Review by Jaksiel
"Mediocrity (mE-dE-'ä-kr&-tE) defined: Golden Sun."
Chalk another success story up to the Game Boy Advance hype machine. It seems that feverish gamers are willing to proclaim some of the first games on the GBA as the best handheld games ever in that category, and Golden Sun certainly falls into this scenario. Somehow, some way, Golden Sun has many fanboys that call it the ''BEST RPG EVURR!1!1!!!!1'' I find this absolutely inexplicable. Golden Sun, though a decent offering for a first-generation game, is average at best. I haven't played enough handheld RPGs to say which one is the best, but I'm confident in saying Golden Sun is not it.
All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players
In Golden Sun, the secrets of the science Alchemy are stored deep within Mt. Aleph. It is theorized that one could control the world somehow with these secrets, but not many people are quite sure how. One day, a seemingly evil group is able to recover three of the four Elemental Stars. These Stars, when placed in the four lighthouses scattered over the world, are said to give the user immense power. Luckily, your party manages to retain one of the Stars. Your party must recover the other three Elemental Stars, while also protecting the one in your possession.
Yeah, I know, this seems like your stereotypical ''prevent the bad guys from taking over the world'' plot. Unfortunately, for the most part, it is. In fact, the whole storyline in Golden Sun is riddled with clichés. Your main character, Isaac, even starts off the game waking up in his bed! Only near the end does the main storyline divert a tiny bit from RPG Storytelling 101 and throw a couple of twists at you. However, these are not nearly enough to redeem the overall poor plot...and especially not enough to justify the ending. I can confidently say that Golden Sun's ending will leave a sour taste in your mouth. The one thing the ending gets credit for is generating more revenue for Camelot (Golden Sun's developer). You see, the ending leaves no doubt that there will be a Golden Sun 2, and most gamers (myself included) will buy this sequel. Suffice to say, I will not tell you why I get this feeling, as to not spoil the ending for the reader (not that there's much to ''spoil'').
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers
If you think the plot was bad, you're probably going to have an even harder time stomaching Golden Sun's main characters. The main character, Isaac, literally does not say anything other than ''Yes'' or ''No''. It's remarkable how Isaac comes to be the leader of this group, despite this problem. I'm guessing it has something to do with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Garet, your friend since childhood, is an idiot, plain and simple. He constantly spews nonsense and comes up with horrible ideas that would be catastrophic to the party if carried out. The other two party members – Ivan and Mia – are quite bland, as they do not have much personality whatsoever. Even the two main villains, Saturos and Menardi, are nothing special. Since their motives are never explained, they seem to be the trite villains who have no aspirations other than world domination.
The play's the thing
Due to its hackneyed plot and boring characters, Golden Sun would be doomed to complete failure if its gameplay were not excellent. Luckily, it is...in a sense. You see, Golden Sun delivers standard RPG fare. You wander around towns, dungeons, outside areas, and the like, while advancing the storyline and killing monsters. You talk to townspeople to glean information to help continue your quest, you seek out the best items, and you solve puzzles. The only thing saving this game from the bottom of the RPG scrap heap is the fact that most of this is executed brilliantly. For example, the puzzles are simultaneously frustrating and engaging, but they will not stall your progress much. To advance past a puzzle is relatively simple, but to find the items located within the puzzle is considerably more challenging – but typically worth the effort.
I also like Golden Sun's sense of linearity. For about the first half of the game, your path is linear, but you end up with the ability to branch out and do a few side quests not related to the main storyline. Helping matters along is the fact that you are given a clear sense of what to do next to advance the plot. For the most part, you will know where to go next, but not exactly how to get through that next area. The various dungeons and forests that you must navigate will usually serve up a fair deal of confusion while simultaneously giving you subtle hints as to how to get through. Top-notch.
The only negative aspect of Golden Sun's play are the conversations. You will be forced to endure several conversations of Brobdingnagian proportions. The fact that these dialogue sessions are centered around the tedious plot will simply make you want to bang your head against a wall in frustration. Further exacerbating matters is that the 'dialogue' is filled with annoying Internet-style emoticons. A typical 'conversation' between two characters: ''^ _ ^'' ''o_O''. I kid you not.
Cry 'havoc,' and let slip the dogs of war
Golden Sun's battle system is what fully elevates it from worthless to mediocre. Sure, you have typical RPG battle options: Attack, Psynergy (your magic), Item, Flee, etc., etc. What gives Golden Sun's battles their innovation is the well-fleshed out and ingenious Djinni system.
As you traverse the world map, you may solve puzzles to find them or even just randomly run into one of Golden Sun's 28 Djinn. The first thing to do with your freshly-acquired Djinni is to ''Set'' it to a character. This will raise the character's current attributes, and it will possibly initiate a class change. Classes are vital to the battles, as they determine nearly all of the Psynergy you will or will not possess.
The class your character will become is dependent on the element of each Djinni s/he has ''Set''. (Of course, the elements of the Djinn are also utterly prototypical with Fire, Wind, Earth, and Water, but I digress.) Each character in your party has a different element s/he 'specializes' in. The first intuition you receive in dealing with all of your Djinn is to simply set each Djinni to the character that matches their element, which would possibly create an uber-powerful character in that element. However, it is actually best to experiment with your setups. The classes with the best stats and Psynergy for each character generally have nothing to do with their innate element. Thus, the creative gamer is rewarded.
Of course, this is not all the Djinn are good for. In battle, they have their own special ability that you can use. The side effect of this is that the Djinni's status goes from ''Set'' to ''Standby'', and your character will lose the stats provided by the Djinni, and may also change class and lose his most powerful Psynergy. It wouldn't be worth it...if it weren't for the Summons. Once you have Djinn on Standby, you can summon powerful creatures of the elements of the Standing By Djinn. The more Djinn of an element (up to four) you have on Standby, the more powerful the summoned creature becomes. They only get one attack, but oh, what an attack it is. These attacks will devastate normal enemies and deal considerable damage to bosses. The last complexity of the Djinn system is that after a Summon, each Djinni which participating in the summoning will be unavailable for a turn, after which it will be ''Set'' again.
On top of all this, the last few boss battles in Golden Sun actually require some (gasp) strategy! Unless you spent an ungodly amount of time leveling up your characters, you cannot simply rely on brute force (or even Summons) to beat the bosses of Golden Sun. You must figure out which Psynergy will work best, or what Djinni's special ability is required. You must decide whether it's worth making your characters temporarily weaker to witness the awesome power of the Summons. You must decide how much damage you can afford to take before healing. These battles can turn into long and drawn-out affairs, yet they still remain fun.
Most radiant, exquisite and unmatchable beauty
Even for a first-generation GBA title, Golden Sun looks great. The various characters in the game are detailed intricately enough for my liking, and there's a good variety in their looks as well. The Psynergy you use have nice animations to go along with them, and the Summons are breathtaking to behold. The only fault I find with Golden Sun's graphics is that some enemies you face are zoomed in so far that they become extremely pixelated...and they weren't pretty to begin with.
Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing
I've always been a sucker for music in RPGs, and Golden Sun's is no exception. I thoroughly enjoyed each track, and it was even more glorious with headphones plugged in. The Psynergy sound effects also work fairly well. There is one minor fault, though: when someone is 'speaking', a sound akin to a screaming banshee is played. Fortunately enough, for the sanctity of your ears, an option is provided to turn off this 'speech'. Why this 'feature' defaults to being On is beyond me, though...
Friends, romans, countrymen, lend me your ears
For now, Golden Sun is the best RPG you can purchase for the GBA, and the actual gameplay and battles are a blast. Unfortunately, I find the quality of the storyline and characters to be very important in an RPG, and Golden Sun simply does not come through in this area. Is it worth playing through? I give a tentative 'yes' to that statement. Hopefully Camelot can drastically improve the storyline for the sequel, though, or this promising series will be a complete wash before it ever even gets off the ground.
Reviewer's Rating: 2.5 - Playable
Originally Posted: 02/27/02, Updated 02/27/02
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