Golden Sun - A Retrospective Review
Golden Sun is a 2001 Game Boy Advance-format JRPG, developed by Camelot Software Planning, and produced by Nintendo. After their work on Mario Tennis and Mario Golf, Golden Sun represented a return to Camelot's role-playing roots, and was a game which was inspired by the SNES/Mega Drive era of JRPGs.
The story begins in the town of Vale, a town situated under Mt. Aleph, home of the Sol Sanctum, a sacred building built to honour the elementals. As home to masters, or Adepts, of the elemental powers known as Psynergy, Vale maintains a restriction on contact with people from the outside world.
As a fourteen-year old, the main protagonist, Isaac, is woken in the middle of a storm, and told of a disaster at Sol Sanctum. Along with his friend, Garet, Isaac goes in search of stragglers while the strongest Adepts hold off the traps cascading from Sol Sanctum.
But along the way, they encounter a child, Felix, drowning in the river running through Vale. Securing nearby help, Isaac and Garet return to the drowning child, but it proves to be too late, as the gigantic boulder held back by the Adepts is finally released, causing mayhem as it sweeps the child, his parents and Isaac's father away.
Completely shaken with fear, Isaac nevertheless goes off in search of help, followed by Garet. As they travel off towards the base of the town, they happen to overhear a conversation between two strangely-attired people. When Isaac and Garet are confronted by these two upon their discovery, the suspicious strangely-attired pair fight the young Isaac and Garet, soon rendering them unconscious with their overwhelming power.
The game continues three years later, with an older Isaac and Garet practicing their latent powers of Psynergy, hoping to hone them after the disaster three years previous. As part of this, the pair study Alchemy with Kraden, an elderly but eminent scholar. Along with Jenna, sister of Felix, who died in the tragic circumstances at the start of the game, the group sneak up to Sol Sanctum to study this temple of dedication to the elementals.
After exploring the temple, they discover some elaborate puzzles, which upon solution open up a secret chamber. What they discover in there completely shocks and amazes them: The Elemental Stars, a set of gems containing the powers of the four elements and the potential to create the elixirs of legend, granting eternal life and generating gold from base metal.
Struck with awe at all of this power just yards away from them, Isaac and Garet decide, after a suggestion by Kraden, to gather the Elemental Stars, something he has clearly been planning for years. But another party appears to be just as interested - including the strange pair who had confronted Isaac and Garet three years previous, and somebody who had ostensibly died during the disaster. The party secure three of the gems and pressure Isaac and Garet into securing the last one for them.
But upon unseating the last gem from its resting place, disaster strikes. Volcanic vents boil the water in the chamber and tremors rock the mountain to its core, and it soon becomes apparent that those puzzles solved to enter the chamber were in fact a sort of security system. With little hope of the raiding party securing the last gem for themselves, they flee the mountain, kidnapping Jenna and Kraden in the process and leaving Isaac and Garet to their fate.
Upon trying to escape, Isaac and Garet encounter the guardian of Sol Sanctum, who holds back the volcanic eruption in order to allow the pair to evacuate the building. Upon returning to the village, the pair recall the plans of the raiding party to the village elders. With the fate of the world on their shoulders, Isaac and Garet must go out into the world of Weyard, where things have changed with the events at Mt. Aleph, and prevent the relighting of the Elemental Lighthouses and unleashing the powers of the elementals on an unprepared world.
For some reason, the game really likes to send giant boulders after you. Indiana Jones fans in the development team?
The plot shares a lot of details with other games in the genre, from the unwinnable fight at the beginning and the teenage protagonists to the world-changing consequences of their mission. This is a game that knows its audience, and therefore, it is able to cater to them adeptly, with a grand plot, with the requisite characterisations and events transpiring to keep any fan of the genre excited to the end. The only disappointment comes from the very end, which is very obviously a lead-up to the game's sequel, but apart from that, the plot is solid throughout.
As for the gameplay, this is also very similar to games such as the early Final Fantasy games and the Breath of Fire series, with turn-based combat and an array of characters from brute-force to spellcasters, but the game presents its own unique mechanism in the Djinn system. The Djinn are elementally-linked creatures which can be collected throughout the game, and can be set in one of two ways; active, which grants the user higher statistics and more powerful Psynergy, or standby, which readies them for powerful summon attacks.
And in yet another case of ridiculously overpowered monster health, this attack probably won't even kill it.
The choices are increased by the powerful attacks that can be unleashed from active Djinni during battle, and the ability to place Djinni of other elemental alignments onto characters, changing their class, their Psynergy abilities and possibly unlocking very powerful master classes, such as Ninja and Samurai. By this mechanism, the sword-wielders can gain healing powers, and the spell-casters can learn powerful focused Psynergy attacks like those practiced by the sword-wielders, meaning that even if the base classes of the characters are similar to those in other games in the genre, there is no need to keep them that way.
Outside of the battle screen, the game presents some original gameplay for the genre as well, with a large number of puzzles relying on Psynergy powers, with many of these powers obtained throughout the game as the player explores the world of Weyard. This gameplay, while occasionally frustrating, gives the game some variety between the random encounters. Altogether, the game gives about forty hours of gameplay, which is sufficient for a game of this genre and prevents the game from growing stale.
I wonder if the protagonists ever contemplated giving up this questing business to set up a refrigeration business.
As well as a great and well-polished plot and the varied gameplay, the game possesses some impressive aesthetic elements as well. The graphics invoke memories of the likes of Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI, being bright and colourful along with being impressive from a technical standpoint, while the sound is apt for all surroundings, and manages to remain memorable for all of the right reasons.
As I mentioned before, Golden Sun is a game that caters to its audience very well. However, these sorts of characteristics don't always impress other gamers, and there are a few caveats which should be noted. The turn-based action may annoy gamers more used to modern real-time RPGs, while there are a few throwbacks in the role-playing system for even experienced turn-based RPG fans. A character that has targeted a creature already destroyed that turn does not re-target, for instance, and the static single line-based combat may irritate players of Chrono Trigger or the Final Fantasy games, where less powerful characters could be placed in the back, taking less damage at the expense of their own dealt damage.
As well as that, the puzzle action may serve to frustrate several gamers, particularly in the Elemental Lighthouses with their puzzle-based nature. The fact that many of the Djinn must be obtained by solving these puzzles will only serve to compound that frustration.
Bottom Line: An excellent example of the genre, more accessible than some other JRPGs and invoking all of the right memories of the SNES golden era, but turn-based combat and puzzles won't be to everybody's liking.
Recommendation: Buy it. JRPG fans should be enthralled, and it might well make a convert of the uninitiated.
[PICTURE CREDITS: Image 1 comes from my own collection of game screenshots, while images 2 and 3 come from the Wikipedia article on the game.]