Review by Platyphyllis
While Golden Sun may not bring anything new to the genre, it's still a perfect example of a superbly refined RPG.
The Gameboy Advance is chock full of Role-Playing Games. The Final Fantasy Advance series and Breath of Fire I and II are just a few examples of the GBA's wide array of RPGs. However, as you may have already noticed, quite a few of these RPGs are simply ports from older NES/SNES classics. One of the first exclusive RPG projects for the GBA was brought to us by Nintendo and Camelot back in 2001 in the form of Golden Sun and it just so happens to be an excellent game. While they didn't really put much effort into bringing anything new to the genre, that isn't necessarily a bad thing as Golden Sun is still an enjoyable and incredibly well refined game.
The story of Golden Sun is quite basic. In Golden Sun, you play the role of a young boy (if you consider seventeen to be a young age) known as Isaac who is an Earth Adept, a person who has special powers known as psyenergy. The game starts three years before the main story of the game when Isaac is fourteen years old while he resides in his hometown of Vale. He wakes up one morning to discover his mom yelling at him to get up because a huge boulder from Mt. Aleph is about to crush the village and they must escape. While trying to escape and help other people along the way, the boulder ends up falling down a stream resulting in the deaths of many of the protagonists' (Isaac's friends) family members. Another series of unfortunate events happen and the peaceful village of Vale is destroyed.
Unlike other clichéd RPGs, the first few heroes of the game don't immediately go looking for revenge and leaving the town in order to look for the people who caused this to happen. Instead, knowing the fact that they are too young, they stay at home developing their psyenergy skills to prevent another incident like the one three years ago from happening. They're about to go up to Mt. Aleph to study and train with the sorcerer Kraden, but end up meeting two suspicious characters who were present on the incident three years ago. After giving a warning to our heroes, Isaac and his friends go to Mt. Aleph with Kraden where they end up causing trouble and getting involved into affairs that are beyond their control and end up having to go on an overburdening quest to save the world.
The story isn't really all that original, but it works. It's presented in a nice way through conversations exchanged through text boxes with character portraits. Even with the lack of originality, the story can still lead to quite a few interesting moments, especially when some of the later key characters are introduced. So the story isn't necessarily downright bad but I wouldn't call it really inventive or unique either.
Where the game truly shines is in its gameplay. The game is a great mix of trekking through dungeons full of varied environments, solving many difficult but interesting puzzles, and fighting enemies in a very complex and likable battle system. The battle system is probably one of the more creative ones I've seen for an old-school RPG like this. Basically, you have the usual normal commands to give to your characters like using attacks, items, and magic (which is replaced with psyenergy in the world of Golden Sun). However, the game manages to implement this really cool system which involves Djinn. Basically, Djinn are these elemental creatures that have specific powers. When a character is equipped with a Djinni, this produces a variety of desirable effects. The character's stats get raised, they learn new psyenergy spells (similar to the esper system of Final Fantasy VI), and they can use the Djinni in battle for strong attacks or stat enhancements for the party. Not only that, but whenever a Djinni is on standby, a character can perform devastating summon attacks that deal massive amounts of damage to the enemy. The Djinn make what would have been a boring bland battle system into something complex and enjoyable and most likely, when you're fighting those difficult boss battles, you'll be enjoying yourself a lot.
The battles aren't the only attraction though the game also gets a lot of credit for having imaginative puzzles that you have to solve when going through dungeons. Camelot went the extra way and made it so that you could also use psyenergy outside battle in order to manipulate the environment. This leads to some interesting puzzles like having to freeze puddles of water into ice pillars to make platforms and using growth psyenergy to turn a small sapling into a vine that you can climb. This makes it so that even when trekking through dungeons, the game doesn't get too boring.
The good points of this game don't end at the gameplay though because the game also gets points for having incredibly good sound design. The game's music is really quite good with each musical piece fitting the situation at hand. The battle theme sounds as upbeat and catchy as necessary and some of the dungeon music is appropriately creepy and mysterious. Sound effects are all very solid also as explosions and attacks sound the way they are supposed to. The one blemish that I can find regarding the sound is the voice acting. There really isn't any real voice acting, but whenever a character talks, they emit these weird sounds that sound like some sort of animal. Each character, depending on their gender and personality has different pitches and paces to their "speech". However, to some people, the speech sounds will be just plain annoying, but thankfully the game offers an option to turn it off which pretty much makes the game's sound design really great.
Graphically, the game also shines. For a GBA game made in 2001, it's quite impressive! The game looks much better than the SNES ports on the system and set a standard for other RPGs on the GBA. Character portraits look decent, the special effects in battle are absolutely spectacular, and the huge enemy bosses look quite menacing (although a bit pixilated). The environments and towns are also varied and colorful which makes things pleasing to look at and the character sprites blend in well. Sometimes, it's actually quite hard to believe that this game came out on the GBA many years ago because the game is graphically a great achievement.
Golden Sun also lasts a good amount of time and gives you many reasons to go around and explore the world. The game can be finished in around 20 hours, but the world of this game is just full of stuff to discover. There are hidden Djinn lying around in places you would never expect and there's also a hidden optional dungeon with some difficult puzzles and a menacing boss waiting at the bottom. It's also worth the time to go and visit previous areas as there are certain scenes that can be seen if you interact with people after an extended period of absence.
In the end, Golden Sun truly is a superb RPG. It does almost everything right. The graphics, the gameplay, and the sound design are also so immaculately presented. The only problem that I can really find is that the story lacks originality and there are a few annoying sound effects (the speech sounds for example). If you already hated JRPGs before, then you'll obviously hate this but to everyone else who likes the genre somewhat, I give Golden Sun a wholehearted recommendation.
Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Product Release: Golden Sun (US, 11/11/01)
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