Review by YusakuG
"Good RPG, but a bit disappointing"
What can I say except one of the main reasons I bought a Game Boy Advance was for Golden Sun. Ever since I saw the first screenshots of the game last year, I have been drooling with anticipation. With its colorful graphics, detailed battle scenes, and traditional RPG play, it looked like Golden Sun would be the ultimate handheld RPG.
Now, the game is finally available in the US, after reading many positive reviews of the import. And although I enjoy the game thoroughly, I'm a little disappointed at the same time. Don't get me wrong, it's still a great game, and easily the best original handheld RPG, outside of Zelda. But there are a few kinks that make it fall short of the greatness it tries to achieve.
The game's storyline is simple and cliched. You play as Isaac, a young boy who lives in the village of Vale along with his two friends, Garet and Jenna. Isaac and Garet are ''Adepts'', which allow them to use mysterious magical powers. One day, when the three are exploring a nearby shrine-like dungeon with an old scientist friend, they find themselves in the deepest depths of the shrine that no man has seen for hundreds of years. There, they discover the Elemental Stars, which are the key to an ancient power long thought extinct. It is then that a group of mysterious villains appear. They want the Stars for themselves, so they can unlock the power of Alchemy, and use it so they can rule the world. They capture Jenna and the scientist friend, holding them for ransom, and telling Isaac and Garet that they must bring them the power of the remaining Stars if they want to see their friends again. It's basic RPG stuff (evil villain wants long-lost power, so he can rule the world) but hey, it works.
Isaac and Garet must travel the land, seeking elemental power, and forming allies along the way. The gameplay is almost as basic as the the story. You travel the land, gaining experience to build levels, money to buy new equipment, and resting at inns to replenish health and magic.
However, there is one new feature added to the game that's fun and original, and that's the game's magic system. There are elemental spirits scattered across the land called Djinni. They fall into four basic categories - Venus (Earth), Mercury (Water), Mars (Fire) and Jupiter (Wind). These Djinni are hidden well, and can be very tricky to track down. When you find one, they'll either join you right away, or you'll have to prove yourself worthy by fighting them in battle. Once you get one, you can equip him to a character in your party. Each character can equip up to three Djinni. The combination of Djinni you have equipped to a character affects what spells he or she can use. So, if you experiment by combining different kinds of Djinni equipped to a character in your party, you can discover different spells that can be useful in some situations. It's not as complicated as it sounds, and it's also part of the game's strategy, since sometimes you need a certain spell in order to proceed.
The game's dungeons are full of puzzles that must be solved, usually with one of your spells. Some of these puzzles can be tricky, but they're never overly frustrating. Overall, Golden Sun's gameplay is a combination of tried and true RPG traditions, and some new features added to the game to make it fresh and original.
As I mentioned in my intro, the graphics are easily the game's biggest highlight. These are easily some of the best graphics I've seen on the GBA. Bright and colorful, the areas that you visit have tons of detail, from the towns to the dungeons. And then there are the battles, which really take the cake. Large, detailed anime-like character sprites, and a rotating 3D camera easily make these the best battles ever in a handheld RPG. The spell effects and summons are really well done, too. Everything shows up well on the GBA's small screen, as well, and the game's never so dark that it's hard to see. Overall, the game's graphics shine.
The music is also brilliant. Composed by the person who did the music for Star Ocean: The Second Story and Valkyrie Profile, Golden Sun's soundtrack is astonishing for a handheld game. Each song is well composed. You really need a pair of stereo headphones to get the full effect of the game's soundtrack. A few of the tracks even have choral-like singing in the background for atmosphere. This is the first handheld game that's made me want to wish for a soundtrack.
So, even though this game is obviously of high quality, why did I walk away somewhat disappointed? Well, my main gripe, as I said before, is the story. It's a bit generic, and has been told many times before. Now, this wouldn't be so bad if the game's translation really stood out, but unfortunately, it doesn't. Now, I don't mean to say it's a bad translation, because it's not. It's just...dry. None of the characters seem fleshed out, so I never truly cared about the characters in my party, or the supporting characters in the story. Storyline, writing and characters are three of the main things I look for in an RPG, and although Golden Sun does not fail in these areas, it did not leave as strong an impression as I wanted to. Some of the dialogue scenes also go on way too long, too. These characters like to talk. It can be annoying if you suddenly have to shut the game off, and the characters are still talking. (You can save everywhere, except battles and dialogue scenes.) You then have to sit through the entire scene again when you start the game up again.
My other main complaints are with the gameplay. For one, there are too many battles. It can be frustrating sometimes when you're trying to solve a puzzle in a room, walking back and forth across a large room, exploring your options, and you keep on getting attacked by monsters. There is an item that lets you lessen the number of fights you get in temporarily, but still, the programmers should have just automatically lessened the encounter rate just a little. There is some good to this, however. You can easily build money and experience with all the battles you get into.
My other main gameplay gripe is with examining objects. It can be picky sometimes. It sometimes seems like you have to have your character lined up exactly with the item you want to examine before he'll even look at it. If your character is facing the general direction, but off just a touch, it will bring up the game's menu screen when you push the ''examine'' button, or you'll wind up talking to the townsperson who is standing next to the object. No big deal, but it can be annoying, especially considering the GBA's small screen.
The third and final gameplay gripe comes with the battles themselves. Your characters don't automatically focus on another enemy, if the enemy you told them to focus on is defeated before they get a chance to move. For example: Let's say you tell both Characters A and B to attack the same monster. Now, let's say Character A kills the monster during his turn. When it comes time for Character B to move, he will just stand there and defend, instead of attacking a different monster. I find this cheap, personally. Surely the programmers could have changed a few lines of code to make the characters automatically switch to another enemy mid-battle, like in most modern day RPGs? I guess they felt it added a bit of strategy to the battles, making you put emphasis on how many characters you want focusing on one enemy, so you don't waste anyone's turn, but I found it annoying.
Despite it's many flaws, Golden Sun is still a good game, and it needs to be experienced by any RPG fan with a GBA. It's a great start to the system's RPG library. Apparently a sequel is already in the works. I'm looking forward to it, hoping that Camelot and Nintendo will fix some of the gameplay problems. Let's hope we see more original RPG titles for the system in the future.
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 11/23/01, Updated 06/09/03
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