Camelot Software Planning is responsible for some of the greatest games ever to grace a Sega console. Their Shining series has been a masterwork of graphics, music, and sheer gameplay might, so I was looking forward to their first RPG outing on their first ever non-Sega system. From my experience with this game, all I can say is that Camelot succeeded beyond all hope in producing one of the best RPGs for a handheld system ever.
The story is rather cookie-cutter in its design. Your name is Isaac. You and your friend, Garrett, are children from the village of Vale at the foot of Mount Aleph. As residents of this precariously placed hamlet, you are gifted with the ability to use Psynergy, a form of magic/ESP that draws from the power of the four elements. I won’t tell you what the four elements are, because if you don’t know, you’re most likely just looking at the pretty pictures and drooling to yourself, but suffice it to say, your powers are kept a secret from the outside world.
As luck would have it, Mount Aleph just decides to erupt one day, spewing rocks the size of houses down on your village, and your friend, Felix, is washed away in a roll-by bouldering. As you go searching for him downstream, you meet up with two harlequins named Saturous and Menardi, who are discussing something called Alchemy and the Sol Sanctum. As soon as they spot you, they beat the ever loving crap out of you, and when next you see our heroes, it’s three years later. Felix is gone and Isaac, Garrett, and Felix’s sister, Jenna, are now Adepts able to use Psynergy.
During your three-year recovery, you’ve been learning the ways of Alchemy from the local scholar Kraden. Today’s lesson is going to be an excursion up to the restricted Sol Sanctum. However, as you go to pick up Kraden, you run into Saturous and Menardi who this time do not beat the snot out of you, but rather give you a warning. Apparently they were trying to get into Sol Sanctum as well, but Kraden wasn’t so hot on the idea.
Well, long story short (too late) you open the way to Sol Sanctum, find the four Elemental Stars, and have all but one promptly stolen from you by Saturous, Menardi and their two cohorts Alex and, yes, Felix! How’s that for an early plot twist? To add insult to injury, they kidnap Jenna and Kraden, and escape just as Mount Aleph decides to have indigestion. Luckily, you’re saved by a stone beholder-lookin’ thing called the Wise One, and are sent out on a journey to prevent the lighting of the four elemental lighthouses. Cheers!
The story isn’t revolutionary, nor is it executed particularly well. The characters are distinct and predictable, the bad guys are ambiguously aligned, and there’s enough faux honor and angst to make an X-Files-loving samurai go ballistic. Still, it’s not as if the story was BAD, just not great. Of course, you DO get a kick in the juevos at the end. Here’s a hint; think Shining Force III, except even more evil. Camelot had better bring the sequel out here.
Fortunately, the grammar and spelling are flawless, and in this game there’s a ton of dialogue. Everyone has at least two different things to say at any one time, and there are lots of townspeople. Whoever did the translation deserves a commendation. While the text isn’t exceedingly creative, it never feels wooden or stagnant, probably thanks to the inclusion of emoticons in thought bubbles. Oh, and the “Yes/No” moments are almost totally pointless, so I hope Camelot cuts down on them in the sequel.
The gameplay is where the game begins getting creative, mixing traditional, turn-based, random battles with creative puzzle solving and an interesting magic/summon system. Lemme break it down old school style.
The focal point of the game is the Djinn. Djinni are elemental spirits that you can equip to your characters in order to give them special abilities, increased stats, etc. It’s a lot like the esper systems in the various Final Fantasy games. Each equipped Djinn can be used in battle to produce a certain effect, such as a high-powered strike, an increase in magic resistance, or simply healing your party members. If you set your Djinni in the menu or by using them during battle, you can summon a spirit to perform an attack. The more Djinni of a particular element that are set, up to four, the more powerful the summoned beast. In addition, setting groups of Djinni to a character changes that character’s class, giving him different spells, HP, MP, etc.
Djinni are extremely useful throughout the game, to the point of making anything else almost ineffectual. Djinni will eventually become your main method of attack, to the almost total exclusion of physical and magic attacks. While I appreciate the implementation of the Djinni system out of battle, in battle it’s just too much of a dependency.
While we’re on the subject of battles, they’re pretty standard, aside from the summons. My only niggle would be that a character won’t redirect his or her attack to another enemy if the one it was previously targeting gets killed: instead they just defend. This is very old school, something I’d expect from an NES game, and I see no reason to include it.
Puzzles, on the other hand, are superbly done. Aside from the standard block puzzles, there are also many mindbenders requiring you to use different Psynergy powers in order to solve them; grow vines to reach high ledges, freeze water into columns of ice to jump across, and more. What makes it even more challenging is that you sometimes will have to switch around your Djinni to actually get the Psynergy power you need for the occasion.
Some of the puzzles were a tad higher in difficulty than I would have liked, but fortunately these were all optional, and I managed to get through all the main quest requirements without checking a FAQ or strategy guide. Still, be prepared to use the sum total of your brainpower to get through some of the areas.
Yet, where Golden Sun REALLY shines is in the area of Graphics. These have to be the greatest graphics ever to appear in a GBA game, the quality approaching that of a second generation PlayStation game. The sprites are incredibly detailed, rotate and zoom impressively, and display incredible attention to detail. Similarly, the spell and, especially, summon animations are simply phenomenal, my favorite being Judgement.
Character portraits are also beautifully drawn and accompany the text for all the important players. Camelot loves their character portraits, and it shows in their attention to detail.
Environments are wonderfully drawn, and beat out the Super NES and Genesis by a mile: this is the new standard in GBA graphics, hands down. The only problem would have to be the palette-swapped enemies; there are usually three colors per enemy design, each one representing a different monster. While they all animate well in battle, it’s still a bit confusing to see such wonderful designs and then palette-swapping in the midst of it all. Needless to say, this can be overlooked.
Musically, Golden Sun shines, pun not intended. The sweeping opening theme, epic overworld music, unique town themes, ominous dungeon accompaniment, and pulse pounding battle tracks are all masterworks of noted Shining series composer Motoi Sakuraba. There are no bad tracks in this game, although the music is limited by the tinny speaker in the GBA itself. I suggest playing this game with either headphones or external speakers hooked up to your GBA, as otherwise it will be much more difficult to truly appreciate these compositions.
Sound effects are also impressive, especially those accompanying battles. Explosions ring out as the screen shakes, and I almost expect the GBA to shudder as if it were a force-feedback controller. Of course, one effect that most Shining series fans will recognize is that accompanying dialogue. As text scrolls by, there is a constant blipping, the pitch depending on the character, and it can either be seen as welcomed or annoying. I found it one or the other on different occasions, but it’s a trifle, really. Overall, the aural aspect of the game comes in second only to the graphics as Golden Sun’s high point.
Not much need be said regarding control: for the most part you won’t have any complaints. Isaac responds admirably to the press of a button or the direction pad, and the control scheme is uncomplicated. While this isn’t a button-masher of a game, you’ll still be able to appreciate the ease of use.
Golden Sun can be called a triumph of design for the most part; the few flaws it has don’t really detract from its playability. The game is fun, and by the “end” of the game, you’re eager to find out more about what will happen to Isaac and crew. For those who can’t get enough of the play system and who have a friend with the game, there is an option to link battle between parties in an arena mode, or just fight enemies in the arena by your self. It wasn’t a feature I partook in, but that’s mostly because the battle system wasn’t so revolutionary that I had to keep using it even after the game was over. Still, some people may enjoy taking their friends to task on the small screen.
While I recommend any fan of traditional RPGs get this game, I must warn you that you will be left hanging at the end, so please be prepared to be digitally blue-balled by Camelot. Let’s just hope they bring out the sequel… fast!