I gushed a week or so ago about the early parts of Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete. I’m glad to say the level of quality holds up through nearly the entire game. And those parts that falter are only minimally disappointing. Lunar delivers on everything it aspires to: a mechanically unambitious but fundamentally sound old school JRPG with a cinematic flair. It combines 16-bit goodness with just the right amount of modern influence to keep it from feeling archaic.
The battle system is mechanically little different from the Final Fantasies and Dragon Quest of its time. There is little in the way of character customization; the characters learn their skills at set levels and there in no control over character stats. Lunar, though, does not suffer from this simplicity; it revels in it. Each character has a unique but limited skill set; giving them predefined roles that nonetheless allow for some flexibility. There is some ability customization with accessories. Kyle and Mia are slow, but powerful attackers, physical and magical respectively. Normally their big damage attacks come late in the round, but with the right equipment, though almost anything good comes near the end of the game; they can be the first to attack. While this is the norm for RPGs, but it shows that strategy in Lunar is not rigid.
The most unique part of Lunar’s battle system if the importance of positioning and movement on the battlefield. Like Final Fantasy, the player’s party and the enemies line up across the screen from each other at the start, but in Lunar, characters must move across the screen to attack the enemies. This makes area of effect and movement abilities vital parts of battle strategy. It turns what could have been a straight FF or DQ clone into a mix of traditional turn based battles and a Tales style action RPG. And unlike other games that use movement (Chrono Trigger and Suikoden 3), you actually have control over how your characters move. There is nothing revolutionary in Lunar’s battle system, but there is just enough spin on the normal JRPG to keep the battles interesting, but nothing radically different from what came before it. Lunar has a solid foundation and is competently balanced, but the battle system in and of itself is not the draw of the game.
While the battle system is not particularly innovative, the rest of the game offsets its old school looks with positively friendly gameplay. Many RPGs have minor, niggling faults that can drag the experience to a halt. Like random battles. I’m not one to rail against the genre crutch, making sure the encounter rate is appropriate is important. Unless the game goes the route, Lunar does and eliminates random battles. It does not go so far as Chrono Trigger and eliminate the battle screen, but it does give the player control of when to fight. Visible enemies on the map, even if hey are just a trigger for the battle screen, is a wholly better system than random battles. Lunar is also a speedy game. Most PS1 RPGs have interminable load times, but Lunar’s are lightning fast. As is the character’s movement speed, a small thing that can make a huge difference. There are other small touches, like the escape spell. Not that an escape spell is something particularly innovative, but near the end of the game there is a dungeon where you do not have the character with the spell. The game instead of making you fight your way back out if the dungeon, the game gives you an escape item at the end of the dungeon. Not a big thing, but indicative of the thought put into making Lunar a joy to play.
I am not normally an advocate of playing a game for its story, because the stories are often terrible and trite. It is much more common that a game with a good battle system is dragged down by an incompetent story than for a mediocre playing game to be saved by its terrific story. Lunar’s gameplay is competent, it is vanilla with a touch of chocolate and butterscotch, but it’s vanilla nonetheless. Even if were bad the story might redeem it.
Lunar’s story is not particularly well written, it is not very original or thought provoking, but it is captivating anyway. It has energy and earnestness. For the most part, it avoids the epic, world changing importance that is endemic to the genre. Those sorts of things are going on, and it becomes important late, but the game wisely focuses on smaller more personal vignettes to tell its story. It allows each little story to have its own beginning and end, while simultaneously building up the larger story.
The earnestness of the story comes in how it plays mostly straight. This is in a time when many RPGs were dark and gloomy, with flawed protagonists and particularly nihilistic villains. Lunar simply has a hero who does the right thing because it is right and a clear villain. Yes, Ghaleon’s turn is supposedly a big reveal, but he acted suspiciously as soon as he appeared. That is not to call Lunar’s cast one dimensional, just upbeat and straightforward. It is refreshing.
The game is also well paced. The first third of the game, up to where I was when I last wrote about Lunar, is less a quest of great importance and more a boy and his friends out on their first adventure, seeing the world. Along the way the player conveniently meets all the important characters in the world and briefly teams up with the later part members. It allows the player to experience and discover the world before things start to go wrong. Most importantly, it allows the game to establish and develop the relationship between Alex and Luna. Because Lunar is a love story. Each of the party members has their own love story going on, even Ramus if you count his love of money. They are defined by their relationship. Nash and Mia have most of the game to develop their story, as do Jessica and Kyle, but due to plot reasons Luna and Alex are apart for most of the game. So their relationship must be established early. And considering the game’s climax relies on them, and does so effectively, they did a very good job.
The second “act” is Alex’s quest, where he becomes the games hero, the Dragon Master. I do not intend to spoil everything, but of course, he is successful. This is where the meat of the game is, with the general JRPG elements like a procession of towns and dungeons and varied forms of travel. The last act, of course, is the final showdown with Ghaleon and his minions. Complete with world changing enormity and long hard dungeons.
The world of Lunar is also a step above the norm. The title Lunar comes from the fact that in the game humanity has relocated to the moon while the earth recovers from some sort of catastrophe. The goddess Althena magically terra-formed most of the moon. What is great is that this barley figures into the plot at all. It is only a bit of back-story. Te unique history of the game world is just a minor twist to the world’s pleasantly generic make-up.
Between the simply but well made battle system and the fun, engaging story, Lunar is one of the best games on the PS1. It is a game made originally in 1992 and at times feels like it. But it is evident that so much care went into every part of the game, both originally and upon its remake that the game is bleeds enjoyment out of every pore. It is not a masterpiece, but it is one of the most truly enjoyable games in its genre.