In the Beginning...
With so much utter tosh released on the GameBoy Advance from month to month, it's a special kind of excitement that builds in anticipation of a Nintendo release. Whenever times are dark, we can always look to the master of the platform to rejuvenate our interest in the console on the whole and force us to persevere with the hard-to-see LCD screen. Golden Sun from Camelot Software Planning is a perfect example. As 50% of the platform's role-playing quotient (Breath of Fire being the only other GBA RPG released in the west so far) it carries the hopes of an entire legion of fans, and Nintendo can ill-afford for it to fail dismally. Fortunately then it's a little stunner, right from the opening scenes of the game, as Isaac awakens to find his home town of Vale besieged by the worst storm in years and an enormous boulder threatening to crush the town if the elders cannot hold it back with their psynergy. Boasting an almost Final Fantasy-esque scale of events, the game introduces you to countless new characters in these opening minutes, including the nipper Garet, your best chum, and Jenna, another companion. You also fleetingly make an acquaintance with Felix, Jenna's brother, as he clings for dear life to a lone tree stump in the river, lest he be ripped to shreds by the surging current. Your first task is to find townsfolk to help Felix. Before you can really do anything however, the boulder overcomes the elders and cascades down the mountain, crushing and killing all in its path.
Emotions run high throughout mother nature's assault on Vale, but not high enough for you to ignore the spectacular visual effects for which Camelot is responsible. The only games that really looked this good on the SNES - the usual comparison - were the late Donkey Kong Country games. Subtly detailed buildings and landscapes with lusciously rendered graphics and all sorts of borderline technologies for the platform such as genuine transparency, particle effects, sprite scaling and (particularly on the world map) rotation. From the game's dramatic opening, the player is whisked three years into the future, with the town rebuilt but the lives of its inhabitants devastated by the loss of community figures like Isaac's dad, the spirited Kyle and Jenna's brother Felix. Isaac and Garet have bettered themselves however, and are now adept in the skills of psynergy. Psynergy is Golden Sun's magic system, and flows - like the Force I suppose, and that's not the only Star Wars comparison I could draw - through every living thing, the theory being that they are made up of the four elements; earth, wind, fire and water. After overhearing two strangers (whom our heroes also ran into on the night of the storm) conversing about Sol Sanctum, the sacred temple in the mountain, Kraden - a wise old man befriended by the trio - leads them there, sneaking past the guard and into Sol Sanctum, where our heroes get their first taste of the game's true action; random encounters.
Whether you like random battles or not, you're going to have to get used to them if you want to play Golden Sun. As our heroes work their way deeper and deeper into Sol Sanctum they encounter puzzles and monsters in abundance. The puzzles are usually quite self-explanatory and take a few moments to complete, but they do get fairly difficult later on in the game. The game's battle system also matures. Switching to the battle screen for turn-based combat, our heroes can use basic attacks to begin with. Each is armed with a melee combat weapon, but their psynergy is used for benevolent and at times inappropriate spells at this point - using 'move' is hardly likely to help your party in a tough fight. When it comes to random encounters, players are given the option to fight or flee, but it helps to fight these battles because getting your party up to a reasonable level will be crucial to success against the game's more demanding foes. It takes a couple of hours - and a few more bombshells - before our heroes are ready to depart Vale on a greater quest, but by the time they do the player will have caught up with their special abilities and wielding psynergy will seem like child's play. Before long out in the open though players encounter a Djinn… Djinn are a bit like Pokémon, you've gotta catch 'em all. These creatures can be equipped to a specific player, and the first of them which you meet can be used in battle to increase the potency of Isaac's blade. Once used though, Djinn can then summon ethereal spirits to really lay waste to the party's aggressors. The only problem being that you have to let Djinn get their strength back between attacks. As a result they add a degree of depth to the game's combat system but also manage to avoid becoming the Guardian Forces of the 21st Century. When Final Fantasy VIII was originally released, many complained that summoning the game's GFs was - before long - the key to winning every single battle without hindrance. Because the Djinn tire quickly, other attacks have to be used, and players grow in their own abilities as well.
Of Sound Mind
The quests beyond the search for Sol Sanctum are extremely involving and take you all over the game world. As much as I would love to gush about these quests, the trophies they bring you and the people that join your party as a result, it would be extremely unfair of me, because anybody in their right mind will rush out and buy Golden Sun at the first opportunity and play it for themselves. Suffice it to say, this is a semi-linear adventure with a lot of distractions. One of the first sub-quests outside of Vale is to help Ivan of Vault - who quickly discovers his strange abilities are known as psynergy - to find a stolen artefact using his mind-reading capabilities. Golden Sun's soundtrack and sound effects in general are also straight out of the top drawer. A concerto of pan pipes and string instruments helps to convey the safety and comfort of the townsfolk whilst stronger, more exasperated music accompanies the party into battle. On the sound effect front, we could hardly expect dubbed voices on a GameBoy cart, but each of the game's occupants utters a distinctive gibberish to accompany their text box, and although I feared I would bore of this extremely quickly, I actually rather liked it. Your mileage may vary. As an afterthought perhaps, Camelot have even included a two-player mode. Restrictive though it is, you can actually link up with fellow Golden Sun owners and challenge their party to combat. This is a testament to the number of ways the average party can develop within Golden Sun. It all depends on who you assign Djinn to and whose psynergy you concentrate on. Oh, and what sort of funny name you chose instead of 'Isaac'…
As far as handheld RPGs go, this is probably the pinnacle thus far. Beating Breath of Fire hands down in terms of graphics, presentation, sound and gameplay, the only thing one might find is that the game is over somewhat quickly. Spaced out over a few weeks of standard GBA play the average gamer will have no complaints, and the 'save anywhere' feature is a comfort for commuters, but going at it like a bat out of hell I managed to scramble through the game in just two days. It was certainly an awesome experience though, and if you have the stomach for random encounters you should seek this game out on its release and play it to death, if only because we need to encourage more of this sort of behaviour from Nintendo.