LUNAR KNIGHTS / Konami / Nintendo DS



Lunar Knights is an interesting jambalaya from Kojima Productions, and it comes of a wide smattering of influences. The game opens with an animu clip that looks (and sounds) like a K-Mart knockoff of Cowboy Bebop, but the gameplay actually resembles a Mana game more than anything else. Both fantasy and anime are mostly new territory for the Metal Gear maven, but there's familiar and noticeable "touches of Kojima" throughout - the menu system employed in towns is at least a bit reminiscent of Snatcher and Policenauts, and the major boss battles against vampire lords are straight out of a Metal Gear Solid game with their repetitive voice clips and rooms full of terrain objects to hide behind.

The game is an offshoot of the Boktai series for GBA, which was an oddball bunch of action-RPGs that came equipped with a "solar sensor" on the cartridge. The idea was, you had to go outdoors and play in the actual sunlight to charge up the attacks of the main character, or something along those lines (I haven't played any of them). Anyway, the whole thing is set in the far future, with space travel and all of that. The plot is pretty reminiscent of the Blade movies, really, but since this is anime, the black main character is removed and is replaced with some generic butt pirate badass who is only in it for the cashes and the revenge or whatever. After you play a chapter as him, this little animu kid who weilds a "solar gun" joins up with you, and you (ostensibly) flip back and forth between them as you work your way through the rest of the game.



As far as the gameplay, think Zelda or Mana, but from an isometric perspective and slowed down a bit. There's also all sorts of oddball geographical elements thrown into it - no more "solar sensor", but the top screen of the DS displays the current time of day, cloud cover, wind speed and moisture, and these things affect character powers, as well as react with pieces of your armor to make them more effective.

The setting and atmosphere are part cyberpunk, part gothy Castlevania stuff, part Cowboy Bebop, even part Astro Boy (the character portraits certainly resemble Tezuka's style). Generic Badass Pirate and Generic Animu Boy have to find and kill eight nasty vampires, who have basically blocked out the sun with a device they call a "ParaSOL" and are using the perpetual state of darkness along with crazy powerful cyber-armor to basically rule humanity and feed off them whenever they please. Each vampire you defeat not only unlocks a new Mana-style elemental companion (who gives you new attack abilities), but also unlocks a new climate program for the ParaSOL, which some crazy scientist buddy of yours can hack into somehow and change for you at will. Aside from changing the enivronment to up your abilities in conjunction with whatever armor and accessories you have equipped, it also becomes necessary to solve some puzzles and remove some terrain obstacles later in the game.

Badass Pirate fights with a sword, while Animu Boy can use a few different "solar guns" to attack from long range. You might think gun=win here, but you have finite Energy which is expended with each shot, and this has to be restored by sunlight, which is of course in short supply due to the Vampiaaars!1! There are items that up your energy level, but they have to be found and/or purchased, and the really effective ones are fairly rare and expensive. So you end up using Badass Pirate most of the time, since his sword uses no energy, and he ends up hitting a hell of a lot harder anyway. There's certain sequences where Pirate can't damage a particular enemy, or the two have to tag out at points to solve a puzzle, but outside of that, Animu Boy likely won't get much play unless you make it a point to grind and really develop him.



There's plenty of stuff to keep you busy here, and the gameplay is pretty solid for the most part. Aside from the main chapter-based plot to follow, you can revisit old areas on the map, and gain little mini-quests by talking to people in the towns. These quests usually take you back into dungeon areas you have already cleared for some sort of new challenge. You'll probably want to devote some time for farming "junk parts" with which to upgrade your weapons as well. The interface is certainly smooth, sporting one of the most logical and helpful sub-screens I have seen in awhile, and while the gameplay seems very GBA-ish it is basically sound and pretty fun.

Probably the worst element of the game is that, after you take down one of the major vampire bosses, you are forced into a really crappy "shooting sequence" where you have to blast into space and penetrate the ParaSOL layer to expose the vampires to direct sunlight and make them asplode. This is handled by the touch screen and is nothing more than dragging around your stiff one-sprite ship while firing by tapping enemies as they appear on the screen. Astute readers have likely noticed that it is physically impossible to do those two things at once, and yes, it gets very aggravating when pixel-hunting to kill a tiny ship and in the meantime your neglected ship is helpless to incoming fire. These shooting sequences are needlessly long, and usually culminate in a fairly challenging boss battle, and losing them means going all the damn way back to the beginning (and if you didn't stop to save after killing the vampire, you get to re-do that fight as well). These sequences just seem completely tacked on out of left field and I have no idea what Kojima was thinking with them.

Initially, I was drawn into the game despite the Animu genericness of the plot and characters - the setting and gameplay alone were enough to carry my interest for about five hours or so, but after that, it just got too samey and repetitive and started to become a chore to pick up and progress in. This is probably the one occasion in the history of gaming where I would have actually welcomed some of Kojima's pop-philosobabble and cut-scenes just to break up the tedium of the repetitive fighting and the generic animu story.

That said, the game is good and interesting enough to probably be at least worth looking at, and it has inspired me to go back and check out some of the Boktai games to see if they are more to my taste.



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