Golden Sun - Review

All That Glitters Is Not Gold

By: Andrew Long

Review Breakdown
   Battle System 4
   Interface 7
   Music/Sound 8
   Originality 6
   Plot 4
   Localization 5
   Replay Value 4
   Visuals 10
   Difficulty Easy
   Time to Complete

15-25 Hours


Title Screen

   One of the main selling points of Golden Sun when it first came out was the fact that technically, it was the one and only RPG available on Nintendo's shiny little handheld. With that status, the game could afford a few incidental weaknesses. The battle system is a mildly inventive variation on Camelot's standard setup in its traditional RPGs. The plot goes nowhere fast, and stays there. The characters, while they aren't quite cliches, aren't the strongest group ever fielded in an RPG. The dialogue is acceptable, but lacking in conviction. Perhaps the same might be said of the game; while it goes through the motions, ultimately, it provides a satisfying, but not truly fulfilling, experience.

    Golden Sun starts out with standard RPG fare: Isaac, a young village boy, watches his town get decimated by a falling boulder which leaves things in a seriously messed-up state. Instead of leaving Isaac's village off-limits, and starting a quest for revenge or answers, however, Camelot opts in favour of mysterious green-haired pseudo-villains with all the convincing nastiness of a week-old kitten. These not-quite evildoers kidnap Isaac's friend, spout some not-quite evil rhetoric about taking over the world's four lighthouses for the purposes of psynergistic mayhem, and fly off into the night, no doubt hatching plots to Parcheesi people to death. This lack of true villainy in the main antagonists is one area of the game which seriously hurts its overall credibility; at no point do either Saturnos or Menardi seem to be particularly threatening, and their litany of constant escapes and evildoings lacks the poignance of, say, the random slaughter that occurs at various points in Suikoden II, the villainy of the Shin-ra corporation, or even the clownish tyranny represented by Kefka's Light of Judgment. Without any serious opponent, the game quickly degenerates into a holding pattern of follow the mildly-threatening leader, and this is most definitely a bad thing.

While chasing after Saturnos and Menardi, players will travel to all corners of the world of Golden Sun, and naturally, there are monsters to fight every step of the way. Camelot Software is responsible for the Shining series, as well as the utterly forgettable Beyond the Beyond, and anyone who's played any of these titles will feel immediately at home here. Beyond the skeletal options of Fight, Item, and Run, there is only one mildly unique element to Golden Sun's combat: the Djinni System. This setup works more or less like various other RPGs do; players equip the Djinni, and as they increase in level, are able to launch more powerful attacks with the monsters, as well as learn more powerful spells. Djinni also account for statistical bonuses for players, which are even better if the player and the Djinni share the same elemental attribute.

The one slight difference between Golden Sun and other games that employ summoning spells is the fact that summons are communal. Players can enable a summon spell by unleashing a Djinn's special ability, which renders it "Ready". It also renders the player's statistical bonuses derived from the Djinn null and void. This tradeoff is usually not worth it; Djinni attacks are occasionally highly powerful, but regular attacks work about as well, and losing the statistical bonus from equipping the Djinni is unacceptable in the case of many characters.

Summons also become more powerful the more Djinni are lumped in; two Djinni of the Earth element, for example, will unleash Ramses, while three will allow players to summon Cybele. The animations are moderately explosive, graphically speaking, but this only serves to disguise the fact that in reality, they're not really necessary, since physical and magical attacks are adequate by themselves. Few games are able to maintain an interesting battle system when this is the case, and Golden Sun, true to this rule, starts feeling tedious by halfway through the game.

Fortunately, fighting isn't the only thing players will end up doing; Psynergy, the magic system of Golden Sun, is usable both in and out of battle, and the wide array of spells players can learn allow jumping, pushing, plant-growing, dropping, freezing, and all other manner of interesting actions to be performed outside of battle. Usually, these actions are necessary to complete puzzles that prevent further advancement in the game; often, though, they are also found in places where treasure and Djinni are, and the bulk of the game's Djinni require some use of Psynergy in order to be acquired.

While finding Djinni can be fun, they tend to hog the spotlight somewhat. Some items impart special abilities, but mostly, weapons and armour have the strain of attribute boosting lifted from them by the Djinni. This is, unfortunately, rather uninspiring, since there's really not very many types of weapon and armour to be found. Yes, it does help retain the game's old-school feel to limit things this way, but balancing the Djinni's importance with equipment would have alleviated to an extent the tired, rigid progression from iron to silver to gold, with mythril maybe jammed in there somewhere for good measure.

This bland item system also suffers from the fact that each player can only hold fifteen items, including equipment. This means a maximum of sixty items can be held overall, and while curative items are (thankfully) stackable, they are not collectively available, so quite often it's necessary to waste spots on duplicate items, and inevitably, the inventory crunch begins. The item management screen itself is more than adequate, as is the rest of the game's interface. In fact, considering the physical limitations of the GBA's display, the game's developers have done quite well to store information concisely, compactly, and comprehensively.

Who would have thought that a fist would punch?
Darwin Award Nominees  

On the other hand, there is much that can be said about the world map, which is hideously ugly and generally useless. Looking much like a cookie that's been scribbled on with a crayon, the map does offer minimal assistance in finding places, but this helpfulness is restricted to locating a general direction, since it's nearly impossible to make out any distinctive features. This is because the area in which much of the game's action takes place is criss-crossed with rivers, and rather than making the map scrollable, the developers cram it into one screen, which does nothing for its navigability. In the end, it's easier to memorize the lay of the land and go from there; it's actually not too hard to do, and it prevents a good deal of eye-ache.

    One of Golden Sun's biggest strengths is its sound. The musical pieces offer a much better standard of variety, instrumentation, and quality than do most other GBA titles. The composer has put together a fittingly low-key collection of pieces, each suited to its respective area or function. The world theme in particular is quite well-done, and the battle theme is decent enough to partially cover up the general shoddiness of the battles themselves. Town themes are pleasant and friendly, and tracks for caves and deserts are well-suited to their particular areas. About all the game lacks aurally is variety in the sound effects, which are mostly slight variations on two or three basic sounds.

   All in all, "slight variation" goes a long way towards summing up Golden Sun. The game never deviates much from the tried-and-true format of the old-school console RPG. The battle system, story, and characters all seem slightly like retreads, and while the introduction of a multiplayer mode is a welcome addition, the limited nature of this mode doesn't really strengthen the game's overall quality. There's nothing much in this game that hasn't been done elsewhere, and while some may posit that that's the whole point, it still doesn't excuse Camelot's lack of creativity.

   The game's story is especially unoriginal. No development is particularly surprising, and the characters, while not expressly stereotypes, certainly lean in that direction. The game does feature a prolific supporting cast, but each of these are given their turn in a sidequest, and then promptly shuffled into the background. There are few characters of lasting significance, and the overall story never goes anywhere particularly shocking. Added to that is a profound lack of conviction in the villainy of the game's baddies, and the end result is a plot that's tepid at best.

   Perhaps the villains were more evil in the Japanese version of the game. This is certainly possible, since Golden Sun's translation is one of the blander efforts in recent years. This may be due in large part to the game's target audience; Nintendo's general policy is to target younger audiences, so it's understandable that some of the language might be toned down in order to make the game palatable for that age group. This comes at the expense of believable exchanges between characters, however, and at times it's just difficult to believe that any of the characters really care about what they're doing.

Frosty never saw it coming
Isaac plots snowman doom  

    As a result of its generic nature, Golden Sun suffers a dearth of replay value. The sidequests are mostly just more of the same repetitious wandering found throughout the game's main story arc, and mini-games are definitely a shade below engaging. The multiplayer mode, which allows players to face off either against random monsters, or the parties of other players, has little potential for long-term entertainment value, and even the game's many puzzles are no incentive to play through again. This is because each puzzle type is introduced, inserted into the game, and then repeated ad infinitum. No effort is made to add a progression of difficulty to completing the puzzles, and so as a result completing puzzles leaves a vaguely unsatisfying feeling in the end, much like the rest of the game.

Golden Sun is really one of the first games to show what the GBA is capable of graphically, and with its mode 9 battle sequences, it can be occasionally flashy. More than that, the artistic work in the game is extremely well done, and the visuals, at least, convey a comforting rather than dully repetitive sense of familiarity, with cheerful shades of green, blue, and yellow dominating most motifs. In conjunction with the music, this is chiefly what saves Golden Sun from crossing the line into utter mediocrity; a fair amount of effort has gone into making the game look and sound good. It is a polished package, and this, as much as anything, helps to soften the impact of the game's lacklustre plot and character development. Summon spells are especially nice to watch, and it's almost a shame the GBA screen is the size it is, because a bigger display would do the graphics justice. That said, many battle effects aren't all that impressive, and usually end in a shower of pixellated squares accompanied by mighty crunching and blasting sounds.

Still, prettiness aside, it would be nice if the game was a little more difficult to beat. Dying is seldom an issue, and with its save-anywhere feature, admittedly handy given the portable nature of the game, a great deal of the challenge is ultimately removed from Golden Sun. Even the puzzles generally only need solving once for each type before players can get a handle on how best to approach a situation. It's mildly rewarding figuring out how to solve a puzzle the first few times, but after that, gratification levels drop off noticeably. By the end, puzzles are more an irritation than a challenge, and become nothing more than a minor stumbling block between Isaac and his final confrontation.

The key is root structure... and a profoundly boring approach to life
"How'd I get my lawn so green? Nugro's Turf BuilderŠ"  

Despite all of the negative aspects highlighted above, Golden Sun is still a worthwhile game to play through, if only once or twice. Its graphical and aural punch is not to be underestimated, and the gameplay, while hardly innovative or compelling, is functional enough to keep a player interested throughout the fifteen to twenty-five hours the game is likely to suck up. That's a good chunk of time for any sort of travel in which playing a game is likely to be a possibility, so all in all, perhaps it's wiser not to expect as much out of this game as one might demand from a title for a true console. When viewed in that light, Golden Sun more than holds its own, and is a very good first step for developers of RPGs for the portable system.

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