Review by discoinferno84

"The first RPG on the GBA..."

Let's flash back to Christmas of 2001. I had been watching the commercials for the much-anticipated Gameboy Advance. My favorite commercial was for the game Golden Sun. The previews for the game had put me in a frenzy of eager anticipation. If the commercial for a game could be that stunning and vivid, the game must be so much better, right? And so, when I unwrapped my GBA on Christmas Day, I triumphantly held up the box that contained Golden Sun. I played for hours, obsessively leveling up and collecting powerful weapons and armor. And yes, I admit that I bought into the hype that surrounded Golden Sun. Now, two years later, I can look back at this game with somewhat less satisfaction.

Golden Sun was the first RPG released on the GBA. Sadly, the story of Golden Sun isn't anything exemplary. Perhaps the developers were too focused on making a grand spectacle of graphics instead of creating a decent story. You play as Isaac, a young man who is considered an Adept. The Adepts have the ability to control elemental magic called Psynergy. You live peacefully in a small town called Vale, until one fateful night when a huge storm ravages the town. Here's where the story starts to get hazy. An evil duo named Saturos and Menardi are searching for four elemental stars. The four elemental stars are used to activate lighthouses of the corresponding element. In their attempt to find the elemental stars, Saturos and Menardi triggered the violent storm that swept through Vale. By chance, Isaac meets with the duo and ends up with one of the elemental stars. For some reason, it becomes Isaac’s responsibility to stop the Saturos and Menardi from activating the lighthouses. But why must Isaac stop them? Why is activating the lighthouses a bad thing? It's all connected with Psynergy. But the importance of Psynergy is not clearly explained, nor is Isaac’s objective. All we know is that Saturos and Menardi must be stopped, or else. So, you're off on the adventure before you know it.

Sadly, the characters of Golden Sun lack the personality that makes other RPG characters so endearing. Isaac is the generic hero, a young man on his quest to fight evil. He says next to nothing, and contributes little to the storyline. His best friend, Garet, is the standard headstrong brute. But at least his hardheaded attitude makes him a likeable character. Ivan is a physically fragile magic caster that must be guarded from attacks. Overall, he really just plays the role of a black mage. Aside from potent healing spells, the white mage named Mia offers little to the game. With bland heroes like these, you can't expect much for the storyline. There are far too many dialogue scenes that tend to drag on longer than necessary. These dialogues are only meant to explain aspects of the story through the perspectives of the different characters. Unfortunately, the dialogue gets stale after the first few lengthy conversations, and the lack of character personality becomes apparent. You'll find yourself wishing that you could skip the dialogue and get back to battling.

The gameplay in Golden Sun revolves around random monster battles and solving puzzles. Your party roams around the world on foot, randomly encountering monsters. While battling monsters can be fun, walking around the world can be quite boring. The continents are set up as large puzzles for you to traverse. You must find your way through fields, forests, caves, and bodies of water. You must find your way past natural obstacles to traverse the landscape. However, the borderlines of the continents limit your movement. The borders are linear enough that you won’t stray from the story line. You travel to different towns, each with inns, blacksmiths, and vendors. Each town offers different features and items. For example, Vale has a huge Psynergy crystal that can recharge the whole party. Another town has excellent weapons and armor. In general, the towns offer more as you progress through the story.

An interesting aspect of Golden Sun is the djinn class system. Djinn are small creatures that have unique attacks and can boost the stats of a character. Different djinn can also yield different classes and Psynergy abilities. The varying Psynergy abilities correspond to the element of the djinn equipped. If you equip an Earth djinn, you can cast Earth spells. If you equip a Mars djinn, you can cast fire spells. And if you equip both, you can combine the powers and get new abilities and stats. Different combinations of djinn offer a wide variety of class and Psynergy customization. However, there is such a thing as too much customization. Some Psynergy abilities require that you have a specific combination of djinn equipped. Finding just the right combination to create balanced classes and unique Psynergy abilities can become a headache once you get enough djinn. While the overall djinn customization is excellent, it can be confusing at times. Few dungeons have puzzles that actually require you to have specific Psynergy abilities, so customizing your party is entirely up to you.

Golden Sun has a turn-based battle system. Your party is given the option to attack, guard, or run from a random monster battle. You can use physical attacks, Psynergy abilities, djinn, and items to defeat your opponent. You can create different battle strategies based on the order of the characters attacking, but the characters end up assuming the roles that apply to the story. Isaac and Garet will usually be the strongest fighters, with weak Ivan to back them up with spells and Mia to heal the entire party. Also, you tend to develop a reliance on using Psynergy and djinni attacks to make the battles end quickly. Also, if you use enough djinni, their powers can be used to Summon much more devastating attacks. Using these attacks results in brief cut scene and large amounts of damage dealt on the enemy. Using Summons make battling nothing more than a few brief selections in the battle menu. While you have a large choice of attacks to execute, the monsters pose very little threat to your party. Most battles can be end in mere seconds if the right attacks are used. If anything, the random monster battles are simply the fodder used to make the characters level up. The only real purpose of the random battles is to get your party strong enough to face the dungeon boss. The battles are countless but offer very little challenge, especially later in the game. And with the lack of challenge, the need for battle strategy no longer exists.

While the story and gameplay are somewhat lacking, the graphics of Golden Sun are excellent. It’s as if everything in this game was sacrificed to make the graphics stand out. Golden Sun was meant to put the GBA’s abilities to the test and make a great presentation its gaming audience. This game is colorful and pleasing to the eye. The towns, buildings, and dungeons have amazing detail. The Psynergy abilities offer vibrant and colorful light shows. Performing Psynergy attacks creates beautiful images of light and color that make the battles entertaining. However, the graphics suffer during monster battles. While the backgrounds, monsters, and characters all have beautiful colors, everything is blurry. The graphics transition from a dungeon to a monster battle is similar to taking off a pair of glasses; everything becomes blurry. The massive hordes enemies have little detail to speak of. You can only see the basic outlines of the monsters and color value contrasts that make the monsters seem three-dimensional. You can make out Saturos’ anime-style hairdo, but his eyes are only little red dots. Even your party members in the screen’s foreground have lackluster detail. Sure, you can make out the colors of Garet’s vest or Ivan’s cloak, but you can’t see anything in terms of detail. The only in-battle features with any detail are the Summons. Each Summon has very detailed costumes and weapons. You can see the mane etched into the metal lion’s head on Judgement’s armor. You can see scales on Tiamat’s body. However, these wonderful details are limited only to the small cut scenes when you perform a Summon. Sadly, the cloudy graphics start to take away from the enjoyment of the battles. The real beauty lies in the details of the buildings and the Psynergy abilities. Fortunately, Golden Sun has excellent sound to back up the above-average graphics. The score is orchestrated well and creates a sense of atmosphere in the individual towns and dungeons. The sound effects of the different Psynergy abilities stand out. The characters' dialogue voices are squeaky and annoying, but at least they can be comical at times.

Golden Sun was released to showcase the abilities of the GBA. Sadly, there was so much focus on making this game as a presentable launch title, and not enough emphasis placed in making Golden Sun a great game. No, Golden Sun is not a terrible game. Could it have been better? Absolutely. If you can still find this game, pick it up. It may be a mediocre RPG, but it is still worth buying.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.5 - Good

Originally Posted: 03/06/04

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