Since Final Fantasy VII on PS1, which was my first official venture in the J-RPG world (I had been playing US-made RPGs for a while before though), I have been looking for great J-RPG games. But hey, when you start with FFVII, your standards are going to be incredibly hard to live up to. FFVII still remains to this day one of my favorite games (for many, many reasons), yet there are some very decent J-RPGs out there to consider. I have been playing Lunar Silver Star Story for the past few weeks, and it is without doubt another worthy gem in the J-RPG universe.
Lunar is old school all the way. Before being released for the Saturn and the PS1 (the version reviewed here), it was actually made for the Sega-CD (or Mega-CD) platform in 1992 and sold a lot of units on this nevertheless unpopular format.
If it looks like a game made for 16 bits machines, it’s perfectly OK, because it is! It’s all 2D, sprites-based. It uses almost none of the capabilities of these -at the time- modern machines, except for the FMV part. There was even a special Saturn MPEG version making use of the MPEG1 module available for the Saturn. It would however be unfair to say this is a straight conversion of a 16 bit game, since they revamped the graphics and the cinematics for the Saturn and PS1 versions. This version is certainly more colorful.
And this is the first thing that strikes you when you play Lunar for the first time: how beautiful the game really is. It’s gorgeous. No, Really, I mean it. The colors are vivid, there is clear attention to details. Sprites and items have this high quality feel, top-notch pixel art style. As far as 2D games go, this is one of the finest examples out there. Animations tend to be on the poorer side in terms of standards, with few frames of movement per character – and that’s where you feel that the game shows its age the most. In the audio department, the music does not disappoint and manages to fit with perfection the atmosphere of the game. It’s light-hearted, yet very engaging and melodious.
The game is set in medieval fantasy world. You play the role of the typical neutral-mute-teenager hero, Alex, whose aspiration is to become like the local village legendary warrior who died years ago. Alex, as a protagonist, is a bit disappointing because he really has no personality. Kind of like Cloud in FFVII, but even worse. Cloud at least didn’t hesitate to rub off people in the wrong way in certain parts of the game, but here we really have a Gordon Freeman version of the hero, which is not the best thing Valve ever did. He’s transparent, does not speak much and does not show emotions. The more I describe him, the more it sounds like a typical Japanese hero. We have a pattern here, alright.
The other characters are more like real people, and fortunately they make up well for the void left by Alex. There’s the young wizard, Nash, full of himself and disdainful of all other guys around him, yet extremely nice to girls. Kyle, the typical playboy who drinks too much, boasts about his adventures and affairs with ladies, looks like a good-for-nothing and yet happens to be a very powerful warrior. Let’s not forget the typical Japanese girl, Luna, as the cute heroin, positive, sweet but strong at times when it comes to set the limits of morality. And to counter Kyle in group, you have Jessica the tomboyish priestess, who’s basically pushy, irreverent, insulting Kyle the whole time just because he’s her ex-boyfriend and their relationship did not end on good terms. There’s one more girl, Mia who is a quiet, shy girl, the daughter of a magic guild’s headmistress. I almost forgot the flying cat, Nall, who’s always fond of fish. That’s a hell of a party alright.
This makes for a very lively team and very funny dialogs across a range of situations they encounter. The creators have apparently had a lot of fun to put all of these extreme characters in the mix. Dialogs are not your usual J-RPG dialogs here. In FF, most of time people stand around as placeholders and they only have a single line to deliver. There’s a bit more depth here in Lunar, as some NPC actually move around (yeah FF does it too, but Lunar is less static) and you can approach the same NPC twice to continue the conversation – so instead of one-line dialogs, you get something a little more consistent. It’s really a minor detail, but it does make a difference in making the world seem a little more believable.
The story is very linear. I insist. Very linear. So much that there’s usually only one way you can actually go. You know, almost like in this ass of a game that FFXIII was. Here at least it’s not boring and you don’t end up mashing a single button the whole time. You go many places which do not look like each other. It feels more like an epic adventure. The structure always follows the usual breakdown:
big quest goal -> smaller quest -> smaller objective -> small action to complete
… but there are some significant changes happening through the story to spice it up. Characters disappearing, betrayals and conspirations, so the story takes you for a ride when you least expect it. The creators of the game have put a special focus on storytelling, by progressively making you understand how the world works instead of revealing everything from the start. In that sense, it has better writing than most J-RPGs out there, a clear example in terms of how one should write a game story and its dialogs.
Lunar is also very successful in portraying a believable world in other ways. Small details, again:
- Going to a new shop does not always bring you the most powerful weapons and armors every time. There are some places where your supply of good stuff is limited even if you go up in levels. A small village far away in the mountains is not going to have the latest high tech gear.
- Your inventory is also very much restricted to a few items per individual, while you do have a “mule” in the team with the flying cat who can carry much more stuff for the party than anyone else. But the drawback is that whatever he’s carrying, you cannot use during fights, so you need to be very choiceful for what each character should carry.
- You never get rich beyond measure – you have to do with the money you get, and you usually cannot purchase everything you want at once, resulting in difficult choices to make between buying a better weapon or a better armor or skipping one character altogether for an upgrade. Strategy in a RPG, there you have it!
The fighting system is one of the core element of most Japanese RPGs, since there are so many hours you are expected to spend fighting. The combat in Lunar has a couple of interesting aspects:
- You have many characters on screen, when your team is full. Not limited to 3 or anything.
- It’s turn based, yet the order of who hits first is not determined by the order you chose, but rather the characteristics of the monsters and characters.
- It has a AI system in case you want to defer your decisions to the computer. You can assign the AI to each character separately. Honestly, I barely use it, but it may make sense if you are grinding to level up.
- Each character has some kind of magic ability – even warriors. Therefore all characters also have MP on top of HP, while mages and clerics have more MP than other classes, obviously. Powerful spells consume a ton of MP, so you need to show restraint because potions to refill MPs are very expensive and you should only keep them for extreme measures.
- The combat field exists in a set space. What I mean is that you are not directly in contact with the enemies, and therefore your character has to walk towards enemies before being able to hit them. If they are too far, you cannot hit them in a single turn. Sometimes it’s a good strategy to let the enemy come close first so that they cannot hit you during the first turn, but they become close enough so that you can hit them hard at the beginning of the second turn.
- Fallen friends can be resurrected in fights if you manage to survive long enough. The flying cat has this ability and only uses it once in a while, so it’s kind of random, but it will eventually happen if you manage to keep at least one team member alive for a while. Resilience is rewarded!
Overall, the fights are not bad, while sometimes repetitive, and you do need to do some grinding from time to time in order to level up for the big boss fights. It’s not THAT bad (nothing like Breath of Fire, if you know what I mean), but you have to cross some areas full of monsters, as usual, and when you do, you basically have a good 20-30 mins of fights ahead of you before the next area.
There’s nevertheless a good balance between the actual adventure and fights. You do spend good quality time in both. Most quests end up relatively quickly with bosses to play with – so you are not just hitting the small kind of monsters the whole time. Note that even small time monsters can harm you bad, I have had my party killed more than once by a group of 7-8 giant flies because I was a little too careless in my approach. Boss fights can be even more challenging, but there’s usually a few ways you can be more effective against them. Using the right type of magic, or boosting your main character attack stats with a cleric/mage can make serious differences on the outcome. Bosses are definitely are way more resistant than your usual monsters, though, and you’ll need to keep as many members alive during the fight to make it through – more than once I was just on the edge with one character left alive, low on HP, when I managed to get rid of the boss.
I haven’t finished the game yet, it’s certainly quite long and you probably have several dozen of hours ahead of you. I imagine being something like half way through, and it has left me with a very good impression so far. I’m doing the English version that was handled by a californian company called Working Design. They were well known for the quality of their conversions, and one can clearly see that they went above the literal transcription kind of job, and inserted American-culture references and well placed jokes where appropriate. A way better job than what was done for most other J-RPGs out there, again. That’s what I call localization done the right way. It’s very rare these days.
All in all, if you are looking for another RPG to have fun for a couple of weeks, I cannot recommend Lunar Silver Story enough. It works perfectly on the Pandora using PCSXReARMed, and it plays very, very well on that format – it looks like it was made for it! The first couple of hours are so-so, but it gets much better as you progress a little in the story, so you can safely invest time in it.