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‘Illusion of Gaia’ – A Timeless RPG

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Illusion of Gaia

“No matter what kind of world people have, if they think they’re happy, they’ll be happy.”

The passage of time is as inherent as it is unrelenting. Man is born only to die, empires rise only to fall, and history is made only to be forgotten. Time, as a concept, is overwhelming, overbearing, and frankly difficult to comprehend in its totality. Time makes no promises. Life will not necessarily get better with time. One’s suffering is not guaranteed to end in time. The only certainty that time brings with it is the promise that life will change. Which is exactly the core premise of Illusion of Gaia.

Time affects everyone and everything, and the only influence someone has over time is deciding what they do with their time. Of course, being the hero of an RPG, protagonist Will’s adventure is a rather rebellious one that sees him actively fighting against the onset of time, but Quintet takes a rather candid approach to how the narrative reflects on the concept of time. Yes, time is often cruel, but time also allows a boy to grow into a man, a girl to find her place in the world, and a world to evolve towards a new era.

Like Soul Blazer before it, Illusion of Gaia takes a rather candid and mature approach to how it addresses its core theme. Although its localization isn’t nearly as good (barely just serviceable,) the central narrative is strong enough where it can make up for any nuances lost in translation. Illusion of Gaia is very visual when it comes to its story. There are quite a few moments when the text dominates the game’s pacing, but, for the most part, Quintet makes smart use of its set pieces to weave a tale that’s centered around time. Quite literally. Unlike most RPGs, time is a constant presence in Illusion of Gaia.

illusion of gaia

Will never shies away from letting audiences know just how long his adventure is taking. Early in the game, he and co-lead Kara are lost at sea for three weeks with players maintaining control during their voyage. Later on, Will and friends are lost in a cave for days on end. While the sequence isn’t as played out as the former, players do take control of Will during this time, allowing for some reflection on the passage of time. Far too often, RPGs— especially those of the era— simply allow the sun to rise and fall in order to telegraph the passage of time through shorthand, but Illusion of Gaia uses time as a means of character and plot development.

Will and Kara develop a romance not because they’re compatible, but because they spend three weeks alone together (and perhaps due to some light destiny.) Will doesn’t mature because of some crucial moment in his journey or arc, but because traveling the world for months while witnessing tragedy after tragedy will force anyone to grow up fast. It’s this emphasis on time that separates Illusion of Gaia from other coming of age narratives. Just about every member of the main cast grows up in some sense over the course of the game, but almost exclusively because it’s time for them to grow up.

Spending so much time with Lilly, Lance feels himself develop into a more in-tune and responsible young man. Growing up in the story proper thanks to an actual birthday the cast celebrates, Lilly lets go of her insecurities and stops using Will as a shield from the rest of the cast, personified through her relationship with Lance. Neglecting his family and home life for years, Neil laments how he distanced himself from his parents and accepts that it’s time for him to inherit the family business.

illusion of GaiaIn the same way, most NPCs in Soul Blazer philosophically reflected on death, NPCs in Illusion of Gaia make mention of time rather often. Of course, due to the poor translation, said mentions aren’t nearly as insightful as they were in Quintet’s previous action RPG, but the script still manages to convey the importance of time as a theme. When NPCs do mention time, they’re prone to a bit of morbidity. In one of the last towns Will visits, an NPC tells Will that the women in his hut were born to weave carpenters for 40 years. While cruel enough in its own right to be born into decades-long servitude, the NPC twists the knife further by telling Will to remember that not everyone is born into a fortunate life.

Perhaps in another, lesser, RPG, this would result in Will saving the women from their fate outright, but who is he to fight against a culture behind the times? The very nature of Will’s journey likewise pits him against the clock. With a comet on its way to Earth, it’s only a matter of time before it forces mass evolution at a rapid rate, destroying Will’s world as he knows it and ushering in a new age without him or humanity. Humanity’s time has come to an end, but Will refuses to accept his fate.

Even then, fighting against the tide of time doesn’t result in a happy ending for Will or the world. In defeating Dark Gaia, the world nonetheless changes. Humanity remains intact, but time races forward to the late 20th century, leaving the fantastical setting behind. Trees are replaced by buildings, rivers by roads, but humanity remains. Will and his friends are together in this new world, but with none of their memories of the past. Will can fight fate, but he cannot fight the passage of time. One of the last sequences in the game sees Will and Kara witnessing the continents rifting rapidly from outer space, further cementing time’s presence in the overall story.

illusion of Gaia

Just like how Soul Blazer integrated death into its core gameplay mechanics, so does Illusion of Gaia integrate time. Unlike Soul Blazer, however, Illusion of Gaia takes a more abstract approach to its theme. For most of the game, combat and dungeoneering are shared between two playable characters: Will and the Dark Knight, Freedan. A much taller and older character, Freedan, is heavily implied to be an older version of Will himself, willed into the world by Gaia in order to help Will on his quest. It isn’t exactly time travel, but— much like how The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time would use the same concept on a thematic and gameplay level years later— Freedan’s presence does tie into the overarching theme of time while giving players some much needed gameplay variety.

More importantly, time as a concept through gameplay comes not from the literal passage of time, but from reflections on eras of time. Every major dungeon in the game owes its influence to a different culture in history. Will traverses Incan Ruins, fights his way through the Angkor Wat, scales the Great Wall of China, and solves the riddles of an Egyptian Pyramid. Even the Sky Garden, the game’s most fantastical dungeon, is clearly based on the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. While most dungeons in the game tie into the theme of time by simply being an area out of time, the Incan Ruins go one step further by having Will interact with the Incas.

Upon completing the dungeon, Will meets the people of the Inca Empire, ready to sail off into the new world. On the ship, multiple NPCs interestingly allude to Will being the lost emperor of the Inca people. Considering Quintet’s heavy usage of reincarnation in their games, playing a key role in both Soul Blazer and Illusion of Gaia’s ending, it can be taken quite literally that Will is the reincarnated Inca emperor, reuniting with his people one last time before continuing on his quest. It’s a moment that gets little to no narrative focus, but it’s an important thematic moment.

illusion of gaia

Time as a concept isn’t just about the linear or literal passage of time, it’s about looking back on what’s been lost to time. The Inca are gone; the Angkor Wat is littered with zombies and decay; the Pyramid is a testament to what happens when one’s time is up, and the Nazca Desert serves as the only proof that the Sky Garden ever actually existed. Time leaves history, culture, and people behind. The very ending of Illusion of Gaia suggests that Will’s journey, his struggled, and his past have all been lost to time in order to make room for a modern, industrialized age.

So long as people think they’re happy, they will be happy regardless of what time has taken away. But this is the wrong message to take away from Illusion of Gaia. Time marches on, but that doesn’t mean history needs to be forgotten. Before their reincarnation, Will tells Kara that he will find her in their next life. They might not remember each other, but he vows to track her down. After the credits have rolled, after the world has turned over, Will is reunited with those he lost. Time might pass the world by, but there will always be friends finding each other, there will always be couples falling in love, and there will always be a reason to reflect on what’s come and gone. That is the illusion of time Illusion of Gaia wants its audiences to reflect on.

illusion of gaia

An avid-lover of all things Metal Gear Solid, Devil May Cry, and pretentious French lit, Renan spends most of his time passionately raving about Dragon Ball on the internet and thinking about how to apply Marxist theory to whatever video game he's currently playing.

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‘Garden Story’ First Impressions: The Coziest of Adventures

Long-awaited Twitter darling Garden Story just released its first demo. Here’s what we learned after playing through it twice.

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garden story

Following the unfortunate (but understandable) delay of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, there’s been a distinct lack of chill, aesthetic games to fill the void. Garden Story’s charming environmental art and animation have earned it a dedicated social media following, but it wasn’t until Picogram released a demo just a couple days ago that anyone with a Steam account could actually experience the game for themselves. So, just how fun is this wholesome little RPG?

Setting the Scene

Garden Story’s demo centers around the newly-appointed village guardian Concord (a grape) and their first steps in rebuilding Autumn Town, a community ravaged by a sinister force known as “the Rot.” Chatting with villagers reveals a bit of insight into the situation at hand; it’s soon clear just how much the other townsfolk need the player’s support.

There are several clear parallels to old-school Legend of Zelda titles here, but Garden Story manages to set itself apart rather quickly. For one, this isn’t a solo adventure; the player sets out with Rana (a frog) and Fuji (a tomato) on a friendly quest to be as helpful to the surrounding community as possible. Seeing friends around and watching cute scripted cutscenes between the crew does a great job of instilling a sense of camaraderie and friendship.

In another pleasant twist, everything here is themed around building rather than destroying. Instead of traditional swords and bows, Concord repurposes his dowsing rod and scavenging pick into makeshift weapons. The combat itself calls to mind Stardew Valley; simple, minimal, and clearly not the main focus. There’s a pesky stamina bar that restricts the number of times Concord can attack and how far they can run, frequently forcing players to pause between barrages. In this way, encounters often come off as more of a necessary evil in Concord’s town rehabilitation journey than a main attraction.

Rebuilding a Community

So, how does one go about aiding the town? The method highlighted in the demo was by attending to a quest board with three different types of requests: Threat (combat), Repair (exploration), and Want (gathering). Each is accompanied by a task that plays an integral part in keeping Autumn Town safe and in good working order (e.g. clearing out Rot, finding sewer access so new resources can flow into town, and so on).

Aside from fulfilling requests, there are a few interesting hooks to incentivize hitting every shiny thing you come across regardless. The more different types of items are scavenged, and the more catalogues are filled by being updated with new materials, the more literature becomes available to give little bits of insight into Garden Story’s world and history. Then, in another parallel to Stardew Valley, any leftover resources can be sold in the pursuit of buying tool upgrades.

While the full game will feature four locations to explore and tend to, there was still plenty to do in Autumn Town itself by the end of the demo. Rana mentioned that villagers will post new requests daily, and the demo even featured a mini side quest (called “favors”) that led me to obtain a brand-new tool. Between daily requests, favor fulfillment, and dungeons spread across four different regions, it’s looking like there will be a good bit of content here for those who really want to hang around Garden Story’s world for as long as possible.

Ambient Appeal

Though it remains to be seen just how enticing its complete gameplay loop and accompanying systems are, Picogram’s latest is already delivering on its core appeal: being a cozy, relaxing experience. The color palette is soft, the lighting is moody, and the soundtrack is right up there with the Animal Crossing series as having some of the most mellow, loopable tunes around.

In fact, it’s the sound design in particular that gives Garden Story such an intimate feel. From the sound of a page turning when entering and exiting buildings to the gentle gurgles of a bubbling brook in the forest, it’s clear that composer Grahm Nesbitt poured a ton of love into making this one feel just right. Here’s hoping the full game more than delivers on all the potential shown here.

Garden Story is slated to release in Spring of 2020 and is available to wishlist on Steam.

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How Asynchronous Online in ‘Death Stranding’ Brings Players Together

Hideo Kojima’s latest game creates a sense of community by aiding other players on the same perilous journey.

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Death Stranding

Video games have always been fascinated with the idea of player interactivity as a means of crafting a power fantasy. The player typically goes on a hero’s journey, eventually culminating in them being the one and only savior of the world inside the game. Typically associated with single-player games, MMOs also crafted that same narrative but with the conceit that everyone is going on this journey. Often the acknowledgments of other players are in multiplayer-specific features such as PvP and Raids. Destiny is a great example of a series that takes players on the same journey and makes no promise that the story is different between players by even allowing them to engage in playing story missions together. It all feeds into the larger narrative of Guardians fighting together to save the Light. A game that handles this very similar and perhaps more successfully is Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding.

While lacking any direct player-to-player interaction, Kojima’s latest game is drenched in the conceit that community is crucial to triumph over adversity. You can read many articles about the game’s ideas of community from fellow writers on the site. What hasn’t quite gotten the attention it deserves is how revolutionary Death Stranding feels in terms of utilizing asynchronous online to greatly affect the game itself. Games like Dark Souls and other FromSoftware titles have included the ability to leave notes (which Death Stranding also offers) that help (or trick) players as they venture throughout the world on their own. How those notes’ effects are manifested are often on a much smaller scale – helpful at times but often to warn players of an impending way they might die. They don’t have a large impact on the player, only a temporary means of cheating death. 

Where Death Stranding becomes something greater in scale is in what it lets other players do to other peoples’ single-player experiences. In the game, you play as Sam Porter Bridges who is tasked with reconnecting America from coast-to-coast. At first, the game thrusts Sam into its narrative, taking the reluctant, isolated character and forcing him to eventually realize the importance of hope and connections in dire times. As Sam starts bringing more and more people onto the Chiral network (which allows instantaneous communication and the transferring of 3D-printable goods), so too does the game open up and reveal its ultimate goal: to bring players together.

Death Stranding

This doesn’t mean players will ever talk to other players, and the game very much avoids any real negative actions that can be performed on players. In fact, someone could play the game without ever actively engaging with online features. Instead, the game will passively hand out “likes” to other players whose ladders are used or roads are driven. If one wanted to fight the game’s narrative and instead keep Sam isolated and away from the community that the Chiral network provides, they could definitely do that – no matter how antithetical it would be to do so. Death Stranding even offers an offline mode that would nullify all of that and keep the experience solely on the player’s impact on the world and no one else’s. 

Yet there’s a reason the online mode is the default mode. It was near the end of Episode 3 (which also happens to be when the game unloads almost all of its mechanics onto the player) when I finally realized the impact I was having on other people’s games. I had spent an entire day playing the game, but focusing largely on delivering premium deliveries – these are optional challenges that essentially boil down to carrying more cargo, damaging cargo less, or getting to your destination in a set amount of time. Death Stranding doesn’t ever tell you the best way to get somewhere. Instead, it places a wide array of tools in front of you and assuming the Chiral network is set up in an area, it can provide a rough guide on places to avoid or infrastructure already built. However, one of the key pieces of infrastructure missing for my playthrough was roads. My efforts immediately became focused on building a network of roads that made their way all throughout one of the larger areas in the game.

The game doesn’t ever make you build roads. It tells you the option is there but it doesn’t force your hand. Often tools will be introduced, like zip lines and floating carriers, but the game never demands that they’re used. Of course, engaging with those tools will make your life easier. There are easy ways to start building infrastructure in Death Stranding: ropes and ladders can help to scale mountains or plummet depths. Those will remain in the world for other players to use and will even appear on their maps as they hook up areas to the Chiral network. So, someone who plays the game earlier than someone else could lay down ropes and ladders, and depending on when the other person starts playing, they will find those once they have progressed to a point where they are traversing that area. Where the game becomes even grander in its sense of community is the realization that the more players commit to building roads or setting up zip lines, the more other players benefit.

Death Stranding

The reality is that ladders and ropes are temporary – they cannot be rebuilt, they can only be replaced. The game’s Timefall – a weather phenomenon that acts as rain but ages anything it comes into contact with – can reset an entire map after a while if there is nothing more substantial placed on the map. So in my game, I decided that whenever I could build a road, I committed to doing so. This could mean going to multiple waystations and collecting materials that have amassed over time from deliveries, or going out in the world and finding these materials like Chiral crystals. At a certain point, I would load up a truck with multiple deliveries that were on or near the roads I had built, as well as with as many metal and ceramic materials I could load into the truck before it reached capacity. As I delivered packages, I’d replace them with more deliveries and more materials from each waystation. Eventually, I’d find myself at a point where a road was not built yet and would then build that road.

Community stands as the strongest component of Death Stranding .

In contrast to a game like Dark Souls, actions in the world such as providing notes on the ground or helping another player with a boss battle is helping them cheat death. The community that is being built is not one that has any lasting effect on the world in the game. No Man’s Sky may let players interact with each other and further their knowledge of the universe within the game, but often that help is relegated to an isolated planet. It’s a more contained impact. Hideo Kojima created a game where players don’t just build infrastructures for themselves, they can intentionally or inadvertently assist other players throughout their games. This leads to players like myself creating strand contracts with other players who have built things I liked in the game. A strand contract is a powerful feature because it means more of that players’ roads or other items built for the world will show up more frequently in my game.

Every Action in Death Stranding Creates Hope

One of the perks of building so many roads is you also get a lot of likes, whether passively given because someone used the road or actively provided by a player because they not only used the road but were appreciative that someone built it. It’s hard not to feel important in someone else’s life when you’ve made their experience less cumbersome because they no longer have to drive over rocky terrain or through enemy territory but instead can take a highway to their destination. What’s better is that more substantial developments like bridges and roads can be repaired by other players and even upgraded. So while I laid the initial roads down, I actually haven’t spent any materials repairing them. Instead, notifications come in and tell me players have repaired roads I’ve built. There’s no real reason to do that unless the infrastructure built was necessary to their journey through the game – making it easier but also providing the same feeling of helping out a larger community. 

Community stands as the strongest component of Death Stranding – a game that doesn’t even try to be subtle in its intentions. Traversing Kojima’s version of post-apocalyptic America is harrowing on your own. With just your two feet and a package to deliver when the entire world itself is trying to stop you from doing so, America isn’t just divided – it’s hostile. Where Death Stranding shines brightest is when it offers a helping hand. Players aid one another to achieve the same unified goal: save the country. All of this is under the assumption that the country can be saved, but there is no denying that seeing someone else’s rope hanging off a steep cliff, or a Timefall shelter where it rains Timefall on a constant basis, is one of the most satisfying feelings. In Death Stranding, it isn’t enough to know that you’re making progress, but that everyone is willing to assist others to reach the same end goal. It’s a game where every action creates hope and is built upon the idea that we are at our best when we work together.

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‘Woven’ Review: Comfortably Soft and Lumpy

Despite those blurry visuals and stilted gameplay, there’s something endearing about this innocent elephant’s adventure.

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With a sincere warmth and fuzziness that conjures up dreamy recollections of 3D games gone by, Alterego GamesWoven mostly overcomes its blurry visuals and technical jankery to somehow create a pleasant, old-fashioned experience. Those excited by modern gaming probably won’t give this lovable hand-me-down a second look, and perhaps they shouldn’t; extremely simple actions and soothing narration support a fairy tale quality that’s probably best suited to younger players. However, anyone willing to look past the well-worn exterior in search of a relaxing break from stressful button pushing may squeeze more fun out of this familiar stuffed toy than they might originally expect.

Woven tasks players with taking control of a meandering patchwork elephant named Stuffy, and guiding him through a sparsely populated knitted world that seems to have met an untimely demise. Because Stuffy has cotton for brains, he is assisted on this journey by a much smarter metal firefly named Glitch (a reference to his role in this story?), who floats alongside the curious-but-clumsy plush toy and provides hints as to how he can use his various abilities. Together, this odd couple will traverse open plains blanketed with colorful yarn grass, maneuver around impassable felt trees and plants, and hopefully discover the secret of where Stuffy’s clueless kin have all gone.

Along the way, the duo will walk great distances (often without much event), solve the occasional environmental puzzle, and generally just keep on keepin’ on.Woven is mostly straightforward in its campaign, merely about getting from point A to B by whatever means the path requires. Most often this involves finding new blueprints that allow players to change Stuffy’s design from an elephant into a wide variety of other animal shapes, each with a set of abilities that come with a new set of arms, legs, and a head. For instance, while the stocky (and adorable) bear can push plush boulders and perform a mighty stomp, the goat and frog can both use their legs to hop, while the kitty cat is able to push buttons on rusted consoles that activate dormant machinery.

However, these abilities are usually only able to activate when context-sensitive prompts from Glitch appear, so don’t expect some sort of platforming freedom. Woven handles a bit clumsily in that regard and others; strolling is definitely the order of the day, as long as Stuffy doesn’t get hung up on the geometry.

But these actions do help provide variety; a tropical bird of some sort (toucan, maybe?) can sing certain notes, while a pelican-thing can fly (sort of) over land and shallow water with great speed. And so, it often becomes necessary in Woven to alter Stuffy’s look with a total reweave. These designs can be applied at various sewing machine-like stations scattered about, which go a step further than just swapping Stuffy the deer for Stuffy the ape. Each blueprint is comprised of five parts, allowing for players to create a Frankenstein Stuffy made up of all the best abilities the player has on hand (or cushioned paw). By mixing certain sets, Stuffy will soon be able to scale mountainside crags, cross piranha-filled rivers, and pick up industrial cogs without the need to make a pit stop and bust out new needle and thread.

Some truly hilarious (or horrifying, depending on your sensibilities) aberrations can be created; seeing Stuffy hobble on hooves as he flaps a wing on one side and swings a muscular gorilla arm on the other, all with the head of a squirrel, is freakishly entertaining. In addition, for those who like to wander off the beaten path, there are a plethora of knitting patterns to discover, tucked away in both obvious and devious locations (and denizens). These cosmetic enhancements can also be applied at the sewing stations, essentially giving players seemingly endless amounts of customization. And these aesthetic changes even get in on the puzzle act every once in a while, especially when a pesky cobra shows up.

But outside the odd ‘connect the power line’ or ‘raise and lower platforms’ objectives, Woven doesn’t throw much at players that even young children shouldn’t be able to handle — and that seems to be the aim. Stuffy’s adventure lives or dies on its wholesome and serene vibe, which players either buy into or they don’t. There’s no combat here, very little to actually do outside hunting down those patterns, illuminating some painted caves, and activating some of Glitch’s ‘memories’ contained by machines hidden in the soft folds. Ongoing narration is pleasant to the ears, often conveying old-fashioned morals and cutesy jokes, but there’s no more story than in a classic fable.

And make no mistake — though the world is certainly bright and cheerful, it’s also quite fuzzy around the edges. The tactile nature of the cloth textures is lessened greatly by the low definition (at least on the Switch version), eliciting memories of the Wii-era. An increased crispness would have really made the world of Woven pop off the screen, perhaps luring in a larger audience who have become accustomed to such. There is still plenty of charm, but it feels like a missed chance at that true magical feeling the game seems to be shooting for.

Other stumbles come when certain worlds try to open up a bit more, which might lead a younger audience to get frustrated by the lack of direction (especially when they keep getting hung up on that geometry!); Woven definitely works better when it’s casually guiding players along, letting gamers of all ages envelop themselves in the easygoing atmosphere instead of requiring tedious backtracking. There’s just something nice about sitting back and relaxing to hummable music, watching the roly-poly amble of a stuffed kangaroo.

Woven will not be for everyone; those who play for challenge or eye candy won’t find either here. And yet, despite those blurry visuals and stilted gameplay, there’s something endearing about this innocent elephant’s adventure. Woven certainly has its share of lumpiness, but somehow remains cozy regardless.

‘Woven’ is available on PC, Xbox One, PS4, and Switch (Reviewed on Switch).

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