JRPG Journey 2022: Lunar: Silver Star Harmony (February)
January’s game: Final Fantasy Legend II
Winter bonus game: Final Fantasy IV
“The rumors of my death have—” Oh, you know what? Let’s pretend I’m not several months late with this review and get on with it.
Lunar: The Silver Star originally released way back in 1992 for the Sega CD. One of the best-selling games on that fledgling system, it received enhanced remakes for both the PlayStation and Game Boy Advance; however, I chose to play the latest remake, this time for PSP. Lunar: Silver Star Harmony came to Japan in 2009 and saw a Western release a short time later in 2010. Members of the fandom debate fervently over which version is best to start with, and while I usually prefer starting a series with its first release, in this case the PSP version was most readily available, and since many fans consider it the best version, I obliged them. (Although I plan to check out the Sega CD version at some point, too.)
The original Lunar game was renowned for its advances in the JRPG genre by taking advantage of the CD-ROM to offer higher quality visuals and audio than the popular cartridge games of the time. Since I’m not playing that version, I can’t comment much on this, but it’s worth keeping in mind. As the most complete update of The Silver Star, Silver Star Harmony has entirely redone visuals, more dialogue, new voice acting, and all the cutscenes from Silver Star Story Complete, the PlayStation remake. While it’s nothing groundbreaking like The Silver Star, it looks and sounds great — I’m a fan of the anime style, and though the music gets repetitive, it’s appropriately pleasant during town exploration and intense during dungeons and combat. It’s not one of my favorite soundtracks, but the composers did a good job, and there’s a few stellar tracks. For the visuals, though, I have no complaints. Comparing with screenshots from The Silver Star, this remake is brighter, less gloomy, and slightly more cartoony. I can understand not liking this change since I’m also a fan of the original’s style, but as my first experience with the game, I’ve got no complaints with the way Silver Star Harmony Looks. Battles feature lavish animations, even for basic attacks, with loads of particle effects and some of the best looking spells I’ve seen in a 2D game. The Sega CD version had similarly impressive effects, albeit in lower resolution, which surely was a major selling point back in the day, as all the major game companies jockeyed to make their JRPG stand out.
However, Lunar: Silver Star Harmony best justifies its place in genre canon through its focus on characterization and immersion into a world that feels alive. Now, I don’t want to exaggerate; I hate when critics do that. Its world feels _more_ alive than other JRPGs of its time, and even compared to a lot of what we get today. Unlike most of its peers, Silver Star Harmony is crammed with NPCs full of interesting things to say about the world, their personal situation, or their thoughts on the story as it evolves. After any major plot event, practically every NPC in the related town, and even those in other towns, will have brand new lines of dialogue, most of which I wanted to hear. And it’s usually at least 2 lines per character, which can get tedious in JRPGs with lesser writing. That’s not the case here. Toward the end of the game I did start skipping some of the optional dialogue to save time, but only for that reason. These days I can’t afford to spend 40+ hours on every RPG I play, even when I want to, and boy, I wanted to with this one. NPCs have a charm about them which made me eager to help them out or learn more about their history, family, or job, all written in a funny, upbeat style that fits the presentation. I’ve read criticism that the dialogue is too jokey compared to the original, and while I can’t make that comparison yet myself, I thought the writing in this one was spot-on for the story the game tells.
Lunar opens on Alex, a boy who happens to share the same hometown as the last Dragonmaster. He and his childhood friend, Luna, are exploring a cave when they encounter a dragon, of all things, and Alex quickly gets pulled into a journey to become the new Dragonmaster. See, the last guy, Dyne, gained the dragons’ power to counter a great evil — with the help of some teammates — and now, that evil has returned. It’s up to Alex, Luna, and allies made along the way to find the dragons, awaken a goddess, and save the world. This is all standard genre stuff, but the early plot points dealing with Alex’s relationship with Luna, his hometown, and his parents, who, in one of the greatest twists in JRPG history, are both still alive, hooked me in for the long haul. How the story is told as it expands beyond Alex’s tiny mountain village, with frequent humor, touching moments, and unexpected turns, had me wanting to put my Vita down less and drink caffeine more.
The game’s alluring title refers to the world it takes place on, which, in a non-sarcastic twist for the genre, is actually the moon of a great, blue, Earth-like planet that hangs in the sky, providing some beautiful scenery during those dramatic cutscenes. The world-building involved here is only vaguely explained (something about people escaping or being exiled from the planet long ago?), but there was plenty to keep me asking questions and thus staying engaged, and I can’t stress enough how the writing’s charm makes up for any shortcomings in storytelling — for most of its length, anyway. By around 2/3 through, the story begins to meander as if padding for time, and it doesn’t help that there’s not much meat to the story in the first place. This is a character-focused tale, and it could have been a good 5 hours shorter (I spent around 29 on my playthrough) without losing anything. Several main quests contain no story progression; instead, they’re generic fetch-an-item missions or slogs through a dungeon. Either way, you’re grinding through dozens or boring battles, leaving these sections to feel like side content at best.
Those characters, though — they have spunk; they have pep; they’re not boring, and all that goes a long way in a game with a ton of NPC interaction. Sure, it’s mostly optional, but talking to NPCs and learning about each bar or town or world is a big part of the appeal of the genre for me. It’s not combat, but it’s still gameplay, and when the exploration side of a JRPG’s gameplay is good, it can elevate the experience beyond expectations. Great exploration plus great combat make a top-tier JRPG, and, well, that’s where Silver Star Harmony shows some cracks.
I haven’t played a JRPG with more missed potential in its combat system than Silver Star Harmony. For one, it’s too easy — way too easy. The 1992 version is known for its difficulty compared to other JRPGs of the era, and none of that was preserved in this third remake. Instead, the devs added a bunch of nonsense to make the combat braindead. To start, your party’s status ailments are automatically healed after battle, including death, and occasionally during battle, thanks to Alex’s bubbly animal buddy, Nall. Dungeons, even in the endgame, are much shorter than before, and helpful item drops, such as MP restoratives, are plentiful. If that weren’t enough, all party characters get special ultimate attacks — kind of like this game’s version of limit breaks — that make the already easy boss fights into cakewalks. None of this crap was in the original game, and it shows. Only the first few areas offered any sort of challenge, and that’s because I was still getting used to the combat and figuring out what strategies worked best. Once I did, and it’s not hard to do so, I essentially slept through every battle.
That’s not to say the combat isn’t creative or interesting. It’s both, as well as innovative. Party members and enemies alike can move around the battlefield before they attack, giving the game a bit of a Western turn-based strategy vibe. The problem with this system is that it rarely makes a difference in combat. Sure, characters have to move to attack, but that’s as deep as it goes for well over 99% of fights. There’s never a need to run away to avoid certain attacks, or cluster around a weak unit to protect them, draw enemies away from a teammate. I was excited to get to do stuff like that in a JRPG when I first discovered how combat worked, but then the strategy, the fun stuff, never came. Instead, battles are even more drawn out than typical for the genre since you have to move your characters in addition to attacking, all for no good reason. Talk about wasting time.
On top of all that, there’s an auto-battle feature. I was hesitant to use it at first, but once normal enemy encounters became snooze-fests, it felt mandatory. There’s no reason to waste even more time selecting the same actions every battle, so auto-battling is usually the best option. You can even customize up to three predefined sets of actions for each party member, which can be selected to save the time of choosing an action for every character on every turn. While using those does make auto-battling more fun, I’d rather have a creative combat system that’s also engaging.
OK, but complaints aside, surely the combat is fun, right? Well, it is, I suppose. It’s a JRPG, and I like JRPG combat. I loved this game’s combat off the bat, but again, after the first few hours, the lack of difficulty killed the fun more often than not. Each character learns a bevy of skills or spells, but most are useless or so situational you forget you have ’em. I found myself using the same attacks in every fight — set each character to use the best AOE or other high damage skill they’ve got, and there’s little need to change things up. This bothers me more than in series like Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest, where combat also tends to be repetitive, because unlike in those games, you don’t need to pay attention to battles in Silver Star Harmony at all. In Final Fantasy, you might get statused and completely screwed if you’re mashing A through a new dungeon. In Lunar, if dungeons were a straight path, you could blindfold yourself, hold A, and win. Now, I’m exaggerating, but only a little. There are a few enemies where you need to use different skills or, say, defend with your mages, but they’re rare, and there’s hoards of enemies in this game. There’s no random battles, and you can avoid fighting when running through a dungeon, but this often feels only technically possible: enemies are fast as hell, and dodging them requires precise timing. Seriously, the window for this is tiny; until you’ve mastered it, it’s practically impossible to avoid battles for much of the game, at least for this old timer.
By the way, remember those animations that make battles so flashy? Alex and friends might have sick attacks that look sweet, but nowadays they get annoying after several hours, since you can’t skip them. They’re fun to watch once or twice, but man, this version of the game could have used a toggle to let you turn them off. Silver Star Harmony’s got a lot of small flaws like this that add up to a significant amount of general annoyance while playing. It wasn’t nearly enough to make me quit, and I didn’t notice or mind most of the problems for the first half or so, but this ain’t a short game, and they grinded on me for the rest. For example, music pauses during screen transitions, and this gets more and more obnoxious as you play, since areas are somewhat small and you’re constantly moving between them. The world map exploration from the original game has also been removed in favor of a literal map that you pick destinations from. It’s a gussied-up level select rather than a proper JRPG experience, but, on the other hand, I didn’t need more boring battles, so it’s hard to complain about it. I would’ve welcomed more optional exploration, though; there’s barely any here.
Also, I lied when I said the game opens on Alex. Unlike all previous versions of the game, Silver Star Harmony’s got a lengthy but impossible-to-fail prologue that depicts the end of Dyne and his party’s quest to defeat their big bad. That’s right, it’s thirty years before Alex’s journey, and you play through the moments leading up to the final fight and the fight itself. I had fun plowing through that horrific boss, and even though you’re given no setup for what’s going on, you do get introduced to characters who play important roles in Alex’s story, so it’s not pointless. Still, there’s no mind-blowing revelations in the rest of the game that tie into the prologue. It’s just that, a prologue; it introduces a few characters and provides background without adding anything the game wouldn’t have explained later anyway. You’re not missing anything if you play a version of the game without it, but I’m glad it was included here.
With all that said, I had a blast with Lunar for well over a dozen hours and still mostly enjoyed it to the end. I’d like to play the original as soon as I can, though, since from what I can tell, it’s a decent challenge and lacks most of the problems I’ve mentioned. There’s solid bones in Silver Star Harmony for sure, only they’ve been marred by modern, handholdy game design sensibilities. It’s a shame, but I’d recommend the game anyway, especially if it’s the only way you can play it. The world, story, and characters make the experience worth the time it asks, but if you have a choice, maybe check out the original or the PlayStation remake first.
The sequel, Lunar: Eternal Blue, is an automatic inclusion in my backlog as well, but for now, I’ll leave you with a tease of what’s next: March’s JRPG of the month is Various Daylife. Oh boy, this one’s gonna be a doozy, and it’ll be here sooner rather than later.