Illusion of Gaia

Illusion of Gaia
Illusion of Gaia Cover
Platforms Super Nintendo
Genre Actiony RPG thing
Score 4  Clock score of 4
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I didn’t play a whole lot of Enix games growing up. I rented a few titles for the Super Nintendo, including E.V.O.: The Search for Eden, Ogre Battle, and The 7th Saga, but it wasn’t until I beat Star Ocean 2 during college that I could poke out the Enix notch in my belt. Their merger with Squaresoft in 2003 blew my mind, but I had grown up in the world where publishers were like armies, constantly battling it out with each other for supremacy; but in the real world it was all business, and the merger made sense.

Illusion of Gaia was released during the time when Enix was in a heated battle (business and fanboy-wise) with Squaresoft on the Super Nintendo platform. In its six year lifespan, both publishers released over 30 games each, many competing directly in sub-genres that seem too similar to be considered a coincidence. One of these face-offs was Secret of Mana from Squaresoft against Illusion of Gaia from Enix. Released in 1993, both games were action RPGs that happily broke the mold of the Final Fantasies and Dragon Quests.

But in the end, Squaresoft easily won the action RPG battle and the Super Nintendo war. Secret of Mana was an engrossing, multiplayer tale with a huge variety of weapons and magic, Illusion of Gaia was a rather rote, singleplayer, cobbled-together adventure with little variety. Here’s its review.

Illusion of Gaia is essentially a very boiled down action RPG. You control one character who runs from bare town to basic dungeon poking bad guys with his sword. You increase your health, attack, or defense by killing every enemy on the map (you don’t actually get the bonus until they’re all gone). And then you defeat a boss or grab some obscure story item and move on. Repeat that a dozen times and you have the whole game.

Let’s start with the story, which is easily the worst part of the game and probably the worst plot I’ve ever seen crawl out of the 16-bit era. You have a guy named Will, who causes some trouble and then heads off on a globe-trotting adventure to... I guess find his dad? Sometimes it was really difficult to tell what was going on due to the awful writing and/or translation effort. The plot is constantly spurred along by some awkward narration by Will or completely random plot devices to send you to the next area.

Here are some of the dialog standouts in Illusion of Gaia:

Will: We went to the Water City, Watermia. A beautiful town with houses built on rafts. The townspeople have kindly put us up at the house of young Luke. This is Luke's house. He's a loveable young fisherman.

Man: This is a gambling house. A child would have to be very poor to come to this place.

Will: Through the jungle, three days journey from the native village, there is a huge temple.

Illusion of Gaia Will Magic Telekenis

My favorite awful sequence in the game was early on after a friend experienced amnesia. We didn’t know how to cure it so we wandered into a mine full of slaves. After you freed all the slaves, the last one teaches you a song that cures amnesia (how fortunate for us!). Then after you cure him, someone else just randomly says:

Friend: There’s an eccentric inventor in the woods ahead, shall we go? I think his name is Neil.

The former amnesic replies:

Former amnesiac: Did you say Neil!!! That's the same name as my lost cousin!! My cousin Neil, the inventor, flew in the sky in a thing called an airplane.

Narrator: So Will and his group went to the inventor's house.


The flimsy plot is more of an excuse to have you travel to real Earth places like the Great Wall of China and Ankor Wat to fight off evil and collect Mystic Statues. Why are we collecting Mystic Statues? Let’s let the game explain, well, actually, a talking flute:

Talking Flute: Pick up the stone your enemy left. The power of the Crystal is contained there. That power will prove to be your ally.... You must make a pilgrimage to the ruins of the world to find the Mystic Statues. The closer you get to the Crystal, the stronger the evil power will be... Will... No time... Quickly... First to the Incan ruins...

You understand about as much as I do, and I’ve beaten the game! There’s also some kind of assassin running around who’s mentioned about 30 minutes into the game but barely brought up and not even seen until the end of the game. I had totally forgotten about him by then and was scratching my head throughout the scene (where he makes his grand entrance and then a few lines of dialog later is immolated by some deus ex machina).

I wouldn’t complain about the story so much if it wasn’t such a huge focus of the game. There are very long scenes of dialog and talky sequences that seem to go on forever. At one point, you’re floating on a raft for three in-game weeks, and there’s little snippets of conversations from every day. It’s as boring as it sounds. It also has the gall to feature a 20+ minute ending with a post-credits scene. Secret of Mana had a pretty hokey story but it at least knew when to get out of the way.

The graphics are all early Super Nintendo-ish, not a lot of style except for the last character you can morph into. The overworld is, of course, a really ugly Mode 7’d map. There are a few nice touches like being able to see people look out their windows in town, but overall Illusion of Gaia looks like a disappointing effort.

Illusion of Gaia Mode 7 World map

So let’s get to the gameplay, which is the meat in an action RPG. As I said earlier, you progress your character by killing all the enemies on a map, and are rewarded either a single point increase in health, attack, or defense. This means very slow progression as each dungeon only has half a dozen maps. You do learn a few extra moves throughout the game, but you’re always using the same sword, and there is no armor options.

Illusion of Gaia’s one unique aspect is the ability for Will to morph into a big hulking knight and then later in the game a shadowy figure. The knight is stronger than the main character... and there’s really no downside, except he can’t do some of the tricky, puzzle-navigating moves that Will can pull off, so most of the dungeons progress like this: kill stuff, turn into Freedan the knight, kill stuff faster, run into an obstacle that only Will can pass, turn back into Will, pass obstacle, turn back into Freedan at first opportunity... It’s a shallow cycle, and since the third playable character isn’t unlocked until near the end, quite boring.

The actual fighting is decent, not hard to go totally wrong in a 2D game like this. The enemies follow pretty basic patterns so it’s generally a cinch avoiding them and going in for the kill, but the bosses are a different matter. Some were easy, some were freaking hard, like the vampire pair. I have less of a problem with the challenge as I do with the huge swings in difficulty.

Finally, the item management system is atrocious. You have to equip keys and health restoring items to use them, and the process of navigating and selecting items is a huge pain. And if you press the item button (B) while holding something like a letter, you have to scroll through all the text just to get back to the action. And don’t press the item button (again, the B BUTTON, right next to A!) during battle without having anything equipped or you’ll get a message that you don’t have an item selected. Thanks, game!

Illusion of Gaia Sword Attack Skeleton

Overall: 4

I’m a bit confused that my friends in college were so enamored with Illusion of Gaia, it was obviously rose-colored glasses creating a mess in their head. This game might have been okay when it was released, but it’s gotten even worse over time. If you could ignore the story and some weird gameplay mechanics, there’s a decent action game beneath it all. But since you can’t ignore the story and have to constantly deal with Illusion of Gaia’s issues, it greatly suffers.

I still want to give Terranigma a shot, which is another SNES action title released by the same developers, Quintet, though I’m going to be extra leery duing that game’s first hour.