I picked up Golden Sun for the main reason that it is an RPG for Game Boy Advance. For some reason, I really, really like owning portable RPGs. As I had discussed earlier elsewhere (actually in the GBA Breath of Fire review I had done while working for LunarNET, and speaking of which, working for LunarNET is the reason I hadn't written a Flame Bait Discussion in so long) I like being able to play my RPGs on the go. When I went to Australia my old Game Boy Pocket made the journey with me. And there's something nice about being able to play during lunch hour if there's nothing else to do.
Golden Sun was not my first choice of GBA RPG. I had a choice between Breath of Fire and Golden Sun when they first came out and I picked Breath of Fire, largely because it was the first of an established series I missed out on in olden days because I did not own a SNES. But some months later after I had finished that I came back to Golden Sun. I knew that it had been developed by Camelot, who had worked on Shining Force III for the Saturn. That sounded promising, and I had heard that several elements of the Shining series had been incorporated.
No kidding. Golden Sun might as well be considered an unofficial Shining game. It doesn't take place in the same world at all, but a lot of gameplay features are ripped right out of the Shining series, to the point where I wonder if it's even legal. For instance, they use the Shining series' trademark font, which I would think would be owned by Sega. When characters are upset their sprites tend to squish and unsquish rapidly to show agitation (this was just introduced in Shining Force III so I could let that slip as a Camelot thing). They also have artifact items (such as a healing ring) than can break if used in battle too much to cast spells. These items can then be repaired in shops. That's yet another element previously found only in the Shining games. And don't forget the cursed items, that behave exactly like their Shining series counterparts. Shining fans will also be instantly familiar with the nodding/shaking heads that represent the yes and no answers to various questions.
While video games rip off each other all the time, I just find those issues disturbing because Golden Sun is so bad about it. If I didn't know the game's title while I was playing I would've assumed it was a Shining game.
Okay, on to the game itself. The setting is very unusual in that magic is incredibly rare in this world. Usually in RPGs it's taken for granted by the general populace that certain people can run around and cast fireballs. Not so in Golden Sun. People who can use magic are called Adepts. And magic itself is a force called Psynergy. Outside of the Adepts themselves, people are largely unaware of magic, and the Adepts like to keep it that way. By far my favorite comment comes in the last third of the game when some ordinary soldiers say they saw another group of people (Adepts) put out a sandstorm using water, but no matter how many buckets of water the soldiers carried it would never be enough to equal what those people had done. There are other instances in the game where the party can startle bystanders for kicks by using their Psynergy (the energy itself is invisible to non-Adepts, even if the results are not).
Which brings up another point. Camelot really went out of their way to make Psynergy more than just than the name of the type of magic used in this world. Psynergy can be used all over the place. Not every spell for every situation of course, but there are quite a few that allow the player to directly interact with their environment. My favorite, would have to be the Mind Read ability. Ever wonder if a sleazy NPC is really telling the truth? Read his mind. Most of the time this isn't useful, but sometimes you can get some pretty funny comments out of people. It's probably my favorite Psynergy just because no one else has every done this before, and you literally can read the mind of every NPC you'd normally be able to talk to.
The combat took a little getting used to too. Not that the system is really any different from the standard attack, use magic, use item, run, and defend sort of stuff, but the point of view for the combat is rather disorienting. Rather than going for the standard enemies in front of you or party on the right and enemies on the left, it uses a rather diagonal point of view, with the party on the near right and the enemies of the far left. That would be okay, but the view actually changes as you fight. When you're choosing actions for the round the view abruptly changes to an over the shoulder look with the enemies straight ahead. Then as combat progresses, the view shifts in a semi-3Dish way to zoom up to show the critical hits, or just to follow the attacks of the various enemies and party members. Since the background does not directly match up with the party members' feet (or the monsters' appendages) this was rather disorienting for me at first. Eventually I got used to it and I didn't even notice it by the end of the game, but at first I couldn't help noticing how my characters would slide around on the background as the camera changed angles.
The only somewhat unique part of Golden Sun's combat system is the djinn. Perhaps innovated as a concession to the popularity of overly cute monsters, the djinn are small and entirely cute elemental entities. Equipping djinn can increase (or decrease if the wrong combination is used) a character's stats as well as change what magic spells are available to them. Indeed, some spells can only be obtained by this method. In combat each djinn has a different ability than can be unleashed in lieu of a normal attack. Most of them mimic spells (reviving an unconscious character, boosting the party's defense), but a few have unique abilites impossible to duplicate by any other method (such as the fire djinn Flash, which can reduce the damage done by all attacks until it's a neglible 5-15 points). After a djinn's ability is used the djinn itself is on "standby," which allows it to be used one step further. Standby djinn can be used to summon more powerful entities to do major amounts of damage, stuff that would otherwise take a few rounds to inflict. Summons are rather impractical for everyday fights, but it's useful to put a bunch of djinn on standby just before a boss fight and then run in and take off half the boss's hp in the first round. The characters' stats will often hurt for it (you lose any benefits of having an equipped djinn when they're on standby), but usually it's worth the pain and suffering those first few rounds until the djinn reset themselves on the party members (at a rate of one per character per round).
The story of Golden Sun is sadly perhaps its weakest component. It starts out well enough. A band of less-than-trustworthy folk break into the inner sanctum of Sol Sanction at Vale and steal three of the four Elemental Stars so that they can light the lighthouses and return the power of Alchemy to the world. (Why this is a bad thing is never explained.) While they're there they also kidnap Jenna, which doesn't sit well with her brother Felix, who disappeared in an accident three years ago and now has allied himself with the bad guys. Isaac, the main hero, and his friend Garet, manage to hold on to the Mars Star (losing the Venus, Mercury, and Jupiter Stars), but since it was partially their fault the inner sanctum got broken into in the first place, the village elder of Vale sends them on a quest to get them back. On their way they're joined by Ivan, a mind-reading kid, and Mia, one of the last descendants of the Mercury Clan. Her brother Alex is another one of the four antagonists. The other two, Saturos and Menardi, round out the cast.
The story, for the most part consists of Isaac running arond trying to set things right. The theft of the elemental stars caused a lot of natural disasters to happen throughout the land. Everywhere these mystical falling rocks land (Sol Sanctum was apparently lodged in a volcano and it blew when the Stars were stolen) something changes. At least, it did for the first half of the game. The strange effect of the rocks was dropped later in the game, though that might have been possible because the later towns were just too far away to ahve been affected. Right away it appears the story will be Isaac chasing Saturos, Menardi, Alex, and Felix to each of the four Lighthouses, trying to stop them from being lit. Well, you go run into the gang at the first Lighthouse at at about eight hours into the game. But what bothered me was that after that, you don't see them again until the end of the game. Why so long? It was tedious always being told I was just on their trail, but never actually seeing them until the end of the game. The game became pointless. I knew where to go next because I know how RPGs worked, but the story itself dried up to nothing. At thirty hours Golden Sun was a decent length, but the needs of the story would've dictated that the game be longer.
As I neared the end (unwittingly) I kept hearing things that would seem to make the game longer. The world map provided in the game and the paper map packaged with the box both indicated a rather small area for an RPG. After hearing that I needed to go west to Hesperia and being asked to go east for Lemuria, I naturally assumed that I would go to these places later and, joy, the world map was actually bigger than it looked. I wanted to find out Ivan's mysterious past. I wanted to discover the connection between the Adepts and ancient Lemuria. After all, there was precious little of the map left and I had only been to one of the four lighthouses. Alas, my hopes were dashed on the rocks, because Golden Sun is actually not a complete game.
And I'm actually rather peeved about that. Shining Force III was a three-parter, but I knew that going in. The first game wasn't called Scenario 1 for nothing. Golden Sun looked, for all intents and purposes, to be a stand alone RPG. There is nothing that says the game continues, which it does in a very Shining Force III-ish fashion. As with SFIII, the cleared game data from Golden Sun will be useable with Golden Sun II, and the end game stats will have a bearing on what happens later on. (Can we say a fight between Felix, the now the main character of GSII, and Isaac's party?) So this is in a sense, not Golden Sun, but Golden Sun Part 1.
I'm also annoyed because there was so little plot in Golden Sun that I would rather have condensed the entire thing into one game. And in fact, I think that's what Camelot originally intended to do. Upon reading a FAQ I discovered that Felix, Jenna, and Sheba (another character who has a very minor role in this game) are actually playable in Golden Sun with the use of a Gameshark. Not surprisingly, those three are the main characters of Golden Sun II. So it looks like they intended to do everything in one shot, then changed their mind. Perhaps there was so much material in II that the game would've been too long, or there wasn't enough time to complete it, but really, Golden Sun part 1 could've used some more fine tuning. There was way too much filler that did nothing to further the plot, and at the end of the game the player is left with nothing but questions. Nothing, and I mean nothing is answered in Golden Sun. We don't know why Felix fell in with these guys, we don't know why Alex did either (only Saturos and Menardi seem to be close to each other and we don't know why they're doing what they do either). We don't know Ivan's past and how it relates to Master Hama. We don't know where Sheba came from. We don't know why lighting the Lighthouses is so bad or why Felix is so determined to light them. (He won't even tell Isaac, saying that it's too complicated. Well shoot, I'm ready to listen. :P) It's just nothing. A big void. It would've been a fine chapter break in the middle of a larger story, but as a stand alone it's unacceptable, especially when the player is expecting a complete game. I would've been fine with the Shining Force III style set-up if I had know about it beforehand, but not as some cruel trick by the end (and as something I had to read up on to make sure there really was a Golden Sun II coming out).
Last comment here. I don't say much about the characters because honestly there isn't much to them. The villains only show up at the beginning and the end, and briefly in the early part of the game at the Mercury Lighthouse. Most of the characters are fairly stock, and I'm very disappointed that Menardi and Saturos die at Venus Lighthouse at the end of the game without learning more about them. Alex is even worse since he shows up least of all, but he returns in Golden Sun II so I'm hoping he and the others will be fleshed out there. I understand one of the GSII villains is a relative of Menardi's so perhaps through her we might eventually get some of her background. As the main hero, Isaac is the typical slient type. He only nods his head yes or no and that's about it (except for perhaps a "..."). Garet is a loud mouth who actually winds up doing the speaking for Isaac most of the time, and it's pretty obvious when he's doing that. I would rather have had Isaac actually saying his dialogue than Garet putting words in his mouth. Ivan is fun, at least when you first meet him, because he reads minds readily without really considering the implications of doing that. Must be one sick little kid. And yet he's probably the nicest member of the party. Mia is well, typically healer-type girl. Nothing unusual there, though I did feel rather used by her in Mercury Lighthouse. Most of the time you wonder how NPCs get through a monster/obstacle-infested dungeon while the party has to slog their way through. Not so with Mia. When she first tries to enter the dungeon without you, she winds up waiting patiently for you to remove the obstacle for her, then she rushes by and waits until she gets stuck by the next obstacle. How considerate.