perjantai 6. syyskuuta 2013

REVIEW - Illusion of Gaia | SNES | 1993

GENRE(S): Action / RPG
RELEASED: November 27, 1993
PUBLISHER(S): Enix, Nintendo

"Is that The Legend of Zelda?" It might look like it, but no - it's Illusion of Gaia, one of Enix's most popular 90's titles alongside any Dragon Quest game. This game was promoted quite well internationally, thanks to Nintendo themselves, who took on the duties of publishing the game everywhere in the world a year and a half into its original release in Japan - in Europe, we knew the game as Illusion of Time. Connections to any earlier games were hardly mentioned back in those times, it was only later that people stopped looking at the game as a stand-alone, cute little RPG, and started to treat it as a follow-up to 1992's Soul Blazer, therefore also a follow-up to ActRaiser, although the Master is no longer part of the equation. Illusion of Gaia was also much closer to a true RPG than any of its predecessors in this curious arc by Quintet, but still as simple and accessible as a genre game could possibly be in those times and survive the competition. And, it's pretty good; a strangely attractive game, despite a slow start and a few major shortcomings.

Restoring the laws of evolution

Sure about that, slick?
Will is the young survivor of a mysterious shipwreck - how he survived he has no memory of, but he has since developed curious psychic powers. He accidentally enters a dark void, where according to its only inhabitant, the Earth's guardian Gaia, no human is supposed to be able to unless he's the "chosen one", to protect the world from a recurring meteor strike that has prevented mankind and the world's evolution into a more modern state for ages. With an exceptionally cute member of the local royal family in tow, Will embarks on a quest to find the only power strong enough to neutralize the meteor - the power of the firebird.

I always had some sort of infatuation with this game. Perhaps it's because I like the word "Gaia" so much, perhaps it's because it was treated moderately well for an Enix RPG in a time that Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger were the genre games to watch for. I first played the game in 2001, and back then, I could see the errors of its ways, but I appreciated how simple and accessible it was, and I liked how the combat combined elements from both Legend of Zelda and conventional RPG's. After getting run over by a train of frustration when it comes to the worst parts of Soul Blazer, I find myself appreciating Illusion of Gaia even more... but in turn, I've matured and I can see the unique errors of its ways a lot clearer than before. Simply put, Illusion of Gaia is definitely not as good as I remembered, but definitely worth a look if you're able to digest all the cons I will try my best to cover as I go.

Freedan in Mushroom Kingdom.
Although the story is focused on a lot more and it's basically well crafted, it's poorly and cryptically told. Not only is the narrative uncomfortably clumsy, it's extremely slow at times. Especially in the beginning of the game there are long, dragging sequences that make you somewhat uncertain if you're making progress or not; it's like the game is waiting for you to make a right decision when all you actually have to do is WAIT. Now I see where they were getting at - a realistic pace to give the role-playing part a boost - but it's far from necessary, especially at such early parts of the game in which you don't know the game well enough to figure whether you've made a mistake or not. Also, third-person narration seamlessly mixes with the character dialogue, rendering it all perhaps readable, but impossible to fully understand, assuming you're even interested to catch every single detail beyond the halfway mark of the game. The characters are extremely annoying and way dumber than anyone you bumped into in Soul Blazer; one thing Quintet might've wanted to pick up from Square's R&D was at least some dramatic direction for character development.

You are asked many questions with multiple choice answers, but only one of them's right. For an easy example, if you answer "No" when you're supposed to answer "Yes", the NPC just keeps repeating the question until you say "Yes". Sometimes, NPC's will artificially comply to whatever your response is, but the story still develops according to the "right" answer. How open-ended indeed.

General graphics are only so-so when pitted against the most fabulous-looking genre games of the time, but there are some nice level-specific elements like a rain of flowers or a whole village that bobs up and down while you're exploring. The music ain't that special either - they once again opted to switch to a different, inexperienced composer, and this time, they didn't end up with one truly memorable tune. It's not bad, just forgettable.

Cannibal holocaust!
Now that I've pretty much bashed the game which I've previously referred to as somewhat of a cult classic, it's time to bring this review up a notch in tone. As it was with Soul Blazer, the most important key to Illusion of Gaia's charm is its simplicity. You are no longer mandated to kill every single enemy in every single screen to make actual progress, but it helps; killing the last enemy of a screen gives you a permanent boost in HP, strength or defense, at a well-balanced order right up 'til the end. So basically, you can level up in every screen if you're dedicated enough - which also means that the game isn't that lengthy at all, as you can see there's a pre-determined limit to HP. What makes Illusion of Gaia even more of an RPG than its predecessors is the actual exploration of towns and villages, not just a series of restore-and-fetch sequences like in Soul Blazer. However, there are only two people you really need to talk to in each town - the one to tell you where to go next, and the Jeweler Gem.

On your trip, you'll find regular gemstones yielded by defeated enemies. Gathering 100 of these grants you an extra "life" (it's-a-me, Maaaaariooo!!), in this case meaning a checkpoint at the last door you entered; otherwise, you'll return to the last save point. Believe me, you'll need those - the game likes to have a huge piece of your ass every once in a while. You'll also find hidden Red Jewels, which there are 50 altogether. Bringing these to Gem, who is found in most inhabited areas, and hitting a certain numerical mark grants you a special item or ability. For a simple example, further boosts to your basic stats. No special weapons or anything like that, but for the last item, an optional boss to fight, and he might or might not be someone you know from the earlier games. Neat.

The three heroes and the boss lady.
Actually, you can't change your weapons at all, so yes, you'll have to do with Will's flute. Yes, I said flute. A flute is a very dear item to any hardcore Zelda fan, but to me it spells out something I prefer not to say out loud. Oh, well. You attack with A, use an item with B, and use Will's telekinetic power to move objects with L and R. In time, you'll learn new abilities at particular save points - which makes finding each one extremely important - and they are used with combinations of these buttons. The item system is still quite retarded; once again, you use an item by going into the menu and linking an item to the B button, but at least this time the item menu's only one button press away, and at least this time you can carry multiple items of the same type. Also, there are no armour pieces to annoyingly vacate the item slot. However, the medical herb has a whole new problem linked to it; if you use it at the brink of death while getting mauled by an enemy, you will die, 'cause it takes a moment to load. There's really no right time for it, especially not in boss fights which range from incredibly easy (the sandworm ripped straight off A Link to the Past) to incredibly hard (the final boss). Magic or special physical abilities take time to load as well, but at least they blast straight forward this time.

I said you'll have to do with the flute, but would I like the game if it was that simple? Probably not. Quite early on at another particular save point, Will goes through a metamorphosis and changes into a pumped up knight with a long-ass sword called Freedan. Freedan has high power and range, which make him a very essential "friend" to have along on dungeon crawls, but he lacks Will's special talents (in the beginning, it's always the case of the fucking flute), which means that you can't just go bashing everyone's face in using Freedan all the time, but need to go back to the save point or sometimes, just wait for the game's decision to revert him back to Will. There's another alternative character that steps in much, much later, who's even better, and once you finally get to play as this character, you will find it very tough to be forced to go back to your own self.

I burned a guy alive. With my flute. I'm awesome.
Another thing that I truly like about this game - but which can be one of its most enfuriating elements depending on the surroundings - is that it's a constant puzzle, a true one. The dark side of the puzzle lies in the confusing level design. I'm not a huge fan of deliberate, warpzone-ridden mazes in games that promote exploration, never have been since I have such crappy sense of direction (which is just one of the hundred reasons I don't own a car), and this game has one of the worst I've ever suffered through to annoy you. What could be done in an hour takes three from me. The game also takes a turn for the overwhelmingly cryptic every once in a while. But alas, the game does pay back, with traditional and dare I say, surprisingly clever puzzles, and I also like the initially stumping parts where the very simple solution usually lies in exploring the talent of each playable character. It's like poor man's Lost Vikings.

As a whole, Illusion of Gaia is an entertaining and challenging game for any 16-bit RPG and/or adventure game enthusiast. You just have to fine-tune your receivers a little. The writers were very likely high as kites while scripting this game, it's extremely linear and the "cutscenes" are drawn way out of proportion, and it's really confusing at times altogether, but it's also an effortlessly accessible game for the RPG newbie, and the combat's simple and paced really well. I think that in the end, the game plays out slightly better than Soul Blazer... but has nothing on the final game in Quintet's SNES trilogy.

+ Easy access
+ Good combat mechanics, with a clever development system directly tied to the combat
+ Some clever puzzles
+ Another unique story with a lot of real world history tied in...

- ...However, it is told very poorly; the dialogue is uncomfortable to read with the third-person narrative mixed in, it's dumb anyway, and finally, long, linear and sometimes cryptic sequences ruin every remaining ounce of enjoyment
- Very confusing level design, partly caused by the graphical limitations (ie. dimensional differences)
- Item management is still a huge problem - although an update to what we had to suffer through in Soul Blazer

< 7.9 >

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