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SummarySweetness of the old school
The GoodAt first sight, there seems to be nothing special in Lunar. It appears to be a typical Japanese RPG of the kind that has always been mass-produced in its homeland because it's so easy to design: simplistic gameplay, almost no choices or variables that affect the experience, predictability, etc. This unremarkable formula, however, is really perfectly exploited by the game: with its careful balancing, it manages to turn the tables on the genre and capitalize on its very weakness.
The game's battles are noticeably more challenging than in the majority of other Japanese RPGs, and you are really required to wisely use whatever resources you have. Every character belongs to a certain pre-defined, linearly developing class, and therefore is always strong in certain areas and weak in others. Only by combining forces you can overcome the hordes of crazy baboons and spitting gargoyles that protect the dungeons of the game. And the bosses can just grind you to flour if you don't pay attention.
Lunar has no random battles. I don't like random battles, and I'm not sure whether there are people out there who would willingly give up the sensation of clearing out a dungeon. I enjoyed fighting my way through the dungeons in this game and then simple running around for a while, looking for possibly ignored treasure and knowing that nobody was going to attack me. The dungeons aren't too short and at least create a much-needed sense of danger and adventure.
But the real strength of Lunar is in the narrative. We keep hearing about Japanese RPGs that are worth playing just for their stories, but the majority of those present badly written, convoluted, improbable tales with delusions of grandeur. Lunar, however, is the real deal. Its story may seem simple and relying on the same archetypes we've seen all too many times; but the way it is told, the way it manages to emotionally engage us is what makes it stand out. Every character, every line of dialogue and every event was clearly created with love. The eternal tale of good and evil, of our choices that affect the world, is told with unwavering faith and honesty that deepens our sympathy to the game the more we play.
You'll also bond with the characters you'll control more than in most other games I know. Your companions are simple people, but it's precisely this simplicity that makes them surpass, in a way, the most extravagant casts of Final Fantasy games. Japanese designers often lose their sense of proportion and cross the boundaries of good taste when creating characters. This does not happen in Lunar: its characters resemble real human beings more than schematic representatives of various human traits or grotesquely ridiculous attempts at comic relief. Those characters are depicted with warmth and love; we feel connected to them, and their feelings and actions are believable and understandable.
Unlike most other Japanese games of the time, Lunar boasts a solid English translation. You may not like Working Designs' silly humor and pop culture references, but there is no doubt they put a lot of heart into the project. Being an enhanced version of an older game, this release has charming retro-style top-down graphics oozing the familiar cozy atmosphere of console RPGs during their glory days. It adds anime-style video cutscenes that enhance the game's narrative, emphasizing its dramatic impact.
The BadUnlike Final Fantasy games with their cinematic presentation and flashy, melodramatic openings, Lunar starts slow. The deceptively upbeat atmosphere does little to foreshadow the serious events to come. The first couple of quests are thoroughly unremarkable, forcing you to lead around a geeky character that plays no significant role in the story and is thankfully removed later. Not everyone would enjoy the old-fashioned concept of a silent hero, though I must say he really grows as person during the course of the game.
The real problem of Lunar, however, is that when you strip the game of its wonderful narrative and appealing characters, you are left with a rigid, limited Japanese RPG made according to the restrictive canons of the genre. Progression is very linear, particularly since the world map is small and there are no secrets or optional areas whatsoever. You'll be traveling from point A to point B with very little to do in between. At least there are some character bromides you can collect on the way, but that's not really enough.
Character customization is severely reduced as well. One might argue that all older Japanese RPGs offered little customization, but that is not entirely true: the very first Final Fantasy allowed you to build a custom party. In Lunar, all you can do is fight more enemies, gain a level, and witness your character automatically learn a much-needed spell. Equipment management is degraded to marching into the next town and buying everything you can afford. You are not allowed to think outside of the box and experiment, which greatly diminishes the game's significance as an RPG. Replay value is therefore almost non-existent: there is little incentive to return to the game unless you are overcome by nostalgia and wish to experience its story once again.