Insanity Prevails' Golden Sun Review
Presentation is excellent
Outside world slightly confusing
Hard to replenish PP in battle
The Gameboy Advance system doesn't seem to be running short of RPGs, but Camelot decides to try their hand at this already overflowing genre. Golden Sun is an entirely new series from Nintendo and Camelot and, despite dropping into a sea of games, does more than enough to make itself known and establish itself was a worthy addition to the library of games already available.
Despite the obvious limitations imposed by the system's hardware the visual quality of Golden Sun still manages to be nothing short of excellent. Exploration is down via a top-down perspective, but manages to give environments a high level of depth with excellent use of shading. Colour has also been used appropriately in creating believable areas. Expect the cold lands of Imil to be filled with relatively cold colours like whites and blues. Dank caves tend to be filled more with dull browns and murky blues for the water.
Of course, this doesn't just end at the environments. The character sprites themselves are also excellent. Much attention to detail has been given to individual characters, and not just the main characters either. Even insignificant non player characters, some of whom hardly get a minute screentime, are just as well made as anyone else. It really makes you appreciate the level of work put into it.
Conversations tend to be of the "stick a text box on screen and a portrait". What may seem boring actually works pretty well. Textboxes only appear when needed and much of the game screen can still be seen. The portraits aren't animated but the character sprites you can still see are, and sometimes pull off some very amusing exaggerated animations. Watching Isaac and Garet explain what happened up on the mountain was pretty funny.
In battles the theoretical camera moves closer to the ground and is usually positioned behind your group. Character sprites here are a little more detailed due to the camera being closer and really are closer to resembling the official art from the game. The best thing though is that weapon changes are visually seen, to an extent. The type of weapon a character has equipped will affect what their weapon looks like in battle. It's a nice touch although at the same time slightly disappointing that the literal weapon isn't represented.
The backdrops for the battles aren't quite so detailed and yet are done well enough to make you feel you're actually in some dense forest/dark cave/arena/desert/wherever else. It's nice to see varied backdrops that aren't designed as "one type fits all".
But looking at static imagery isn't half as good as seeing it animated, and Golden Sun wins again. Normal attacks are typically either a jumping attack or a running swipe, with critical hits essentially the same aside from a brief moment before the attack hits where the action freezes, the camera zooms in and a small light show occurs. For basic attacks they look good.
What's better? Seeing the special skills of course. The weapon unleashes have many different visual effects that tend to accompany the normal attack animation and tend to be very impressive. In addition to colourful light shows typically associated with critical hits you also get things like lightning strikes and fiery explosions. These kinds of animations tend to carry over to the psynergy and Djinni unleashes too. Fireball storms, icy shards, barriers. There's such a wide range of abilities and it all looks impressive.
The best is yet to come. The abilities that require the most work are also naturally the ones that look the most impressive. Summoning creatures to unleash powerful attacks upon your foe is a sight to behold. The level 1 summons aren't anymore impressive than psynergy attacks but the higher ones certainly are. Witness an giant girl riding a turtle engulf the field in water or an enemy be caught in a twister and bombard with energy blasts.
All this comes together for one of the GBA's most visually pleasing experiences. With this game demonstrating what is possible it is disappointing that other developers don't do this much. Game Freak, take note. This is what battles are supposed to look like.
A game's audio can contribute just as much to a game's presentation as visuals, and Golden Sun delivers again. The music selection in the game is very impressive, with clever arrangements of rhythm and beats to form the tracks. They also tend to fit the setting quite well. Imil is the home of serene music while the sanctum music has a decidedly more mysterious tone to it.
Battle music is exactly as you'd expect it to be. Often fast paced and frantic to give a sense of urgency to things. Some battles also add a darker tone to it in an effort to convey the seriousness of the situation, and it works extremely well.
Sound effects also work well. The stormy winds of the deserts sound like winds and you can hear the crushing impact of ice shards crash onto the enemy. Also, while GS lacks proper voice acting (due to the system's limits) you do get a series of beeps to mimic talking, and the tone of this depends on who is talking. More excellent work from Camelot.
The game starts you off 3 years prior to the time period most of the game will play out in. Rather than tell you what happened the game is quite happy to let you play out what happened. It's a rather nice touch to experience the backstory rather than just hear about it.
The village of Vale is struck by a terrible storm. Isaac is tasked with escaping the worst of it, along with his friend Garet. However, on their way to the main part of the village they find a fellow villager, Felix, has fallen into the river. They rush to get help but when they return a boulder falls from the mountain peak and smashes into the river. Isaac and Garet run to get more help but are attacked by two mysterious individuals.
After that the story skips three years to the time period the game takes place in. Vale has recovered from the storm and Isaac and Garet have spent much time studying psynergy. Their teacher, Kraden, takes them up into Mount Alph to further their studies. However, Kraden has another reason to go up there. He wants to find what he calls true sanctum. Eventually the group finds it and, after a little puzzle solving, opens the entrance to the elemental stars chamber.
Kraden wants to examine the stars but the path is slippery, so Jenna (another student of Kraden's) suggests Isaac and Garet fetch them. However, when they recover the third star another group appear, and two of them are the ones that attacked them three years ago. They seek the stars and hold Kraden and Jeena hostage to secure them. The three stars are handed over, but when the fourth star is claimed the chamber becomes unstable. The Wise One appears and warps the boys back outside before the chamber collapses.
Isaac and Garet explain the situation to the village elder, at which point the boys are tasked with chasing down the group. It seems they intend to light the four lighthouses and unleash alchemy on the land. So their adventure begins.
Already we're looking at a pretty epic storyline, and yet there is actually much more to this. Any more would spoil things though, but it's a joy when details and twists are revealed.
Character development is also very strong. Isaac is your typical silent protagonist, saying little more than yes or no answers. That said, Isaac's personality tends to come across in how his companions act, as well as those around him. You also have varied allies, like the caring healer with an important duty and a boy with a destiny. Even the supporting cast manage to have back-stories and depth to them.
As with all RPGs Golden Sun is comprised of two main aspects: exploring and combat. Fortunately, Golden Sun manages both extremely well.
Exploration initially appears to be your typical RPG fare. You have a myriad of towns, caves, dungeons and other areas to explore, and exploration is very much encouraged. Progressing through the different areas involves finding the correct path to take and tackling the puzzles that block your path. This isn't as easy as it seems, which is where psynergy comes in. Not locked to battle, some skills can be used outside of battle too. Use move to shift objects, reveal to see through illusions or lift to raise objects into the air. All these must be used to progress forward and reach new areas, with the puzzles often ingenious. Moving fallen logs may need to be stopped partway by freezing a puddle into a column.
One of the most interesting abilities is mind read, gained early on. As the name suggests this lets you read the thoughts of people you meet. It's an interesting way to gather information someone may not be that willing to tell you directly, as well as gain insight into certain characters.
That said, exploring isn't always awesome. Travelling between main areas can sometimes be rather confusing as to which direction you're supposed to be going in. Little isles and closed off mountain trails may make a more believable world but they also make this problem worse by providing a myriad of dead-ends to walk into. The map and zoom out function offered really don't help much. The map isn't really detailed enough and doesn't show locations you haven't been to yet. Zooming out doesn't really point you in the right direction.
Exploring in towns isn't usually something RPGs do, but GS decides to ignore that rule. While not as extensive as in other areas you may well find yourself looking around the towns for hidden doorways or pathways. It makes towns feel more than mere go-betweens and enhances the experience.
Towns are the communities you would expect. There are people generally going about their daily lives, whether it is chatting to others, carrying water or making beds. All of them have some nice dialogue, although they don't seem too concerned with you just walking in their home (but then that is common for games in this genre). You can gather important information, interesting gossip or completely useless ramblings.
Towns are also where you'll be restocking supplies and equipping your group as well as resting and preparing your group for the next journey. Inns will be the primary source of recovering. All inns charge for a stay, which gets more expensive as you progress, although the gains from battles tend to increase at a faster rate than the inn charge does. A stay recovers all HP and PP, but does not recover ailments. Sanctum's, however, cure ailments. You can cure poison, revive a fallen comrade, remove haunting or remove cursed equipment. The first two are likely to not be used much past the earlygame though as psynergy abilities are gained that do the same, and the latter two are rare. Sanctum's in general just feel underused because of this.
Most towns have a weapon shop, armour shop and an item shop. The normal buy and sell commands are here, allowing you to buy items specific to that shop and sell whatever goods you have (except key items). But there are two options here that separates the system from any other generic shop system. The first is the artefact option, which allows you to buy rare items that tend to be better and more expensive than normal items. The difference between this and the normal buy option is that you can only buy one of each item that appears here (with a few exceptions) and that artefacts available are not specific to the shop but rather based on how far you have progressed. An artefact in one shop will be buyable in all shops until you buy it. This is also where you'll find rare items that you have sold or dropped. The second option is the repair option. Some items have a chance of breaking when used, so you must pay here to get them fixed and usable again.
GS's item system is extensive, to say the least. Each character in your group can carry no more than thirty different types of items, including equipment. Characters cannot use items someone else is holding, making distribution of items an important aspect. Do you take up 4 slots to let every character hold herbs or give them all to one character and free up 3 slots?
The variety of items is also impressive. The sheer amount of weapons, armour, shields, headwear and various other equipment items around is amazing. Different items have different stats and effect too. While there is an obvious general system of later equipment being naturally better than earlier items there isn't always a clear winner amongst smaller groups of items. One weapon may be stronger but another has an unleash attached to it, for example.
Usable items also take up a fair portion of this system. You have healing items, attack items, curative items and effect items. Sometimes equipment may have use effects too, although these are also typically at risk of breaking if used and needing to be repaired if that happens. While there are a strong variety of items here I find it odd that PP replenishing items are pretty rare. Why offer so many HP healing items and so little for PP? It tends to make psynergy focused battles more awkward than they need to be.
Of course, combat is just as important as travelling the lands, but before that you need to prepare first. We already know about equipping items and distributing items, but the Djinni system takes it to a whole different levels. Each character has a whole set of classes they can become, which is determined by what Djinni are set to them. While first time gamers may stick the elemental Djinni to the characters of the same element, those that experiment will find a complex web of classes by mixing them around. Since class changing is a group effort (if Garet takes Flint then nobody else can have Flint) then you need to think carefully about the setup. After all, do you really want one strong character at the cost of weakening another?
These class changes aren't just title changes. Stats can change drastically based on the class, and not all stat changes are going up. Some classes are naturally slow while others are defensively weak. Using a class that can help compensate for a character weakness could give you an edge. Classes also determine what psynergy are usable. The growth psynergy is only usable in a class setup involving mixed around Djinni.
Golden Sun operates by a turn based system, in which characters are given orders and then carry them out in an order based off everybody's agility rating. Choose attack and your character will use a basic attack. These tend to lack power and can miss but are free to use. Critical hits can also occur here, as can weapon unleashes. Many weapons have special unleashes attached to them that randomly activate, but when they do they cause extra damage and may cause additional effects, such as reducing enemy defence or inflicting sleep. They are essentially powered up critical hits based on your weapon choice.
Psynergy can also be called upon in battles at the cost of PP, and this system more closely resembles the special skills you would find in other games. You have many options open to you based on the character, class and level. Attack the enemy, boost party stats or cure allies. Range attacks tend to use a diminishing effect system. The centre of the attack is the most powerful point, and then each subsequent target off to the side takes less damage.
Unfortunately, the psynergy system tends to be underused. While it looks good and the powers are impressive, the problem comes with the Djinni attacks and summons being superior and the lack of options for restoring PP in battle. Psynergy stars just won't carry you through a psynergy based style for the whole game. Early on you'll use it extensively, but later on you'll be using other options much more, relegating psynergy use to support and healing techniques.
Djinni can be called upon in battle too, and their effects depend on their conditions. Set Djinni can be unleashed, and the resulting effect is dependant on the Djinni used. Some unleash powerful attacks, others defend the party and others offer curative effects. The consequence to unleashing Djinni is that they switch to standby and thus no longer offer their alteration benefits to the character that unleashed them. This can seriously screw up classes and abilities if you're not careful, making decision with unleashing important to consider carefully.
When Djinni are on standby then the summon option appears. Unlike Djinni unleashes anyone can use standby Djinni to summon even if the Djinni weren't set to them. Generally speaking, the more powerful the summon the more Djinni are needed, and the summons require specific elements to be summoned. Summoning Neptune requires 3 Mercury Djinni while Thor needs 4 Jupiter Djinni. Summons unleash the most powerful attacks around but force the used Djinni into a recovery state. Each turn one Djinni from each summon recovers and set themselves back to whatever character has them, thus allowing the cycle to resume again.
The system feels a little unbalanced with this. Unleashing Djinni and Summons does not consume any energy, like psynergy does, and it often more powerful. The only issue is making sure you don't destroy a desirable class when unleashing Djinni, making any offence option in big battles other than this system much less effective.
Items can also be used in battle but, as mentioned before, characters can only access what they are holding. Therefore it can cause conflicts if you want a certain character to use an item and use psynergy in the same turn. It makes the player think more on what they are doing.
Defend and escape options also exist. Defend causes your character to take less damage that turn but does nothing else. If a target is gone by the time a character goes to take an action then he or she will automatically switch to defend instead. It would have been nicer to switch to another target instead though as it's hard to know how much will kill a target, but it's better than nothing happening. Escape is the standard concept of leaving a battle, but is subject to randomness, and often the battles you want to escape from are hard ones that it fails the most on.
It's fair to say that Golden Sun will last for a long time. There is a tremendous amount to do with the main quest alone, with many places to visit and enemies to defeat. But if that were not enough then you are given a wide variety of sidequests to complete too. Doing these are often rewarded by better items or Djinni, and offer a bigger challenge than that found in the main game.
Players are free to try their hand in the arena too. Here players can either take on monster battles (single player) or in party battle (two player). Party battle only allows for three party members but let's you fight it out against a fellow human. Monster battles allows for all four people and pits you in a series of battles that ends only when you call it quits or are defeated. It's a fun experience, especially challenging something other than a preprogrammed set of instructions.
It's also nice to see that the arena is actually an area you can walk around and chat to people instead of a boring set of options to wade through.
Golden Sun dives into the sea of RPGs and instantly sets a new standard for them all. It's a truly immersive experience that is a lot of fun to play through and a very long lifespan. Camelot have done amazingly well to push the hardware as hard as they have done. If you're a fan of RPGs then you need this game, put simply.
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