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Illusion of Gaia (SNES) artwork

Illusion of Gaia (SNES) review

"In fact, the beginning of the game is pretty much one big cliche. Shortly after the game begins, Will unintentionally gets on the wrong side of the local king and queen and is forced to flee the area with the rulers' spoiled and naive daughter. Those two join up with a small group of Will's friends and explore the world to find mysterious artifacts and eventually save everything from a fate most dire. Pretty cut and dry on the surface, but as you dig deeper, you'll find that Illusion of Gaia wonderfully establishes a dark and melancholy mood that effortlessly moves this game far beyond being "just another adventure"."

One of the problems with playing a truly classic game early on in life is that virtually all newer, similar titles will be unfairly compared to it. When I got a Nintendo in the late 80s, my parents also bought me The Legend of Zelda and from that moment forward, all other action-adventures I've played have gotten the "it'll never beat Zelda" reception from me. I loved a lot of those games, but the magic wasn't there to the same degree.

I give Illusion of Gaia credit, though — if it wasn't for one glaring flaw, it might have shaken my cynicism to its core, as Quintet developed quite the adventure for the SNES. I can't say this surprises me, as it is the middle game of a very strong "trilogy" developed by them for that system, starting with the excellent Soul Blazer and ending with the epic Terranigma. Still, it is refreshing to play a game like this and not constantly ponder a laundry list of things (both minor and major) the programmers got wrong.

Illusion of Gaia might be the most grounded of those three 16-bit Quintet adventures. While Soul Blazer and Terranigma place the player in control of mysterious deity-like characters destined to make (or remake) a world, this game delivered the teenage Will into my hands. Other than mild telekinetic abilities and a confusing past that involves the disappearance of both his and a friend's dad while trying to explore distant lands, young Will is about as unexceptional as you can get — in other words, pretty much par for the course for a J-RPG world-saving teenager for this era.

In fact, the beginning of the game is pretty much one big cliche. Shortly after the game begins, Will unintentionally gets on the wrong side of the local king and queen and is forced to flee the area with the rulers' spoiled and naive daughter. Those two join up with a small group of Will's friends and explore the world to find mysterious artifacts and eventually save everything from a fate most dire. Pretty cut and dry on the surface, but as you dig deeper, you'll find that Illusion of Gaia wonderfully establishes a dark and melancholy mood that effortlessly moves this game far beyond being "just another adventure". There's a pretty robust sub-plot involving slavery and there are all sorts of nasty little moments that make this a haunting game. This game makes sure you know you're not in some idealistic fantasy land — a point brought home early on when you find out the slavery ring has headquarters in the slummy back alleys of a city renown for its beauty. When you enter the town, you're greeted by the sight of beautiful flower petals wafting through the air — apparently to mask the stench of human trafficking going on behind the scenes.

Illusion of Gaia screenshot

While Will is traveling the world with his companions, occasionally circumstances separate him from the pack and into a dungeon. These places tend to be awesome — a great mix of puzzles and monsters to meander through on your way to (hopefully) getting one of the necessary artifacts needed to reach the Tower of Babel (the goal of the disastrous mission led by Will's father). The Hanging Gardens is divided into four mini-dungeons each containing an item necessary to create a bridge to the boss fight. Shortly afterwards, you'll be in the submerged region of Mu, where you'll have to find ways to lower the water level to progress. Later in the game, you'll find that a great pyramid is mostly underground, so you'll have to find a way to descend through the earth in order to explore more than the top floor.

Helping Will in doing all of this is the (cliched) realization that he's not quite as ordinary as he seems to be. Scattered all over the world are mystical doors leading to dark spaces where he can transform into a pair of superior alter-egos. Freedan is an adult warrior with superior range and power to Will, while Shadow is not only incredibly strong, but also has the potentially game-breaking ability to dissolve into a puddle, becoming temporarily invincible in the process — which is why his powers aren't unlocked until the next-to-last dungeon, I'd wager. A big part of making it through the dungeons is learning when to hit up a dark space to change form, as all three have specific abilities necessary to solve puzzles and get past obstacles.

While the game isn't very difficult, with the exception of a couple boss fights, you do have to be careful. Will (and his various forms) can get healed in any dark space, but outside of these places, you'll need to hope monsters drop health items or that you have herbs in your inventory. You can't buy those items anywhere and there are only a few of them scattered throughout the game, so it doesn't take long to figure out that it's mandatory to learn enemy patterns. It's simply not easy to recover from serious blunders, and when you're dealing with a place like the game's optional bonus dungeon, which contains no dark spaces, you probably don't want to have ANY miscues along the path to its really tough boss.

Getting to that place was a bit of a hassle, though, as you need to find all 50 of the red gems hidden throughout the game to gain admittance. The instruction book pretty much tells you where to find them, but if you don't have that in your hands, good luck collecting them all without a guide. Most of them are in dungeons or given as rewards for completing easy tasks, but there are a few that involve you hitting the "search" button in seemingly random places. A bit annoying, considering this dungeon is necessary to complete if you truly want closure for that whole slavery-related subplot.

Illusion of Gaia screenshot

But that's not the "one glaring flaw" I mentioned earlier. That label gets tossed on the Japanese-to-English translation we Americans got when Illusion of Gaia was ported here. Most of the time, it's clunky and awkward, which dilutes the potential impact that an excellent game with a darker and more melancholy story should have. At its worst, it almost feels like someone was trying to sabotage the game or, at the least, simply didn't care one bit about what they were doing. At least that's the only explanation I can come up with for why a potentially touching moment was completely ruined by someone inserting a horrible "joke" based on a character's Shakespearian name. That bit of stupidity almost made me want to relive the (seemingly) 18 hours I spent with Will and Kara during an extremely long raft trip that was supposed to show how the two youngsters started to understand and develop feelings for each other, but just came off as an exercise in tedium.

Poor dialogue might keep this one from completely realizing its genius, but it's still a really good game. The dungeons deliver the same sort of addictive fun those in the classic Zelda games did, ensuring that I come back to this one every few years; while the action fits nicely into this "entertaining, but not particularly hard" zone where I have a lot of fun without fear of running into a seemingly-unstoppable juggernaut and getting frustrated by my inability to progress past it. Illusion of Gaia might not be a legendary or unforgettable title, but it is one that's well worth the time of anyone who likes this sort of game.

overdrive's avatar
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (October 05, 2012)

Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.

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zippdementia posted October 05, 2012:

You have a very similar response to the game as I do, Rob! I don't know if you read my review, but some things we both mention in almost the same exact way. See my section on Freeja, the rose city, for instance.

Interesting catch with the translation! I missed that in my review. I guess it never crossed my mind that the translation might be to blame for some of the stilted dialog. I recently learned a similar thing about the Secret of Mana translation: apparently a good 30-45% of the dialog was just plain lost from that game, which pisses me off because the only thing keeping Secret of Mana from being an all time best RPG is the stilted dialog. And the lack of online co-op. Can't really blame them for that one.

Anyway, you're absolutely right about translation issues in the 90's—but i was so unconnected to the reality of where video games came from that I never even considered as a child the possibility that these were remakes, releases, and ports. Even as an adult, this has carried over into my nostalgia/retro reviews, where I sort've just think of game text from those days as being whimsically primitive.

Of course, recognizing this also means credit has to be given to some of the exceptional translations made in those times. I would say Chrono Trigger was one of the greatest translations, losing nothing from the original feel of the game (except maybe alcohol) and even adding some sentiment where the "entity" was concerned.

Probably the most impressive translation, though, is Earthbound. Considering that they had to translate not only the words but also the cultural sentiment and humor of the majority of the script (in various font packages, no less) and somehow make jokes work that relied on a phonetic based language—look, that's just effin' incredible.

Back to point, I personally can't score Illusion of Gaia lower than a 10 simply because every time I think about it—in particular that long section which leads flawlessly from Nazca to the Angel Village—I get a rush in the center of my chest. That game really had a strong impact on me, in some ways more lasting than any other RPG I played at the time. With, again, the exception of Chrono Trigger and Earthbound. I think, too, the music had something to do with this. The game certainly has its orchestral moments, but what's really impressive is when it goes for the subtle feel, using woodwinds to play incredibly melancholic melodies.

I have yet to play Terranigma. That and Mother 3 are two games still waiting from the shadows of my childhood. Mother 3 I did get about half way through on emulation, but I just am not a fan of emulation. It doesn't FEEL right. Not in a legal sense, I mean I want a console sitting in front of me and a controller in my hand. None of this save state crap.
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overdrive posted October 05, 2012:

I think when I play 16-bit games now, I can't help but notice the quality/lack thereof in translations. When I was initially playing them in the mid-90s, I'd occasionally wonder why a game (looking at you, Robotrek) was littered with horrid Engrish. Robotrek was the worst -- there were points where I had no f-ing clue what was going on. And then found out that a big part of it was just because it takes more memory to have English-language dialogue because it takes more space than Kanji, which made me interested in things as to how well companies did with the translation. Chrono and Earthbound are great, as far as doing excellent jobs, like you said. Mana is weaker, but I don't think I get bothered so much there, as the story isn't really as dominating as Gaia's can get at times. More of a "look, someone's trying to talk...this oughta be good" sort of thing than a "this was really bastardized and poor" sort of thing.

I think the difference for me in giving it an 8 or a 9 came from a bunch of smaller things that added up that I didn't want to mention due to not wanting to ramble on about the entire game or getting into spoilers (so I just touched on a couple things, such as the length of the raft session or the guide-dang-it nature of the Red Gems if you don't have the instruction book). A few of them are:

1. Great Wall is inferior to the other dungeons. Repetitive with a weak-sauce boss. It wasn't a bad place, but compared to the awesomeness of Mu, Angkor Wat, Pyramid or the first one, it was kind of lacking. Hanging Gardens wasn't super-great, but pretty fun and I liked the reverse garden idea, so it was still leaps and bounds ahead of Great Wall.

2. Well except for the dungeon in Angel Village. That area could have been really interesting, considering the subplot aspects of the soulless people presumed to be the Mu survivors and the ability of Ishtar to lock them in paintings (kind of fitting, all things considered, since they claim to not feel anything...him doing that to himself made a lot of sense in that a release from a static, unfulfilling existence). So, you get a simple maze of long, dull caverns with a bunch of generic monsters culminating in a series of "what is different between these rooms" puzzles.

3. Boss-rush at the end. There's just something lack-luster about an end-game dungeon that's nothing more than a boss rush. No other enemies, just go up a floor, fight a boss and keep doing it until you've taken out all five of them.

Overall, an excellent game, but for me, I couldn't overlook things like "Alas poor eat or not to eat?" It is a great diversion to come back to.

I'll have to make a run at Terranigma soon, so I can finish off that trilogy of action-RPGs. I've messed around with it a bit and it seems to be just as good. A bit under the radar in the grand scheme of things, but possibly as good a trilogy of games as you'll find out there. At least the first two are at some level of excellence, which makes them fun to pick up from time to time.
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zippdementia posted October 05, 2012:

I'm on a mac, so finding emulators takes a little extra effort. It's getting less so, as Macs become more of a mainstream computer, but they still haven't really broken into the gaming world in a big way. Anyway, that's my story with Terranigma. In addition to all the other stuff I said about emulators earlier.

On a design level, I completely agree with you. I was actually thinking about that boss rush while reading your review, thinking "Rob probably hated this." And you're right about those dungeons being weaker. I love the Hanging Gardens, and I do like certain aspects of the Great Wall (jumping off the wall is fun and for a while you don't know where you're going to land), but I completely see your point and even agree with it.

Mu is a great dungeon. So is the Aztec temple, even though it's one of the earlier dungeons. And Angkor Watt left such an impression on me that even into my college years my eyes lit up whenever anyone mentioned it. I always thought it had to be haunted or something...
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overdrive posted October 05, 2012:

Yeah. I'm playing StarTropics 2: Zoda's Revenge right not. Up to the 7th of 9 chapters. And all I can think of is the simple fact that Chapter 9 goes like this.

1. Short dungeon based on the first dungeon of the first StarTropics, culminating in a skeletal version of that dungeon's snake boss.

2. Boss rush of a bunch of them you fought throughout the game.

3. Final boss.

It can be hard to motivate oneself to play a game daily when one knows that each successful day brings them that much closer to a boss rush. As I only seem to like them in shooters, where odds are that you'll be fighting 3-4 bosses you haven't seen before as in shooters, a boss rush just means they're designing a level without much to do other than fighting a bunch of cool bosses they designed but didn't have levels for.
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zippdementia posted October 05, 2012:

I think the only place I've appreciated boss rushes is in action games like Devil May Cry. I still don't LIKE them there, but they do serve to drastically test your skills.
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yamishuryou posted October 08, 2012:

I figured without even opening the review the translation would get highlighted here.

To be fair, I was spoiled. I played Terranigma first, so Illusion of Gaia in comparison is basically mincemeat in comparison. Will just seems to move slowly, and yes, his inability to attack, although being a thematic part of the game, gets annoying at times.

The translation to me isn't really even "Engrish". Rather, it seems like it is a very, very literal translation, and I mean very literal. What sounds all flowery and stuff in Japanese sounds horrible in English. I'm sure the raft trip was all nice and touching and romantic and everything in Japanese but in English it's MAKE THE PAIN STOP OH GOD PLEASE

It would be nice if this game got a 'retranslation' project much like Breath of Fire 2 did. The part about the comet really does not happen until the end, along with the thematic differences between Will and Kara. The character Neil was also fairly interesting, especially with his confrontation of his parents. Other moments that strike me clearly that I recall are Will's friends getting picked off one by one by misfortune, the ship's illusions disappearing to reveal its true form underneath, having to turn in a slave to get one of the Gems, and the Russian Roulette game.

EDIT: Oh yes, and The Jackal. One of the biggest gaming disappointments I've ever had. The Jackal is one of the few villains the game actually hypes up a lot ahead of time, and then when you confront him...grrr

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