Illusion of Gaia Review
Illusion of Gaia is a game I’ve finished only two times now, with my very first playthrough years and years ago not being a positive experience. Going through it again for this review, I couldn’t help but wonder why I was so opposed to it in the first place; apart from two terrible puzzles, the game holds up surprisingly well under modern scrutiny, combining Secret of Mana’s type of action-RPG gameplay with a system that eliminates grinding entirely. Add on top of that some vaguely spiritualistic themes (a trademark of developer Quintet, who made Actraiser, Terranigma, and other games that revolve around the conflict of a “good” deity and “bad” deity), and you have a genuinely unique game that manages to hold its own against even the best-known games for the Super Nintendo.
Everything I remembered about this game was wrong
I suppose this is a warning that those who prefer more traditional and straightforward types of games may not be able to get into Gaia because of how strange it tends to be. Those looking for a Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy game will be sorely disappointed, basically. I suspect that’s what led to me having a negative impression of the game all these years to the point where my memories of the game turned out to be incredibly misleading. I remembered the second village—a kind of small, awkward collection of huts—as well as an early dungeon-type area in the mountains, and the boss that you eventually face within. Somehow I managed to extrapolate this into a false memory of the rest of the game, remembering a meaningless series of dungeons with little in the way of plot, and lots of occasions where I’d have to whip out main character Will’s flute (I can’t think of a better way to phrase this) in order to solve a series of incoherent puzzles between waves of respawning enemies who take little damage.
I strongly suspect that I played through the game glued to some kind of game guide my first time around, because almost none of those memories proved to be based in reality. The game’s dungeons are very straightforward (barring a maze area and another dungeon’s sudden reliance on invisible chests, which I’ll get into a bit later) and full of notes that spell out exactly what you’re supposed to do, and they’re never filled with too many enemies, either. In fact, the game’s designed so that enemies only respawn when you exit the game or dungeon, something you’re not likely to do. Instead, each screen has a manageable number of enemies not unlike the number you face in Secret of Mana or Seiken Densetsu 3, and defeating all of them earns you an upgrade to either your health, attack power, or defense. Since dungeons are comprised of several screens, this means that you’re constantly becoming more powerful, and since enemies don’t respawn as you move from screen to screen, the occasional need to backtrack manages to avoid being a hassle.
There aren’t even that many dungeons. You spend most of your time in villages with whoever you happen to be traveling with at that moment, and the plot rapidly unfolds. The only real negative I can think of is the translation, which alters and censors many elements of the story compared to the clearer Japanese version, but you can find threads like this around the internet that cover some of the changes and give you a clearer picture of what’s going on once you’ve finished the game. For example, an area that has some bones on the ground is chalked up to starvation, but this was originally a reference to cannibalism. Nintendo of America didn’t let that kind of stuff fly back then, so potentially questionable things like that became obfuscated. That’s not to say that the game is drowning in censorship, though—the religious themes are apparent even in the English translation, and many things, such as a Russian roulette-style drinking contest where one glass is filled with poison, have been left untouched. Oh, and the guy you end up winning against and inadvertently killing in the process? He has a pregnant wife. Nintendo of America: anti-cannibalism, pro-orphaning. There are many such things that I can’t help but be amazed were left in.
Will’s multiple forms
Something like a minute into the game, you find a passage that leads to what appears to be space, where a giant face introduces itself as Gaia and lets you save your game. As you play, you find more and more of these “dark passages” that act as save points, health restoration stations, and also occasionally give you upgrades. The most notable upgrade would be your ability to change your form; there are 3 different forms Will can have, including his original “boy” form that attacks with his flute and is relatively weak. The other two are Freedan the dark knight and Shadow, who appears to be a cross between silly putty and fire. You can only switch forms when you’ve found a dark passage, and only when it’s necessary to progress, but it’s nevertheless an interesting mechanic.
Will’s normal form and Freedan form are the ones you’ll be using the most since the Shadow form comes toward the end of the game and you don’t get much of an opportunity to use it, but all three have special abilities that come in handy during puzzles. Will’s normal form has a special attack unlocked early in the game called the “psycho dash,” a charged attack capable of breaking down weak walls. Freedan, on the other hand, has a longer sword reach that allows him to reach switches young Will can’t, and midway through the game he also unlocks the ability to shoot energy bolts from his sword. These are the two elements most puzzles require, though later puzzles make a point to use Shadow’s ability to fall through floors when using a special item, as well as a special move young Will gets late in the game that’s capable of shooting him across the screen with momentum.
These multiple forms also come in handy during boss fights, as Freedan and Shadow are quite a bit more powerful than Will is. The only point where I managed to get into a boss fight as young Will instead of one of the other two forms was one involving two vampires, which proved incredibly annoying since that particular fight is timed. Other than that, though, the game seemed to guide me well enough that I always stumbled into boss fights in one of the stronger forms. This is definitely a good thing, since the inventory is a bit of a mess and you’re not able to buy healing items. Instead, healing herbs are found in chests as you play, and there are only a handful of them throughout the game. This means that getting in over your head in a boss fight or dungeon is never a good idea since you can’t rely too heavily on herbs to heal you. It’s obvious that the dark spaces with Gaia are intended to be the game’s primary method of restoring health, which is definitely something that took a little getting used to.
Red jewels are for upgrading
Another thing that took some getting used to is the absence of any kind of normal “shop” that sells weapons, armor, or items. The closest thing would be the jeweler Gem, a master of disguise (which really only means he looks different in every town) who gives you rewards based on the number of red jewels you’ve found. These rewards start with a healing herb, move on to stat upgrades, then upgrade your special attacks to be more powerful. Finally, if you’ve somehow managed to collect all of the red jewels hidden throughout the game, you’re teleported to a special dungeon where you face a boss from Quintet’s Soul Blazer and receive a little back story.
Illusion of Gaia is a flawed gem, though
I can find something to complain about in any game, and this one is no different. The first problem I had was when I found myself stranded on a raft and couldn’t figure out how to progress. As it turns out, you have to eat some meat in your inventory to move on, and this meat looked similar enough to the herbs I was hoarding that I had been avoiding it. There’s a similar point later in the game where the only way to progress is to read a letter placed in your inventory without your knowledge, which can lead to lots of aimless wandering as you try to figure out how to move on. This may only happen the two times, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s poorly designed.
The next problem I had came when I needed to hit a statue as Freedan and then move it using Will’s innate ability to attract faraway objects (using the R or L buttons). Whenever I’d go into the dark space to transform back into young Will, the statue would reset and I’d be unable to hit it or manipulate it. As it turns out, Freedan is also capable of moving faraway objects, and this is something I can’t remember ever being explained in the game. I had assumed that since they have different names and different abilities, the ability to manipulate objects would be similarly locked to a single form.
Those problems were nothing compared to the next two, however. The Mu dungeon puzzle was a cakewalk until I suddenly hit a dead end after coming across a number of empty treasure chests. My then-partner Lilly took the opportunity to say something about how the chests are always where the statues’ gazes meet, which I took to mean that I had to somehow move the statues to no longer face the chests so that their contents would appear. As it turns out, all she meant was that there was an invisible treasure chest at the dead end where two statues are looking. Seriously—an invisible treasure chest. That’s dumb as hell, but it would have at least made more sense if the previous chests hadn’t been empty. As the puzzle stands, the empty chests are a giant red herring capable of framing Lilly’s “helpful advice” in an entirely different light.
Lastly, there’s a maze of vines that’s absolutely intolerable to work through. I found myself getting lost constantly because every screen looks the same, and it’s awful. Just awful. Then you have to use “mushroom drops” to make new vines grow so you can access new areas because that’s apparently what passed for logic in 1994. This whole section is just terrible.
The music is dated, but the sprites are still great
I found Gaia’s music intolerable even ~10 years ago when I first played through it. In its defense, it’s percussive and intense and captures the feel of the game because of this. On the other hand, the sounds are a single step up from the screechy instruments in the first Lufia, far removed from the much more tolerable instruments in Square’s RPGs of the time, and the writing for those instruments is largely unpleasant apart from the bizarrely memorable theme you hear when inside the dark space portals.
The graphics have fared much better, with each character and area looking distinctive. Bosses in particular are incredibly detailed, especially for the time, and it’s the kind of sprite work that holds up even under modern scrutiny. That said, they really could have made the meat look less similar to the healing herbs.