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11/26/2016

Illusion of Gaia in a Nutshell

Quintet is an odd case for RPG fans; they made a big splash in the early days of the Super Nintendo, continued to make several highly acclaimed games until the Playstation era came around, and then they unceremoniously fell off the map and were all but forgotten, only releasing a handful of low-profile Japanese exclusive Playstation games in the following years before disappearing completely.  I believe that mostly comes down to the commercial failure of Terranigma, a game they obviously put much time, effort and money into, hoping to rival the giants in the RPG genre like Chrono Trigger.  And while they succeeded in that venture for the most part, things went awry when their long-time publisher Enix closed their North American branch, and Nintendo passed on publishing the game in North America, only giving it a limited release in a handful of European countries.  With its exposure drastically limited, the game sold well under expectations and ultimately set the company on a downward slope.

But while Terranigma has slowly gained recongition over the years as a cult classic SNES game and a forgotten gem of the RPG genre, my favorite game of Quintet's all-too-short career has to be one of their earlier efforts, Illusion of Gaia.  Released in 1994 to relatively strong reception, Illusion of Gaia brought forth many of the usual Quintet trademarks - dark storytelling, a foreboding atmosphere, and surprisingly well-written characters atop competent action-RPG gameplay.  But what sets it apart in my book is the sheer strength of its writing; not just a grim tale set in a world devastated by evil, it also tells an unforgettable narrative of friendship and love throughout.  Not terribly surprising as it had contributing talent from Moto Hagio and Mariko Ohara, two names relatively unknown in the west but well regarded in Japan for their stories that combine elements of shojo and science fiction.  Their talents certainly shine through here as well, delivering a game that is as thematically beautiful as it is to look at and listen to.

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The game opens in South Cape, with our protagonist Will attending church school.  He narrates that he went on a journey with his father Olman a year ago that ended in disaster, with his father apparently dying and himself barely managing to escape back to South Cape.  Now living with his grandparents, he seeks to return to Babel and find his father; not the easiest thing to convince his grandparents of, though, as the world outside is now populated by demons.

Atop the roof, we also find an area called a Dark Space, which serves as the game's save point.  We also speak to an entity named Gaia here, who mentions will being the "Chosen One" but does not elaborate further.

Joining his friends Seth, Erik and Lance in the seaside cave afterward, we also learn that Will's encounter at the tower has left him with some unique abilities; he has extra-sensory perception to a degree (being able to pick a face-down Ace of Diamonds and communicate with spirits) as well as pull objects toward himself with telekinesis.  They also speak of the princess of Edward Castle running away and coming to South Cape.

This turns out to be true, as when you return home you find her pet pig Hamlet (har har) trashing the living room.  She comes downstairs, speaking to Will briefly about his father before quickly being found by the royal guard and dragged home.  However, she does mention something about knowing Will from "somewhere", though she can't recall exactly where.

The next day, a letter arrives from the castle, telling Will to bring him the Crystal Ring from Olman's possessions.  As neither he nor his grandparents know of any ring, though, he simply goes to the castle empty-handed.  Kara mentions that her parents have changed recently, even hiring a dangerous mercenary in pursuit of some cruel end.  She begs Will to help her escape again, but before he can, he's thrown out of her room.

Talking to the king and revealing that he doesn't have the ring in question results in Will being thrown in the dungeon for his "insolence" and guards being sent to his house to acquire it.  After spending a day in the cell, Will's father begins talking to him thorugh his flute, asking Will to find the Mystic Statues from the world's ruins and save him.  Not long thereafter, Hamlet shows up with the key to the cell, allowing Will to make his escape through the viaduct.

This turns out to be our first dungeon, which introduces many of the game's mechanics.  Like most RPGs, Illusion of Gaia has a leveling system of sorts - defeating all the enemies in a given screen will give him one of three types of powerups - more health, stronger defense or stronger attack.  Unusually for an RPG, however, there is also a lives system in place - collecting the silver crystals dropped by enemies will fill up a counter at the top of the screen, with 100 crystals giving the player another life.  Dying with an extra life in tow will restart the player at the beginning of the current room, while dying without one will simply send them back to the last save point.  It ultimately doesn't make a huge difference on how the game plays out, but it is an interesting twist.

We're also first introduced to another of Will's powers.  Namely, by entering the Dark Spaces present throughout the dungeons, he can shapeshift to other forms.  The first we see (and the last we'll get for a very large portion of the game) is the dark knight Freedan, a towering giant of a man who wields a broadsword and can launch fireballs.  He proves to be substantially stronger than Will's basic form, but also lacks his agility, so he cannot fit into some areas.

Throughout the dungeon, we also catch sight of what appears to be a floating dandelion seed, which instructs us on how to get through some of the puzzles.  At the end of the dungeon it's revealed to be a young girl named Lilly, resident of a town called Itory Village where everyone has similar powers to her own.  She was sent here by Will's grandparents to rescue us.  Nifty.

Lilly goes on ahead while we make our way back through the castle under cover of night.  Kara comes with us, but insists we take some food along for the journey.  So we go to the basement to retrieve...

Spoony: Probably this game's most well-known line, and a meme on par with Final Fantasy Tactics' L-I-T-T-L-E--M-O-N-E-Y!

Nah.  But I quote, "A large, yummy roast leg of yak!".  Complete with triumphant music as it spells it out letter by letter.

Anyway, we return to Will's house to find the place ransacked, with a prominent calling card left behind: that of the Jackal, the mercenary hired by the queen.  However, Lilly shows up again, saying that Will's grandparents have taken refuge at her village.  So we head there next and indeed find them safe and sound.  We get a few clues about our next destination as well, as there is much talk of the Inca civilization and a "messenger" that acted as a harbinger of famine and disease that swept across the world.

The Dark Space here holds another ability for Will; namely, the "Psycho Dash", which allows the player to smash through weak walls.  This ends up being an important element of the game, on par with Zelda's bombs, in that it is necessary to uncover numerous secret passages and hidden items.  However, the visual cue for where it can be activated is a bit more subtle; no cracked walls here, instead you simply see Will's hair blow around, which only happens when he stands still.

Spoony: As you can imagine, I got stuck quite a bit with this as an impatient child!

Anyhow, using that power, we make a run down a slope, do an enormous flying leap and land on the other side, where a cave awaits.  Smashing down the wall reveals the first of the six statues Olman mentioned.  Our next lead points us to the Larai Cliff, where a hidden golden ship awaits.

Spoony: No relation to the Golden Warpship.  OBSCURITY BONUS!

There's also a bit of exposition about a child wielding the "Dark Power" who will save the world (that's us) and a Moon Tribe atop a mountain nearby.  So that's where Will and Lilly set off to next.

The Moon Tribe, reduced to a collection of disembodied spirits, tell us about a Dark Comet that crossed the earth, with its light turning creatures into beasts and them into their current forms.  In fact, it was the Dark Comet that wiped out many of Earth's ancient civilizations and is responsible for the monsters that have appeared.

Spoony: Yeah, this whole thing is set on a fictionalized version of Earth.  But still, that's a little silly.

Anyhow, we make our way to the Incan runs and solve a few more puzzles, learning that as they had no written language, they left their legacy in song.  So we end up having to play a few songs at specific spots in order to make our way through.

Spoony: Which would later become the basis of about 40% of Ocarina of Time's gameplay.  BA-ZING!

We also do battle with our first boss here, an enormous demonic creature that emerges from the floor and pelts you with eye lasers and flaming diamonds.  He provides a decent challenge, at least until you figure out he can't actually turn his head and that most of his attacks can't reach you from the back of the room.  So much for that!

Leaping down the pit the monster came from, we land on the golden ship in question, which immediately sets sail.  The Incans are aboard and mistake Will for their king.  Pretty strange stuff, but at least we find another of the Mystic Statues.

Will falls asleep at their beckoning, waking up to reveal that it was all a hallucination; the ship does indeed exist, but it's in a very weathered and decayed state (and all the people you'd talked to are, in fact, dead and decayed).  Kara and Will's friends from South Cape are also here, having followed him through the ruins.  Kara gets obsessed with a ring on the dead queen's finger and makes a grab for it (despite Lilly's protests), but disaster soon strikes when Riverson attacks the ship, knocking Seth overboard and swallowing him whole.  Riverson continues to attack the ship, smashing it to pieces.

Will and Kara barely manage to escape, being left adrift on the ocean on a makeshift raft.  For several weeks they sail aimlessly, talking about their lives and Kara getting over some of her general brattiness as the two develop feelings for one another.

Spoony: And unlike most RPGs of the period, it doesn't feel stilted!  There's a bit of actual human drama to this scene that actually works quite well and makes it all the more believable.  You can probably put that down to the fact that two renowned shojo artists worked on the game, but nevertheless, it does make quite a difference in making this scene more impactful.  Compare the character interaction here to something like, say, Final Fantasy IV's.  Quite a difference!

After a full three weeks adrift, Will becomes sickly and soon passes out.  Luckily they aren't far from shore by that time, and are quickly found by a doctor and brought in for treatment.  After Will makes a recovery from his case of scurvy, they then set off for the nearby town of Freejia in search of their friends.

Freejia turns out to be a pretty gorgeous location, but with a darker side as well; namely it's a hub of the slave trade.  We soon reunite with Lilly and Lance, the latter of whom has amnesia.  Erik arrived with them as well, but has been missing for a while.  I'm sure you can guess what comes next!

Spoony: And ironically enough, while you rescue him from the slavers, completing the game's overarching sidequest requires you to sell out an escaped slave in exchange for one of the game's fifty Red Jewels.  Which is a bit unheroic!

Erik tells us about a local mine the slavers use for their illicit ends, so we set out there to free them.  In the process we gain a new ability for Freedan - the Dark Friar (a fireball attack, har har) and a song called the "Memory Melody."  Which turns out to be just what we need to cure Lance.

In the scene that follows, the name Neil comes up; he's an inventor who lives nearby and also happens to be Will's cousin.  Despite his oddness, he has come up with quite a few interesting things; the telescope, an oxygen tank, a camera and even an airplane.  Will tells him about his journey to rescue his father, which causes him to lead the party to the Nazca lines.

The group visits the condor line, and soon figures out that the stones placed across it are in the positions of the constellation of Cygnus.  One is out of place, however, which corresponds to the location of the Dark Comet in the sky.  Examining the tenth stone teleports Will to the next dungeon, the Sky Garden.  Easily the longest dungeon so far, but also one of the coolest, as it requires you to jump off ledges to reach the underside of the structure, where a whole new section of the dungeon awaits.  Your ultimate goal here is to collect all four crystal balls and place them in slots near the entrance, granting you access to the boss.

Defeating the boss (a winged statue named Viper) grants you another of the Mystic Statues, but also causes the Sky Garden to lose its power and begin falling to the ground.  At Neil's beckoning you leap off the edge, landing atop his plane and being carried away to safety.  They immediately set off for the lost continent of Mu in search of the next statue, but the plane encounters some trouble along the way and the party barely escapes a crash landing.

Will ends up alone in the ocean palace; his friends are here too, but wander the halls in a ghostly form oblivious to his presence.  Lilly is the only one unaffected, accompanying Will as he ventures into the next dungeon.

Spoony: The one where I would always get lost as a kid, as it's very large and samey-looking!

It's actually a bit similar to Ocarina of Time's Water Temple, as you need to place statues in specific rooms in order to lower the water level so you can open new pathways.  Along the way you learn that the antagonists here are a pair of vampires, who have the souls of our friends (and many others).  Eventually you recover the third statue, as well as an artifact called the Purification Stone, used to purify a fountain that serves as a source of monsters.  At the end we confront the two vampires, who have Erik strapped to a bomb.

This also proves to be a pretty challenging boss fight, as the two of them move around the room quite quickly and launch fireballs in four directions each time they stop, which can be quite difficult to avoid as the paths here are very narrow.  Being on a time limit doesn't help either, but there is a trick: you can make the fight significantly easier if you're in Freedan form, though that requires you to backtrack a pretty substantial portion of the dungeon to change back to him.

Amusingly, the countdown on the bomb only matters during the fight itself; if the time hits zero while you're fighting the vampires, Will dies.  However, if the timer runs down after the fight ends, the bomb ends up being a dud.  If you examine the bomb after the fight, you're given a choice of two wires to cut, but regardless of which you pick, the bomb is defused and Erik is saved.  Chalk up another one for Will's ESP, I guess.

The only way out of Mu is a lengthy underwater tunnel dug by Mu's former inhabitants.  Which the party spends some two weeks walking down (yeesh) before another strange scene occurs.

Seth is still alive, having taken on the form of Riverson after being eaten by him.  He signals to the party in morse code, lamenting that he can't continue on with them in his current form, but wishing them luck in their journey.

After another two weeks in the tunnel, the party finally emerges upon another continent, near a place called the Angel Village.  It turns out to be a pretty depressing place; the angels in question are revealed to have no emotions, and are unable to leave their caverns, as exposure to sunlight will cause their deaths.  Only one among them seems to have any emotions; a painter named Ishtar, who was apparently taken in by Kara's beauty.

A little too much, in fact, as he's trapped her within a magical painting, intending to preserve her beauty forever (and himself along with her).  Still, he does give Will a chance to get her back; after solving a few puzzles, Will gets the magic powder from Ishtar, allowing him to free Kara from her prison.

The group then ventures to Watermia, a town built upon rafts floating upon the sea.  Lance's father also lives here, though like everyone else who left on Olman's expedition, he's not in the best of shape; he's been left with amnesia and a case of dementia on top.  Ouch.

The party then celebrates Lilly's birthday, with Lance confessing that he's fallen in love with her, causing her to flee the town in a panic.  Ouch again!

The next day, Lance has also disappeared, leaving a note behind saying that he's gone to the Great Wall of China in search of a cure to his father's illness.  Will decides to follow him there, encountering Lilly after he enters, who accompanies him throughout.

The Great Wall is another dungeon, of course, though it's considerably easier to navigate than the previous one.  You also get a new move in Will's Spin Dash, which lets him spin around like a tornado in order build up speed and clear ramps.  Used properly it can also devastate enemies in very short order, though it's risky to use it that way because there's no invincibility while you're spinning!

We beat the boss (Sand Fanger) and recover another statue before we come to Lance, who has found the cure he's looking for.  Lilly and Lance then have a scene, revealing that Lilly has fallen for him as well.  Cute.

Our next stop is the town of Euro across the western desert, but it's a journey we cannot survive without the aid of local animals called Kruks.  But we have no money to buy them, so what are we to do?

Spoony: Since it's a Quintet game, you know it's going to be something brutal!

Sure enough, it is. We enter a shady underground gambling ring and play a game called Russian Glass.  Like Russian Roulette, but instead of a gun, you're drinking glasses of wine that have a chance of being laced with deadly poison.  Once again, Will's ESP gives him the edge, allowing him to survive the game.  His opponent is not very graceful in defeat, though, grabbing the remaining glass and downing it in one shot, dying immediately.

Spoony: Told ya!

There is a small silver lining, however.  You receive a letter written by the guy the next day, saying that he was already diagnosed with a terminal illness and only took part in the games to raise money for his family.  He also leaves you some of his estate in his will, giving you four kruks to cross the desert with.  As Lance and Lilly decide to stay behind to look after Lance's father and begin their life together, that leaves enough for Neil, Kara, Will and Erik to continue on.

Euro is the home of Neil's family, who want him to take over their company, an enormous conglomerate that deals in everything from goods to slaves.  While he debates that decision, we get another lead pointing us to Mt. Kress.  A very nature-themed dungeon made entirely of giant mushrooms and vines.

Spoony: And another place I got lost a lot as a kid, because it is also very samey-looking.  It's not too bad now that I've become accustomed to RPGs a bit more, but I do remember getting lost here for hours and hours in my youth.

The end goal here is a magical teapot, said to be able to expose evil.  So w etake it back to Rolek headquarters and use it on Neil's parents, who turn out to be a pair of malevolent spirits responsible for Rolek's shady dealings.  Ookey dokey then!

Despite all of this, Neil decides to take over the Rolek company and undo the harm they've caused.  Erik, Will and Kara decide to venture to An(g)kor Wat next in search of another statue.  On the way they come to a seemingly abandoned village, but this ends up being a trap - they are captured by a group of starving natives, who intend to cook them alive.  However, Hamlet arrives on the scene, throwing himself into the fire to save the party's lives in another pretty shocking scene.

Spoony: Which quickly takes a turn for the weird as the spirit of Will's mother emerges from Hamlet's body, telling them to continue on their journey and stop the Dark Comet.  It doesn't undermine the drama, but still, this always felt a bit out-of-place to me...

Another dungeon soon awaits in An(g)kor Wat, a dungeon divided between several outdoor and indoor areas.  At the end lies a spirit, who shows Will a vision of the future that should be before the Dark Comet sent everything awry.  It turns out to be a very modern-looking Earth, panning over a modern-looking city.  Will seems taken aback by this at first, but the spirit assures him that even in a world of concrete and steel, people can be happy.   He is also granted the Gorgon Flower, allowing him to restore the wildlife and the natives' elders to normal from their stony forms.

We're then pointed to the village of Dao, said to be another hub of the slave traders.  Neil is here as well, tending to his business and attempting to remove all traces of the labor trade from Rolek's dealings, and he suggests you visit the Great Pyramids next.  So away we go!

This is another relatively complex dungeon, as it requires the player to activate several elevators to raise and lower portions of the layout so that they can continue forward.  More interestingly, though, it also allows the player to access Will's third and final form: that of the Shadow.  A creature seemingly made of blue plasma that constantly burns.  His malleable shape also gives him extreme reach with his attacks and the ability to melt through the floor to access new areas, both of which prove extremely helpful here.

Your ultimate goal in the period is to recover six lithographs and set them in order in the central chamber.  No sooner than you accomplish that, the Jackal arrives, taking Kara as his hostage.  He attempts to blackmail you into returning to Edward Castle, but Will gets another psychic message instructing him to play his flute; as he does so, flames shoot out of the wall and engulf Jackal, burning him alive in another pretty gruesome scene for an SNES title.

Spoony: Not to mention more than a little disturbing, as he continues to crawl toward you even as the flames engulf his body before he finally has no strength left and perishes...

The boss of the pyramids awaits shortly thereafter; she's only identified as the Mummy Queen, but it's pretty clear that she's modeled on Cleopatra.  She also proves to be a pretty challenging fight, bombarding you with evil spirits while only being momentarily vulnerable herself.  Timed teleports and desolidifying as Shadow help to avoid some of her attacks, but it's also possible that you can dodge one attack with this strategy only to reappear and get clipped by another one, so it's a somewhat risky strategy.  In any case, defeating her earns you the fifth statue and causes Will and Kara to return to Dao.

In Dao, Neil has built another plane, preparing to fly Will to his final destination: the Tower of Babel where it all began.  They take to the skies and Will parachutes out over the tower, but another parachute soon follows him...

Will wanders in a bit, coming to a barrier that he seemingly can't cross.  When he touches it he is flung back, shaking loose a ring from within his flute.  It turns out this was the Crystal Ring the king sought, and wearing it allows him to pass through the barrier.  Kara comes thorugh shortly thereafter, revealing that she was the second one who leapt from the plane, and apparently was able to pass through the barrier because she had a ring of her own.  The one she swiped off the dead Incan queen.

Spoony: Bet you forgot about that plot point by now!

Fighting their way up the tower (and rematching all of the bosses in the game along the way), they soon come to the sixth and final Mystic Statue.  As well as the spirits of their friends and family, who speak of the comet and the dark ends humanity has used its powers for.  The comet approaches Earth once again, and only through the combined abilities of the Light and Dark can it be defeated.  Will, Kara and the Mystic Statues all merge together, unlocking Shadow's ultimate power as they fly into space and confront the comet itself.  The comet takes on the form of Dark Gaia (a recurring antagonist in Quintet's games, analogous to the devil) and attacks.

All this amounts to in practice is that Shadow can now launch fireballs with each attack.  Still, this allows him to attack both of Dark Gaia's forms from a safe position, rendering the last battle of the game pretty easy overall.

With Dark Gaia's destruction, the world begins to take shape as it was intended, with the continets merging together and the future Will witnessed beginning to take hold on its surface.  Olman tells them that they've succeeded and that humanity is back on its intended path, but there is a downside: they too will be reborn in this new world, having no memory of their time together.  Will and Kara swear they will find one another again, even if it takes a millennia, and fly back to earth to take part in the planet's rebirth.

Spoony: It's a simple scene, but the sheer gravity of it gets me to tear up every single time.  I'm not even kidding, either.  You've come to care about these characters over the course of this long adventure, so to see it all end like this is a pretty harsh blow.  But then, Quintet was never one to pull punches when it came to the emotional impact of their games.

There is a bit of a silver lining, though, as we see Will taking part in his new life in a modern-looking school.  As he prepares to leave, we see Lance, Erik and Seth run toward him, followed shortly thereafter by Kara walking into the frame.  As soon as Will catches sight of her, though, the scene abruptly freeze-frames and the words "The End" appear on-screen.

Spoony: And there's your requisite ambiguous Quintet ending.  Do Will and Kara remember one another?  Do any of them remember the journey they had?  Are they all fated to repeat this cycle for eternity?  Never definitively answered!

But in all seriousness, Illusion of Gaia is a forgotten classic in the action-RPG genre.  It may not have Zelda's level of polish or the grandiose, movie-like feel of many RPGs of the mid-to-late '90s, but I think its humility is an asset.  It's a tale of a group of friends embarking on a world-spanning adventure, enduring tragedy, finding love, saving humanity and coming out at the end triumphant... but as in many Quintet games, their feats are fated to be forgotten, even by themselves.  Still, the strong characters, brilliant soundtrack and surprisingly heartfelt writing make it an unforgettable experience, and Quintet's hallmark of not pulling punches with their tragic themes only makes the experience all the more compelling.  Illusion of Gaia itself also embodies the role of the tragic hero in a way - it broke ground in many new ways, but is all but forgotten by most modern gamers in spite of this.  For all these reasons and more, it remains one of my favorite games of all time, and I heartily recommend it to anyone who can track down a copy.