Before we get into anything important I have to say something about the odd title of this 1991/2/3 (depending on which version you’re playing) MicroCabin RPG – much like Zwei 2 is literally ‘Two Two’, the full title of this game is essentially ‘Illusion City: Illusion City’. It probably sounds cool to someone but thankfully Project EGG took a stand against naming redundancy as on their glorious site both the game and the soundtrack are simply called ‘Genei Toshi’, but I digress.
This lovely game came out across the usual Japanese computer formats of the era – MSX Turbo R, PC-98 (also compatible with certain PC-88 VA/286/386 computers), X68000, and FM Towns – as well as a final farewell tour on the Mega CD. The Mega CD and MSX releases are probably the most familiar to English speakers due to general awareness of Japanese Sega games and the mostly-complete English translation of the latter. Unfortunately these two look a bit rough when you compare them to the other ports, even if the Mega CD release does have some unique art in its opening and ending sequences.
But that’s quite enough waffle, because the important thing to remember is that whatever version you’ve managed to get your grubby mitts on the game itself is nigh-on identical across all formats and damned good too. The quickest way to describe Illusion City is roughly ‘Just like Phantasy Star IV, if Phantasy Star IV had its ratio of sci-fi-to-fantasy reversed’ (this is also important: Illusion City came out two years before Phantasy Star IV) – that’s not the perfect analogy, but close enough to mostly work.
What this means in real terms is Illusion City’s a cyberpunk RPG with a fascinating setting and a lovely mix of magic, robots, cyborgs, and magical floating sky castles all in one game. Perhaps sensing that placing the story within magical cyber-future Hong Kong was a great excuse to shed a lot of the usual JRPG baggage, Illusion City made the main magic user your gun-toting, trench coat-wearing, cigarette-smoking, lead man, and the leading lady would much rather be attacking enemies with machineguns or razor-thin wire (much like Benten from Cyber City Oedo 808) than sitting on the back row and meekly casting curative spells – as a matter of fact she can’t use any magic at all. Other surprising highlights include dead people staying dead, bad guys that maybe aren’t all that bad, and a game set in Hong Kong that actually stars characters with names like ‘Mei Fan’ and ‘Tian Ren’ rather than a convenient Japanese/American party created for fear of being somehow unrelateable.
The PC-Engine-style event art may be restricted to the opening and ending scenes but the game’s frequent cuts to other characters and places – often to the private thoughts and actions of the antagonists – have a lot of unique animations and really help express the idea that you’re in the middle of something much bigger - and the game is confident enough to not explain every last interaction and personal motivation in tedious detail either.
But that certainly doesn’t mean you’re left adrift – a ‘talk’ command is accessible at any point, and just like Phantasy Star IV you can expect some brief discussion between your party members on their current situation and where they need to go. Further assistance can be found at the computer terminals littered around each residential area, offering not only the chance to save but verbal directions to local points of interest, shops, and transportation.
As you may expect from a world that’s home to monsters, experimental abominations, and an unpleasant chap called ‘Demon King’ there’s a fair bit of battling to be done before you reach the end of the game, so it’s a good thing the fights in Illusion City are quick, interesting, and visually impressive. Your party of three (almost always two-plus-overpowered guest) have access to quite a varied arsenal of guns, swords, throwing knives, claws and plenty more. Guns are split into various types – handgun/rifle/shotgun/heavy weaponry and so on – and they all require their own particular sort of ammo, bought from your friendly neighbourhood shop. It is a little difficult to tell in game which ammo is for which gun at times (bar obvious ones like the assault rifle using rifle ammo) but the manual does have full tables that explain everything properly. An annoyance to be sure, but not uncommon practise for 1991. In any case ammo can be bought by the 1000 and is so cheap you’ll encounter little difficultly in keeping your reserves topped up, so it’s more something to keep an eye on than any real problem.
Another interesting equipment quirk is that it’s rarely a simple case of one circlet, glove, or chest piece being better than another – a lot of items have unique attributes and drawbacks that don’t become obvious until you try them out for yourself. For example: A claw that appears to be much weaker than the one you’re currently using, until you realise that it does two attacks per round instead of one, and the second slash unleashes a powerful bolt of lightning. It can work in the opposite direction too, as is the case with the cloak that offers a massive defence boost but also paralyzes the wearer. But that doesn’t mean it’s useless – on the right party member it can turn them into effectively a damage sponge for the benefit of everyone else, or you could give it a weaker party member to help them level up (anyone who survives a battle receives XP, regardless of their contribution to the fight). So there’s a lot of scope here for intelligent and situational play if you care to make the effort, and if you don’t there’s enough ‘plain’ equipment around for you to use anyway.
Magic falls into a similar pattern of having both straightforward ‘hit stuff’ and ‘heal people’ spells as well as long lists of effective buffs, debuffs, stat boosts, and spells that only really work in conjunction with others all on top of the usual elemental alignment and enemy weakness systems. Tian Ren also has a very useful (and low cost!) ‘teleport to the nearest safe location’ spell, so no matter how bad things look you can escape any area with your life, loot, and experience ready for another go when you’re more prepared.
These dangerous areas you’ll find yourself in range from high tech prisons to crumbling buildings and even a lush plant-filled oasis, but even better than this wide variety of locations is the knowledge that the designers understood that while most players don’t want things handed to them on a plate, they also don’t want their time wasted in labyrinthine nightmares either. Corridors and rooms off the beaten path tend to contain chests filled with genuinely useful items not available in the shops and true dead ends are uncommon and it never takes too long to return to where you were.
Potential enemy encounters are shown as vague shapes as you walk around – there are no blind random battles here. It’s also easy to run from the vast majority of scuffles anyway, so how much you fight’s by and large left up to you. The game’s balanced in such a way that this doesn’t leave you high and dry either – I am the queen of the anti-grind, and even with my allergic-to-fighting attitude there were only two spots in the entire game that required a bit of level-boosting, and even then it wasn’t for very long and only because I’d made a badly-equipped beeline. for the next boss battle for the previous few story segments. This means Illusion City feels challenging rather than punishing, and most of the time I was able to think my way out of a scrape rather than wish I could have afforded better gear.
Illusion City is an astonishing RPG if you think back to other RPGs from 1991 and it’s still a fantastic game today that deserves to be talked about with all the other top-quality games of the 16-bit era. This a unique, well-balanced, and exciting adventure that’s more than worth playing if you have the means to do so (Project EGG's PC-98 release is the most practical way for the majority of gamers) and still worth spending some time mooning over if you can’t. Sadly MicroCabin didn’t make any further adventures set in cyberpunk Hong Kong, but I can at least leave you with this cute cameo from the Tower of Cabin title screen.
If you’d like to read more about Illusion City (in Japanese) this is far and away the best website I came across - http://www2.nkansai.ne.jp/users/karin/genei/index.htm It has the usual maps and walkthrough as well as lots of great quotes from the game and all sorts of information and musings you wish other fan sites had.