Travel is a wonderful illusion, until you get to Egypt

illusion of time

Illusion of Time (1995)

How do you know when somebody’s gone to see some wondrous tourist landmark? They tell you about it immediately and without prompt. If not to your face, then by way of a dozen distinctly amateur social media photos per decrepit building. No sooner will somebody have been to the Eiffel Tower than they’ll have scored dozens of Likes and Favourites and Retweets or whatever else from a tap-in of a scene, a real freebie to photograph and make social media currency off. And no sooner have they visited the Grand Canyon than their dung-eating grins become twice as wide as the Canyon itself, while they self-indulgently regale you with facts that they made sure to Wiki beforehand.

Why am I so bitter? It’s because the only thing I’ve got that closely resembles a trump card in holidaying circlejerks is my trip to Egypt almost 8 years ago. Now this, like all of my other heroic boasts, sure sounds great on paper – how many of these predictable patrons of the Colisseum can say they’ve seen an ancient Wonder of the World? How many can even say they’ve visited Africa?
But here’s where the bitterness comes in: yes, I made the long journey to the North of Africa and saw the Great Pyramid and the Sphinx and even Tutankhamun’s tomb and other temples and thought they were the business. But these small thrills lasted about 10 minutes apiece; we still had six days, twenty-three hours and thirty minutes in which to occupy ourselves, and that was when the trouble started.
Look, I don’t think any of us expects anything from Africa anymore, but I did at least hope for a bit of civilised society from Luxor and Cairo. What we saw was pretty EuroNews stuff, calling to mind grainy videos of public square massacres. Mos Eisley would have given us a better reception. Of course there is poverty, knowing where it is, but one would have thought that they’d have it a bit more together. That’s how they advertise it, right? They must surely have made a whole load of fat stacks off tourism over the years?
Well, the lads who fight for the glorious cause of the Trades Description Act must have all called in sick during the African leg of their tour of duty because Egypt’s media portrayal as a swarthy, exotic Agrabah-lite is the biggest case of false advertising since I watched that bible film The Greatest Story Ever Told.
There were no John Waynes with showstopping one-liners making cameos along the banks of the Nile when I was there though – only sand people and skinnies leering at us. They weren’t all bad people, though: every street corner did have a mentally sluggish armed guard stationed there, armed with Kalashnikovs bought for an Egyptian Pound each (in banknote form of course, coins being so worthless that they’re genuinely and oxymoronically rare). Even so, you still found yourself hassled by himeys every three seconds, wanting you to buy some false brass or alabaster or whatever.
But I’m going to stop being xenophobic for a while, because I’d like to finally say some kinder words about the half-hour of Egypt that we did enjoy: it was genuinely exciting to see remnants of an ancient culture that I’d read all about in my historical accounts as a kid – to wit, a spinoff series of the Where’s Wally books known as Wally’s History of the World.
Alright, so Wally’s History of the World didn’t appear so cerebral on the cover, but I picked up some top notch historical titty bits from those magazines when I would used to devour them as a kid – the sexy Where’s Wally centrefolds and accompanying stickerbook didn’t hurt either.
And, years later, my proud Wally collection meant that I finally got to flex my decade-old knowledge to tour guides around the temples. Not that they were impressed, of course – they were just not-so-transparently fishing for Western currency. Still, whatever about all that noise, the chance to actually take a walk through history was a remarkable opportunity.
That said, I felt an awful lot like Illusion of Time’s protagonist Will as he made his way through various real-world locations on his mystical quest to find his father and realise his psychic abilities: completely bewildered, suspicious of all around him, always being hassled and fighting off ghastly invaders at every corner. Now, unlike me, Will’s brought a weapon to repel these enemies with: his flute. No, not that flute, but the musical instrument he carries with him that he can play on and move objects telepathically with, for the purposes of puzzle solving.
Not that many puzzles ever get solved, because Will’s often too busy bopping down enemies instead. Illusion of Time’s design and style immediately provokes some pretty tough comparisons with The Legend of Zelda. Well, this game ain’t no Link to the Past, and it probably ain’t no Link’s Awakening either. But it does follow the Zelda recipe somewhat well and serves up a nice big juicy Zelda pie. And if a perfect example of this sweet and tasty Zelda pie can be divided into three large and even slices of combat, exploration and puzzle-solving, Illusion of Time’s selected pastry serves up such a big portion of combat that puzzle-solving does lose quite a hefty chunk.
It’s tough to follow recipes exactly, and oftentimes sacrifices and substitutes have to be made. To further expand this ridiculous metaphor, in Time’s case, the exploration portion never really made it out of the oven; this game is awfully linear, and there’s no sprawling overworld to explore with secrets to uncover. But that’s OK because it leaves us with an admittedly railroaded adventure but one that has a few twists and turns and is of ideal length.
Some may consider the game a little short, and some aspects certainly could have been fleshed out. But for a compelling SNES action-adventure whose playstyle, looks and themes only really find parallels with its Quintet brothers, Illusion of Time stands out as a solid, respectable game. It’s a dependable enough slice of adventure to tide you over during a dearth in other games to play, even in far-flung locales like Egypt – if you can find enough peace and electricity to play it.
The European title of the game seems to have been dumbed down from its American moniker, in a rare reversal. Or perhaps the localisers caught wind of a German from the grassy knolls of Vorhaut trying to pronounce ‘Gaia’ and thought “Oh gosh, just to be safe, we’d better just change Gaia to Time and save this guy some hassle. Germans are always on time, aren’t they? He’ll love that”.
Mind you, the game’s script may just as well have been in Arabic for all the sense it made – not one single bit of it scans, and the game throws out typos like they’re going out of style. It’s actually pretty funny a lot of the time, so long as you don’t go in expecting Mark Twain. Try not to wonder why your friends are rapidly losing their minds and why you’ve got a particularly empty-headed Princess and her pet pig to indulge – just bash your flute off enemies to increase your health, attack and defence, only to be destroyed by the occasional boss anyway. And do your best not to question why you can find portals in which you change form into totally different beings, with no explanation given.
No, not much in Illusion of Time’s universe makes sense, but this is one of those nice instances where this is actually a good thing. It hasn’t exactly got many unique selling points, and it ain’t a Zelda beater. But it takes on a simple job and does it well enough to warrant the journey. Take it from me – there are worse places you can go.
09 November 2015

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