Review: Illusion of Gaia (SNES)

This being a great game is no illusion

In the early days of the SNES, Enix made the beloved action RPG Soul Blazer. A strange but incredibly effective mixture of RPG and very light town-building elements resulted in one of the system's most underrated games.

Although the game itself did not sell too well, Enix decided to try again, making a spiritual sequel with very loosely linked gameplay and story elements. Named Illusion of Gaia (Or Illusion of Time in Europe), there's no resurrecting of humans, animals and villages to be done this time – it's your typical "young innocent boy from a small village is the chosen one" story. You are Will, a student in South Cape, whose father was a famous explorer up until a few years ago, when he lost his life in a trap in the legendary Tower of Babel. Will was there when it happened, but doesn't remember a single thing – he somehow managed to get back to his hometown unscathed, only keeping a strange old flute he took from a chest in the tower.

It quickly turns out that this flute grants Will special abilities, allowing him to see and enter portals to the Dark Space, where he receives advice from the Earth's life force, Gaia. She (he? It?) tells Will to travel around the world and visit various ruins, collecting the ancient Mystic Dolls and taking them to the top of the Tower of Babel. This must be done to stop an incoming comet that is said to come by every few hundred years, wiping out all of civilization every time it passes.

It is not long before you embark on your quest to visit the world's ancient locales, all of which are either actual real-life places or locations from well-known myths. Throughout the game, you'll visit, among others, the Great Wall of China, Angkor Wat and the sunken city of Mu. These are the main ruins you've been told to visit, but they're not the only dungeons in the game – you'll also fight through a diamond mine, an underground river, a literal castle dungeon, and more of the usual RPG fare.

Combat is a bit more involved than in Soul Blazer, in which your character could only walk in straight lines and swing his sword in one fashion (although he did have magic). Will has mastered the art of moving diagonally and has a number of other moves at his disposal. He can do a jumping strike or block projectiles at the start, but will learn additional techniques over the course of the game, such as a slide tackle and a tornado spin. Will probably has the most improbable weapon in any video game ever, as he fights using the flute he found on his father's final expedition – it's fairly strong, but most of the time you'll be wanting to locate the Dark Space entrances in a particular dungeon. This is because at some locales, Gaia will allow you to transform into Freedan, a knight who moves slower but has much more powerful attacks. As most dungeons also have puzzle-solving, however, you can't just use Freedan all the time – some puzzle solutions will require you to switch back to Will. Near the end of the game, you'll gain access to a second transformation, but it is not nearly as useful as Freedan.

Although Soul Blazer (and later Terranigma) allowed you to find and use better armour and weapons, Illusion does things a bit differently. Every dungeon is, quite naturally, divided up into a number of rooms – defeating all enemies in one room will grant you a strength, health or defence power-up. It doesn't really matter if you do it or not, as defeating a dungeon's boss will give you any power-ups you missed, but it might make the boss fights themselves easier as some can be brutal. The game also has a limited number of herbs you can find that will restore about half of a fully maxed out life bar, but be very careful in consuming these – there is no way to get more, and should you die after using one, it will not come back!

There is also a side quest that spans pretty much the entire game. In just about every town, investigating nondescript, hard to find places might net you a Red Jewel. There's 50 in all, and if you manage to collect the whole lot you'll be rewarded with a bonus dungeon that has a familiar face from Soul Blazer as its boss. You'll most likely want to use a guide for this daunting task, though, because at multiple points in the game, all previously available areas become blocked off forever – thus making it possible to miss a single Red Jewel and requiring you to restart the whole game if you want to play through the extra dungeon.

While the plot in the previous game was fairly minimal, there's much more of it in Illusion. Between just about every different location there will be a bit of plot progression, and although the dialogue seems a bit amateurish at times (Enix didn't seem to have very good translators at the time) there are actually moments that might shock and even sadden you (anybody who's played the game should know exactly which scenes we're referring to!).

All of it is made extra strong due to the game featuring another fantastic Enix soundtrack. Although none of the three "Gaia Trilogy" titles had the same composer, each of them managed to deliver in spades in the audio department, featuring perhaps some of the finest SNES music ever. The graphics also improve greatly over Soul Blazer's sometimes lifeless, simple looks and help bring life to the world.

Despite all this, though, Illusion of Gaia/Time is frequently considered to be the weakest game in the trilogy. This is most likely because it is incrediby linear compared to the other two: with not a single side quest other than the Red Jewels, and the fact that many areas become forever inaccessible as the game progresses, most of the time it feels as if you're just going through the game in one straight line, severely limiting your sense of freedom. It doesn't help that monsters do not respawn – repeat visits to the dungeons you can visit multiple times are utterly pointless, unlike the other two games.


Although not as close to perfection as its two brothers, it's not hard to see why Nintendo themselves published Illusion of Gaia/Time outside Japan. It still manages to be one of the most entertaining action RPGs available on the SNES, and a fitting second game in the trilogy.

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