It’s been a long, winding road to Quintet’s Illusion of Gaia. I covered Terranigma, the third entry in the late lamented studio’s so-called Gaia trilogy more than three years ago now and the first, Soul Blazer, last year. Perhaps I’ve been neglecting the saga’s middle entry simply because it’s the one I played the most back around the time of its initial release? In any case, I hope you enjoy the final chapter in my look at three of the most unique and compelling games of their kind.
“Gaia trilogy” is the unofficial name given by fans to three loosely related Super Nintendo action RPGs published between 1992 and 1995. While each has its own mechanics, setting, and cast of characters, they all share certain overarching preoccupations. The heroes are framed as the latest intermediaries in an endless war between twin deities of light and darkness. Their journeys often take them to fictionalized versions of real locations. Solemn rumination on human mortality is a recurring theme, as is the notion of reviving a dead or dying planet. As you can tell from this brief description alone, these are hardly your everyday swashbuckling fantasy romps. Players who encountered any of them during their formative years tend to recall the experience vividly and with reverence.
Illusion of Gaia (or Illusion of Time, as it’s known outside North America) is the story of a teenager named Will, whose father vanished on an expedition to the mysterious Tower of Babel. Will was also present on that expedition, but developed both amnesia and uncanny psychic powers in its wake. As if all that wasn’t enough, he soon stumbles into a trippy parallel dimension and is told by a being known as Gaia that he needs to somehow stop an oncoming comet before it devastates the Earth. The kid has a lot on his plate, in other words. And no, this isn’t one of those cases where I named the lead character in an RPG after myself. He’s actually called Will. I remember finding that pretty neat in 1994.
Tagging along is a sizable group that includes a few of Will’s schoolmates, local spoiled princess/love interest Kara, Kara’s pet pig Hamlet, and more. This motley crew doesn’t constitute an adventuring party in the typical RPG sense. None of them are playable. They’re just there to contribute to the ongoing drama and offer commentary on the many weird situations you encounter.
As mentioned, Will’s odyssey unfolds across a fantastical interpretation of the real world. It’s tough to pin down exactly what time period is being represented here. As Christopher Columbus is mentioned in dialog and one of the characters is an inventor responsible for devising an airplane, it reads as if the 16-19th centuries were heavily idealized and then compressed into a single moment. In addition, there’s a rather quaint ancient mysteries angle baked into most of the dungeon areas that recalls the ’70s heyday of Erich von Däniken’s “Chariots of the Gods?” and Leonard Nimoy’s “In Search Of….” You know, back when anything relating to the Egyptians, Inca, Maya, etc, was fodder for spooky hokum, usually with some combination of Atlantis, Lemuria, and Mu thrown in for good measure.
Plumbing the depths of all these monster-filled ruins is handled from the traditional overhead view, with Will dashing about solving simple puzzles and vanquishing the opposition with his weapon of choice, a flute. Yes, a flute, albeit a magic one he acquired on his forgotten first visit to the Tower of Babel. Imagine the inventory space Link could save if he ditched his sword and starting pummeling octoroks with his ocarina!
For those tough boss fights where woodwind instruments won’t cut it, Gaia provides Will with the ability to assume two alternate forms: Freedan the sword-wielding knight and Shadow the glowing liquid alien dude. Both their attacks have considerably better reach and damage potential than Will’s, so you’ll probably want to play as them whenever possible. Will’s base form does gain several abilities needed to solve puzzles, however, so using him at least a portion of the time is mandatory. No matter who you’re controlling, the action here is fast, smooth, and generally high quality. Like Soul Blazer and Terranigma, it’s easy to pick up and hard to put down.
The RPG bits in Illusion of Gaia have been pared down to the barest of essentials. There’s no currency, no experience points, no magic system, no weapons or armor to equip, and only one rare consumable healing item. Instead of conventional leveling, we have a system where defeating every enemy in a dungeon room will grant an instant, permanent boost to one of Will’s few stats (hit points, attack strength, etc). Apart from receiving the occasional new move directly from Gaia, that’s it. Since the rewards for clearing out each room are set in advance and enemies never respawn, there’s no way to overlevel Will. Nor will he ever be underleveled, unless you make it a point to ignore enemies as part of a challenge run of the game. In terms of mechanics, Illusion is the “lightest” of the trilogy by a wide margin. It won’t please the character optimization junkies among us, but it’s thoroughly unobtrusive. I appreciate the creators’ desire to maintain focus on the adventure itself.
Said adventure is presented with a combination of charming pixel art and thrilling music. The character sprites and animations are a big step up from those seen in Soul Blaze a year prior. Backgrounds are also more detailed, which serves to emphasize the strangeness of the various exotic locales you visit. The music pulls its weight in this regard, too. It’s appropriately eerie when exploring some deserted tomb and suitably bombastic when it’s time to put some baddies to the flute. Composer Yasuhiro Kawasaki seems to have really loved his kettle drum samples. When you hear those suckers start rumbling, you know you’re in for a scrap.
So far, so good. Unfortunately, there are a couple of less glowing factors that likely contributed to my decision to review Illusion of Gaia after its prequel and sequel. Although a well-made action RPG on almost every front, its structure and storytelling don’t grab me the same way Soul Blazer and Terranigma’s do. One of those games’ most memorable aspects was getting to see the world grow and change based on your actions. By contrast, Illusion of Gaia is a purely linear affair. Once you complete an area, you’re typically not allowed to return to it later. On the rare occasion you are, your window in which to do so is limited. This isn’t merely less satisfying on a narrative level, it has profound negative consequences for the game’s sole sidequest. Throughout your playthrough, you’ll constantly stumble across red jewels. Some are found in treasure chests, others are rewards for talking to specific NPCs, and more than a few are invisible, requiring you to interact with nondescript background objects to obtain them. Your reward for finding all fifty is access to an extra dungeon and boss fight. The problem, as you may have already guessed, is that collecting them in one go when you’re prohibited from backtracking is virtually impossible unless you play with a guide by your side and consult it every few minutes. After all, one missed jewel is all it takes to bar you from the bonus dungeon permanently. Fun!
A more severe sticking point for me is the story. It’s tonally disjointed and delivered with all the grace of an Emo Philips routine. A major sub-plot revolves around the slave trade, for example, yet the localization team clearly wasn’t permitted to call it such. The result is a lot of ridiculous talk about “laborers” (in chains?) and their “labor trader” masters. It detracts from the gravity of the material and insults the audience’s intelligence at the same time. Still, it’s at least understandable in a Nintendo-published product. What’s worse is the truly bizarre way the lead character is prone to behaving. If you’ll permit me one solitary spoiler, Will at one point engages in a bout of Russian roulette with a total stranger. There’s literally no reason supplied for this. He isn’t a silent protagonist, so it’s odd that he’d have nothing whatsoever to say about it before, during, or after. Winning conveniently furnishes the group with the means to progress, but not in a way that Will could have conceivably foreseen. The game even has the nerve to twist the knife by emphasizing how the loser was only playing because he was desperate for money to support his pregnant wife. Jesus. What was the thought process writing this? You may say it’s a just silly old video game and I shouldn’t think so deeply about it. Fine. Ask yourself how you’d be inclined to view a book or movie character who did something like this, though.
In the wider context of the SNES library, Illusion of Gaia is well above average. It packs in a ton of great action and atmosphere, along with a few genuinely effective story beats. I recommend it to anyone fond of the genre. That said, it remains the least of the Gaia trilogy in my eyes. While all three have glitz and gameplay chops to spare, Illusion’s siblings both manage to weave their tales in more elegant, cohesive, affecting fashion. About all they skimp on is the sweet flute violence.