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RANT: Illusion of Gaia was a weird fucking game

Unlike certain unnamed proletariat cowriters of mine, I came from a fucking money neighborhood. I took baths in unhealthy Scrooge McDuck style gold coin baths. I used $50 bills as bookmarks in Hardy Boys adventures. I had a pogo-stick that I used exclusively to move up and down the aisles of one of my closets - a closet devoted exclusively to other pogo-sticks. I had cars, blow, women, and, most importantly, a five dollar weekly allowance.

This massive opulence meant that I could either save up in the hopes of one day purchasing something really important, like a goddamn life, or spend it as quickly as possible in order to satisfy my massive greed for new sensations and psychological validation. I'll give you one guess which path I took.

$5 meant either a new action figure at the KMart or a video game rental for the weekend from the local VIDEO-TO-GO. Once I got my SNES (and, to a much lesser extent, my Sega Genesis), video games were a pretty frequent pickup for me. I was always delighted to find a game like Final Fantasy III (which I now know is actually 6) that would give me dozens of hours of fun provided no one else rented the game ahead of me in the week and overwrote my saves. When this happened, I was forced to branch out and pick games I'd never heard of in the hopes of finding some new, unknown gem. Sometimes I got burned, like that time I rented Quest 64. That was a grim day.

Another time... I rented Illusion of Gaia.

Published by Enix. Hey, remember when Enix was a company?

Illusion of Gaia was an action-adventure-RPG of some kind that felt at some points like a Final Fantasy but at other points more like a Zelda. You play as Will, a young kid with a flute that can use the wind somehow and also he's telekinetic? I think? He's probably the chosen one because he and only he can pass into these dark portals to visit Gaia, this terrifying statue who might be a good guy and wants you to save the earth from a comet that's going to hit it.

Our heroes! ... such as they are. But you only ever control Will. Sort of.


The first thing that stood out as really bizarre while I was playing it was that most of the locations are implied to be the original forms of ancient ruins found within our real world (either in history or legend) like Angkor Wat, the Nazca drawings, and the Tower of Babel. The game eventually lets on that if you complete the game properly, the world is somehow shifted into modern day Earth. This seems like a cool concept - a sort of Antediluvian take on the world, or something, except that it has no bearing whatsoever on the events of the game. The characters and kingdoms that are movers and shakers have nothing to do with the coming danger, or the idea of reshaping the world - they're simply cool places that you happen to travel to as you work your way towards the end of the game.

See those lines? Drawn by aliens. Totally true. Not at all made-up.


The takeaway feels more like the developers honestly just wanted to use those locations in a fantasy game and did so with a one-dimensional explanation. I'm told Illusion of Gaia is somehow the second game in a trilogy of other games, so maybe those tie it together a little better.

Another weird stand-out was their approach to balancing player combat. As I said before, you play a teenaged flutist psychic. Your weapon is seriously your flute - you're expected to just wail on bad guys without taking the time to stop at the grocery to pick up a knife or a cudgel or even an unripe avocado. As you explore the game's different dungeons, you come across undead, demons, and other foul monsters - all of which are pretty tough.

I think I've unconsciously repurposed this guy's design somewhere else in my life, but I can't remember where.


You can get stat improvements by clearing enemies, but that's pretty much a waste of time once Gaia clues you into one of your other powers - the ability to turn into Freedan, a "dark knight" with a real fucking sword whose actual job it is to demolish monsters.

You can tell he's a dark knight by his angry eyebrows.


The game doesn't make clear whether this is a different form of Will, or Will is actually changing places with a knight who has been waiting in the ethers of subspace for his chance to help a young boy save the world, but the fact is that Freedan is way better at literally everything to do with combat than Will. In fact, once you're in a dungeon, there are only two reasons to not play as Freedan. The first is when you're confronted by a puzzle that absolutely requires Will's tele-psychic powers to pull objects around by (surprise surprise) twirling his flute at them.

Except you know what? That's bullshit. I went to look it up after I wrote this and it turns out Freedan is fucking telekinetic too. So that's out. There's only one reason NOT to play as Freedan, and that's Shadow.

Shadow's contract requires that photos only be taken while he's descending from pyramids or, on weekends, from ziggurats.


If Freedan was a badass, Shadow was the badass that beat Freedan's father to death in an arm wrestling contest and then sired Freedan by the light of the spotlight at a Black Flag concert. Shadow is a walking plasma of dark energy. He can pass through walls and beat on demons with his psuedopodial arms of shadow energy.

Not good enough? When you bring Shadow to the last boss fight, he busts out a phoenix attack out of completely nowhere where he THROWS phoenixes at his opponent. I always preferred to think that he was actually retrieving the lost spirit of the phoenix as it collided with its target and forcing it to reincarnate itself in order to be hurled bodily once again at a foe, living for only a few horrifying seconds before repeating the grisly cycle anew.

CAW! CAW!


What possible reason would I ever have to play as Will when I can walk around as Shadow? For that matter, what reason would Will ever have to return to human form? The game forces you to revert to Will when you leave a combat zone. How much of a killjoy must that have been? How do you explain to your friends and loved ones that the second that they turn away, you're going to run headlong into danger so that you can experience the existential thrill of living life as a godlike deity of shadow and astral power? How could any flutist, no matter how talented, stand to return to his normal existence? How could you stand to play an instrument when you could instead be FLYING THROUGH SPACE?

Illusion of Gaia also had a lot of grim moments. One early section features Will and one of his companions dying of starvation after they're cast adrift at sea when their boat crashes. Other rated M for mature moments in this mid-90s SNES RPG included:

- A playable Russian Roulette style poisoned-glass drinking game
- A sentient pet willfully committing suicide by self-immolation to save its owner from being eaten alive
- Vampires who, as if they're not evil enough, tie a 12 year old boy to a gigantic ACME Industries bomb
- Demons who kill another child's parents and then impersonate those parents as they wait for the child to return home from time abroad
- An assassin hired to stalk and kill a princess and her friends ... by her own psychotic, power-mad parents

There's also, like plenty of other half-well translated RPGs, shit that doesn't make any sense, but the weirdest business at all in the game was a feature.

As I mentioned before, you can travel into "Dark Space" to meet with Gaia and talk about what you need to do next to further your quest. You can transform into Freedan or Shadow here, gain new powers, and save your game.

spaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaace.


Whenever you save your game, Gaia gives you the option to "Return to your journey?", and if you pick yes, then the game continues as normal. If you pick "No," then she tells you that you can rest here for a while. Then she teleports you away to location unknown and your game is over. There is no input that will return you to this world or the real world. Neither is there any prompt or automatic load of the main menu screen. You've just gone through the trouble of ending the game while still staying in the game.

This felt like a bug more than anything - or maybe an extended sequence that I would just need to wait through. But I left my machine on for hours when this happened, and it never reverts or gives you the chance to revert. It plays a different song and stays on the starscape screen, and that is it. Where does Gaia send you, anyway? You're already in a secret pocket dimension. Is there some hidden inner dimension with a cozy bed in it? Or did she scatter your molecules into the stars and call that "resting"?

Odds are good that I will never find out.

Oh well. Let's stare wistfully into the distance.


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