What’s this? A non-glowing review of Golden Sun? It’s true…come inside to see why this game just isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
We all saw and read the hype before Golden Sun was released. Gorgeous graphics, beautiful music, a lengthy quest, and all from an experienced RPG developer…and on a handheld system! I must admit, even when I finally got my hands on the game back in November, I was quite impressed. Sure, the game starts out (very) slowly, but the battle system seemed to be solid, and there was potential for a good story. And the graphics and sound…suffice it to say, they did not disappoint.
Still, there was an inkling of worry. Under all the technical icing and the sheer joy of playing a handheld RPG, the game seemed to be missing something important…I just couldn’t put my finger on what that something was. As time went on and the weeks went by, that inkling of worry eventually grew into a general disgust for the game. How could such a thing happen? Well, I’ll tell you.
First, Golden Sun’s story is nowhere near satisfactory. The two-hour introductory sequence should have warned me that things would be progressing far too slowly for my taste, but the situation grows even worse towards the end. Characters continue to harp on about impending doom and how brave you kids are to be fighting, but no one seems to be terribly excited about what's going on. If the characters don't seem to care, it's hard for me to care. Ordinarily I’d pass that off as just a minor complaint, but in an RPG, the story is critical. You need a good story to keep motivating you through the extra-long playing experience. This game will probably take thirty or forty hours for some people to complete…and through it all, you’ll have to trudge through a very juvenile and frankly boring plot. To make matters worse, Camelot forces you to sit through ten times as much dialogue as is necessary to convey the overly simple story, so cut-scenes (which you can’t save during) often take ten minutes or more to complete. These aren’t exciting CG cut-scenes like you’d see in Final Fantasy either…just people standing around talking, dodging around the most obvious topics and displaying emotion through overused and ultimately useless comic-style expression bubbles.
The battle system looks good on paper, but in practice it is quickly ruined by the unbalanced Djinn system and practically no motivation to level up. Basically combat is always too easy. I thought the constantly regenerating Psynergy (magic points) would make the game more fun and less frustrating, but it takes away too much urgency. Never did I feel that I was about to die, and that it’d take every trick in the book to make it through the next boss and on to an inn. Golden Sun smothers you in healing items, too-powerful magic spells, and summon spells that can defeat even bosses in a couple hits. The end result is that you never feel satisfied after battle, and you’re already so powerful that there’s no incentive to level up more than you already will just by progressing the story.
Easily the best part of Golden Sun’s gameplay is the puzzles. By allowing some magic to be used in the field as well as in battle (and a few only in the field), Camelot is able to set up all kinds of opportunities for environment interaction…an unusual but very welcome element to have in an RPG. Starkly contrasting with the game’s story and battles, GS’s puzzles are often quite difficult, and younger gamers who can appreciate the rest of the game’s immaturity may be put off by the numerous log-rolling and block-pushing conundrums. Older and more experienced RPG fans, however, will likely find the puzzles to be the most rewarding aspect of the entire game. Even if the Djinn have ruined combat, they are damn fun to search for in all the various caves and towns.
As for the graphics…well, they’re everything you’ve heard and more. Not only are the Mode-7 battles gorgeous and fast-moving, but the overhead 2D field maps are all very detailed. Golden Sun’s world map is also done in Mode-7, oddly enough, and that approach manages to work quite well. One very cool feature of the world map is that you can zoom out with the L-button, but unfortunately it doesn’t really zoom out enough to help you plan your trip.
Except for the character voices, which you can turn off, GS’s sound is as great as the graphics. Sound effects are quite nice, and the music...beautiful. People who play this game’s music through the GBA speaker can shampoo my crotch.
Ultimately, Golden Sun is a technically beautiful game whose massive potential is largely wasted due to shallow gameplay and an awful story. It’s the kind of game that you want to like, but in the end its flaws just become too glaring to ignore. I actually lost all desire to play at one point, and despite many efforts to get back into it and finish the quest, I probably never will see the ending. And I honestly don’t care anymore. This game is quite adequate for inexperienced or younger RPG players, but serious fans of the genre have come to expect far more.