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Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Lunar 2: Eternal Blue Complete

Lunar's first remake for the fifth generation of consoles was a hit with fans of classic 2D RPGs, so it was inevitable that its highly-acclaimed sequel would soon get a remake of its own.  But does this remake do justice to the Sega CD cult classic, or is it simply a flawed counterpart?

Despite being released late in the system's life and garnering overall low sales as a result, Lunar 2 on the Sega CD quickly became a cult classic for the platform and is still widely hailed as one of its best games.  Its gripping story and high quality animated cutscenes were a sight to behold, as was a great CD soundtrack and even surprisingly competent voice-over for the era.  But it was marred with criticism as well, mostly for its publishers (the ever-controversial Working Designs) making bizarre and unnecessary alterations to both the gameplay and the script.  Like most of their games, it's translation was far from faithful to the original Japanese script, changing many plot points and adding in numerous juvenile jokes.  There are also an abundance of references to the movie "This is Spinal Tap" - even the company's motto at the time was "our games go to 11".  Many gameplay changes were implemented as well, ostensibly to add challenge but in practice making the game considerably more grindy and less fun.  The difficulty has been dramatically ramped up through higher MP costs for many spells, buying items and healing at shrines cost much more money, enemy stats were all cranked up, and most infamously of all, it forces the player to pay large sums of valuable Magic Experience (dependent on Hiro's current level) just to save the game - something that didn't exist at all in the original Japanese version. 

Thankfully, they seem to have finally taken that criticism to heart by the time Lunar 2's remake was announced.  Eternal Blue Complete was left largely untouched gameplay-wise, only making some minor tweaks to address bugs and other inconveniences (like disallowing items in fights the player is scripted to lose so that they don't go to waste). The translation is also a bit more subdued than their earlier efforts, though still laden with jokes, silly accents and pop culture gags (one that particularly stands out to me is a Who Wants to be a Millionaire reference, which dates the game quite a bit).  As usual, they also went all-in with the packaging, shipping the game in a foil-stamped box and including extras like a map, a bonus CD with a "Making of" commentary, a hard-cover manual and a set of miniature standees depicting all of the main cast.  They were very obviously passionate about their works and tried to invoke the mood you'd get buying an old big-box PC game with all the extras - you weren't just playing a game, you were adventuring into another world.  The downside, of course, is that complete copies of the game are now somewhat sparse and can go for over $100 online.

Eternal Blue Complete's gameplay is largely modeled on its predecessor's, retaining many of the improvements it brought. Random encounters are still a thing of the past, now allowing the player to see them on the dungeon map and evade them with the ability to dash. Combat retains a slight tactical bent, with each character having a finite movement range per turn and some attacks having areas of effect, giving the ability to hit large groups of enemies at once and lessen the damage from some moves by spreading out the party. The Magic Experience system from the original is done away with completely in favor of earning spells through levels, with some attaining more powerful upgraded versions after the player's level reaches a certain threshold.  Ruby (Hiro's dragon companion) also aids in battle, though in a slightly different manner than Nall from the previous game - if an enemy is reduced to very low HP but not quite dead, she will often fly down and deal a finishing blow at the end of the round.

A new addition to the game is the Crest system.  Crests are items that grant small stat bonuses/penalties and occasionally spells when equipped.  This allows for a degree of character customization, and some even allow any character to cast elemental attacks, letting you exploit weaknesses more easily than in 1.  Seemingly taking a cue from the Final Fantasy series, many items also have extra effects when used in battle; particularly staves, which often cast mid-ranged elemental spells for no MP cost.  One of the more interesting ones is the Thieves' Staff, which grants a chance to steal items from enemies; you won't get anything too rare from most enemies, but having a few extra Angel Tears or Star Lights around is never a bad thing, particularly late in the game.

Lunar 2: Eternal Blue Complete, simply put, is a great update to a classic, taking the same great story as the first and updating it to a new generation in style.  Higher-quality cutscenes with top-notch animation, remastered music that sounds fantastic, the same great reworked engine and design philosophy as the first Lunar remake, and a number of gameplay improvements over the first.  Working Designs resisting the urge to make the game more difficult certainly helps it too; the game is polished to near-perfection as is, providing just the right amount of challenge without ever feeling overbearing and rarely requiring the player to stop and grind for experience and resources.  It may not be the most visually impressive PS1 RPG, but it's an elegant, enjoyable and exceptionally charming one that still ranks as one of the all-time greats.

Developer: Game Arts, Studio Alex, Japan Art Media
Publisher: Kadokawa Shoten, Working Designs
Platform: Sega Saturn, Playstation 1, Playstation Network
Released: 1998, 2000, 2015
Recommended version: Thus far, the only version of the game in English is the Working Designs release on the Playstation.  The Japan-only Sega Saturn version is the "non-complete" release and lacks some extra content that was added to the Playstation versions.  The Playstation Network release is an emulation of the Japanese version and is currently only available in that region.