The best Japanese RPG you've never played
The GoodIllusion City
was developed by Micro Cabin
, better known for their action RPG Xak
series. Together with Right Stuff
, Micro Cabin
will enter the history of the genre as creators of classic turn-based RPG that originated on computers (as opposed to "console-centric" approach of the more popular Japanese RPG developers of the time). Illusion City
is undeniably the company's greatest masterpiece in the genre. Micro Cabin
might have had more success with action RPGs (they also developed more of those), but with this game's release they proved they could surpass most of their turn-based competitors. Illusion City
is so remarkably polished, so expertly crafted, and so unique in style and presentation, that it's a wonder that its creators didn't become the most famous Japanese RPG developers in the world. It is also a wonder why this gem of a game was never released outside of Japan. Understanding that the MSX computer (for which the game was originally developed) was never a platform known for its RPG, and with all due respect to Mega CD RPG hits like Lunar
, it is hard to understand why nobody has ever thought of translating a Japanese RPG that was in many ways less "Japanese" and more appealing to Western players than most of its counterparts.
Everything in this game screams "quality". From the location design to the animation, from the weapons to the dungeons, characters and music - everything was clearly made by people who were experts at their jobs. There is not a single aspect in Illusion City
which is below the highest standards of the epoch. From the moment you fire up the game, you become immersed in its world and realize you are invited to something special.
The first thing you'll probably notice is the exceptional quality of the graphics. Japanese RPGs were never particularly strong in this aspect; later, they learned to impress with their cinematic direction and imaginative location design, but rarely with the pure technical quality of their graphics. They could be visually appealing and colorful; but they could not compete with Western games in terms of realism and detail. That is, except Illusion City
. The first thing I thought when I started playing this game was not even "wow, those graphics are great", but rather "it looks like a Western game". Visually, Illusion City
is not particularly colorful or "cute" or stylish in a specific Japanese way. It doesn't really look like a Japanese game. Take a look at the screenshots and you'll see that it has more visual similarities with Ultima VII
than with the Japanese games of its time.
The locations in the game are meticulously detailed; every place oozes atmosphere, and the environments convey a sense of continuity and stylistic homogeneity nearly unseen in comparable products. Japanese games usually resemble cartoons; Illusion City
is all about realism. It doesn't strive to recreate one more time the charm of Japanese anime, but opts to create a real
world that is bound only by the technical limitations of the epoch.
The most astounding visual aspect of the game is the animation; I feel the need to dedicate a special paragraph to it. Illusion City
made me notice how poorly animated most other Japanese games were. Indeed, in the cartoony world of Japanese RPGs, a couple of goofy looping movements was enough to provide the effect. Illusion City
attempts to have realistic animation that competes with the most serious examples of Western techniques - and that in a genre which, even in its Western incarnation, was never known for achievements in this field. It's enough to take a look at how Tianren actually wears his coat
in the beginning of the game, step by step, with realistic gestures, to understand the effort that went into the animation. Once you begin to explore the city, you'll notice much more. People smoking on the streets, shop clerks wiping counters with rags, and so on; everything is in motion, everything is alive. Combat is splendidly
animated, easily surpassing the (already very impressive) achievement of Phantasy Star II
: enemies are moving all the time; you can clearly see how Meihong executes her melee attack or how Cash fires his heavy gun; a particular boss battle has you fighting a constantly running black leopard. Needless to say how much life and action all this breathes into the turn-based battles of the game.
The music is fantastic as well. Every piece is fitting, and there is plenty of variety; there are special tunes not only for the different districts, but even for shops and subway stations! The latter, in particular, was my favorite; though a bit too similar to Terminator
, it was a great musical composition that enforced the futuristic atmosphere. The Mega CD version also has redbook tracks for the battles, and they are excellent.
The world of Illusion City
is much more than a graphical showcase: it is a highly detailed and fairly original representation of a futuristic city. The game abandons the usual Japanese formula of exploring a world map and advancing from town to town; it is set entirely in Hong-Kong. But don't think that the world of Illusion City
is small. The city is composed of several districts, each being noticeably larger than most contemporary Japanese RPG towns (if we ignore exceptions such as Babel
). The districts all have unique themes; there are "slums", regular residential areas, high-tech environments; there is an odd and appealing mixture of classic Chinese palaces and skyscrapers, of the bustling Asian markets and "cold", modern office complexes. Each district is a pleasure to explore; you admire the scenery, talk to the NPCs, visit new shops, and finally find your way to the next dungeon.Illusion City
is quite heavy on dungeon "crawling"; though "exploring" would be a more fitting word here. The dungeons are just perfect in size and complexity. There are always
optional paths that might lead to some rewarding treasure; but the complexity never becomes a goal in itself (as it was, for example, in Phantasy Star II
). Exploring those dungeons is a challenge; finding the right path fills you with joy; but it never turns into an excruciating experience that many "dungeon crawlers" deteriorate into.
The basic gameplay of Illusion City
is not that much different from other Japanese RPGs: fight enemies in turn-based style, gain levels, become stronger. It's the execution, the wealth of options, and the balance that make the simple battles enjoyable and rewarding. There are no random battles
in the game; every enemy group is visibly walking on the screen. Though most of them will charge at you and sometimes outrun you if you attempt to escape, it is much more fun to engage enemies when you actually want to, rather than being forced into the battle every few steps. Illusion City
was one of the earlier examples of elimination of the omnipresent random battle generator in turn-based Japanese RPGs; only the first Legend of Heroes
comes to my mind as its precursor.
Two of the controllable characters (Tianren and the old Master) come with a plethora of spiritual techniques (equivalent to magic), ranging from elemental attacks to healing and support. But the more interesting and original gameplay aspect is the weapon management. First of all, the selection of weapons (as well as armor) is absolutely huge
. Each district sells different stuff, and Doc's downtown shop lists powerful and highly priced items that you'll be saving money for more than once. Since you can always go back to that shop, there is a flexibility in equipment purchasing that is lacking in most other Japanese RPGs, where a new town usually equals better stuff. The futuristic setting translates itself into the gameplay, as many of the weapons are of the firearm variety: guns, rifles, laser-charged pistols, cannons, etc.
Every weapon comes with unique ammunition; it is necessary to stock of bullets of various types before you venture into a dungeons, since weapons actually consume and eventually run out of ammo in this game. Many of the weapons and armor have side effects, positive and negative. The manual lists many of those, but is by no means complete. This accounts for interesting moments such as the one when I entered a dungeon with a brand new, immensely powerful weapon for Tianran, only to discover in the first battle that the weapon depletes his technique points, effectively putting the team at the risk of remaining without a healer. Characters can also specialize in certain types of weapons, and this specialization really matters. All this makes preparation and strategic plans an enjoyable process; with options that clearly surpass the traditional, straightforward "a weapon that does +5 damage is better" philosophy of most Japanese RPGs, the game makes a step towards Western representatives of the genre.
The story has less obvious drama and "sweetness" usually associated with Japanese RPGs, but it is still emotional and engaging in the best traditions of the genre. The main characters are appealing and well-developed (though Tianren was a bit too "silent" for my taste); the villains are interesting and fairly convincing in their motivations. There are ambiguous characters and moments in the narrative that conveyed suspense and dramaticism. Even though all the cutscenes (with the exception of the Mega CD intro) are made with in-game engine, there are plenty of them, and they appear at the right moments, to reward for an exhausting dungeon exploration and refresh the story.
Personally, I was surprised by the "edgy" character of the narrative and its mature (compared to other Japanese RPGs) thematics. There are even a few semi-explicit sex scenes (!), which look nothing like full-blown nudity from hentai games; rather, they reminded me what I saw in Serpent Isle
(though they were less explicit than in Dreamweb
). There are also scenes with blood and rather graphic violence; overall, the "cuteness" factor is nearly non-existent (even the occasional comic relief tends to be more "naughty" than cute), and even the clearly anime-style character portraits somehow look different, more serious and realistic than in other Japanese games.
The unusual urban setting might not be everybody's cup of tea. Obviously, you won't be following the usual "world map - town - dungeon" routine here. The areas are vast and detailed, but the world is confined to one city only. There are no wilderness areas and no "epic" feel of exploring a whole planet. Illusion City
is like chamber music, as opposed to the "symphonic" texture of most other Japanese RPGs. Personally, I loved this different approach, because it was executed so well, but some other players might feel a need for a more expansive adventure.
The structure of the narrative is slightly
formulaic. Each chapter ends with the heroes returning to Hong-Kong's downtown; typically, a dialogue with the Teacher and a trip to the bar where you get the next assignment follows. You can predict that in the end you'll have to face all of the four guardians, traveling to the respective city districts.
The Bottom LineIllusion City
is the gourmet dish of Japanese RPG. There are more dynamic and easy-going games out there, but Illusion City
is the heavyweight genre champion of its time and beyond. It is dripping with quality; it is immersive and absorbing; it has outrageous production values; it has a distinct personality that makes it so different from other games of the genre; it is the best Japanese RPG you've never played.
Last advice: if you can't read Japanese, by all means, get a hold of the unofficially translated MSX version. Though obviously technically inferior to its Mega CD counterpart, it is currently the only way to enjoy this remarkable game in English.