|Publisher:||Enix / Nintendo|
Illusion of Gaia is the second game in Quintet's "Blazer" action RPG series. The first is SoulBlazer and the third is Terranigma. I am unsure of how (or even if) the games in the series are connected, but Illusion of Gaia works fine as a standalone RPG. I've not played SoulBlazer and have only briefly tried Terranigma, and my understanding and enjoyment of Illusion of Gaia was not hampered one bit.
The graphics are nicely done. The backgrounds are bright and colorful, and the character sprites are large and animate smoothly. There aren't too many locales in the game, so each town and dungeon has its own unique look. However, some dungeons take a long time to traverse and have few distinct landmarks, so they may seem repetitive. There is very little palette swapping among the enemy creatures, so many of them remain distinct. The best "spritery" comes from some of the larger bosses. While some bosses aren't very big, others are so big they take up most of the screen. Also, there aren't too many flashy special effects with regards to spells and/or special attacks. So the bottom line is that the graphics are colorful, stylish and nice over all, but not flashy or jaw-dropping.
The sound is also good. There is a nice variety of music in the game and all of it is well composed. There was not a single track I did not like. However, the music does not compel me to buy the soundtrack. The compositions work well within the context of the game and have a classic 'fantasy RPG' feel to them, but I don't think they would hold up on their own. The sound effects are fairly standard 16-bit sound effects, but all are crisp and clear.
Given that Illusion of Gaia is an action-RPG, control and gameplay are large factors. Thankfully, the game is quite fun to play. The control is generally good. You only control one character (who can change shape) in the game, and he responds fluidly to button input. However, control on some of the special moves that require timed button presses can be a tad spotty. Otherwise, the control is smooth. Another thing I liked was that there was no platform jumping. Platform jumping is something I'm not very good at and thus consider a nuisance. However, if you enjoy platform jumping, then Illusion of Gaia's exclusion of it may not be to your liking.
While playing the game, the term "RPG-lite" kept popping into my head. This is because many RPG conventions were dropped. Firstly, the game is among the most linear RPGs I've ever played. Even linear RPGs such as Grandia allow one to tread off the beaten path every once in a while, but not Illusion of Gaia. In addition, there is no money to be earned in the game, thus there are no shops in which to buy items, armor, weapons, or various other sundry things one would normally buy in an RPG. Everything you may need is found in treasure chests in the dungeons. It should be noted, however, that because of this, there is a limited number of healing herbs to be found in the game so you must be careful not to waste them. Also, you can only carry a limited number of items in your sub-screen.
Traditional level-gaining through the use of experience points has also been scrapped. Instead, you gain bonuses in strength, defense, or hit points after you clear all the enemies in a given area. Enemies also drop red gems, which grant you a bonus life if 100 are collected. The maximum number of lives you can have at any given time is 9. Enemies do not respawn unless you exit the dungeon. If you happen to exit the dungeon after clearing an area and defeat all the monsters a second time, you will not get the strength, defense, or HP bonus. So it is in your benefit to stay in the dungeon for the full duration. But, there is no need to worry, because save points are plentiful and they heal you as well. Some save points also allow our teenage boy hero to transform into Freedan the dark knight or Shadow the blue demon warrior. The boy, the knight, and the demon warrior all have an arsenal of special moves (learned from the save points) that are vital to getting through certain parts of the game. For example, only the boy can slide under small spaces or jump over small hills whereas the knight, for the majority of the game, is the only one capable of long range attacks, and the demon warrior can turn into liquid and penetrate some floors.
The game has puzzles, but none are all that difficult to figure out; though the backtracking and back-and-forth form changing required in some dungeons to solve some puzzles and access previously inaccessible areas can be tedious.
Illusion of Gaia's plot takes place in a rather interesting version of ancient Earth -- an Earth where magic and demons exist. The dungeons are all reminiscent of real life locales, such as Ankor Wat and The Great Wall of China. Of course, the dungeons in the game look almost nothing like their real life counterparts.
Our protagonist in this world is a young flute-playing boy named Will, who has psychic powers. He can move certain inanimate objects with his mind alone, and his friends Lance, Erik, and Seth think it's the coolest thing. Will's father and mother were lost in an expedition to the Tower of Babel a year and a half ago, and he now lives with his grandparents. On a normal day, Will hangs out with his friends after school then comes home for dinner. But this is far from a normal day. For this night, when Will comes home to dinner, there is a pig and a mysterious girl in his house. Some soldiers then barge in and capture the girl who, as it turns out, is Princess Kara, the daughter of King Edward and the pig is Hamlet, her pet.
The next day, a letter arrives from King Edward asking for a ring in Will's possession. Will does not have this ring, so he goes to King Edward to straighten things out. While at the castle, Kara tells him that the king is acting strangely (surprise surprise). When Will explains to King Edward that he does not have the ring, he is promptly thrown in jail. Eventually, Hamlet the pig comes trotting in with a key attached to his tail and a note from Kara. Will wastes no time in busting out of his cell and makes his way out. He soon meets a blue-haired girl named Lilly, who can turn into a flower, and who his grandparents sent to help him escape.
This is a standard beginning to a standard connect-the-dots RPG plot. Young boy with mysterious powers travels the world, finds friends, gathers a bunch of ancient artifacts, learns about his powers, and eventually saves the world from a prophesied threat of destruction. Oh, and he gets the girl. Even then, the transitions from one plot point to the next are often not very smooth. Also, many situations seemed very contrived or even forced (for example, the Lance and Lilly love story).
Now a cliché story wouldn't be so bad if there were colorful characters and snappy dialogue to compensate for it. Unfortunately, this is not the case here. None of the characters received any substantial development and the dialogue, while free of technical errors, had no personality to it. Everyone talked exactly the same and there was no sense of distinct personalities among the characters.
There are many cut scenes in the game that are long-winded and often very boring. They do a decent job of setting up the game's world and its history, but I felt that there was too much focus on that and not enough on developing the characters. The world got all the development, but its inhabitants got none. I would have liked the cut scenes to focus more on the characters so that they could actually establish a semblance of distinct personalities. In addition, the game's attempts at profound philosophy and poignant drama fell short, in my opinion.
The text speed during the ending is painfully slow and makes the ending feel artificially lengthened. Luckily, the text speed in the game proper is fast. And one thing the game does reasonably well is that it resolves the major loose ends before the conclusion. But again, Freedan and Shadow -- the alternate forms Will can assume -- are given next to nothing in terms of insight or purpose of being. This is too bad, because Freedan and Shadow were probably the most interesting characters in the entire game. I grew especially fond of Freedan since his form is accessible for most of the game. Shadow appeared too late for me to get really attached to him.
This game is one of those cases where despite the awful plot, the fun gameplay was what kept me playing. The action aspects of the game were fun. I enjoyed exploring the various dungeons and had fun fighting the various boss battles, which ranged in difficulty from easy to hard. So do I recommend Illusion of Gaia? Unfortunately, no I do not. As far as 16-bit action-RPGs are concerned, there are much better choices out there. There are plenty of games out there with better stories, better graphics, better gameplay, better everything than Illusion of Gaia. Illusion of Gaia may be good as a starter RPG since its simple interface eschews a lot of the micromanagement associated with the genre, but the cracker-thin plot and long, boring cutscenes are ultimately what keep me from recommending an otherwise decent game.