"Golden Sun should have been perfect. On the surface, this early Game Boy Advance role-playing game has everything a person could want. Huge dungeons with tons of brain-bending puzzles that bring back fond memories of Lufia II, vibrant towns and cities that truly seem alive and the ability to customize each of your characters how you see fit due to the innovative Djinn system. "
Golden Sun should have been perfect. On the surface, this early Game Boy Advance role-playing game has everything a person could want. Huge dungeons with tons of brain-bending puzzles that bring back fond memories of Lufia II, vibrant towns and cities that truly seem alive and the ability to customize each of your characters how you see fit due to the innovative Djinn system.
Sadly, while Golden Sun succeeds in so many aspects, it fails in one very important one -- which serves to magnify each and every flaw to the point where things seem unbearable at times. Golden Sun has no soul -- with virtually every character an uninteresting and bland individual. While the dungeons never ceased to be fun and challenging, I found myself cringing every time I had to leave one of these places and return to civilization.
While older RPGs like the Dragon Warrior games on the NES didn’t have much in the way of character development or personality either, the designers of those games were intelligent enough to mask that by keeping conversation to a minimum and combat to a maximum. Golden Sun exaggerates this flaw by deciding that hordes of people, both important and inconsequential, have a story to tell -- regardless of how long, boring and unnecessary said tale might be.
Initially, this won’t be a problem. As the game begins, the town of Vale is facing eminent disaster as a large boulder from a nearby mountain is about to fall upon the village. Your protagonist, a youth named Isaac, is ordered to flee while the magic-using adults of the village attempt to prevent the boulder from crushing their houses. While trying to rescue a boy who’s on the verge of being swept away by a river, Isaac and best bud Garet run into a menacing pair of strangers who promptly beat the snot out of the youngsters.
A couple of years later, that menacing pair reappears and, after a series of events, kidnaps a few friends of Isaac and Garet. The two youngsters set out in search of their friends and their abductors -- a quest that takes them through whirlwind-laden deserts, possessed forests and many other dangerous locales. Sure, there is a lot of talking here -- but these are the game’s introductory scenes, where I expected a certain amount of conversation to set the stage for the quest. It wasn’t until I realized that people had no intentions of ever shutting up that I started to have problems with Golden Sun. But more on that later -- for now, let’s delve into the more awesome elements of the game.
After leaving Vale, the heroic duo will run into Ivan and Mia, who become the magic specialists. Ivan’s spells tend to be offensive in nature, while Mia is proficient with the healing arts. While these characters, like Isaac and Garet, start out weak, they will soon grow to hold amazing power. Scattered over the world are 28 Djinn representing four elements. Find them and join them to the character of the same element to increase that person’s power. Give them to a person of a different element to give them new powers they’d never obtain naturally. Mixing and matching Djinn (a simple task on the proper menu screen) is a necessary task on occasion, as a couple of key abilities can only be found with a bit of experimentation.
As the heroes go through dungeons, some of those Djinn abilities will become extremely handy. Have a big rock in your way? Cast Lift and walk under it. Is there a small plant near that insurmountable wall? Cast Growth to create a climbable vine. Can’t find ANYTHING to do in a room? Cast Reveal and the invisible will be seen. There are plenty of non-combat spells and all of them will get used repeatedly as you progress through the game. One particular innovative spell is Ivan’s Mind Read, which allows you to glean information from those rare folk who don’t spill their guts the minute they see you. Djinn also can be handy in battle, as they can be used either as powerful summons or for their special in-combat ability.
While your main goal is to hunt down the terrible duo (named Saturos and Menardi) and rescue your friends, plenty of other missions pop up. The ruler of one town gets kidnapped by thieves and isn’t going to rescue himself, while you can’t advance beyond another village until you’ve removed the curse from a nearby forest. While some of these quests are optional, it’s wise to not skip anything, as nearly every dungeon and town (as well as some other places) has one Djinn. Missing even one of these critters means that someone will NEVER reach his or her full potential. Besides, as I said before, the dungeons are the GOOD part of the game, so why lessen the overall experience by skipping any of them?
Like many dungeon-crawling RPGs, Golden Sun is fond of the random battle system -- but it’s far less annoying here than it was back in the good ol’ days. You simply NEVER get forced into battles on a step-by-step basis and often get to walk great distances between fights. This is good, as Golden Sun’s traditional turn-based battle system is one that could easily get tiresome, but doesn’t due to the reasonably low frequency of encounters. It doesn’t hurt that these battles are fairly attractive and well-animated -- a far cry from the empty black screen and unmoving foes I endured for years in those earlier games.
But, like I said, you have to step out of the dungeons at some point -- and that’s when things start to go downhill. Let Golden Sun serve as a warning to game designers that if you’re going to have a ton of dialogue, you better make it gripping. Games like Final Fantasy Tactics or Xenogears had huge amounts of “talking time” at regular intervals, but I didn’t mind because I was so into the characters and plot.
Simply put, no one in Golden Sun is that interesting. Isaac is a silent protagonist incapable of saying anything more than “yes” or “no”. Garet has no qualms about talking, but generally has little more to contribute than exclamations followed by a “yes/no” question directed to Isaac. Ivan and Mia offer little to conversations other than generic good-guy (“We must do the right thing!”) utterances. Saturos and Menardi never seem overly evil or even menacing. A touch arrogant perhaps, but even that could be attributed by the horrible lines they have. Virtually every conversation you have with the S&M team (sadly, their attacks don’t include whips and chains) leaves you wondering if they need 30 minutes to figure out if their shoes need tying.
Saturos: Look, it’s those kids again.
Menardi: Yes, they must have followed us.
Saturos: You, there. Have you been following us? (Cue “yes/no” response).
Menardi: I see.... Well, Saturos, what should we do about this?
Saturos: Maybe we should teach them a lesson.
Menardi: But do we have the time to waste on these foolish children?
Saturos: You may be correct. But we can’t let them interfere with our plan.
Menardi: But what should we do then?
And it goes on and on until you find yourself mashing the action button until you either fight them or they leave. I have to admit that Saturos and Menardi are far more polite and conversational than the average archenemy, but the point of a role-playing game is to defeat your nemesis -- not make plans for a dinner date with them.
To make matters worse, the boring conversations aren’t just between these major characters. A legion or three of the supporting cast just has to offer their two cents on a regular basis. Your magical powers (called “psyenergy”) are explained or talked about at length by multiple people. Anytime anyone has a problem, a lengthy discussion follows before it’s decided to take action. Even supposedly simple tasks, such as taking a ship across a lake, become painfully dull.
Using that boat ride as an example, first you must set off from harbor. Problem is, someone steals the captain’s lucky charm, so you have to find it (after a lot of dialogue). Then, you have to offer to guard the ship’s oarsmen from monsters (after more dialogue). Each of the four or five battles on sea follow the same pattern. First, you have a lengthy cutscene showing the lookout staring at the water until an attack comes. Then, you watch a monster group dash into the cabin to attack the oarsmen, leading to a fight. After you’ve vanquished the foes, the first mate runs down and informs you an oarsman was knocked out, so you need to find a substitute. So you have to walk upstairs and assign another passenger to fill in, which causes the entire cycle to begin anew. Tie all this in with an immense amount of mundane dialogue from two prospective gladiators (characters with no significance once you’re off the boat) and it will take longer to do this segment of the game than to work through many dungeons.
And that is what ruined Golden Sun for me. You have great dungeons, well-designed mechanics and a cool character customization system -- all of which should make an excellent game. “Should” being the key word, as the insane amount of conversation between uninteresting people drags everything down. With as little character development (or personality) as Golden Sun actually has, you really don’t need much more conversation than, “Make sure you equip weapons after buying them or they won’t work.” Sadly, you get more.....lots more.
Community review by overdrive (October 28, 2004)
Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.
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