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Illusion of Gaia (SNES) artwork

Illusion of Gaia (SNES) review

"You can change to a sword-wielding knight or (even better), a morphing blob with killer attack power. These fellows kick butt and, thanks to their large size and rich color palettes, they look stylish doing it. If an enemy is spanking you hard, just find the nearest portal, warp inside, then come back with enough strength to level a city block. As is the case with your generic form, the strength of each alternate grows as you clear more and more monsters from the world."

The biblical Tower of Babel was constructed by the people of the world when they feared that God wouldn’t keep His promise about never flooding the world with water again. Mankind created a tower that reached nearly to the sky itself before God smote the tower with lightening and wreaked havoc on mankind’s universal language so that people had trouble understanding one another. Apparently, that didn’t strike Enix as all that great an idea for a game, but they really liked the idea of a big tower. They also liked a lot of other historical monuments, mythical or otherwise. Besides lifting locations from the past and mangling them, Enix also stole and modified the general game design of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. The result is a new title called Illusion of Gaia. And just so you know, the game is pretty darn good.

As the game opens, you are a boy named Will whose father disappeared after an expedition to explore the Tower of Babel. You aren’t very happy about that, but you’ve adjusted fairly well. You live in a small, seaside town with your friends, where you twirl your flute or play it to make statues move. Telekinesis is a pretty cool skill, of course, but it doesn’t take you much of anywhere until suddenly you find yourself caught up in a string of events that will lead you to exploring first a nearby castle, then the world. Speaking of the world, you probably won’t be surprised to find that you’re in charge of saving it from total annihilation. Such is the fate of boys who play the flute.

The plot is definitely not the game’s strong point. What I’ve described thus far may not strike you as bad--and really, it isn’t--but when the game strives for more depth, it shoots itself in the foot. You’ll soon find that a favorite technique is to isolate a few characters and have them bust out soliloquies that would make a Shakespearean protagonist turn green with envy. Instead of talking to skulls or the night air, though, you’ll be conversing with girls and disposable young lads such as yourself. Ironically, you’ll also talk shop with a pig named Hamlet. Sadly, these discussions are often about as welcome as a boy in the girls’ bathroom at your nearby elementary school, as they impede the flow of the game. For example, there’s one long period where the characters are lost at sea. You’ll have to spend several minutes just watching them float around and yammer about whatever’s on their minds.

Of course, the game is about a lot more than talking to girls and pigs. It’s the parts that come in between that make Illusion of Gaia so enjoyable. For every bustling castle or city, it seems there’s a dungeon or two just filled with monsters who have nothing better to do than sharpen their fangs on your flesh.

Dungeons really are an impressive affair, and they make up the bulk of the game. There are a good number of them, scattered throughout the world’s ancient ruins. Each is quite large and swarming with evil goons. When you first head inside with your flute, you might think to yourself that you’re fighting a hopeless battle. After all, who uses a musical instrument as a sword? A quick check of the radar and you’ll see things are even worse than you supposed. The black grid that represents your current location will reflect all sorts of enemy life, and you just a harmless little boy.

Fortunately, it turns out the enemies in this game are never all that menacing, despite appearances to the contrary. You’ll be surprised by how easily they fall to a few good whacks. And when you clear out every last speck on that radar screen, you’re awarded with a boost to your strength, life, or defense. This is a clever little innovation on the part of the developers. It means that even though you’re not strictly required to hunt down each opponent in a given area, you’ll want to just for the reward to your character.

Enemies do re-spawn if you leave and come back, but once you’ve cleared an area there’s no major reward for defeating your foes. This fact ensures that there’s never a point in the game where you can just Arnold your way through a wave of enemies, but it also means you don’t have to cringe at the sight of a stray tentacle. One thing I would have liked, though, was an absence of enemy life after I cleared a given set of rooms. If you’re lost in a dungeon and trying to solve a puzzle (something I found happening to me on more than one occasion), the last thing you really need is resistance from blobs you’ve already vanquished ten or twenty times.

Spend long in a dungeon, even if you’re going over the same ground repeatedly in a vain attempt to solve a puzzle, and you’ll start to notice that everything looks fantastic. There’s a lot of color variety in textures, and rushing through without stopping to look around means you’re not enjoying the game half as much as you should. Attention to detail is present in each of the varied environments, from the moss-strewn steps of the Incan pyramids to the sandy corridors beneath pyramids in Egypt. You’ll pass through floating gardens in the sky, haunted mansions and even a series of hanging vines. Textures aren’t really re-used, either, so you can definitely feel satisfied with yourself as you advance through the game.

These locations are a joy to explore not only because they look good, but because you’ll soon learn the protagonist can use more than just a flute for weaponry. Or rather, his alternate forms can. Strewn throughout the enemy-infested dungeons are special portals you can access to pray to the earth goddess. Or something. Whatever it is you do in there, your reward is the opportunity to save your progress or switch to a new body. You can change to a sword-wielding knight or (even better), a morphing blob with killer attack power. These fellows kick butt and, thanks to their large size and rich color palettes, they look stylish doing it. If an enemy is spanking you hard, just find the nearest portal, warp inside, then come back with enough strength to level a city block. As is the case with your generic form, the strength of each alternate grows as you clear more and more monsters from the world.

You’ll need that strength when it comes to boss encounters. Though the dungeons are rather lengthy and at times confusing thanks to the sheer number of times passages wind in and out of one another, they’re not horribly difficult compared to the showdowns with demons you’ll face at the end. Early in the game, it takes quite a bit of effort to prepare for such monstrosities, and the challenge rises steeply so that the final encounter is downright hellish. Players who breezed through early zones and congratulated themselves on their rapid play are likely to find the last few areas nearly impossible. I don’t want to give anything away by describing any of the monsters in detail, but trust me when I say you’re likely to find them quite intimidating; many of them take up a large chunk of the screen.

So, we’ve got huge and menacing bosses, awesome environments, the ability to morph into different shapes, a decent story, and some great visuals. Sounds just about perfect, doesn’t it? Well, no. For all these strengths, Illusion of Gaia still fails to set itself up as the king of the genre because of those stupid level interludes I mentioned. It’s amazing how they undermine everything the game does right. Suddenly, the dungeons seem less enticing because you know the only reward for clearing one is a boost to your stats and another huge chunk of melodramatic text. Then you repeat, then repeat again. Still, the game is great at the parts it does right. If you’re not opposed to dungeon crawlers book-ended with tedium, you’ll find few games that come close to Illusion of Gaia.

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Staff review by Jason Venter (Date unavailable)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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