Illusion of Gaia (SNES) review
"Zelda clone. "
Name an action-adventure game to have come out in the last fifteen years, and this term has most likely been used to describe it. One could construe as praise; after all, this means that said game could very well be part of one of the most esteemed and popular game series in history. But such a description often carries a tone of deep regret, an implicit knowledge that no matter how close it comes, it could never duplicate the magic of the immortal Legend.
An adventure game released three years after Zelda's latest console outing, Illusion of Gaia practically begged comparisons to the genre's most famous series. Yet it promised to be so much more than the average Zelda clone; hell, it promised to be more than Zelda itself. It promised a story to put the fairy tales of Zelda to shame; it promised a large and well-developed cast of characters; it promised the perfect mix of hack-and-slash gameplay and strategic thinking. Published by Nintendo itself and backed by quite an aggressive ad campaign for its time, Gaia seemed to finally shatter the curse of the Zelda clone. The new Link has arrived, proclaimed some; his name is Will.
Yet Illusion of Gaia is not more than Zelda. In some ways, it comes up miserably, disappointingly short.
Now, Gaia's promises weren't outright lies. It did deliver on some points - certainly it provided a deeper story than any Zelda game up to that point. Gaia's main character is Will, the sole survivor of an incident in the Tower of Babel which claimed the lives of his parents. Naturally, the story revolves around Will's quest to find out what happened to them. With a sizable cast of friends and allies who follow Will on his adventures (though you never get to play as them) and traditional RPG elements such as towns and conversations, Gaia features almost as much dialogue as its contemporary menu-based RPGs. You'll learn quickly, however, that this is not a good thing; for Illusion of Gaia's writing is simply terrible.
''My husband is now well. Our family happily go about their daily business,'' states a generic female townsperson. ''(Laughs). Just kidding,'' says a more major character. Illusion of Gaia's writing is not ungrammatical or cryptic, but it is stilted, forced and utterly devoid of soul. Any emotional impact the story might have had is destroyed by the robotic prose. What's worse, the writing insists on making itself noticed every imaginable moment. Besides the grating dialogue sequences between his allies, even Will himself sometimes holds forth when there is no one in sight to hear him. ''We reach Mu. The remains of an ancient civilization stand here,'' he says to absolutely no one - except perhaps the ruins.
Luckily, the characters do eventually shut up and allow Will to go off exploring on his own, and Gaia is perfectly enjoyable once they do so. Will has a special ability like most heroes, and his happen to be psychic powers. While his weapon of choice - a flute - may seem odd, it's the perfect channel for his gift; by twirl the flute in front of him, Will can deflect attacks and pull objects toward himself. Also, said psychic powers fuel special attacks such as a slide attack and an ultra-fast dash. They even allow him to assume two ''warrior'' forms that, besides being much more powerful, also have special attacks of their own. You'll certainly need them to navigate Gaia's enormous dungeons.
Gaia places more emphasis on battling than most adventure games, but there's still plenty of room for puzzles and strategy. The game demands you to use new moves, items or songs (Will's weapon is meant to be a musical instrument, after all) in the most ingenious of ways, and it's extremely gratifying to find that one little crack that you can use your new attack to slide under or that one wall you can now break. The enemies come fast and furious, and though their attack patterns are quite simplistic, the sheer number of them means that you can never let your guard drop. And the bosses, though few, are truly horrifying beasts. Not only are they relentless in their attacks, but many further handicap you with cramped battlefields that make dodging difficult.
The battling is not fruitless, as defeating all enemies in a selected area will yield an increase in one one of Will's three attributes (health, attack, and defense). Enemies will also drop Dark Power - collecting 100 of them gives you a spare continue, something that will be welcomed gladly in the longer dungeons. Enemies steadily increase in power, so if you simply dash through the dungeons without fighting, things will get difficult in a hurry.
Sadly, this is where one of Illusion of Gaia's biggest flaws come into play: it is completely, uncompromisingly linear. You cannot even visit past dungeons, meaning that you will not be able to make up for laziness in early parts of the game - it's easy to get stuck in a particularly difficult boss battle if you didn't get Will's stats high enough beforehand. Even worse, Gaia has no money system, forcing you to rely only on the very short supply of healing herbs you find in chests. This makes for an excruciatingly small margin of error. The linear design also removes any possibility of exploration. You cannot explore the world map at all; you must choose where you want to go from a short list of destinations - ands sometimes the game even prohibits you from leaving the town or area.
The worst thing about the linearity, though, is that it lends itself to long-winded story sequences that send even the most patient gamer to sleep. One of the worst offenders come quite early in the game, when Will is adrift on a raft with Kara, a runaway princess and the stereotypical love interest. I suppose this scene was meant to show how Will and Kara grew close, as it lasts nearly a month of game-time. But the fact remains that there is simply nothing interesting that you can show about two people on a raft for thirty days. Between the stilted dialogue and overwrought narration, the game occupies you with pointless tasks that take up time for no reason. Exploring towns (which is required, because you often have to wander around to trigger a story sequence) is even more maddening, because your ''friends'' actually have the nerve to stand around wringing their hands waiting for you to save them!
It's easy to see, then, that Will is at his best when he is alone in a dungeon or the wilderness. When he learns to shut up and let the gameplay do the talking, Illusion of Gaia can be truly masterful. The sheer size of the dungeons becomes even more amazing when you realize how little wasted space there is. Every passage and room has a difficult enemy group to dispatch or some secret treasure to find. Although you will only be able to morph into different forms when you need their psychic powers, it's entertaining enough just to use a different character even if you can only do so for a limited time. Finishing each dungeon is a truly rewarding and satisfying experience.
The sheer variety of locales you get to visit are just as amazing: there are typical dungeon-like settings like a castle basement and diamond mines, but you also battle through wide-open spaces often inspired by real-world vistas. Navigate the Great Wall of China, with archers and poisonous snakes guarding every pass. Explore an Incan ruin, and be moved by its haunting, empty chambers. Of course, there are also places that show incredible imagination: a series of beanstalks on the backdrop of a dark, starry night forms your path up a mountain, and the ethereal beauty of it all is simply breathtaking.
Unfortunately, the awesome atmosphere present in the game's dungeons are not replicated in the towns, which are distinctly underwhelming. Will himself is excellently drawn and animated, his hair blowing this way and that with the wind. But little thought was put into his companions, and nothing distinguishes them from the townspeople who utter no more than two lines. The world map is a literal map - completely barren, with big patches of brown representing land and blue standing for sea. Gaia's music shares this lack of life. It simply exists, adding nothing, detracting from nothing.
Illusion of Gaia does shows signs of true brilliance... that are promptly brought down by the dregs of its design. Stellar moments of exciting gameplay are interrupted by yawn-inducing scenes that imitate plot development. Complete a dungeon and bask in the satisfaction of coming one step closer to your goal - then learn of your next boring task which seems to drag you farther from it. You may even prepare an attempt at cracking the game's only side-quest, only to realize that because you cannot revisit past dungeons, you have already ruined your chances.
Yes, Gaia promised much. It crumbled under the very weight of these promises; it's only when it stops trying to deliver a story, stops it reckless overambition, does Gaia become brilliant. It's sad that Quintet had to bury such an enjoyable game under such pretense. I respect and Illusion of Gaia, but only for its great fun. Pity the developers couldn't have done the same.
Community review by lurkeratlarge (January 21, 2004)
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