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Good, though occasionally over-ambitious

  • NTC3
  • 01/16/2015 05:55 AM
Iron Gaia is likely one of the oldest and best well-known rm2k games, having been around for a lot more then a decade now. It's also immediately notable for being one of the few unapologetically sci-fi games ever made in that engine variant in particular, and in rmk in general. However, it has a lot more notable elements to it then that, and while clearly rough in places, it has a lot to offer to a potential player.


The game begins with a prologue where you control Dietrich Slade/Sigmus, a character who eventually got his own game. It feels very similar to A Blurred Line's prologue, as it also shows the antagonists in a good light before the tables are turned for the rest of the game (although while ABL achieved it by letting you play as Kersh and co., here it's done by showing Sigmus' sociopathy to full effect). When our true protagonist, named Armand Carter wakes up, the plot doesn't feel too different from System Shock: space station controlled by an insane feminine AI? Check. Station's robots and mutants created by the station as the enemies? Check. There's a robot sidekick named Rover, sure, as well as the Celestials, but the plotline only begins to truly diverge once the Aether is introduced, and it truly asserts itself by the time you discover Garrety’s journal.

After reading it, Carter finally learns what he’s fighting for and changes from a confused survivor to a determined, rather cynical hero. The many dialogues afterwards are well-written and interesting to read, and I always felt for the characters and understood what they were going through. I laughed out loud a few times, every time intentionally, and swore when the Celestials' past was revealed and I realised what it meant. I admit that the pop culture references felt rather clumsy, but thankfully they were few and easily ignored. I also don’t mind the animesque character portraits, although the way they always seem to young for their roles can annoy at times.

Another strength of Iron Gaia is that Carter is very relatable and never feels disconnected from gameplay the way many game protagonists are: his reaction to a locked Replicant Base entrance ("Are you guys missing simple pleasures like unlocked doors as much as I do?") was exactly the way I felt during that scene. The plotline introduces further twists along the way, and they generally feel logical and with at least some foreshadowing. I liked how Xenos has a completely different explanation for what has happened: it reminded me of Kurosawa classic Rashomon in that truth is rarely objective and changes depending on one's bias and perspective.

That was also the way I felt for the increasingly heavy supernatural turn near the end of the game, culminating in the choice of endings that essentially asks if you believe in the supernatural version of events or the materialistic one. It is also a play on the classic "Spirit vs. Matter" philosophical debate, and I found it highly fitting that opting for the supernatural results in a significantly weaker, and likely non-canon Dream ending. It was the materialistic narrative that led Carter from victory to victory, after all, and he deserved punishment for forsaking that.

It still isn't all plain sailing, of course: two areas the plot unfortunately doesn't elaborate on are Carter's sister, Margaret, and the Rover. The former is revealed when the player reads Carter's file early on, and I thought she might become a typical damsel in distress. That doesn't happen, thankfully, but it still feels weird Carter just forgets about her, even after getting his memories back, or, indeed, that GAIA or the Celestials don't really try using her to blackmail Carter. Perhaps she just died a long time ago along with many others, but Carter not even thinking about her is troubling. Similarly, it feels very strange for Carter to just unquestioningly accept a robot ally while fighting against an AI, and not question its motivations over time. Admittedly, Xenos brings it up later on, and Rover's nature is also very relevant in the true ending, but there's still no real explanation. It doesn't help that he's the only RCAD you ever see; the game would've felt a lot more complete if there were Rovers altered by Gaia for Carter to fight.


The turn-based combat itself doesn’t break new ground; as usual for JRPGs, there are not enough skills at the beginning (it has been my solemn opinion for a long time that characters should start with 3 skills for the combat to be immediately interesting), and their balancing is questionable. For instance, I never needed to use Calm, because few enemies inflict Confusion: equally, Twitch's chance of inflicting that ailment is usually too low to bother with it. On the bright side, nearly all enemies have special abilities too, although I wish they wouldn't use them so randomly (Elite Guards repairing themselves at full health is a particular highlight). The literary descriptions of the abilities' effects (i.e. Medical Bots injecting Nanites into Carter's bloodstream) are also entertaining, although it does take you out of the game when they don't change when used on Rover (i.e. a robot having its blood sucked out through its neck.) The amount of equipment available feels a little restrictive at times, though a couple of awesome items (Rover's Assault gun comes to mind) do a lot to mitigate that.

What truly makes the gameplay stand out is the old-school survival horror difficulty. To put it simply, Iron Gaia is the first JPRG where I truly needed to use the "Flee" button: not because the enemies in an encounter where too difficult to defeat in a straight-up fight, but because fighting would have drained more of my items and health/energy than I could afford to. You can save at any time (as long as you find the Strat-E-Mate terminal), but saving never heals, and once Rover is too drained of energy to act as a Medic, it’s either time to pay for more healing items at the Auto-Shops, or use the regeneration units, and neither option is cheap. The occasions where you can regenerate for free truly feel like a blessing, a chance to grind a bit in preparation for the next challenge occurs. My favorite gameplay moment was probably when Rover got the Micromissile Program Disk and there was also a free regeneration chamber nearby. It felt awesome to be able to just blow up formerly difficult Hover-Gunner Droids in one turn with this program and not worry about energy/item expenditure. Then, the next sector is full of Elite Guards and Fury Stingers, and I felt just as challenged again, and loved it.

Sadly, the Replicant Base segment near the end disappoints with uncreative Replicant troops, and the difficulty then outright plunges at the Gaia Core, as a combination of enemies not having sufficiently powerful abilities, the addition of a powerful fourth member and Xenos learning Healing Wave. When combined with Energy-absorbing Void Brain, that skill essentially allows for unlimited healing with no need to worry about items. Another problem are the thrown-in minigames rearing their head. Now, the early space-traversal segment was awesome, and the exhaust vent segment in the Gaia Core was also pretty cool.

Unfortunately, the hacking minigame was one of the worst I've ever played, and the shoot'em up minigame was better only because it could be skipped. The "World Map" segment was a cool idea on the drawing board, but is very frustrating in practice because all blocks look exactly the same from above and it's unclear where to go; I wouldn't have had a problem if they were numbered, but that opportunity was sadly missed. Thankfully, the boss battles at the end redeem the game, being quite satisfying and well-done. Early bosses are a little lacklustre in contrast, but I appreciate that they still play by the rules and remain vulnerable to status effects and can also run out of Energy just like you (a huge problem I have with Final Fantasy titles).

Aesthetics (art, design and sound)

Iron Gaia's levels are admittedly rather lacklustre, since the default "future" tiles aren't much to look at, and, skeletons in cryo-sleep aside, new additions aren't much better. The map design is usually considered to be the game's biggest problem: while I agree that the layouts are rather disappointing, I didn't mind it so much, and even found it refreshing not be funnelled down corridors for once. I found that some rooms lacking in interactive objects was a bigger problem. Sure, there are some terminals with data logs, which is always good, and Carter often comments on it when he finishes reading, which is a great touch. I still wish there were more of those, however, and I was especially disappointed to find three computers in a row with the exact same datalog written on them.

Combat is done in the first-person style, so the characters themselves aren't visible. Their attack animations are largely default stuff, and so are pretty average. Enemies are static, ability descriptions typically compensating for the lack of animations, but that’s endemic to the engine. Their sprites are hit-and-miss: I liked the designs of First/Second Line, Fury Stingers and Hover-Gunner Droids a lot, but the blurry sprites of Replicant Soldiers/Captains were a no-go. The battle backgrounds do their job, but are unexceptional and are reused too often for my liking: i.e. a background from early game is used later on for the fight against Xel-human hybrid.

Finally, the soundtrack is usually pretty good, though I‘ve heard better. A lot of it is taken from other sources, and while it does come off cheap at times, I can’t deny the power of hearing Resident Evil’s Sanctuary theme in the Regeneration Unit rooms, or of having the final boss battle set to theinstrumentals of Rammstein’s Engel. These are the stand-out soundtrack moments (as well as “In the End instrumentals used for a major flashback and When Angels Deserve To Die in the area where you first face the Celestials in open combat.) The main theme is a song by some group called Coheed and Cambria: apparently a big deal for some people, but I didn’t care much for it either way.


Play it, for Iron Gaia is definitely a worthwhile experience. Sure, there are plenty of improvements that could've been made, and if I was Legion, I probably wouldn't have stopped working on it until the flaws I listed above were all ironed out. :) Even so, it's a damn good game, and I will even say this: Legion might consider A Blurred Line the best game made on the engine, but to me, Iron Gaia is far superior once everything is taken into account.


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Max McGee
with sorrow down past the fence
This is a well written and fair review. Even a bit on the generous side, perhaps (certainly when you hint it's better than ABL, that's going too far: it's DONER but that's where the superiorities end).

I will point out one piece of interesting trivia: I first played a System Shock game (System Shock 2) AFTER I had finished making Iron Gaia, but before I started Iron Gaia: Virus (which you should totally play if you haven't; it is better than this in just about every way). So the similarities between System Shock and IG1 are actually a weird coincidence, but the similarities between System Shock and IGV are the homage you would think.

Thanks for the review, NTC3! It was a good read, so keep them coming. : )
I have in fact played Virus (I even referenced it in the opening), and I've got an even longer review of it written and pending approval. I don't want to say anything more about it here, except that I disagree quite strongly about its merits relative to the original. It's actually quite interesting to know that the System Shock similarities are accidental, though. Thanks for that.

As for ABL, I have written a full review on it, too, available here. I'll just say here that while the way ABL narrative branches is still astonishing, and its graphics, level design and soundtrack are all significantly superior, the actual gameplay is frequently underwhelming. Enemy/character skills are one area at which your game excels significantly: 90% of enemies from ABL literally have none, and combat becomes very boring because of that after a while. Also, I predicted the fate of Paradise (SPOILERS for anyone else) as soon as I saw that the Director was still alive, and so I just felt annoyed when it was razed to the ground a couple of hours later. There was nothing quite as predictable in your game.

Well, that's it for now. I feel like we're going to be arguing a lot more once my Virus review gets through, though.
Max McGee
with sorrow down past the fence
I sure do love arguing on the internet.

Actual inspirations for Iron Gaia were the movie Deep Impact, the book Lucifer's Hammer, and the videogame Xenogears -- opening cutscene only, did not play rest of game. I have a feeling that the Aether stuff was inspired by Final Fantasy VII too.

I personally feel that ABL > Iron Gaia: Virus > Iron Gaia I. While I think it's slightly subjective re: the relative merits of ABL and IG, I can't help but feel some informational authority on the matter of the relative merits IG:V and IG1. When I say that IG:V is a substantively better game than IG1, that certainly feels like objective fact, especially since I created both games and know their ins and outs and particularities better than anyone.

I mean obviously you have some strange tastes when you've said that the graphics of ABL were good. That is not a popularly held opinion. I didn't notice the lack of enemy skills in ABL because I was too busy crushing on the delicious Aura system. I saw enemies more as a source of skills for me via absorbing their delicious auras than as entities that may or may not have skills to use themselves.

Anyway if you're going to post a scathing review of Iron Gaia: Virus I might as well be fully candid and transparent and ask that you just not. Send me a PM instead. The game has been available for the better part of a decade and has reached less of an audience than games available on here for less than one year and that fact already fills me with total despair. However you may feel about it as a sequel, the last thing I want is for it to have an even lower score and reach an even smaller audience, making the act of unpaid game development seem like a stupider and more fruitless waste of time than it already is.

Oh, one last important clarification (albeit kind of random): it is pretty essential to understanding Iron Gaia and all of its subsequent spin-off works to know that, officially speaking, BOTH the Dream ending and the Escape ending are considered canon. All subsequent and derivative works proceed from that (strange) premise.
Max McGee
with sorrow down past the fence
I should add my general purpose disclaimer: if any of the above post comes off as at all dickish in any way, I am sorry, I really didn't mean it that way. I need to post things like this because the internet does not have tone-of-voice or the nuances of facial expressions.
author=Max McGee
I can't help but feel some informational authority on the matter of the relative merits IG:V and IG1. When I say that IG:V is a substantively better game than IG1, that certainly feels like objective fact, especially since I created both games and know their ins and outs and particularities better than anyone.

Well, if so, you would also have to accept that Final Fantasy IX is superior to Final Fantasy VII and that Metroid: The Other M is the best Metroid made, since that's their creators opinions on them. Believe it or not, it's actually a frequent phenomenon for the creators' opinion on their works to be significantly different (you could even say out of touch) with the popular and established opinion of them. On TVTropes, we even have a page for that.

Now, when it comes to your concerns about an audience, that wouldn't be as much of a problem for two reasons. Firstly, I haven't mentioned TVTropes for nothing; I'm a somewhat prominent user there, and we've got a page for Iron Gaia there, created mainly by yours truly. It hasn't had much of an impact yet because it's not cross-linked; once it reaches 100+ crosslinks, though, the views will accumulate a lot faster. If you doubt me, here's the site ranking of TVTropes vs. RMN. I've been delaying doing so, partly because I've got plenty of other game pages I want to add and crosslink alongside IG, but also because I wonder if their state, there's just been something I wanted to ask you first.
I've read the comments on the other IG and IG: V reviews, as well as that "Looking back" article you did about the series, and while highly informative, there's still something I don't quite understand. Mainly; when you create these games, what is ultimately more important to you: your artistic vision/integrity etc. and ensuring that it remains unaltered, or is it acclaim and/or popularity? If it's the latter, then I just want to give you the example of Shakespeare. As we all know, he's one of the greatest playwrights to have ever lived, and yet he had re-written his works in response to feedback from his audience, and sometimes he did so dozens of times. If that kind of compromise was acceptable for Shakespeare, then why do you have such a commitment to keeping gameplay and/or story elements that have proven to be unpopular and to hold your games back, even in your own estimation?

I mean, nothing really prevents you (or someone else you trust) from going back and replacing the dialogue you consider juvenile in Iron Gaia, and doing other changes like that. Out of all the things I could name as potential improvements to Iron Gaia/Iron Gaia: Virus, only a few are constrained by the engine (i.e. lack of battle animations, inability to have the character sprite change alongside equipment) or by work already done (i.e. mapping designs, some story elements). The rest is still up for grabs with just a few changes, and I easily could PM you a list of those, if you want.

So... that's not quite what I expected this post to look like, and I hope it doesn't feel too pointed or anything. I still respect a lot of work you've already done, or the fact that you're still present here in spite of the meagre audience and working on Lionheart and other projects I didn't get the chance to play yet.
Max McGee
with sorrow down past the fence
HOLY SHIT. I'm aware of the Iron Gaia TV Tropes page, have been for years, and ironically I was about to link you to it. So it's very interesting that you've solved that longstanding mystery of who made the TV Tropes page. I've been quite curious about that for a while. Other fans of the game have made edits to it if I'm not mistaken.

I'm not sure what was going on with the link to my reviews it just kind of appeared at the head of your post without context.


I'm going to omit a rant here on bla bla bla IGV is better than IG. Save that for your review of it I guess. Generally speaking I think it has a lot of objectively observable improvements and innovations, i.e. better graphics, writing, and certainly mapping, better music and sounds, better directed cutscenes, on-touch encounters instead of random encounters, a fairly in-depth character customization system, a better save system, a better battle system, on-map gameplay, etcetera. All of these things are things I've iterated on in subsequent projects, so their implementation definitely wasn't perfect in IGV, but it's a big step up overall beyond IG1. Believe it or not that was the short version.

Anyway I'm looking through the Magnum Opus Dissonance TV Tropes page. Generally speaking--there are many glaringly obvious exceptions, too many to list--I consider creators to be smarter than consumers, particularly where their work is concerned. The exceptions are in cases where the creators themselves are idiots, i.e. the George Lucases and Dennis Dyacks of the world. Other exceptions are works from a long way in the past when consumers were less dumb. In the film category, for instance, the "dissonance" given is often that a project creators thought was their greatest didn't do well at the box office. I think we all know that how much money a movie makes means literally nothing besides how much money that movie makes. Even in the literature category, a work being "well known" is often what creates the "dissonance" with its creator's expectations.

Anyway, true fact: I don't consider any of my complete RPG Maker games to be my magnum opus. Or for that matter any of my written works. Anything that might attain "magnum opus" status in my mind is still incomplete.

Mainly; when you create these games, what is ultimately more important to you: your artistic vision/integrity etc. and ensuring that it remains unaltered, or is it acclaim and/or popularity? If it's the latter, then I just want to give you the example of Shakespeare. As we all know, he's one of the greatest playwrights to have ever lived, and yet he had re-written his works in response to feedback from his audience, and sometimes he did so dozens of times. If that kind of compromise was acceptable for Shakespeare, then why do you have such a commitment to keeping gameplay and/or story elements that have proven to be unpopular and to hold your games back, even in your own estimation?

Ok, so here's the thing in my thinking. I don't get paid for doing this, so I don't want to have to compromise between artistic integrity and popular acclaim. I want the games to be true to my vision, yes, and I also want them to be beloved and showered with praise. That might even sound selfish or entitled...until you think about the hundreds and thousands of people paid literally millions and millions of dollars in our culture to make things that are obviously, screamingly, objectively worse than Iron Gaia. I mean if I wanted to really depress us both I could look up a long list of games that just about anyone would agree were worse than IG and then figure out approximately how much the people involved were paid to make them. But that's a lot of research just to confirm the obvious tautology that life isn't fair.

I don't think it's unusual to want both. I think it's a mistake to phrase it as an either or. Just about every creator wants to have the integrity of their artistic vision preserved--although most have a price at which they will compromise that and I don't doubt that I do as well. And every creator wants to receive the acclaim they deserve and to have their work reach the widest audience possible.

Anyway, most of the things that are "wrong" with the Iron Gaia series have nothing to do with the purity of my artistic vision (I feel the need to append an lol to that so, there: lol). They're just mistakes of being a young creator. The reason I don't go back and fix them has nothing to do with this perceived dichotomy between preserving my artistic vision and seeking acclaim. The reasons are completely different and in some cases much more mundane:

As a creative, at a certain point you have to declare something done and then walk away to other projects. At least that is how I feel as a creator. A text cannot be 'living' forever. At a certain point it has to be done, out the door, closed. Way back in 2004, I made the decision that Iron Gaia was done. Not perfect, but done. I've never reversed a decision like that. I think in the modern internet-saturated culture there's a sense that things are never 'done', that projects are always 'living' and the creator is always beholden to them. But I am a bit older than most of my fans I think and in any case I know that my MINDSET is much more old fashioned than my contemporaries and peers. I come from a writing background and that is very much an arena in which a work with all its flaws can be declared finished and done and the creator can move on to other projects.

I am very busy. I am basically half of a two-man tabletop roleplaying game publishing company that is trying to create, publish, and promote about half a dozen distinct game lines. Being a small company means that we handle everything on the creative end, all marketing, all business stuff, and production and shipping. Then there are the dozens of more current RM projects I am still gamely trying to finish. Oh, also I run a LARP for about half of the year. Then there is real life and all the complications it brings. Then there is the consumption of media (i.e. PLAYING videogames) necessary to preserve my basic sanity in the face of all of the above. With all of that, I really just don't have the time to go back and REMASTER Iron Gaia (which would AGAIN be completely unpaid labor which is hard to put yourself down for as a grown-ass adult unless it's something you're really passionate about).

And I'm not really sure what the result would be. I mean, the game has been available since 2004. That's 11 years it's been out. I just don't see myself getting a big audience boost when I announce "check out this new version of an 11 year old RPG Maker game. It's now 30% better!".

Then finally there's the fact that Iron Gaia is made in an ANCIENT engine that I literally am not even sure if I have anymore, am sure I don't know how to get anymroe if I don't have it, that I am not even sure would run on my current, modern computer, and that I am POSITIVE I don't *really* know how to use anymore.

tl;dr the reaosn that IG and IG:V remains unaltered isn't related to the purity of my artistic vision. it's due to time constraints, an unfavorable cost/benefit analysis, technical issues and the fact that sometimes, things have to be over and done with.

I hope that answers your question. : )
Well, first off, thank you very much for this and for the time you've taken to write this response. I understand your reasoning very well now, and I respect the decision to let an older work be.

I suppose the reason I've mentioned remaster in the first place is because of long-term frustration stemming from being a frequent Metacritic user and seeing many older games which do get various remakes/remasters in the last couple of years. You know, the ones That typically stop at adding in HD graphics and achievements and ignore the quite glaring flaws and deficiencies still present, yet still get rather well by fans and many critics. That’s the kind of thing that really gets me when it comes to the whole topic of remaking/going back to games (well that, and the sequels made not further the storyline significantly, but purely to get more money with a couple more maps/mechanics, like a certain FPS series we all know too well.)

About other things, yeah, that review link was accidentally pasted in from the Word document I've saved that post in: a habit of mine since I've had a couple similarly long posts lost to bad internet connections before. :| Also, I didn't quite phrase myself properly in regards to the TVTropes page: the current version, clocking in at almost 6,500 words, is nearly all my work, but it's not the original one. The original page, containing only a dozen tropes or so, was deleted for being in the wrong namespace (Main vs. VideoGame) recently, and after I wrote the current page. I hope that's not too much of a disappointment. :)
Max McGee
with sorrow down past the fence
But...who made the original one that was in the wrong place?

I honestly don't even know if the one I first saw was the one you made or the erroneous one that was there before that. I'd need a timeline for that. But I am not disappointed that it remains a mystery. I like mysteries.

Actually if I recall correctly the page I was aware of was always in Videogames...so I don't think I even knew that there was another Iron Gaia page until now. Mysterious.
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