As has been noted time and again in reviews on both this site and by the gaming public at large, the role-playing game (RPG) is a genre that lives and dies by its archetypes. Traditional to a fault, the RPG is a genre where change comes in minute increments instead of large chunks—primarily because the core fanbase of these games prefers it that way.
Amongst the gaming community, there is perhaps no more conservative group of fans than those of the RPG (with the possible exception being fans of 2D shooters). RPG fans seem almost resistant to change—and in my own experience, many of them are among the last to embrace any kind of new technology (many of my fellow RPG fans have yet to actually buy a next-generation console and are more than content to continue replaying old games on their PlayStation/Sega Genesis/Super Nintendo). The one exception seems to be with the GameBoy Advance—which is almost understandable, given that the system is essentially a Super Nintendo in portable form.
While this predilection for standard gameplay mechanics and plots means that innovation isn't often a word used to describe RPGs, it also means that companies can get away with re-releasing ports of old games on new systems-something that fans of action games, first-person shooters, and sports games would balk at. All of which brings us to Lunar Legend.
The Lunar series has long been one of the favorites of the more hardcore RPG contingent. The series made its debut on Sega's ill-fated Sega-CD peripheral for the Genesis (and no doubt kept the peripheral alive for a spell), then moved on to the Saturn, was ported to the PlayStation, and now finds itself on the Game Boy Advance. Because the series began on such niche consoles (few people ever experienced the Sega-CD version or the Saturn port) Lunar became something of a cult title in an RPG landscape littered with high profile games from companies like Squaresoft and Enix. The PlayStation version (and the porting of the sequel, Eternal Blue) brought the game to a wider audience, which is what Ubi Soft expects the GBA release to do as well.
Calling Lunar Legend a port is at least somewhat misleading. This recent edition of the game features the same story (roughly), but also adds in a few new wrinkles in hopes of getting the hardcore fans of the series to shell out the cash for yet another version. In this regard, Ubi Soft is only partially successful—the new material seems more an afterthought than anything, and the changes that were made to make the game fit on a standard cartridge format are almost sure to displease the longtime fans of the game.
Graphically speaking, the game looks great. The title's sprites and backgrounds have been recreated so they look as good as possible on the GBA's LCD screen. The end result is nothing short of impressive, as the title is easily the best-looking RPG to grace the portable to date (yes, it even looks better than Golden Sun in just about every area except spell effects). One of the most memorable elements of the original versions of the game was the elaborate anime-style cutscenes sprinkled throughout the narrative. Unfortunately, those haven't survived the transition to cartridge form; instead, they've been replaced by a series of still shots from said sequences. While there is certainly a trade-off involved, the stills are visually impressive and don't detract from the flow of the story or lessen the dramatic impact of the scenes.
Gameplay is traditional to a fault, with the standard RPG plot paradigm followed to the letter. A great hero saves the world then disappears, and a new evil must be thwarted. To stop the evil, a new hero is called upon—one who will go through numerous trials and tribulations before truly becoming the savior of his world. It's all very standard, and nothing that RPG players haven't seen countless times before. However, what sets Lunar apart from many of its contemporaries is the way the story is presented. I've already briefly mentioned the stills from the old anime cutscenes, which serve to give the game a grand and epic feel, but it should also be noted that the title makes excellent use of character portraits for any dialogue scene. These portraits convey a wide range of emotions and make the dialogue text really come alive. Because of this, the characters actually manage to become more than caricatures and archetypes (which no doubt helps the player become immersed in the story).
As with any game in the genre, the gameplay itself revolves around exploration, fighting, leveling, and shopping. Characters must interact with other people to find out where to go next, go there and complete quests (which almost always involve fighting hordes of monsters), become stronger through the experience of battle, and then return to buy stronger gear before repeating the process again. Lunar is no different in this regard. The gameplay is predictable and occasionally repetitive, right down to the countless random battles the player will be forced to engage in.
In hopes of making the game at least somewhat different from its predecessors, Ubi Soft has added a few new things to this version. First up, is a collectible card game. Defeated enemies will occasionally drop a card with their picture on it. Players can collect them all, or with the use of a link cable, trade with friends. Unfortunately, the inclusion of the card collecting seems to serve no real purpose. Generally speaking, it's tacked on as an afterthought to try and add a few extra hours to the game.
A more significant (but no less flawed) change is in the game's battle engine. The addition of a Critical Attack System is intended to make the game's fights more dynamic, and it does—to a point. As players engage in combat, a gauge at the bottom of the screen slowly fills. When full, the player can unleash that character's special attacks—ones that heal allies or dole out massive amounts of damage to enemies. The idea of including this does add another dimension to the game's encounters, but it also lowers the difficulty in a fairly significant way. The critical attacks are almost too strong in most instances, capable of wiping out a screen of common enemies in a single turn, while often doing significant damage to the game's bosses as well. Factor the strength of the attack in with the fact that the gauge seems to fill rather quickly, and it's possible to coast through most of the game's encounters with these super powerful attacks.
Worse still is that the game's difficulty has been completely compromised by a programming glitch. Saving and reloading the game will give your party full health and magic, and since you can save anywhere, this bug removes almost all of the challenge from the game.
Still, even in spite of the problems, Lunar Legend hits more than it misses. It's nice to see a classic RPG ported to a handheld that will allow a whole new generation of gamers to experience it. Any game that's inspired no less than four different versions over the years must be worth playing.