparently, the Boktai name doesn't carry much weight in the US. Lunar Knights, the latest from Kojima Productions, is essentially Boktai 4, but character name changes in the English translation weaken the connection. There's no solar sensor in the DS cart, but the sunlight theme is still central to the gameplay. In Lunar Knights, you'll also be trading in moonlight, manipulating the weather to alter the world around you, harnessing the powers of the elements to defeat your enemies, and even dabbling in a little space combat. It can be a challenge to keep tabs on the complexities of the gameplay, and resilient, damage-dealing enemies may be thrown at you at a constant clip. But it all pays off because the game looks and sounds great, the action is diverse and constantly evolving, and there's even some pretty engaging storytelling in there too.
Lunar Knights is set in the kind of anime future where mysticism and technology intermingle freely. Earth has been the domain of vampires for as long as anyone can remember, and the human population has been largely regarded as livestock. Further strengthening their grip over the planet, the ruling vampires have deployed a device known as the paraSOL, which blocks out all sunlight, and have armed themselves with powerful suits called casket armor. The combination has made the vampires all but unstoppable to the Guild, a small pocket of human resistance fighters. You're initially introduced to the character of Lucien, a brooding young vampire slayer with a complicated history and a personal vendetta against the Duke, the leader of the vampires. Eventually, you're also introduced to Aaron, a young Guild member who has hidden potential and must step up when the Guild's secret base gets overrun by vampires. Although Lucien seems indifferent toward Aaron, the Guild, and basically everyone else who is not a vampire he's trying to brutally murder, the paths of Lucien and Aaron run parallel enough that they become accidental companions, each with his own personal reasons for ridding the planet of the vampire scourge.
Some of the foreshadowing in Lunar Knights is a little heavy-handed and makes certain late-game story twists not so twisty, but the writing is solid, and the characters come across with distinct personalities. Although most of the dialogue is relayed through text, the game makes austere but effective use of voice acting, having characters vocalize significant pieces of dialogue. The game is also absolutely jam-packed with catchy, evocative music that covers some pretty impressive stylistic ground. There's the jazzy main theme, the moody gothic pieces inside the game's dungeons, some squealing rock guitars during deep-space sequences, and more. There are also some short-but-sweet animated cutscenes between dungeons and leading up to boss fights. Although there are at times noticeable compression artifacts on the video, they're animated beautifully, heightening the drama and immediacy of the story. The game has a good look to it as well, with vibrant color and plenty of unique locations. However, a lot of the enemies you'll face appear to be the same enemies in prior Boktai games, but they're just slightly enhanced. Still, you can tell a lot of care went into how this game looks and sounds, and the quality of the presentation has a quantifiably positive effect on the whole experience.
At its core, Lunar Knights is an isometric dungeon crawler with some light role-playing game elements. There's an overworld where you can rest, buy and sell supplies, upgrade your weapons, and interact with other characters. But most of your time will be spent in the world's various dungeons, which is where the vampires and their freaky gallery of accomplices dwell. You're initially introduced to Lucien and Aaron in their own individual solo missions, but soon enough, you'll be able to swap out the two characters on the fly. Lucien is armed with a special dark sword, making him best suited for close combat; Aaron has a solar gun, which he can use to blast baddies from a distance.
The light/dark dynamic is significant because each attack dealt drains Lucien and Aaron's available attack energy. Although they can use potions and other inventory items to restore that energy, the most effective way for Lucien and Aaron to recharge is to gather their energy from the moon and the sun, respectively. The game runs on an accelerated day/night cycle, so more than half the time you won't be able to recharge one of your characters' energy. Their energy is made even scarcer by the fact that, most of the time, the dungeons have you cut off from any kind of light. This means that your only exposure to light comes in the form of an occasional skylight. While all of this certainly encourages you to alternate between the two characters, there's a tendency to lean on Lucien a bit more. Because he's the first character you play as, he'll probably have several experience levels over Aaron, which makes him inherently more powerful. Lucien also doesn't need dark energy to use his sword, though it's not nearly as effective without it. Aaron, on the other hand, can't use his solar gun at all when he runs out of juice.
As you hack and blast your way through dungeons, you'll run into enemies that are more susceptible to light or dark attacks, though there are also enemies that are weak to other elements, which is where Pokémon-like companions known as terrenials come into play. Lucien and Aaron each start off with unique dark and light terrenials. As you defeat the boss vampires waiting for you at the end of each dungeon, you'll earn additional terrenials with strengths in earth, frost, flame, and cloud that both characters can use. Although there's some color-coding going on, it's not always obvious what element might make an enemy weak. It requires a little trial and error on occasion, which wouldn't be a big deal if many of the low-level enemies you faced weren't so tough. You often won't be able to attack an enemy outright. Instead, you'll have to stun your enemy indirectly first, something that often requires crackerjack timing. Lucien and Aaron also have a trance meter that fills up as you fight, which you can activate once it's full to access incredibly powerful attacks for a short period of time. The terrenial you have equipped will also impact what you can do during that time.
As challenging as some of the grunts can be, the dungeon bosses in Lunar Knights can be real softies. And just because you've emptied their health bars, it doesn't mean the game is over. After each fight, you'll have to drag their bodies up into space in Lucien's ship, outside of the effects of the paraSOL, and finish them off with concentrated solar radiation. At this point, the game turns into a space shooter, and it's one of the few times when you'll be using the stylus in the game. Mechanically, it's a little clumsy because you have to use the stylus to both move your ship and target enemies. Still, the concept is solid, and it's such an out-of-the-blue addition to a game already brimming with unique touches that it's hard not to like. With each dungeon boss you defeat, you also gain control of a piece of the paraSOL, which allows you to manipulate the weather. You can choose from different climate types before you head into a dungeon, and the climate you choose can affect what parts of the dungeon you'll be able to access. The weather will also affect how you choose accessories because you'll find headgear, body armor, and boots that are only effective under specific weather conditions.
With so much going on in Lunar Knights, you never get tired of the experience, despite the game's healthy, 10-hour-plus running time. Even when you finish the single-player game, there's a multiplayer duel mode for you to mess around with as well. Lunar Knights is a really well-crafted action adventure game in nearly all regards. Although it may be daunting for those who shy away from a challenge, it's worth the fight and one of the best games of its kind to appear on the DS.