Soul Blazer fans unite! Quintet’s spiritual follow-up, Illusion of Gaia, follows the adventures of a young explorer named Will along with his zany friends. Armed with his trusty flute, psychic powers and the ability to morph into strange powerful beings, Illusion of Gaia is a quirky and memorable action RPG. On a personal note, it’s been over 10 years since I first played and beat this game, and I have been meaning to review it for a decade now. At last, the time has come. I had a blast playing through Illusion of Gaia — it’s yet another high quality game in a lineup full of epic titles. It’s hard, for me at least, not to love the SNES. It’s truly the system that keeps on giving. You know a system is stacked to the gills when a game of this caliber has kind of been forgotten somewhat. Maybe it doesn’t belong in the same breath as some of the Super Nintendo’s very finest, but it sure holds its own.
I THINK I’M TURNING JAPANESE
Released in Japan as Gaia Gensōki on November 27, 1993, North American gamers had to wait 10 months to play Illusion of Gaia. European gamers had it even worse — it didn’t come out there until April 1995. The Super Famicom box art is perhaps my all-time favorite video game cover. Seeing Will, Kara and the adorable little pig Hamlet racing across the universe as two mysterious powerful beings loom overhead promises adventure and intrigue. Compare this box art to the one we got here in America and it’s night and day. It went from super dope to super meh. On the bright side, we’re not here for no stinkin’ cover. We’re here for the game. And fortunately, it’s a dandy one.
STRANGER THINGS CONNECTION
Sometimes I can turn a stubborn eye to something that becomes an overnight success. As a fan of underdogs and obscurities, it may take me a while to latch on to something that sweeps a nation by storm. It happened with Goosebumps back in the early-mid ’90s. Ironically, nearly 25 years later it happened with Stranger Things (which is kind of like Goosebumps on steroids). Earlier this month I finally watched Seasons 1 and 2. Stranger Things easily became my most favorite TV show since Breaking Bad. As I went to capture screenshots for this review, it suddenly dawned on me that Illusion of Gaia can sort of be viewed as a 16-bit version of Stranger Things! Now hear me out. There is a “Dark Space” in Illusion of Gaia. Meanwhile, there is an “Upside Down” in Stranger Things. Both main protagonists (more or less) are named Will; HELL, they even look kind of similar! Will possesses the power of telekinesis, so he’s like a combination of Will Byers AND Eleven. It’s kind of neat when one thinks about it. Well, at least it is to me, anyhow
THE STORY GOES…
THE ADVENTURE BEGINS
Will’s father is missing. Possibly dead. Still, Will refuses to stop searching until he finds some answers. Not unlike Joyce Byers and Will…
Remember how season 2 of Stranger Things mentioned that the one year anniversary of a traumatic event can trigger intense feelings, flashbacks and even relapses? The Anniversary Effect is very real, indeed. Having experienced it myself, it’s little stuff like this that really connects me to Illusion of Gaia.
Every group of friends needs that one trusty hang out spot. For these boys, it’s the Seaside Cave at the far end of their hometown, South Cape.
Before Will heads over to Seaside Cave, however, he entertains the locals for a bit. That funky looking portal there transports you to the Dark Space, but more on that later.
Jumping off high ledges is always a hoot. I found the game’s translation to be rather endearing.
Marriage takes hard work and good communication to work. Seth’s parents are having a bit of a rough patch. Characters bicker and have their flaws, just like in real life. It made the game feel more “alive” than some other 16-bit action RPGs.
WAIT A MINUTE — a runaway girl?! You mean like… Eleven?
Dungeons & Dragons was on the table until the group had something even more compelling in mind…
Telekinesis aside, Will has a sixth sense psychic power.
Coming home to find a pig wrecking your living room just doesn’t happen everyday. But this is no ordinary day. Princess Kara tracks down her pet pig Hamlet at Will’s house. They go upstairs where Kara asks Will about his missing father, Olman.
Grandma Lola and Grandpa Bill join the scene as does King Edward’s soldiers. They drag off Kara but not before she can share a heartfelt thought to Will. Ever meet someone that you felt you’ve known your whole life? That’s the way Kara feels about Will. But how does Will feel about Kara? That remains to be seen…
Damn, son. Good thing that text box is blocking your trousers…
Every great adventure sees our hero leaving home to explore uncharted territory. And so too it is with Will. He’s been summoned to King Edward’s castle. Will loves his grandparents but he has a mission and a destiny to carry out…
Princess Kara begs you to rescue her but King Edward throws you into a prison cell before you can lift a finger. Night soon falls…
Enter the Dark Space where Gaia, the source of all life, offers sage advice, rest and a chance at saving your journey.
Battle bloodthirsty bats, sinister skeletons and other strange abominations.
Flutes aren’t typically thought of as weapons, but Will makes the most of it.
There’s a slight puzzle element to the game but nothing too perplexing. Jumping on that button there reveals a hidden room that’s home to some unsavory bats.
Finding treasures and the Dark Space portal is crucial to success.
Transform into Freedan for the very first time.
Stronger than Will, Freedan turns you into a badass warrior.
Players are introduced to Lilly near the end of this dungeon. She too possesses some unique powers.
Racing back to the castle under the cloak of nightfall, Will and Kara head back to Will’s home in South Cape.
However, the return is spoiled by a vicious act of vandalism. We learn that the Jackal has left his mark on Will’s bedroom wall. The Jackal is a top-of-the-line hunter hired by Kara’s mom. He now has his sights aimed directly at Will.
Enter Lilly, who informs Will that Grandpa Bill and Grandma Lola are safely tucked away in her village. Kara gets a little protective of Will and questions who this Lilly is. The two then have a bit of a verbal splat. Their dynamic is certainly entertaining to say the very least.
Before heading out to Itory Village, Will bids farewell to his friends. They notice that something is off with Will. You know, just like Will’s friends did in Stranger Things. Not acting like the same old Will indeed…
Lilly’s bickering with Kara carries on.
Shades of Eleven and Mad Max, almost…
Traveling from South Cape to Itory our heroes go.
Princess Kara complains and Lilly is quick to be curt with her. We soon find Grandpa Bill and Grandma Lola safe and sound. They tell you that the Jackal has been here…
Despite fair warnings, their words go unheeded.
Sprint down and catch some major air!
Climb down the ladder and secure your first Inca Statue.
Friday the 13th flashback, anyone? KU KU KU… HA HA HA. Lilly tells you about the Moon Tribe. It is there that you’ll procure your second Inca Statue.
Hardship has a way of either destroying you or strengthening you. It’s up to you to decide which side of the coin wins out.
Princess Kara and Lilly continue to bicker
Welcome to Larai Cliff. Many have tried exploring and exploiting it. None have survived to tell the tale.
Massive Inca stone statues litter the place. They really add to the adventure and exploration atmosphere of the game.
Battle parasitic mutant worms and look for clues scattered among the explorers who have gone before you…
Speaking of Friday the 13th, these bastards kind of look like Jason Voorhees (his Jason Goes To Hell incarnation in particular). Explosions reveal a skull?! Strange but true…
Arrange the “Jason” statues properly and a hidden door reveals itself. The Dark Space is always a welcome sight as it allows you to save your game and also transform into the almighty Freedan.
Freedan’s reach allows him to access places Will cannot.
Another giant leap of faith!
Mudpit creatures try to smother you in a mud bath. Many traps lie in waiting to befall explorers, but luckily Freedan is no ordinary man.
Freedan is bigger and stronger than Will — transforming keeps the game feel fresh and exciting. Now that both Inca Statues have been placed, it’s time for the big boss fight.
Castoth is a mean nasty demon.
There’s nowhere to hide or run. Good luck!
Like so many (action) RPGs of the era, Illusion of Gaia came packaged with some neat bonuses. This includes a world map, an extended manual that served as a player’s hint guide and an enemy map. It was this attention to detail that made games of the genre so cool back in the day.
CHINK IN THE ARMOR
Far from a perfect game, there are a few imperfections to take note of. For starters, fans of Soul Blazer will surely miss the ability to lock and strafe. Also, those expecting an open world kind of action adventure in the same vein as The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past may be slightly disappointed. Moving on the overhead world map is automatic and you go from destination to destination. This does cut down on the fluff and travel time, but it also makes Illusion of Gaia a rather linear game.
Finally, don’t expect a very long game. It lasts about 15 hours which is plenty long enough but it does seem to fly by pretty fast. I suppose one could argue it’s better to leave the audience wanting more as opposed to player fatigue. And this one definitely left me wanting more. So this can be viewed both ways.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAID
Interestingly enough, despite both EGM and GameFan previewing the game and hyping it up, neither publication ever reviewed it. It stands as probably the highest profile SNES game (especially of 1994) to never be reviewed by either EGM or GameFan. Pretty shocking to say the least. Illusion of Gaia is well received in retro gaming circles. Some prefer it over Soul Blazer, as do I. It’s not quite as awesome as Quintet’s spiritual follow-up, Terranigma, but few games are. Super Play rated it 88%.
I hold Illusion of Gaia in fond reverence. While it isn’t the greatest SNES game ever, there’s something mystifying about it that left a lasting impression. There’s sort of a beautiful melancholy to it all. You really feel like you’re on some grand adventure saving the world and growing with your friends as you go. The game also hits on some surprisingly mature themes, such as the idea of sacrificing oneself for the greater good. In fact, it even reminds me a bit of EarthBound in that sense (although Illusion of Gaia came out almost a year earlier in Japan). And whenever a game can remind me of Earthbound, that’s a damn good thing!
One reason I prefer Illusion of Gaia over Soul Blazer is the main protagonist, Will. Contrast this to Soul Blazer, where you control a generic and nameless warrior. It leaves you feeling a bit disconnected. But with Illusion of Gaia, you’re controlling a normal boy (not counting the psychic powers mind you) with normal friends in a normal town. You almost feel like you could have grown up in a similar town with similar friends. The ability to switch between Will and two fierce warriors is well implemented and adds variety to the game, mixing the humanity with the extraordinary. It’s a combination that works like gangbusters. But ultimately, it was Will and his story arc that I gravitated toward. That raft scene between Will and Kara haunts me to this day – I dare call it one of the best and most memorable moments in 16-bit history. It doesn’t hurt too that the graphics were great for its time. Little details like Will’s hair blowing in the wind and even the sparkly stars adorning the portal to the Dark Space hits the sweet spot. Illusion of Gaia has that classic lush “SNES look” that typified many Super Nintendo games from that era. And the music is some of the finest work ever composed on the SNES! Major props to Yasuhiro Kawasaki.
Another reason why I prefer Illusion of Gaia to Soul Blazer is that it’s way more character driven. The characters are teeming with life — each one has a quirky personality and the group dynamic is fascinating to say the very least. Not everyone gets along and some even bicker. Others fall in love. It sort of paints a picture of real life in some ways, and even though games are meant to be a fun form of escape, it’s always nice in my book when a game incorporates some real life stuff. I sort of feel that Illusion of Gaia has become one of those “lost classics.” It doesn’t seem to come up too often when people discuss the best Super Nintendo games of all time, but it’s one of those games where if someone asks, “Ooh, remember Illusion of Gaia?” Then suddenly it blows up into a huge nostalgia fest. I suppose that’s a testament to how epic the SNES library truly is. And the fact that one can make reasonable connections with this game to Stranger Things in the year 2017 just makes me love this quirky little game that much more.
But I would walk 500 miles.
And I would walk 500 more!