Illusion of Gaia
System: Super NES Publisher: Nintendo Developer: Enix/Quintet
Genre: Adventure Type: Zelda-Style Adventure Circa: 1994

Many modern RPGs and other video games have really bizarre or weird plot elements, and I have to wonder to what extent Illusion of Gaia may have been responsible for influencing that. Gaia is a Zelda-like adventure game that offers lots of fighting, exploring, puzzle-solving, and story, but for all it's worth, it just seems to be lacking something.
GRAPHICS: 8.5/10
One of the first things I noticed about Illusion of Gaia is that Will's animation is superb! His movements for every action are explicitly detailed and this level of quality is carried over to his alter-ego forms, Freedan and Shadow, as well. It's amazing just to watch the wind blow through Will's hair or Freedan's cape. Other effects are truly eye-catching, such as the fluctuating starfield in the Dark Space and the huge colorful bosses. Backgrounds and characters are very large, but painted in a soft palette. As well done as they are, Gaia's graphics just don't seem to emote the atmosphere of the game as well as they should. Will travels to mysterious ruins around the world, but I never really got the feeling of having gone anywhere special. Many of the buildings and cave areas look alike and the enemies seem a bit generic.
SOUND: 8/10
Some of the music in Gaia is astounding! Symphony orchestras, pounding drums, native flutes, and strumming harps dominate the scores. Beginning with the merry piping song of South Cape and ending with the exceptionally dramatic final boss theme, Gaia's music certainly has its high points. There is one flute-driven melody in particular that is so haunting, it literally sends shivers down my spine! Sometimes, I just like to sit back and listen to the lullaby that plays after you quit the game in the Dark Space. Unfortunately, as good as some of Gaia's music is, it often falls victim to the same problem as the graphics - a lot of it is too much alike. Music used in later dungeons doesn't sound all that much different from music used in earlier dungeons. Slight variations are given to similar-sounding themes, such as an attempt at recreating Chinese instrument sounds in the Great Wall's music, but it still ends up sounding like every other dungeon. Of course, complaining about this may be "nitpicking", considering that I've played many adventure games that don't vary the music in the dungeons, whatsoever. At least Gaia tried.
Gaia's intuitive play control is one of its strongest features. Will and his alter-ego forms all have identical control. They move and attack at a very quick pace, and with such fluid responsiveness, that it makes the combat system work extremely well. Yes, it's actually fun running around and slashing up enemies! Double-clicking the control pad in one direction makes Will dash like lightning. Sometimes, you can use this maneuver to send him running up a ramp, and then launch himself from the top, over pits and other obstacles, and boy is it a thrill watching that happen! You'll learn many special moves from Gaia that are unique to each of Will's forms, and most of them are extremely useful (unlike many games that are peppered with dozens of worthless moves.) For example, Will learns a sliding move that not only allows him to slide through small holes, but is also very effective against enemies.
Illusion of Gaia's convoluted plot begins in the lazy seaside town of South Cape. Young Will had been on an expedition to the Tower of Babel with his father, but something went wrong. Will returned home, but has no memory of how he got back, or what happened to his father. Naturally, Will decides to solve this mystery and sets out on a worldwide journey. During his travels, he learns of a mysterious comet that is approaching the earth on a journey of mass destruction. The comet is an ancient weapon that seems to cause just about every kind of undesirable effect as possible - death, famine, mutation, disease, rapid evolution, and destruction of entire civilizations. This sort of reminds me of effects caused (or believed to be caused) by exposure to massive radiation. Will also discovers that he has strange psychic powers and that Gaia, the Spirit of the Earth, is his guardian.

While Gaia's story may have been ambitious in its ideas, it's execution was less than spectacular. There are times when the events taking place or the dialogue being spoken makes little to no sense, and it's not a translation issue, since there's no problem with grammar. Will is supposed to be solving mysteries, but instead, it seems each new area creates even more conundrums that are never explained. (I'll try to be as vague in these critiques as possible, but if you have not played this game, and absolutely do NOT want any spoilers, please just skip over the rest of this section!!)

  • Were those people aboard the Incan Gold Ship an illusion or did Riverson kill them while Will slept? How did Will's friends get on the ship after it had already set sail?

  • Why did Ishtar have that strange "power" and why did he use it in the way he did?

  • What was the connection between the Moon Tribe and Neil's parents??

  • There is a scene where it looks as though Will's mother was really another character all along...but it's not very clear if that's true, because the other character's "spirit" appears later in the game.

  • There is another character whom we are explicitly told did not die in an "accident" that occurred, yet his "spirit" also appears later.

  • Throughout the whole game we are told that the comet causes death, destruction, and rapid evolution, which is believable in the context of the story. However, it also appears to cause entire cities to spring up all over earth while Will is fighting it, which makes no sense, whatsoever.

    There are other times when the dialogue is contrite or downright inappropriate. The most prominent example is a "tragic" death scene that is indignified by an ultra-hilarious pun made by one of the characters. There is another scene where a character's parents die suddenly before his eyes, and he wishes aloud to be left alone to grieve. Will's response to him is, "I'm ashamed to hear you talk this way!", which completely comes out of nowhere and is inhumanely insensitive! Also, Will and Kara's relationship feels "forced" and awkward at best, and somehow, I don't quite swallow the coincidence of their heritage.

    It seems as though Illusion of Gaia's quest to be bold and different ends up becoming weird and incoherent. I wouldn't mind this so much if the game had just been consistently weird from start to end. But the story starts out normal enough and doesn't start becoming inexplicable until the Incan Gold Ship incident, which happens several hours and two dungeons into playing. I have to seriously wonder if the modern day trend of bizarre plot twists and other phenomena in RPGs was started by Illusion of Gaia.

    CHALLENGE: 6/10
    Unfortunately, Gaia falls a little flat in terms of its challenge. The enemies are never difficult to destroy and hardly ever pose much of a threat. Most of the times, if you start to run low on hit points, you can retreat back to a Dark Space to refill. And even if you do die, it never seems to be that big of a deal. Most of the puzzles are easy to solve, although there are a few that stumped me for quite some time, particularly in Mu and Angel Village.

    The challenge of the dungeons never really seems to increase beyond the second one - later dungeons may be bigger and more complex, but they aren't really more difficult. In fact, Ankor Wat and the Pyramid (two areas very late in the game) are suspiciously easier than most of the dungeons that came before them.

    There are only a handful of boss fights scattered throughout the game, but most of them are quite tough. I usually hear people say the first boss is the hardest, and I can understand why. It's a huge creature that takes up the whole middle of the screen, and you're restricted to running around the edges of the room. It can be very difficult to dodge the many lasers and huge fireballs that he sends ricocheting around. So, with the short life meter you have at that point and a limited number of herbs (that cannot be replenished after use) it can be tough for a first-time player, and it certainly was for me. Later bosses, like the Viper, Vampires, and Mummy Queen, give you a decent workout, but much like the dungeons, their difficulty doesn't really escalate above the first boss. Now that I've mastered the game, I find even these bosses easy, rarely having to use more than one herb on any of them, if at all.

    FUN: 8/10
    Gaia looks like Zelda on the surface, but its gameplay is a bit more action-oriented. Its relatively linear style of play seems to encourage fighting over exploration and puzzle-solving, although the game somehow manages to keep a good balance. The amount of enemies in each area is always about right and they don't respawn, so fighting never becomes repetitive. Will's powers of transformation really liven things up! When you begin a dungeon, you'll usually play for awhile as Will, but eventually you'll discover a Dark Space, in which you can transform into the Dark Knight, Freedan, who is stronger than Will. Freedan makes plowing through enemies even faster and easier.

    Gaia has a unique level-up system in which you gain a level by defeating all enemies in a given area. This is simple to do because you can follow your monster radar to find enemies you've missed. There is no monotonous level-building or searching for "heart containers" or anything in that mold.

    Although there aren't drastic changes in the designs from dungeon to dungeon, they offer a few new gimmicks each time. These usually involve finding an item and/or learning a move from Gaia to overcome an otherwise impassable object. The levels aren't completely uninspired - there is a healthy dose of creativity. To exemplify this, there is one area that is largely covered in water, and you'll have to find a way to make it sink so that you can fully explore it. An airborne dungeon can only be completed by flipping around to its "reverse" side at various points. Some places, like Mt. Temple, are huge, complicated mazes. There is even a dungeon that contains a series of "memory test" puzzles at the end. These are exactly like those you may have seen in children's books that ask you to look at a picture for several minutes, then look at another similar picture and figure out what has changed. Although that type of puzzle is nothing new, it was cool to see something like that in a video game.

    Unfortunately, the story doesn't quite match up to the action. There are times when it seems like there is no rhyme nor reason to what is going on. Dungeons often don't culminate in boss fights, so it can leave the feeling that nothing's happening. And even when something does happen, it's often too weird or makes no sense, so it ends up feeling anti-climactic.

    Gaia also contains a secret dungeon and boss, but you'll need to collect all the game's hidden red jewels to access them. And, good lord, those are some of the most cheaply-hidden items in a video game, ever! If you miss any in the areas before the Angel Village, you can never go back to get them, so I'd suggest using the guide in the manual (or a walkthrough if you don't have the manual), if you want to get them all.


    Gaia is a decent game that kept me entertained for many hours. But its shortcomings in difficulty and story somewhat disappointed me. If you know ahead of time that it's going to be weird, then Gaia is probably worth playing just to see how bizarre its story is (and to see that laugh-out-loud hysterical pun). Unfortunately, I had read the Nintendo Power reviews that had praised Gaia as having "the most ambitious plot in a video game" prior to playing it, so my expectations were pretty high. However, I'm not one to judge games by story, alone, and I don't have any real issues with Gaia's gameplay. I would've liked it to have been more challenging, but in the end, Illusion of Gaia is a game that left me not knowing exactly what to think of it.
    OVERALL SCORE (not an average): 7.5/10



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