Retro Review: Illusion of Gaia

I DID IT! I can’t believe I did it, but I did! I finally beat Illusion of Gaia after 25 years. I wonder if that’s a world record for longest time to complete a game.

Of course, about 24 of those years were spent not playing Illusion of Gaia, and probably 20 years were spent not thinking about the game at all. You might be asking yourself why I spent five years thinking about a game I wasn’t actually playing, and there’s a simple reason for that. When asked my favorite SNES games, I list all the standards: Link to the Past, Secret of Mana, Super Mario World, and Super Metroid. But, there in my list, I usually include Illusion of Gaia.

This review is part of my ongoing effort to catalog my collection and make it through some of my decades-old backlog. See my SNES games and why it’s still my favorite console here: My Collection – SNES.

Illusion of Gaia is an action RPG developed by Quintet and released in North America in 1994. When I was a kid, I felt like Illusion of Gaia didn’t get the appreciation it deserved. After playing it again, as an adult, I can say that with certainty. If you slept on this game, you need to try it now. You can grab a copy online for less than $20 these days. And if you are planning to do that, I’d urge you to stop reading now because, as with all of my reviews of decades-old games, this will contain SPOILERS.

Illusion of Gaia feels like Link to the Past and Secret of Mana had a baby, and then let it spend too much time with a kooky uncle who fed it a diet steady diet of conspiracy theories.

The opening scene sets the stage: it is the Age of Exploration. There are old boats with sails and cobblestone streets. The old-style garb and rustic villages reinforce the kind of medieval setting. You play as Will, the only survivor of an expedition lead by your father into the Tower of Babel. You have amnesia about the event, but somehow you made it home to South Cape and your mom. (Later in the game, you learn a song that restores memories, called the Memory Melody… but it does nothing for you, so how effective is it really?).

The game opens in a classroom, populated by you, a monk/teacher, and your friends. After exiting church/school, a door appears out of nowhere and walking through teleports you to another dimension. You’re greeted by a giant stone face that says: “I am Gaia. The source of all life. I will help you on your journey.” It doesn’t bother you. You save the game and leave as if this was a normal daily occurrence.

Next, you head to an abandoned mine down at the docks where you and your friends hang out. You don’t mention the odd door and talking statue you just met, but you let your friend ramble on about a princess escaping a castle (Yeah!! In this game, princesses escape their own castles! That is, until she gets taken back and you have to go save her…… darn it, so close).

While hanging out with your friends, you learn that demons are appearing outside of your town. You spin a flute you’ve been carrying with you to move a statue, which ends up being a pretty big mechanic in the game (used for pulling Dark Power [DP] that enemies drop to you, moving statues to complete puzzles, etc.). Later, the princess shows up at your house, you eat snail pie with your grandfather, and your dead dad talks to you through the flute. Then you find you can transform into a grown man named Freedan who is slightly taller and stronger than you. You know, normal stuff.

I will say this over and over, but Illusion of Gaia is a really weird game. Really, really weird.

What I really liked as a kid were the real-world locations imaged in game, such as:
Nazca Lines
Great Wall of China
Angkor Wat (Ankor Wat, in game)
Tower of Babel

The locations sometimes inspire their associated dungeons. For example, at the Nazca Lines, a Sky Garden castle (which operates in zero G.) drops from the sky. The mechanic of jumping to the back of the castle will make all the flat-earth fans happy, since I imagine that’s how they picture the world. But even if you don’t ascribe to flat earth theories, you’ll probably enjoy it too. And the boss of the castle is a Flying Bird Statue, so that’s pretty on-theme. For the most part though, the enemies are random and weird (a chain of balls, a robot that shoots its hands at you, orbs that shoot blue lines). The boss of the Pyramids location is a Mummy Queen. Makes sense. The boss of the Mu (a lost continent) is a pair of vampires, okaaaaaaaaaay.

Many players think the vampire brothers were the toughest in the game but my vote goes to the Mummy Queen since I was stuck there for 25 years.

There is also a scene on a boat that really messed me up as a kid, and it still got to me this time even though I knew it was coming. Once thing this game does well is playing with time (more spoilers coming up). In fact, in Japan, the game is called Illusion of Time.

After the boat scene, you end up stuck on a piece of wood with the princess, Kara, ala the end of Titanic but with room for two this time. They spend the next 21 days floating and falling in love. I guess when there’s nothing else to do, why not?

The game takes on some big issues. There are child slaves and if you want to collect all of the gems in the game (really the only side quest there is), you have to sell one of them out. Feels bad. And in my game, I found 48/50 red jewels, which is a bummer since I can’t go back and get the ones I missed. There is also an odd juxtaposition of the Native Village and Euro City (oof). The highly developed Euro City is teeming with white NPC sprites. And then you and your friends are kidnapped by “natives” who want to eat you… I’m going to say that this is an astute commentary on European colonization and the devastating impact on native persons. But, I’m not so sure.

While you’re in Ankor Wat, you are given a glimpse of the new world, a gray city with no blue water or green grass. Trees replaced by buildings, rivers replaced by roads. Maybe if 10-year-old me had paid attention, this would’ve been a hint at the ending of the game, but I didn’t get it. And for the last 25 years, I assumed this game was set in the past. Big spoiler coming: You’re not. The game is set in the modern day, and you are somehow in the past to fight an evil comet that is coming to, um, do bad things, and, um, create camels??

When you defeat the comet, the game map moves in a scientifically inaccurate interpretation of Pangea and then comes the big twist: [spoiler warning] This was present-day Earth all along. What? Why? How? My mind = blown. The game gives you 5 seconds to process and then roll credits.

Things to keep in mind for your play through

At the start of the game, there is a lot of dialogue and it’s weird. It’s weird because of translation errors and it’s weird because it’s just a weird game. You also can’t skip it or really even speed it up. Stick with it. Once you get through the slow start, it picks up. The dialogue never gets less odd and stilted but it becomes part of the fun.

There are a finite number of healing items that you can find or receive by trading in the Red Gem you find. There are no stores. Once you use those items, they are gone. And in the save I started with, 10-year-old me had used all of them… thanks, kid.

Traveling in game is awful. This is not an open world game, it’s got a big map, but it’s very linear. If you missed a red gem, there is no going back for it. Music: Some people complain about the repetitious, chirpy little flute tune that you get to listen to FOREVER. But I’ve been listening to Baby Shark for a year straight now, so I found the soundtrack of this game really enjoyable.    You save your game in the mysterious doors with the giant talking statue head. In some levels, they are frequent, but in others they aren’t, which means this is a hard game for gamer moms to play, especially if your littles still cause lots of interruptions.

My final impressions of Illusion of Gaia

You can survive on a raft for 21 days by eating raw fish and drinking, I assume, urine.

Who doesn’t love a game that makes you wait in line?

Illusion of Gaia is a really weird game, but I also understand why I loved it so much as a kid. There’s a fairly heavy puzzle-focus in the dungeons, and there are some legitimately good puzzles. The NPCs are interesting, and I cared about their storylines.

Also, in doing my research, I also stumbled upon this great review, which looks at the themes in Illusion of Gaia as if it was a high school book report. I loved reading it, and it’s clear this is another person who truly appreciates this odd little game.

In parting, I will leave you with the immortal final lines of the game: “Please be careful crossing the street. We have had a lot of traffic accidents lately.”

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