Illusion: A Tale of the Mind Review

Young Emma finds herself chained up inside her father’s mind. What has happened? Why is she there? To find out the truth behind her predicament, she embarks on a puzzle adventure with her soft toy rabbit Topsy over a surreal and disjointed landscape, formed together from her father’s experiences. Taking place in a post-World War I era France, Illusion: A Tale of the Mind by Canadian multimedia developer Frima Studios tries to play out with a personal tragedy and an aftermath of a terrible war.

To get anywhere inside her father’s memories, Emma needs to find memory fragments scattered around to build key items with. Aided with very simple interactions, Emma runs and jumps among warped sets and landscapes through circus grounds (her father was a strong man performer there) and skewed trenches of torturing memories. There are puzzles to solve, usually involving aligning shapes and shadows to form pictures matching given backdrops, illuminating drawings with moving spotlights, or rotating discs to reveal illustrations. All very simple, really.

Some plays with light and shadow are borrowed from a puzzle-platformer Contrast, developed by fellow Canadians Compulsion Games (those of upcoming We Happy Few fame), which also took place in a world of vaudeville during the same time period. Also, the gameplay design with fixed camera angles and the overall atmosphere of an unreal circus grounds complete with huge floating eyeballs brought to mind (not so happy) memories of a failed multimedia experience from the 90’s, Queen: The eYe for PC.

The star of the show is the young Emma. Stylized but cute and lively animated, she would look a part in an animated Disney feature film. It's a shame the rest of the game can't live up to her character. While the art design is funky with surreal sets and views, illuminated effectively with lights and heavy rain, technically the game is like over a ten years old random Xbox 360 arcade title. Sub-par resolution, jaggies and a choppy frame rate, especially in heavily illuminated scenes, are disappointing in the light of game’s artistic aspirations. On one hand, such old-fashioned visuals can be charming but I doubt it was intentional.

If the graphics are outdated, there’s something decidedly oh-so 90’s in the game design as well. The screens viewed from a fixed camera angles, sometimes allowing limited scrolling, and puzzles dividing each game area into smaller sections are like from those numerous, janky puzzle-adventures (including the aforementioned Queen: The eYe) that followed the breakthrough of CD-ROM drives back in the day. The level of player input is limited, with only one button needed to perform different actions, but thankfully it doesn’t come off as a hindrance. Also, checkpoints are frequent, a godsent during platforming sessions with a wonky character direction.

It takes only some four hours to see the game’s story through. Even so, the developers have run out of steam by the final third chapter. It’s stretched for no sensible reason whatsoever, as the story that so far had held up pretty nicely suddenly tried to explain matters with a needless hokey-pokey. It shouldn’t have had any of that nonsense that got added to what seemed to be an ambiguous, psychologically credible tale. All my assumptions that I had gathered up until the final chapter got washed down the toilet. In the end, it felt like either the script wasn’t properly finished or characters’ actions were just badly motivated. The gameplay too drags on, giving Emma a power to fly back and forth boring caverns just to keep on kicking colored gelatin blobs, needed to open paths further up.

It’s also strange that Illusion: A Tale of the Mind didn’t have any promotion to go with it. I had to buy my copy as developers didn’t even send review codes to the media. I hoped for something better but instead I got what I feared. I can’t shake the feeling that Illusion is in fact and old, abandoned game that got finished in all silence. It could explain why it’s technically and mentally so old-fashioned. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make the game a timeless classic but a bundle of unanswered expectations. 20 bucks is a way too steep asking price for what Illusion has to offer. Pick it up from a digital sale if you insist.

Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.