The first RPG for Nintendo DS is plenty long, but is that a good thing?
Lunar: Dragon Song is the first original game in the series in over ten years, but RPG fans who haven't played the originals, Silver Star and Eternal Blue, may wonder why the series is so famous after playing Dragon Song. The Lunar games have never been very fancy, but they strike role-playing gold by combining tender storytelling with tense battles. Unfortunately, Dragon Song fails to deliver either one.
The story surrounds Jian, a human teenager with a heart of gold and jack squat for brains, and his friend/sister/girlfriend Lucia, a seemingly normal girl upon whom Jian lavishes affection and concern throughout the game. But we're never told of their history or even the exact nature of their relationship, and the other characters are developed even less. The plot does draw in some interesting themes, including religion and racial oppression, but the specific chain of events is so poorly explained that you sometimes have no idea why a new character has joined your party or why you're going to the next location. On the positive side, the text itself is well written, occasionally funny, and even thought-provoking. It just seems that there was not enough effort put into writing the overall story elements into a cohesive work.
The battle system, in which at least two-thirds of your playing time will take place, is equally disappointing. Foremost among the problems is the fact that you can't select which enemy to attack, and your characters are not smart enough to attack the most dangerous enemy or finish off the ones that are almost dead from magic spells. This issue and the extremely limited magic system combine to suck virtually all strategy from the battles. Ironically, the game includes an auto-battle feature that can be safely used in nearly all battles except against bosses, since you'd end up doing the same thing (attack, attack, attack) through the menus at a slower pace.
But even auto-battle can't help the unbelievably slow pace of the game's battles. At normal speed, it's not uncommon for a battle to last over five minutes, and you'll need to complete hundreds of these battles to get through the entire game. That would be fine if the battles were interesting, but again, there's little for you to do but watch the attack animations and heal if a character gets too low on hit points. The L and R buttons can be held down to double and triple the battle animation speed, respectively. Even at triple speed with auto-battle skipping over the menu choices, the battles are still agonizingly slow and uneventful. Fighting battles in Dragon Song feels more like babysitting than anything, and I really can't stress enough how much the game suffers for these problems.
The game does deserve commendation for its innovative experience/money system. In Dragon Song, you can only win either experience points or money from any given battle, forcing you to decide which one is more important at that point in the game. Yes, this dual system does mean you have to fight more battles to keep your characters leveled up and properly equipped, but you tend to earn experience points very quickly, so it's not as bad as you might think. If you choose to get experience from battles, the enemies will be eliminated one by one in your current area, and it's possible to completely exterminate them. When you do, the party gets a partial HP/MP refill, and special blue treasure chests will become unlocked. There's a time limit in this mode, and if you can't get to the next enemy before time runs out, the previous enemy will be regenerated. The timer keeps you moving and adds some tension to the proceedings while being lenient enough that you'll rarely have to redo a battle.
The money system is quite unusual as well. Enemies don't actually drop money, but rather they leave items called sundries which can be sold at shops for cash. The real way to make money, however, is by filling out detailed order lists and delivering the sets of requested sundries to specific characters throughout the game's villages and cities. This courier feature can be pretty involved and fun, and it is easily the fastest way to earn money to buy new weapons and armor.
While I enjoy both of these systems and appreciate their originality, they could have been combined so that battles yield both experience and sundries. As it is, advancing through the game and building up characters takes a lot of time and work and puts you through way too many of the awful battle encounters. And all this "grinding" for level-ups and cash takes its toll on the game's pacing. I knew there was a problem when the game clock showed fifteen hours and the story had yet to show any signs of ballooning to "save the world" proportions (that happens closer to thirty hours in).
Dragon Song makes good use of the Nintendo DS's 2D power, at least in regards to the beautiful map/area graphics on the upper screen. The menu system, which always appears on the lower screen and is touch-sensitive, is borderline gaudy and unnecessarily complex, especially if you prefer to use the D-pad for menu selections (since you won't need the stylus otherwise). Battles, meanwhile, look positively awful. The character, enemy, and especially boss sprites are blown up far too large, so they look grainy. The battle graphics engine uses sprite scaling and rotation effects much like Camelot's Golden Sun series on the GBA, but Golden Sun's battles use these tricks far more effectively and combine them with sharp artwork and flashy special effects that are nowhere to be found in this DS game. There is only one battle animation per character, which you'll get really tired of seeing by the end of the game, particularly since the animations take so long to play out. Battles are depicted on both screens at once, with flying enemies usually taking up the vertical space over ground-dwelling enemies. Okay, that's a neat idea that sort of takes advantage of the dual screens, but it ends up being completely pointless because a) the battle system doesn't give you enough manual control to make the flying enemies strategically important, and b) most ground-dwelling enemies are too tall to fit on the lower screen, so the tops of their heads wave around at the bottom edge of the top screen. It looks completely ridiculous.
If you are utterly starved for an RPG to play on your DS, rejoice my pitiful friend, because Lunar: Dragon Song is a traditional, predictable take on the genre that will last forty or fifty hours. If, however, you have anything less than the patience of a statue, this game will bore you to tears long before the anticlimactic ending sequence.