This is exactly the sort of game I was hoping to come across in my deep dive into the SNES library. This is the sort of game that made the SNES’s reputation. From the big colorful graphics and distinctive sound to the sprawling yet abrupt plotline, this game is vintage SNES. And I loved every second of it. I don’t know that it ranks up in the upper echelon of SNES games, next to A Link to the Past or Chrono Trigger, but at worst it goes on that next step down. Illusion of Gaia is a game that wears its heart on its sleeve, one that aches to instill strong emotions into the player. It occasionally achieves that in its own melodramatic way.
Essentially, Illusion of Gaia is a Zelda game with all the exploration removed. And all of the tools. It is very simplified compared to A Link to the Past. You play as Will, a young boy with slight psychic abilities and a flute. He can hit things with the flute and spin it around to pull certain objects toward him. He eventually gains other abilities, like a slide and dash attack, but his repertoire stays pretty limited. The other big skill is his ability, at save points, to turn into Freedan, a dark knight who is stronger and tougher than Will. He too gets a few abilities, like a ranged attack, but they play mostly the same. At the very end you get a third form that hits very hard and you get too late to really do anything with. Most of the game is spent switching from Will to Freedan whenever appropriate. Luckily, the dungeons themselves shine. They get to be sprawling mazes that don’t so much have puzzles as just navigation difficulties. It is supremely satisfying, especially combined with the game’s progression mechanic.
In Illusion of Gaia, the player gets stronger, for the most part as there are a few other stat upgrades to be found, by defeating every enemy in a room. That gives a bump to the player’s HP, Attack or Defense. Since enemies don’t respawn, each dungeon sees the player slowly but surely eradicating every enemy to get all of the possible stat increases. It is an addictive, though occasionally tedious, system. As good as the gameplay is, this game would still be something of an also ran if it wasn’t for the real heart of the game, and that is its world spanning story.
Illusion of Gaia doesn’t have the greatest or most nuanced plot of all time, but its sheer abrupt melodrama is hard to match. It opens with Will meeting a Princess and soon a globe-trotting adventure unfurls. Will is the player character, but he is joined for most of the quest by Kara the Princess, a trio of his school friends named Lance, Eric and Seth, fairy-ish girl Lilly and Will’s cousin Neil. That is quite the big troupe, especially considering that Will does all the work. Still, each town and area allows each of these character’s story to develop a little further. Kara starts out spoiled and impulsive, but by the end of the game she is slightly less spoiled and impulsive. Lilly helps the most early on, using her magic powers to turn into a dandelion and help Will out. When the team is separated by a shipwreck, she tends to Lance, who develops amnesia. Eric, the youngest member of the group tends to stumble into trouble frequently. And Neil makes tools of various efficacy. Sometimes he his plane flies you to your destination, sometimes it crashes into the ocean. The game constantly throws unspeakable tragedies at the player, and the team just bucks up and keeps going, for the most part.
The only thing really holding the story back is the localization, which if I was feeling generous I would call passable. It is hard for story beats to have the proper impact when they aren’t incomprehensible. I would Seth as an example, if I had a clue about what happened to him. When the team is shipwrecked, he is eaten by the leviathan named Riverson. Only he then becomes Riverson? And later he is dead so his spirit helps the team out? I really don’t know what happened to him. Still enough of it comes through to give the game an overwhelmingly melancholic feel. You find a golden Incan ship, with the skeletons of the Incans trapped inside waiting for their king to return. There is a constant thread of people from everywhere you visit being forced into slavery (but your cousin Neil’s parents apparently). At one point you need to get some animals to travel through the desert, so you play a game like Russian roulette in order to get them. Only it turns out your opponent needed the money to make a new life for him and his pregnant wife. The whole game is full of stuff like that.
The main plot has to do with a comet possessed by a dark force that is making everyone act strange. It is getting closer to Earth, and only Will can help repel this evil force. It is more weird than interesting. But there is an air of hope throughout all the tragedy. It makes the game something of delight to play. There is nothing to do but keep forging forward. This is exactly the kind of game that I hoped to find playing all these old SNES games. What is sad is that I bought this game at a garage sale more than a decade ago. I should have played this game years ago. Now that I beat it I am very disappointed in myself for not having done so.