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Lunar: Silver Star Harmony (PSP) artwork

Lunar: Silver Star Harmony (PSP) review

"Note: This review covers the Japanese release of the game. "

Note: This review covers the Japanese release of the game.

The first thing nearly anyone will note in a review of Harmony of Silver Star is that it is the fourth incarnation of its story (the sixth, if you count the novels and drama CDs exclusive to Japan) and as such is straining any definition of "really necessary," so let's get that out of the way beforehand. The original creative team - creative director Kei Shigema, character designer Toshiyuki Kubooka, composer Noriyuki Iwadare, illustrator and mangaka Akari Funato - left the franchise after the Playstation days, and the wan remake and shoddy cash-in title that followed the license's migration from developer to developer have proven that a prestigious franchise is a dangerous toy to leave in inexperienced and avaricious hands. Out of fairness, not all gamers have had the fortune to enjoy this story on the Sega CD, Playstation/Saturn, or the scaled-down GBA incarnation, and getting a classic console RPG up and running on a modern machine is not as easy as, say, popping a copy of Casablanca into the DVD player. Does this latest release give the game an effective facelift while preserving what made the game so special for a new audience? Or does it follow Lunar: Dragon Song as an illustration of the diminshed returns of prolonging a franchise beyond the interest of its original creators?

One of the first things you'll notice about this remake is how beautiful it is. Vibrant color has always been a series hallmark, and developer GungHo uses the PSP's higher resolution to create a vivid patchwork that shines more brilliantly than any previous Lunar title. The palette is jewel-bright in nearly every aspect, right down to the vivid blue that makes the heroine's two-pixel eyes, while the increased resolution allows houses and shops to be cluttered with the residue of everyday life. The village of song, Lyton, is now a Shirelike idyll bathed in sunlight and spring green, while the village of the prairie folk is a dusty Taos rendered in fieldstone and timber instead of adobe; the unique character of each town is pronounced to full life with the artists' new bag of tricks. Meanwhile, the overworld sprites follow Lunar Legend in packing much more character and detail in their little movements, from the vain magician Nash obnoxiously calling his attack before loosing an arrow to Luna's many layers of skirts each swaying and fluttering in the breeze.

Though no new cinemas are present, all the Playstation cutscenes are intact, and while they're odd in that they're now less vibrant than the surrounding game, their quality (save for a touch of spotty CG) still impresses. What's more, major characters have been given an array of half-height chara portraits in the same animation style, far bigger and generally more expressive than the ones in the Playstation version. Unfortunately, the franchise no longer has full access to animator Toshiyuki Kubooka, and so the portraits are of somewhat uneven quality (Nash and Jessica are brimming with life and character; Mia is a dim Muppet, and Ghaleon's sour glean has been replaced with the vacant stare of a cocker spaniel). Many of the better ones are traced from old Playstation-era production sketches, and the newbie artists neglected to add shading to some portraits altogether. Still, despite the goddess Althena's touch of encephalitis, it's a mostly good show all around. The graphics succeed in making a strong positive first impression and are an invigorating update still faithful to the series' visual style. It feels like Lunar; it feels right.

Unfortunately, the game's biggest stumble also comes right out of the gate. The plot of Lunar revolves around a boy who sets out with a couple village friends to become a Dragonmaster, just like his idol, Dyne, who once saved the world with three others and then perished 15 years ago. During your journey, it gradually becomes clear that Dyne was involved in something of grave significance that was covered up, and that something eventually becomes the crux of the adventure. The nature of Dyne's heroic acts involved a threat to Lunar's life-giving goddess herself but was never before fully detailed - presumably because Shigema wanted to make the story into a Lunar 3, which never eventuated before the original team disbanded.

Instead of opening with the young hero at Dyne's grave, as have previous versions of Silver Star, Harmony lets you play the final battle of the legendary Four Heroes as a combination prologue and combat tutorial (see: Lufia and the Fortress of Doom) in a scenario concocted by the new writers. This sounds promising, particularly for old Lunar fans hungry for new material, but quickly runs off the rails.

In brief: 1) The villain, Jason Voorhees as a Shaolin monk fresh from a Day-Glo rave, is flatly ridiculous. 2) New writers are now incapable of writing a Lunar villain in any way except "what the bad guy from the first game did, only earlier" (see also Lunar: Dragon Song), here forgetting that this is the first game and that such a decision severely undercuts the subsequent proceedings. 3) While the depiction improves somewhat as the scene continues, three of the legendary Four Heroes are introduced as utter buffoons. (Lemia/Remilia Ausa fares the worst, having gone from the cool, capable manager in the PS version's backstory manga to Lunar's slapstick answer to Bernadette Peters.) 4) The scene gives way too much information about forthcoming plot twists for newcomers and a markedly lackluster version of events that have been teased for 15 years or more for established fans. 5) The scene ends on the most laughable bad-fanfic note conceivable. I didn't think Lunar needed a Shadow the Hedgehog moment, but, boy, does it have one now.

While problem #2 seems endemic to any series that boasts an iconic villain and lives long enough to see new management (the recent Silent Hills recreate Pyramid Head with different geometry, and the FF7 spinoffs have an army of Sephiroth clones not entirely the fault of Dr. Hojo), at least the originals are recognized as the nightmarish treasures they are and held apart more or less inviolate; here, the series' hallmark antagonist is deprived of any character whatsoever past his introduction. His dialogue is somewhat cut, replaced with fretting about escaping the shadow of a far inferior rip-off of himself. Furthermore, the developers seem to feel that both ripping off and spoiling the original Silver Star story within the prelude relieves them of any obligation to develop said story within the actual game; events that before merely hinted at upcoming events now blare the truth in 32-point text thanks to that blabbermouth prologue, and for the first half, the main plot is often treated as something with which to be dispensed instead of embraced - almost a "You know how this goes, right? We don't need to explain it to you, then."

With not the slightest effort to disguise the identity of the ultimate villain and nearly all his character stripped away, the story turns into a standard evil-overlord grab for power, robbing the game not only of what was once its best-developed character but of much of its resonance and uniqueness. Silver Star's conflict was unique in that it was ideological; its focus changes over the iterations but always involves love vs. duty, a leader's responsibility to her followers and a parent's to her children, and bigger ideas and values than the normal RPG fodder. Perhaps it's not the draw for every fan, but it's enough of a draw for the publishers to make its supposed origins a significant selling point in promotional material. Instead, it's as if Silent Hill 2 began with James Sunderland separated from his wife due to a tiff about her sleeping with the gardener. The impact of many of the game's little moments along the way will remain, but the heart is gone. I'm not one for liberal translations, but I wouldn't be above Xseed doing damage control here.

With the main tale damaged, cracks long present elsewhere in the original story begin to grate. Alex/Arhes is a weak and self-satisfied hero for whom the game demands everyone's incessant praise for the first half and who spends the second as a dull brick. The female leads are continually subverted into weak and fainting damsels so their knights can come dashing to the rescue, an idea that was growing weary in 1992 and is all the more frustrating today due to these characters' vibrance otherwise. I've never been fond of the decision to split one villain from the very first version into three in all subsequent ones, which leaves too little character to go around and ends with one somewhat well-developed cast member and two cardboard cutouts...

...But enough of the story for a moment. In terms of pure mechanics, the game holds up. One area where Harmony does excel is combat, which relies on Lunar's traditional gambit of battlefield position. Some charas are equipped with weak long-range weapons; some can move agilely and deal numerous blows per turn; some can't hit anything not in front of their faces. Magic is largely distinguished by its area of impact. The deciding factor in selecting attacks, then, isn't power so much as range of effect, so even though you'll run into the usual RPG random encounters, you can't mindlessly hit "attack"; unless you deploy your troops smartly to cause the most damage in the least amount of time, you'll run out of resources before you run out of dungeon. Thankfully, your small stable of characters is very well-balanced and versatile. In most RPGs, your healer is dead weight outside of first-aid duties; here, she packs a crushing close-range mace attack that earns her a place on the front lines. There may not always be water-based enemies for your lightning mage to fry, but he can compensate with the scope of his area spells and ranged attacks. Seldom is anyone ever useless, only more useful and less useful, with everyone taking their turn as the star. It's a sleek game of resource management, and while it's not prohibitively tough, it's tough enough - and it's fun.

If combat strategy is well-handled, though, the maze design can cause frustration. Lunar labyrinths were in the past sprawling but have largely dwindled here to a succession of smallish rooms with at most two ways to go, where one path means a chest or dead end and the other progress. Much of the difficulty instead comes from the sheer volume of monsters. Harmony carries over the Playstation system for small-fry encounters, where the enemy groups are visible in the mazes and you can, in theory, escape encounters by evading their touch - but the halls are so narrow and the monsters so quick that you'll always be caught. Worse, the monsters respawn every time you enter and exit, often making combat endless and exploration a drag. Another issue is the long time it takes to cast spells, which can stop the momentum of a battle cold; at several points in the game, it got so that I would abstain from casting spells that would've otherwise been useful simply out of sheer aggravation to get on with matters. Every if you abstain from magic, however, the enemies won't, and the occasional slow pace of battles combined with the frequency of battle itself can make dungeons a bit aggravating.

(I should mention that the Arts Gauge gimmick, effectively a Limit Break for each character, is held over from Lunar Legend. You'll generally save Jessica's, Kyle's, and Mia's for boss fights, but Alex's and Nash's are nice occasional room-clearers; they're not gamechangers but do provide a pleasant occasional punch. They also have the amusing side-effect of making the supposedly all-powerful Dragon spells bestowed on the hero completely useless; Mia's has the effect of White Dragon Protect, except it shields against damage for three turns instead of one and at no catastrophic MP cost, and Nash's is the most powerful offensive spell in the game.)

Oddly, there seems to be have been a music rights issue with Harmony - clips from image songs throughout the game have been replaced with instrumentals (even the la-la-la tune for the songstresses has been rehauled), and the game's two vocal showpieces have been rerecorded entirely and slightly rearranged. The new takes are interesting but not superior; the new vocalist sings with too much precious affectation instead of unrestrained emotion, and while the heroine Luna is supposed to an extent to be a preening pill, there is the matter of being faithful to the character to a fault. Elsewhere, old Lunar standards are facelifted to good effect; the wider range of instrumentation here serves Iwadare well, as he was always stronger in full orchestration than the all-synth style adopted in the PS era. The scant few new tracks are nothing standout but provide good supporting material. Seiyuuwise, the original voice acting is recycled, and only the Four Heroes intro boasts new voicework.

And, as the vast majority of the script is lifted verbatim from the Playstation version, the recycling doesn't stop there. A few side events differ in minor ways; for instance, when a bridge collapses and the group is scattered across the town, Kyle/Killy doesn't wash up at the local bar - he jumps in the river below to save Jessica, even though he can't swim. They're not bad ideas, but they're not big ones, and that's perhaps the biggest indictment of the new creative team. I can't find how much of a hand former creative director Kei Shigema had in revising the game, but my guess, based on the scavenging of old material, would be little to none. From the recycled script and score to the traced art, the new developers clip and pluck heavily from existing material to make their ballgown. (Even some of the original elements in the Four Heroes scenario were cadged from a rejected Lunar 2 plot.) There are little cracks even in the good new stuff that wouldn't be overlooked in an A-list production; despite their adeptness with sprite animation, the big effects like dragons flying have to be handled through shifting cutouts, and many spells involve ill-placed zooms that make the little sprites seem fuzzy and would look outright unacceptable were this game not on a handheld screen. Save for the new writers, the developers are by no means untalented, but the recycling makes it very apparent that this is a weaker team being carried by the previous efforts of a stronger one. If charged to make a Lunar game from scratch - and it is very evident that they dearly want to expand their introduction into a Lunar 3 - I doubt the results will be as strong as they are even here.

I want to emphasize that there's a lot to like in Harmony of Silver Star. It's a port of a classic RPG that hasn't received an upgrade in two hardware generations. Despite certain small aggravations, it's fun to play. The graphics nail that Lunar combination of joyous color, homey detail, and the stupidly charming, and there are a couple potent moments that recall the power of song in traditional series fashion. At its best, the story can sell drama and character like nobody's business. But, dammit, if only they had gotten that one part right.

In the end, it comes down to whether you can recommend a version of a great game that is neatly upgraded and technically proficient but has had a significant part of what made it special stripped out. I can grit my teeth and give it a thumbs up; if you think my story-based objections are unreasonable, feel free to disregard and add another point to my score. The game has my critical approval but, in the end, not my heart.

Rating: 7/10

Synonymous's avatar
Community review by Synonymous (February 14, 2010)

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zigfried posted February 15, 2010:

Wow -- I was glued to every word. This review completely "gets it" and gives all of the information a Lunar fan could want to know. I'll be passing on this game... at least for a while. I really do want to see the new art. Argh! But after reading this, the thought of a Lunar 3 frightens me.

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radicaldreamer posted February 16, 2010:

What a review. Probably the best remake review I've ever read that actually takes a remake perspective. I personally feel they should stop remaking Lunar, in the sense that they shouldn't touch an old classic. And yet, it was Silver Star Story Complete I played, which, as I've been told, was itself altered significantly from the original.

I'm just glad Eternal Blue only had one (videogame) remake.
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EmP posted February 16, 2010:

I was only wondering what happened to you the other day.

Thanks to dodgy localisation issues, I'ver never had the chance to play any of this particulat Lunar (I imported the PSX version -- twice -- but my deregionaliser seemed to annoyingly stumble over it) and I was hoping the PSP version would be faithful enough to finally be able to put that one regret to bed. Now I have an excellent idea on what to expect -- thanks for that. Great review.
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Synonymous posted February 16, 2010:

Thank you all very much for the kind words. I don't want to seem like an inflexible old-school fan; it's just that a) the new team doesn't seem capable of standing on their own two feet enough to steward a rebirth of the franchise, and b) though there's good even in that prologue I find so problematic, the bad is pretty dire. What they need to do, really, is to replace the writers. (They won't - Harmony is timed correctly and strong enough otherwise to be a success, which the writing team will take as validation and thus continue on their merry way.) Perhaps Xseed has done a terrific localization job that negates a few of the issues, who knows, but there are some bad decisions here that can't be translated away.
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radicaldreamer posted February 17, 2010:

I youtubed the prologue to see it for myself and I actually found it difficult to bear. I played Silver Star Story Complete and I love it so much the way it is that I never cared to play or even learn about any of the other versions, including the original. Does anyone know how Lunar Legend stacks up? Honestly I'm not even sure I want to see a real sequel, even if it was by the original team, out of the fear that it wouldn't live up to my expectations.

Emp, I personally recommend making Complete the version you play, though I think Zig thinks the original is the one to play.

EDIT: I also just wanted to add that I really liked some of the language you used in this review, like "residue of everyday life," "sour glean," "never eventuated," "bigger ideas and values than the normal RPG fodder," "precious affectation," and the first sentence of the second paragraph. There was a degree of sophistication here that actually enhanced clarity and even conveyed ideas that I wouldn't expect from most reviews, and it seemed natural and effortless.

I would like to give you suggestions for improvement but it takes a little more time to analyze a piece of good writing critically than to praise it. For now, I will say that the review does seem a little on the longish side, and I wonder if everything in there was truly necessary. Particularly, the entire paragraph that's a parenthetical looks like it may not be necessary, and the fact that it's a parenthetical seems to confirm this. It's good for the Lunar fan craving as much information as possible, and so far you've mostly gotten comments from Lunar fans very interested in the subject. The review obviously emphasizes comprehensiveness over singularity of focus, but I thought that part may be going a little overboard on information.
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Synonymous posted February 17, 2010:

Yeah, I liked Ghaleon facepalming over Dain and Mel bonding over stupid jokes (caveat: this goodwill may not extend to Xseed's stupid jokes, which I haven't seen), and I liked the part with Althena singing in the midst of battle, since I'm a big sap, apparently. The rest can take a leap.

I understand what you're saying about the parenthetical paragraph; I myself debated whether to leave it in. I thought I'd be remiss not to mention the "new" gameplay element, though perhaps I didn't need a paragraph to do so. Maybe I just found the nerfing of the hero's Mary Sue spells too hilarious.
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radicaldreamer posted February 17, 2010:

I remember needing the black dragon spell to get to the girls' bath in SSSC. It wasn't really worth it though.
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shotgunnova posted February 17, 2010:

Good review.
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joseph_valencia posted February 18, 2010:

Does anyone know how Lunar Legend stacks up?

Awful. Some lowlights:

- It doesn't even have the series' characteristic combat system.

- The localization is "straight," which is code for bland.

- The music is on par with low-end fan MIDIs.

Seeing Lunar in that incarnation is simply depressing. Just look up a YouTube video and wheep for the poor thing.
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aschultz posted February 24, 2010:

As a non-Lunar player I think this is an interesting review if a bit on the long side. I'm always conflicted about pointing out technical stuff but when a review spans 15k it's that much more important it nail things down.

Stuff like "in brief" containing 5 points left me realizing I'd need a break in this review. That's not bad on its own, but combined with other stuff, I tended to get bogged down. A paragraph of parentheses is a sign you may just want to drop something to say, and it bugged me a bit.

I'd be more interested in a paragraph that hit me with "The original creative team left, but unfortunately the script was recycled..." or something that hit the main points. The comparison to Casablanca is clever, but it takes a long time to get going, and whittling that down will help people keep their attention spans.

And the stuff you want to emphasize you like--well, emphasis belongs at the top, or not where it tidies up your complaints. And the graphics describing people in the plot, I think, belongs after the story description. For me, it swerved too much.

From other people's comments, it appears if you know the Lunar series, as many people do, then this hits the spot. Unfortunately, from my perspective, I think I am missing a lot, and hopefully my questions will help you if you want to take another hack at the review. It has points of humor with Athena's encephalitis and so forth. That sort of thing is tough to pull out.
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Synonymous posted February 24, 2010:

if you want to take another hack at the review

No, I'm happy with it and think it makes its points best as is.
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aschultz posted February 24, 2010:

I think it can stand too. I said "another hack" and really meant more about tweaking stuff.

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