Illusion of Gaia (SNES) Review

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Review by tankMage (July 2016)

Score: A (9.5/10)

    Illusion of Gaia varies from the other Soul Blazer games in that it lacks equipment and the world revival mechanic (although the concept of rebuilding the world does appear in the game’s plot to an extent). It’s premise is initially hard to accept; Will, the main character, hits things with a flute and has psychic powers, but there are at least explanations for his unusual talents and prowess at wielding a woodwind. It took me some time to come to a decision regarding this game’s score. On one hand IoG has a lot of variety, great music, cool gameplay mechanics, and a unique story. On the other hand, some parts of the game feel underdeveloped and the dialogue leaves something to be desired at times. In the end I gave this game an A (9.5) somewhat grudgingly, because it’s so unique and manages to come off as a highly polished title despite it’s weaknesses. I must stress, that this game is not quite on the same tier as major classics of it’s time and borrows a lot from other action/adventure titles. While Illusion of Gaia suffers from a number of minor problems, it is a worthwhile title, because it’s the sort of game that makes the player stop and think, even if only for a moment and that’s a rare thing indeed.

Story

   IoG is a coming of age tale, with dark themes interwoven into its story. The world of IoG is rife with slavery, greed, hatred, and even references to cannibalism that will make the player wonder if the world is even worth saving. Of course this is a far cry from the pop-anime inspired RPGs of the mid 90’s that told tales of courage and heroism in the face of some amorphous evil entity. Even when compared to many of today’s games IoG stands out, because the player is often powerless in the face of the evil deeds he or she witnesses since Will cannot harm people in towns and the element of dark humor so common in games like Fallout is often not present.

  While Illusion of Gaia’s story stands out, it does have its fair share of plot holes and instances of video game logic, as well as the common translation issues of its day. There’s even instances where the translator didn’t seem sure who was talking. Of course IoG was not spared from Nintendo of America’s habit of editing out content they felt was controversial or potentially offensive, resulting in the removal of various pieces of religious paraphernalia and euphemisms like “laborer” being used to describe slaves. Much of the localization team’s self censorship lends the game a sense of charm, since players who pay attention to context clues and read between the lines can figure out what’s going on pretty easily.

   The plot holes and tacked on events are the story’s greatest flaw, because they are often silly and detract from the game’s dark narrative. Quintet actually hired a notable Japanese sci-fi writer by the name of Mariko Ohara to write the story. While Ohara created a poignant and touching tale, it often appears as if she and the development team had trouble adapting it into a videogame, which may explain why some segments of the story felt arbitrary.

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What kind of monster enslaves garden gnomes!? They even took their pointy hats!

Graphics

    The creators of IoG put a lot of care into this game’s visuals; from character sprites to dungeon tiles, the player is treated to a rich graphical experience that doesn’t push the SNES to its limits, but makes good use of what it does best: 2D sprites and a touch of layering. Every town and city has it’s own unique look (though often small in size) and nearly all of the dungeons are visually unique as well. Part of the magic of the medium is its ability to immerse the player in a different world and, although Illusion of Gaia may lack all the bells and whistles of a modern game, it succeeds in making the player feel as if he or she is truly on an epic journey, thanks to its diverse and creative environments. The playable characters, particularly Will and Freedan, are beautifully drawn and animated. Not only does this game feature nice touches like each character’s hair and clothing blowing around in the wind, but their move sets are quite fluid and diverse. There’s also a slew of NPC and monster sprites that are well drawn.

   If there’s a downside to this game’s graphics, it’s due to the fact that it is hard to appreciate them in our day and age, since modern machines can produce millions of colors and complex polygons. Adding to the problem is the fact that the art style is done in a somewhat unassuming (though very fine) anime style that doesn’t set out to bludgeon the eye with it’s magnificence. Those who appreciate old fashioned sprites will see much value in this game, however, as it is full of visual treats from the misty Larai Cliffs to the Mysterious Seaside Place, not to mention the beautiful character art and animations.

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User Interface

    Quintet did an excellent job designing this game’s UI and controls. The inventory system is smooth and easy to use and the game responds to button inputs beautifully. For instance, the player can use the L&R bumpers to block projectiles and pull certain objects at a second’s notice. Each playable character learns a number of special attacks which are easy to execute thanks to the intuitive way in which the button inputs were designed for them.    

   There are only two small issues with the game’s UI. In order to run, the player must double tap the direction in which he or she wishes to proceed, which makes it difficult to execute certain moves that require a running start in tight spaces. Secondly, the attack and use item buttons feel reversed compared to other SNES games; Quintet wisely allowed players to change the button configuration to something a bit more natural feeling, which makes it less of a problem.

Music and Sound Effects

    Illusion of Gaia boasts an excellent neoclassical OST that puts modern soundtracks to shame. From the intro movie onward, the score sets the mood of the game perfectly and offers some really original pieces that are often are quite touching. Not only is the OST well composed, but there’s also unique songs for all of the major dungeons. Unfortunately, there is something to be desired of audio quality for this game. The sound fonts and composition may be great, but the music has a muffled quality to it that I never really understood. Maybe IoG used a special sound chip that compressed the sound files or there’s some other factor at play, but the OST sounds like something recorded in a shoe box and pressed to vinyl, rather than the fairly crisp digital mixes SNES is famous for.

  As for the sound effects, this game uses the same sounds as Act Raiser and Soul Blazer, which are generally pretty good. While the decision to recycle effects from older games was a bit lazy on Quintet’s part, it did give the series a much needed sense of consistency that helped tie all the games together.

Gameplay

    Illusion of Gaia’s gameplay is beautifully designed and more balanced than that of its predecessor. There’s plenty of towns and dungeons to explore as well as a treasure hunt mechanic that requires the player to find fifty Red Jewels to unlock a number of bonuses and a secret dungeon. There’s also three playable characters that have their own special moves the player can unlock throughout the course of the game. Unfortunately, IoG feels like it lacks something in terms of gameplay. Maybe it is, because there are no weapons and armor to find or cool gadgets to use, but for whatever reason this game falls just short of being a masterpiece. There’s plenty of unique enemies (as well as the usual stock fantasy bats and skeletons) and bosses to battle in IoG. In fact nearly every dungeon in this game is populated with one-of-a-kind monsters that match the area’s theme (for the most part). Many of towns and dungeons in IoG are unique in their own right and the concept of exploring ancient ruins that are based on actual places or legends makes them even more entertaining (Quintet did take plenty of liberties with these locations to make them fit the story and game design).

   Fighting feels natural in this game and the player will have to learn to use each character well in order to deal with the hordes of monsters that populate the ruins. There’s also plenty of incentive to defeat monsters, since clearing an area awards the player with a permanent bonus to life, attack or defense power. The stat bonus system gives IoG something of an RPG feel, but it’s well balanced with the action mechanic since the player will still have to avoid attacks and fight strategically in order to be successful.

  Puzzles are also an important aspect of Illusion of Gaia. Many of the game’s puzzles are fairly simple and should not present much of a challenge to players as long as they pay attention to the hints scattered around the dungeons and towns. There are a few puzzles that are slightly cryptic and some of the dungeons are confusing mazes, but the devs did not go overboard trying to make the game difficult or too easy. IoG even makes use of Will’s flute in a creative way that allows him to solve some puzzles by playing a song. While the music mechanic is nice, the devs didn’t seem sure how to implement it fully and it often feels underused and half realized, but this is an example of where Quintet erred on the side of caution and avoided making the game tedious by over using a mechanic they did not how to implement to it’s fullest.

   While IoG has a lot going for it, the game play does suffer at times. As I mentioned earlier, character growth feels flat compared to its predecessor, Soul Blazer, even with stat bonuses, special abilities, and three playable characters. This is partially due to a lack of equipment and fewer special powers overall, but also because many of the special abilities become nearly obsolete once a new one is acquired or have limited utility to begin with. The fact that the third playable character is only available in the final two dungeons (one of which is very short) exacerbates the issue. Furthermore, the third character does not possess any unlockable skills like the first two. Then there’s the level design, which is fine until you get to the end of the game, which feels rushed. It’s seems that Quintet may have wanted to include another ruin in the game or make the last two levels longer, but couldn’t due to memory limitations, deadlines and/or a depleted budget. Despite the shakiness of the final two levels, most of the areas are pretty well designed and will offer a bit of a challenge to players who are new to the game.

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Have fun here, hope you like tough enemies!

Final Thoughts

    It was difficult to put my bias aside when reviewing this game and I hope I did a fair job. I simultaneously love IoG and take it for granted, because it has been a favorite of mine for so long. In fact when, I considered reviewing it last year I could only see it’s flaws and canned the idea until I had more experience critiquing games. Sure this game’s story gets a bit shaky at times (even though it had an award winning writer create it) the last few sections feel underdeveloped, and there’s not a tremendous amount of replay value, but Illusion of Gaia manages to shine through its faults. I should mention that I did not comment on this game’s linear nature, which was criticized when it was released, namely, because I feel that it was more of a stylistic decision on the dev’s part and does not really add or detract from the experience unless you have a strong preference for open ended or linear games.

Recommendations

Anyone interested in retro games should give this game a look. Legend of Zelda fans should especially consider this title, even though it is not quite as good as LoZ, this game draws a lot of ideas from it and does a much better job at replicating the experience than some of the other action/adventure titles I have played in recent years.

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