Lunar: Dragon Song (DS) Review

Click here to view the Lunar: Dragon Song (DS) description page for guides, saves, and more information.

Review by tankMage (March 2019)

Score: D

We Heard You Like Backtracking, So…

   Maybe you remember the Lunar series from those conventional, yet very well executed RPGs from the late 1990s. Well, Lunar: Dragon Song may bear the brand name, but it lacks the charm and enjoyability of its predecessors. Just about everything that made the original games great (aside from the sappy story line, which I admittedly liked) was balled up and thrown into the trash by the devs who designed this one. Before I proceed to pick at all of Lunar: Dragon Song’s flaws, I have to concede that it also has some strong points and I understand why some people like it. I rather enjoyed the story, the graphics are nice (aside from constant asset recycling), and the sound track was good.

   Unfortunately, this game seems to go out of its way to make the player hate it. The most commonly mentioned issues are the inability to target specific enemies in combat, running draining the party’s hit points, and the penchant monsters have for destroying the player’s hard earned equipment. While all of these things can be annoying, it’s the insane amounts of backtracking the player is forced to undergo that makes this RPG nearly insufferable.  People sometimes complain about “backtracky” games in this genre, but Lunar: Dragon Song takes the problem to an entirely new level. There are no shortcuts, waypoints, teleporters, or vehicles until the very end of the game, so the player has to walk EVERYWHERE. Plus every location is connected and there’s not even an overworld map to expedite travel, which means the player often has to walk through to several previously explored areas to get to yet another area they have already visited just so they can fetch something. Needless to say this alone made the game painful to play.

Story

   One of the few things I liked about Lunar: Dragon Song was its story, which was reminiscent of the of older Lunar titles and Grandia. The plot has a few logical issues and there were scenarios that were seemingly thrown in just to keep the party moving from area to area. Some of the events that took place (like Sasquatch stealing a package the heroes had to deliver at the beginning of the game) were just silly, even by JRPG standards. The basic plot is also another “bad guy wants to take over the world” deal, but there were elements of the story that were quite good in a sappy, sentimental Game Arts sort of way*. The hero’s friendship with the other characters and his love for one of the heroines was touching. Events also unfold in a slightly unexpected way and I found the ending satisfying. So while the story is far from great, it’s one of the few things about this game that wasn’t totally botched.

* Incidentally, Game Arts did not develop this title, which explains a lot of its failings.

Flora: thinker, philosopher, poet.

Localization

   You had one job Ubisoft! Seriously though, it’s usually either very bad or very good when I add a category to a review outside of the usual story, graphics, gameplay, user interface, and music sections. In this I case I have to talk about Ubisoft’s shameful attempt at localizing this game. In all fairness, Ubisoft is not responsible for 90% of Dragon Song’s problems since they were merely the North American publisher, they’re just responsible for some of the more heinous issues, like the save glitch, which prevents players from saving their game if certain events are triggered*. I’m not even sure how they managed to get the save feature to bug out, but neither the Japanese nor European variants reportedly suffer from save related bugs, so it’s likely Ubisoft’s fault. Ubisoft also did a terrible job translating the text from Japanese and the dialogue has more typos than one of my reviews. Well, Ubisoft has a long history of ruining things, so there’s no reason to be surprised.

*As far as I can tell, the save glitch only happens if you talk to a character named Flora after she leaves the party, though there may be other triggers.

Graphics

   Here’s something I actually like about Lunar: Dragon Song… mostly. So the graphics and animations are pretty nice for a handheld RPG from 2005. A decent range of color was used, the major characters (and even minor ones) have nice anime style portraits, and just about every creature in the game had some effort put into their animation. At first glance, Dragon Song even looks like a good game thanks to its graphics, but the rot sets in pretty quickly. Particularly in regards to the monsters and environments, which are repetitive thanks to the constant reuse of sprites.

   “Copy Paste all of the things!” must have the development team’s motto, because most of the environments, especially towns, look like they were slapped together as fast as possible. I’d even go as far to say that entire buildings were recycled, but I’m not sure. It’s a shame, because the tiles actually look pretty nice, they just happen to get old about halfway through the game, making it feel more like an NES title. Of course, NES games had extremely limited storage space compared to the DS. Being a 2D game you’d think they’d be able to squeeze a few more tilesets for towns and the like into Dragon Song.

   Then there’s the enemies… sigh… it’s one thing to palette swap sprites or reskin models to save money and space. Doing so can even add a sense of continuity to a game if applied correctly. It’s another thing to just keep reusing the same monsters over and over again. There are 34 different creatures in the game and players will see the majority of them before even getting halfway through the adventure, which contributes to the boringness of its battle system.

   Like I said, the graphics are not bad, just repetitive. I liked the nice job the devs did animating and designing the heroes and all of the playable characters look good and have nice animations. Jian’s kick combo was one of the things that impressed me when I first started Dragon Song and it had me looking forward to what the game had in store. While no one has moves quite as cool as Jian’s, every hero has his or her own unique animations and this even goes for monsters. The graphics look very pixelated in battle, but the aesthetic is kind of nice and reminiscent of the original Suikoden.

Jian Break dances his way to victory.

User Interface

   An awful UI can all but ruin an RPG and Lunar: Dragon Song has one of the worst. This is another DS game where the devs tried to shoehorn touch screen functionality into a game that didn’t really need it. Things that would generally be assigned to a single menu were all given separate menus so players could poke at them with the stylus. For example, let’s say you want to equip a piece of body armor, instead of just selecting equipment from the main menu and choosing the slot they want to equip something in, players will have to choose the equipment type, cycle through their party members, then select the gear they want from an awkwardly laid out screen. In essence, it’s not much more work than more standard menus, but the entire process is ass backwards and unnecessarily intricate.

    Then there’s one of this game’s greatest sins: The inability to choose targets in battle. Just about every RPG made since 1980 gives the player the ability to target specific enemies in combat, it’s part of the strategy aspect of the genre and it works. Apparently whoever developed this game didn’t understand that there was a reason so many RPGs allow players to choose their targets and decided to not to include the function…to disastrous ends. Imagine sitting around, helplessly watching your heroes attack the least dangerous enemy in a group or coordinate their moves in the least efficient way possible and you have an idea of just how frustrating the game can be thanks to the UI.

   On top of it all, battles are SLOW, so much so that the devs included a speed up function that makes combat more bearable. Problem is, this means keeping the right shoulder button pressed throughout the encounter. While holding the right shoulder down isn’t a big deal on its own, it is another item on the checklist of nuisances. At least there’s an auto-battle feature that sort of works as long as no one needs healing.

See that bottom screen? It’s all UI and it’s as bad as it looks.

Gameplay

   I’m not even sure where to start. Aside from the massive amounts of backtracking the player must undergo just to keep the story moving and the inability of players to select targets in battle, most of the problems are minor, but there are a lot of them. Lunar: Dragon Song is really just a run of the mill RPG that is ruined by all the stupid crap the devs decided to tack onto it. Players will fight monsters, talk to NPCs, buy equipment, explore dungeons, and do all sorts of normal RPG stuff. Some of the ideas in this game are even good, like the Monster Card system and special chests that are unlocked by defeating all of the enemies in an area, which I’ll get into later.

   Perhaps the most heinous design choice made by the devs (Japan Art Media) was robbing the player of the ability to choose targets in battle, which I already ranted about, but I’ll complain some more. Now, there are games that feature AI controlled battle systems where players can’t choose targets, but these games are usually set up in such a way that combat is still organized. This is not the case with Dragon Song where your party members randomly attack enemies with no rhyme or reason, which makes even simple battles drag out forever. This eventually becomes less of a problem, because two of your party members get spells that damage everything on the screen, but its spectre still hangs over the battle system even to the end of the game. Having to constantly AoE everything if you want swift battles also prohibits the use the auto-battle function and forces the player to constantly recharge magic points, so it’s not much of a solution.

    I also have to address the fact that running around in drains the party’s HP, which was another unpopular design choice. While it bothered some players a lot, I found it to be a minor nuisance and am of the opinion that it would have been a good idea if implemented more carefully. Having to use the run mechanic conscientiously in dungeons was actually kind of fun, but running also reduces your hero’s HP in towns, which felt unnecessarily harsh. It also doesn’t make much sense that running drains HP from your characters, since the HP stat is supposed to represent how much injury someone can sustain from combat before dying, not how far they can run. All of the heroes in this game are young and presumably physically fit, so why would sprinting for three seconds hurt them? A stamina meter that depletes as the player runs and refills while they walk would have made a lot more sense. As a result, the system comes off as sloppily implemented and is just another thing that drags the entire experience into the mud.

   Next there’s the game modes, which are a disaster and only serve to make the game more tedious. Players can switch between Combat Mode and Virtue Mode while in dungeons. The mode you use determines what kind of reward the party receives after completing a battle. In Combat Mode, the player gets items that can be used in delivery jobs to earn money. Virtue Mode awards the party experience points that allow the heroes to gain levels and become stronger. If you kill all the enemies in an area with Virtue Mode on, you’ll be further rewarded with an item that can be obtained from a special blue chest, which is a cool touch. The downside is that this system forces players to grind for both experience and items that are used in the delivery jobs which are grindy in their own right. This system could have been used to make the game more interesting, but like with everything else, it wasn’t implemented very thoughtfully and ends up adding more layers of tedium to the adventure.

  In the last paragraph I mentioned the delivery jobs, which tie into obtaining gear in general. The main character, Jian is a courier who works for Gad’s Express. Jian remains employed with Gad’s Express throughout the game and can take jobs delivering items found in battle to NPCs, which is the only real source of income in this game aside from selling stuff. Consequently, making money in this game is incredibly tedious, because it takes yet more backtracking and grinding to fill orders. Equipment is also expensive, so players who want all the best stuff as soon as they can get it are in for a lot of work. To make matters worse, some monsters will randomly break (sometimes irreplaceable) pieces of equipment. There’s no way to repair broken gear, so the player will just have to reload their save or buy a replacement. The icing on this shitty cake is that most of the best items are sold in a shop near the end of the game, but players aren’t given any indication that the shop is the last in the game and may end up grinding for money they do not need later on.

   Buried under all the ridiculous nonsense thrown into this game are the combat system and dungeons, which are both mediocre, though the Monster Card system improves them slightly. Battles work pretty much like those in any other RPG, with characters hitting bad guys and using magic. Of course, the enemy can fight back and there are the usual bosses that are tougher than everyone else at the end of some dungeons. Aside from the massive flaw I complained about earlier, the battle system is ok. The dungeons are the same story, since they are not designed in particularly creative ways, though finding side paths and hidden treasure added some much needed fun to the game. Fortunately there’s the card system that helps take some of the pain out of adventuring. Monsters will sometimes drop cards that can be used to create various effects in battle or on the map and the system helped the game from being a complete failure. These cards allow players to poison enemies, heal themselves, or even freeze monsters on the map (and that’s just scratching the surface) which was a creative idea. It also made up for some of the other problems and I don’t see how Lunar: Dragon Song would be tolerable without it.

   Just to round out the suckiness of this game, the devs threw in a few things that almost seemed like intentional jabs at the player. Remember that backtracking I mentioned earlier? Well, the party does get a mode of transportation that makes life easier, since players are no longer required to slog through dungeons and forests filled with monsters just to go to a town they’ve already visited once they have a vehicle. However, there’s one caveat: you get this vehicle at the very end of the game! That alone made me want to burn this game. Then there’s the bosses, which mostly suck. Many of them will literally lay down and die while the player beats on them, which is disappointing to say the least. If a game is going to go out of its way to torture players, it should go all the way and not take half measures like Lunar: Dragon Song does, because in the end it comes off as insulting rather than challenging.

Final Thoughts

   I’ve played some really awful, boring games over the years and this one is a bit of both. The worst part is, I started Lunar: Dragon Song, because I was looking for a decent Nintendo DS title to review and it looked promising, which made it even more disappointing. It’s one thing for a crappy game to look bad from the very start, at least you know what you’re getting, but this game is like a turd in a candy wrapper: it looks like a nice treat until you start unwrapping it and the foul stench of it wafts into your nostrils. Of course, like an idiot, I took a big old bite of Lunar: Dragon Song and got the full experience. There are plenty of good games on the DS, this just isn’t one of them.

Recommendations

Lunar: Dragon Song is best avoided in favor of just about any other Nintendo DS RPG.

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