Like movies that don’t get advance screenings, it’s usually not a good sign when a game is released with zero publicity, no marketing efforts or review codes sent to press even when requested. More often than not, it soon becomes clear why it’s been neglected and quietly abandoned like a shameful little secret. So it was with more than a little trepidation that I began Illusion: A Tale of the Mind, a game I wouldn’t have even known about if I hadn’t tripped over it by accident. Yet I couldn’t resist the lure of its gorgeous dreamlike artwork and promise of a twisted psychological storyline. And am I ever glad I didn’t! It’s a flawed game, to be sure, with some frustrating and repetitive design issues straining against full enjoyment on occasion. But what it does well, it does superbly, so whoever decided this game deserved no PR attention whatsoever was obviously nuts.
Illusion begins oddly, and only gets weirder from there. A young white-haired girl named Emma awakens in a dark cave to find herself chained to a pair of giant Comedy and Tragedy masks. This is no laughing matter, but fortunately a floating plush bunny with button eyes and a pull string comes to Emma’s rescue and magically turns her chains into a long, ethereal scarf. The rabbit is Topsy, who seems to know Emma’s name but not much else. Indeed, lost memories become a major focus of their shared adventure from that point on. Between cutscene-inducing photographs, collectable posters and scattered gramophone recordings, the pair begin piecing together the story of a broken-hearted former carnival strongman named Euclide. What does Emma have to do with the man, and why is she being continually taunted by a giant eyeball who’s hell-bent on her destruction? That’s what you’ll need to find out… or not.
Unfortunately, the narrative is one of the game’s weaker areas when it could have been one of its strengths. While amnesiac protagonists finding fragmented memory triggers is a common approach and works well when done right, it’s both far too heavy-handed here and yet still annoyingly cryptic. You’ll have sorted out the essential character details long before Emma, and yet you’ll keep getting hammered over the head with more, undermining what could have been quite a poignant love story. What’s worse is that for all its exposition, the question of why (or how) you and Topsy are trapped in this imaginary(?) nightmare with such a malevolent entity is really never explained. More importantly – and I can’t say much for fear of spoiling what’s meant to be a significant “gotcha!” reveal – Emma herself is ultimately relegated to a minor footnote in her own backstory. It’s a huge omission that strips away much of the motivation to care about what happens, though you’d have to be heartless to not feel a bit of compassion for the tormented big lug whose memories you seek to restore.
That said, it’s all so surreal that you’ll be willing to roll with the gaping plot holes simply to soak up the rich atmosphere. Divided into distinct chapters, you’ll make your way through three central hub worlds consisting of a 1920s Parisian circus, a World War I battlefield (and the deadly skies above it), and perilous goo-infested caverns. The 3D graphics are gorgeously vivid, and the environments frequently pop (or BOOM) with animation. Like a dream that seems familiar but just a little “off”, this world genuinely feels like a distorted version of the real thing. Most of the buildings are warped and curved with unnatural lines, and the carnival is hewn out of massive rock caverns against a lovely pink sky. There you’ll find a Ferris wheel and carousel, as you’d expect, but also floating islands, elephant carriages hoisted by balloons, and a giant lollipop tree. The depiction of war that follows is all too real in many ways, but here the trenches are populated with ghostly spectres and presided over by bi-planes shaped like eagles. Other scenes are even more fantastical, such as the inside of a shattered heart, and a labyrinth of stone columns, statues and portals nested in the clouds.
It helps that the animation really brings these creative worlds to life. It’s most noticeable in the startlingly chaotic WWI chapter – the ground continually bombarded by artillery, the skies filled with frantic dogfights and exploding planes, while smoky walls are haunted by multitudes of disembodied grasping hands. Although there is no actual danger from background threats, there are certain times when you must evade living ooze monsters in frenzied chase sequences. One scenario has you dodging concussive blasts from the end of a long corridor, and the blowback feels completely authentic when caught out in the open. Even at leisure, the protagonists move fluidly throughout, with Emma’s flowing white scarf trailing delightfully behind her to give a proper sense of motion, and Topsy gently bobbing faithfully nearby.
Adding to the otherworldly feel are some deliciously crooked angles. The camera tracks Emma and Topsy as they freely move (usually together) through the environments, but occasionally the view will slant deliberately askew, even completely sideways. It’s not physically harder to maneuver through tilted scenery, but it’s effectively disorienting in reminding you that you’re trapped in a twisted mindscape. Expect to find yourself instinctively cocking your head to one side from time to time in a futile attempt to regain your own equilibrium.
The wonderfully eclectic music is equally adept at providing suitable accompaniment. From lilting accordions conjuring up feelings of old-timey Paris cabarets, to whimsical outdoor carnival tunes, to haunting strings and occasional vocals, you’ll be immersed just as much in the sounds of Illusion as you are its glorious sights. During the more anxious action sequences, the score ramps up to a driving, discordant rock riff that will help to get your blood flowing faster, as if you needed any further incentive. Sound effects, too, are important in establishing the terrifying tone of battle, though they’re far less pronounced elsewhere.Continued on the next page...