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.
Lunar: Dragon Song is the first original Lunar game in more than 10 years.
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 battle modes in Lunar, one to earn experience and one to earn loot.
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.
The fact that you can't target a specific enemy in battle completely ruins any strategy this game might have had.