A solid 12-hour adventure with various developments both in environments and story, albeit with unexpectedly difficult bosses and a bit of a confusing ending.
The first impressions
I had only ever heard of Illusion of Gaia in various “best of SNES RPGs” lists around the internet, but I had never seen any gameplay, or played any of the developer Quintet’s other titles. This was a bit of a blind “let’s see how we go” kind of pick. Immediately I’m greeted by some fairly strong SNES styled presentation; the title screen has a fairly artsy shot of the logo on top of the Earth, the music invoking a grand orchestral tone with its horns and timpani drums, and an introduction sequence featuring copious amounts of Mode 7 perspective to illustrate the grandeur of the story.
Starting the game, you play as Will, finishing a class with his friends, where you can immediately take control and run around the world. The movement feels fluid and nothing feels too hand-holdy in this beginning sections of the game, as a character tells you not to jump off rooftops that have ledges, etc. What’s quite odd is the location is a fairly dense cliffside village with various buildings, a boat dock, and people carrying pots. But then on the roof of the starting building, you’re greeting by a mystical portal that takes you into a spooky room filled with warping stars and a greyscale statue of Gaia, who tells you that you are the chosen one with the Dark Power. Gaia’s role in this game is to briefly describe any tutorials as you progress the game, and to provide healing and saves. But I was intrigued early on by the setting of the game, as it hints at these fantasy elements without quite leaning too hard into it.
Soon you’re introduced to Kara and her pig, Oinky, who have snuck in against her father’s intents. She is quickly whisked away by guards, but the next day you are given a letter from the King (her father), ordering you to come visit. You’re also taught a song that you can play on your flute, a mechanic that comes up at various contextual points later in the game. Finally you’re told that your father went on an expedition to the Tower of Babel a year ago but had never returned, which hints at something grander.
The world map surprisingly is just a list of destinations, and contextually through the game you’re only ever given three locations to visit at a time, so there’s no wait to visit the King. Kara, who is now grounded in the castle, alludes to you that her father is acting weirdly. The King asks for a Crystal Ring, which you don’t have, and saying yes or no to him angers him so much he throws you into jail, where you’re forced to wait for a minute (receiving a brief mystical phone call from your long-lost father through the flute you possess) until you’re rescued by Oinky, who brings a key to the cell.
It is at this point you get to engage in the meat and bones of the gameplay; much of which reminds me of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. You maintain the same top-down view and movement controls as before, but you can now swing your sword with A, and can equip an item in the Select menu and use it with B. Enemies take taps from your sword (or staff?), and they satisfyingly reel back after every hit. But this game is more of an RPG like Zelda is because you have stats, particularly health (your hit points in the top-left), attack (the damage you deal), and defence (the reduction in damage you take). And levelling up is quite interesting; you only level up once you clear a room’s enemies, where a random stat (I assume it’s just predetermined by the room) levels up. This means that you can never grind; you can only be diligent in taking out all the enemies in a room. I never found it a tricky task to find the enemies given that you’ve got a radar by pressing Start to find them.
About half-way in the dungeons here you come across another mystical portal which specifically lets you transform into a character called Freedan, the Dark Knight, who allows you to deal a little more damage, and his sword reaches a little further, allowing you to hit some enemies that couldn’t be reached before. I found it interesting later on in the game where they kept giving both Will and Freedan different abilities that they could use, leading to some interesting puzzles later on where you’d have to find a portal and swap between characters to continue on. It’s a nice way just to get you to switch between these characters, even if they played fairly similarly. Oddly, there’s a third character who only shows up in the second last area of the game, and, again, plays very similarly, although since he doesn’t have any unlockable abilities, he seems a bit basic compared to the other two characters.
The dungeon at some point ends, introducing you to a weird character called Lilly, who can turn into a dandelion. All this means is they can talk to you sometimes without appearing in the field. You rescue Kara, run back to your village to find your grandparents’ place ransacked, and you set off to find the mystical village that they have fled to, which can only be found by playing the song you learned on the flute. This begins the game’s rhythm where you go through a dungeon of some kind, talk to some characters for a bit, and then rinse and repeat as you discover the new dungeons. Most of the time the dungeon leads you into a new are such that you can’t return to an older area anyways, so it’s a fairly linear trek throughout the game.
As the game develops
The next dungeon in the game is a bit rinse repeat of the same mechanics, but each dungeon introduces different enemies, each having various amounts of health and attack patterns. I liked how they’re all fairly easy to understand in isolation, encouraging you to manage moving around and minimising the number of times you get hit. Later in the game I found that you have so much health you can tank a fair bit of the harder to dodge stuff, since you always get a Gaia healing/save room just before the bosses. And the bosses are very difficult; the first one requires 20 hits to defeat, only exposing his face after hurling these fireballs that bounce around the room at odd angles, firebars that sweep across the ledges you stand on, and in between hits, these lasers that are so unpredictable in where exactly they’ll hit. Fortunately you collect these herbs that you can use in battle to supplement the damage, but it’s such a difficulty spike when you’ve never felt that you’ve needed herbs at all up to this point.
Later bosses do range in difficulty a little bit but I’d say the first one is the second hardest behind the twin vampires about half-way through the game. There are two enemies, each taking 20 hits, dancing around this Bomberman-styled grid, sending firebars down each column and row, and every time you hit them they create a shield of fireballs. They also team up, creating another bouncing projectile that absolutely demolishes your health. All of this is done while there’s a bomb in the room with a character strapped to it counting down.
And any time you die, you lose a life and reappear just outside the boss room with half of your health. I ended up just resetting the system every time, since you always save just before a boss, and you get full health, and all your herbs that you may’ve burned in your last run. Herbs are not replenishable too; there’s only a finite number that appear in the game, so you’ve ultimately got to either conserve them or get good and beat the bosses without taking any hits. I found it so strange though because I never had any problem outside of the bosses though, especially finding it a breeze once I had so much health near the end of the game. But the bosses were very hard to avoid all damage on, which contributed to their difficulty. Still, I guess, it only took a handful of attempts at any point before I finally got it right and could continue on.
The dungeons themselves though were fairly interesting, each having their own kinds of puzzles. One dungeon mid-way through the game involves finding four statues in the corners of a hub room, and each had puzzles where you’d flip over to the underside of the floating platforms to trigger switches or navigate the area differently. Another involved navigating the Great Wall of China (making the dungeon much more left-right focused), but having all of these various rooms vertically throughout the place. These are complemented by interesting enemies for their environments. In the above examples, the first had different forms of enemies that attacked differently depending on whether you were on the top side or underside of the dungeon. In the Great Wall dungeon, you had various archer enemies that fired arrows down the corridors, requiring you to carefully time approaches and dodge vertically when available. It all felt very solid, especially as you gathered new combat abilities.
The last big thing to talk about is the story; it begins in this fairly quaint way, but constantly hints at something greater. As you go through the game, you collect six Mystic Statues that are used to open up the Tower of Babel. There’s not really a roadmap of where these statues are; you just seem to come across them as you casually head into each dungeon, but there’s something rather sinister about each place you somehow come across. One place has brightly lit front street with petals falling down all over the place, but the back streets had hooded characters discussing child slave trades, and you’d later go into those slave mines to free everyone. A later area was inhabited by many monsters, and after killing the boss, all the monsters turned into regular people, implying that you’ve just been murdering regular people for a while. Another place had a popular gambling ring going on, and you enter a challenge to win some camels to cross the desert. The game you play involves five bottles where one has poison. You drink two, the man you challenge drinks two, and obviously the last one contains the poison, but the man disregards the crowd and says he has nothing to live for but his pride, and swallows the poison dying immediately. The scene transitions back to his wife saying you’ve inherited the camels in his will and that, and I quote, “real joy is being with those you love”. There’s quite a number of these moments that are just bitterly grim throughout the game.
And yet, we get into the part that ultimately confuses me. At one point in the game, Will receives a vision of the future; a world covered in grey repetitive buildings, with no forests, rivers, or landscapes to be seen. I got the hint that the game was trying to say, while the natural world is a bit dangerous, overdevelopment ruins the natural beauty of the land (since all the dungeons take place at real historical monuments). Ultimately, at the end of the game, Will has to leave the world he lives in to tackle a threat on an incoming comet (which wasn’t really mentioned much throughout the game, I thought this was ultimately a quest for his father), and after defeating the final boss, has to return to the Earth at a completely different time period to what he was used to. Almost like a cyclical rebirth as there exists a modern day version of every character to which he begins his new life with again, but it’s not exactly the dystopian future that was hinted at early. It also is honestly way better than dealing with the demons, child slavery rings, cannibals, gamblers and tyrants in the fantasy world that he used to be in. There’s barely any time to focus on the positive things that happen to the main characters before they’re thrown into the next bit of adversity. And while the adversity certainly develops these characters (all having some arc of some kind), the ultimate message seemed a bit lost on me as I wasn’t sure whether it was trying to warn people about the dangers of modernity.
Despite being confused with the story, the game is fairly substantial for its 12-hour playtime, and I got a lot of good enjoyment out of it. The presentation is fairly good, with well composed music (although nothing that subjectively memorable for me), fairly good SNES graphics (they won’t wow you but they look good for what the system can do), a story that’s at least engaging, and gameplay that keeps developing over its length. It’s got a fair number of unique elements to it that set it apart from other titles of its time, such as the levelling up system and the smooth presentation. I also did find the variety in environments really fun throughout the experience, and having new abilities, enemies, and puzzles along the way really spiced everything up. It’s ultimately a fun but flawed title; one to casually playthrough, remembering the good bits, and learning how games have developed from its rougher aspects, but certainly one to give a check if you’re interested in games such as A Link to the Past or Crystalis.