Phantasy Star it ain't. - Review By BenT
It's truly amazing how popular Role Playing Games have become in the States lately. It used to be that gamers would spend months waiting in anxious anticipation for the next big title, and when they finally got their hands on it, they'd play through it multiple times, maxing out their characters and finding all the secrets. The situation today is quite different - thanks to the popularity of this genre on the Playstation, the market is literally flooded with RPG's and their associated merchandise. It's gotten to the point where it's hard for me to play any but the best RPG all the way through... there are just too many different quests competing for my precious gaming time. It seems that RPG's have finally hit the mainstream, and in a big way.
Considering the RPG's popularity, it's surprising that there have been so few thus far for the Dreamcast. This absence is particularly startling in Japan, the land where RPG kings Square and Enix sell more consoles than EA and Capcom combined. Still, a few have trickled out - Black Matrix, Climax Landers (Time Stalkers in the US), a handful of NEC titles, and finally the game that this review is about: Evolution - The World of Sacred Device.
Evolution follows the adventures of plucky 16 year old adventurer Mag Launcher. Mag comes from a family with a distinguished history of adventurering, but unfortunately, as of late the Launcher clan's luck has run out. Their last few generations have run up a healthy debt of 80,000 of the unnamed, weird squiggly marks which designate money in this game, all owed to the national Archeological Society which adventurers rely on to get assignments. Even worse, Mag's father disappeared almost three years ago, leaving behind only an enigmatic note and the mysterious, silent girl named Linear Cannon. The note instructed Mag to take care of Linear no matter what, so she has become a permanent resident of the Launcher house. Rounding out this eclectic househould is Gre Nade, who is the Launcher family's loyal and kind-hearted butler. As the story begins, Mag resolves to pay off the Launcher debt in its entirety, no matter what it takes.
Gre the butler takes care of his two 16 year old midgets, Linear and Mag.
Let's get one thing straight right away - Evolution is not an epic RPG, but very much an old school dungeon hack. The plot, what little of it exists, is wafer-thin. The player spends 95% of their time plodding through long dungeons in order to level up and find new equipment, instead of interacting with characters or furthering a plot. If you're looking for an epic tale on the level of a Phantasy Star or Final Fantasy, Evolution is not the game for you. This is dungeon crawling in its purest form, and little more.
The game structure is surprisingly similar to the Neo Geo Pocket RPG, Biomotor Unitron. Like in Unitron, there is one central town which is your base of operations, and it's from the Society Headquarters there that you will receive your mission assignments. Mission is actually a bit of a strong word, though. You basically just form a party (usually consisting of Mag, Linear, and one of three alternates), pick one of the six dungeons, and then slog your way through it until you kill the boss. "Mission" accomplished. You then choose another dungeon, then another, etc. Every time a dungeon is conquered the people in town will get new things to say, thus slightly advancing the plot. Do this five times and you've concluded the plot and beaten the game. Like in Unitron, you can then look forward to the optional, sorta-kinda-secret final dungeon. Oh, and all of the dungeon layouts are randomly generated - just like in, you guessed it, Biomotor Unitron. It's a little ironic that Evolution has so many parallels to a NGP game, since a version of Evolution itself will soon be released for that system.
Evolution also borrows from the PSX Lunar remake in that there are no random encounters - all enemies are visible to you as you approach them. This opens up the possibility of avoiding most encounters altogether, and adds a (very) small action element to the game. Not only can you avoid the monters, but you can try to sneak up on them from behind. If you're successful, your party will get the advantage, effectively giving you a free turn to wail on your enemies. Using this technique, all but the most difficult enemy parties can be eradicated before they even have a chance to breath. Be careful, though - if you're careless, a monster will catch you from behind, putting your party in a world of hurt.
That's the basic game, and thanks to Ubisoft, Evolution is now available in the West. It looks like the Dreamcast's long RPG drought is finally at an end. But, will RPG fans find reason to celebrate?
The game is rather generous in that you're able to save your progress frequently. Like in Legend of Legaia, you can save your quest at any of several designated save spots scattered throughout the town and dungeons. In addition, you have the option of "pausing" the game between each dungeon floor. Basically, this writes a temporary save file to your VMU and returns you to the title screen. When you resume your game later, the temporary save is deleted. The clever player can get around this limitation, however, by backing up the temporary save file to another VMU, so you can effectively do a real, permanent save whenever you move on to another dungeon floor. This is convenient, and serves to keep frustration to a minimum level.
In Evolution, it's quite natural to smack animals with a frying pan.
The lenience with saving is very fortunate, because Evolution is not the easiest RPG you'll ever play. Sure, it's not exactly rocket science, but the game does manage to stay rather challenging throughout. This is mostly due to a feature (also seen in Lunar: SSSC) where monsters become noticably stronger whenever Mag levels up. As a result of this phenomenon, you will very rarely find an area where the monsters can be ignored completely, which keeps you on your toes. And since they also level up, the bosses can be very challenging, often dispensing thousands of hit points worth of damage per turn. Ouch. But with preparation and persistance they are very possible to defeat, so Evolution manages to be a decent challenge without descending into frustration. There is one major exception in the form of the final boss, who is a complete bastard. But, a little challenge never killed anyone, right?
Finally, the game has a few little niceties that are appreciated by this long-time role player. One particularly helpful bit is that the two alternate characters who do not accompany you on a particular mission will receive 80% of the experience that your party earns. Thus, if you choose to add them to the party later, they're not hopelessly lagging behind Mag and Linear, who will have had much more hands-on experience in the dungeons by then.
Of course, the first thing that most people will notice is the graphics - they're certainly above and beyond anything that the tired old Playstation could pump out. But that being said, the graphics in Evolution aren't particularly impressive for a Dreamcast title. The back of the case touts 60 frames per second action, but unfortunately the majority of the game (town and dungeons) only run around 30. This gives the camera movements a coarse feel, and the sad part is, I see no reason that this should be the case. The lower framerate is especially perplexing in the dungeons, which could not look more simple and utilitarian. The battle sequences are the one place where the game hits the magic 60, but even they are marred by major slowdown during certain spell effects. This does not decrease enjoyment much or interfere with gameplay, but it is disheartening to see the DC slow to 10 fps when a few transparencies are on the screen. Speaking of spells, the special effects are solid but subdued. One slight standout are the sparks that go flying every which way when certain spells impact enemies. They bounce realistically and emit pinpoint light sources on the ground - nice. Finally, the character models are solid but bland. Again, they use more polys than you'd see in a typical PSX RPG, but are not incredibly impressive in their own right. Taken as a whole, Evolution's graphics are a mixed bag. Sure, this is the most graphically impressive console RPG currently available, but that's only because thus far it has no next generation competition.
This is the boss Shadenischus, one of the cooler enemy designs in the game. The party here is about to get rocked by his ice laser.
Audio follows the graphics almost exactly - competent but uninspired. There are two or three tunes that I found enjoyable, but the vast majority were generic, cutesy RPG fare. This game will not be selling many soundtracks, I'm afraid. Sound effects are similarly average, with the basic hits, shouts, and enemy death sounds you'd expect to hear in a game like this. One item to note, though, is that Ubi Soft left the magic vocals from the Japanese version intact. I think this was a nice touch, as in my experience it just sounds silly to hear English speakers trying to sound serious while shouting "I summon fire elemental!" and the like.
Now, as you'll recall, the dungeon layouts are randomly generated. At first this may sound like a great idea - after all, it's like playing a new game every time, right? That may be true to a degree, but the more important fact is this: as a result of their random nature, the dungeons look like they were thrown together by a rabid chimp on speed. It's sad but true. The random generation creates nothing but endless catacombs of small rooms, generously interconnected with mile long, right angle hallways. In addition, the room layouts are prefabbed, meaning each dungeon only has a dozen or so different room shapes. As a result you'll see the same exact rooms in every level of the dungeon, only arranged and connected in different ways by the aforementioned sadistically long hallways. As you might guess, this random dungeon generation, as interesting as it may sound at first, does not make up for the lack of a designer's vision behind the floor layouts. There's nothing special or even interesting about any one floor in Evolution - if you've seen ten, you've seen a thousand.
Yes, this is a typical dungeon screen. Ph34r the 128-bit graphical madness.
Another area where the game lacks is the translation, which is very poor. It's extremely dry, and it's obvious that Ubi did not put much effort into creating the English script. The juvenile attempts at humor typically fall flat, and give the player the impression that Mag is just a particularly dense eight year old. Worse, throughout the game you will notice whole chunks of text are inexplicably missing. A character will be saying something, and then for no apparent reason the text will end mid-sentence. I have to admit, I've never witnessed this particular screw-up before. I guess you could call that another first for Evolution.
Yet another highly annoying point is that your inventory can only carry 32 items at once. This may sound sufficient, but it's actually far from it when you consider that you're deluged by dozens of items on every single trek through a dungeon. Your inventory will fill up with useless crap after only a few floors, so every time you find a treasure chest it's time to play the "throw away your least valuable item to make more room" mini-game. As you might imagine, this gets old fast. And while there is a large box in the Launcher house that will hold 100 items, this is of absolutely no use when you're miles away in a dungeon.
But all of the above is trifling when compared to this next fault. The absolute worst trait of Evolution is the dreary, repetitive monotony that makes up over 90% of the game. There's not much to expand on here... the gameplay just consists of doing the same things, over and over and over and over. At the worst points, I had to force myself to play the game for the purposes of this review. Imagine a 20+ floor dungeon, where all the floors are pretty much the same, and the monsters only vary in strength. That's Evolution in a nutshell.
Oh, and here's one final bit: Evolution is very short as far as console RPG's go. It took me only 18.5 hours to clear, and that was being very thorough. A speed demon could probably do it in 15 or less, which is not quite a good return for your RPG purchasing dollar.
The Final Word
Evolution has a few moderately good points, but any momentum it builds up is destroyed by its endlessly repetitive nature. Unless you really like to watch experience counters go up, this is a rental RPG at best. Hopefully Evolution 2, already near completion, will address the shortcomings of this flawed title.
Publisher: Ubi Soft
Highs: Decent interface, generous saving, first DC RPG.
Lows: Repetitive to a fault, boring character designs, annoyingly small inventory, unnecessarily low framerate, bad translation.
Other: 1 player, VMU Compatible (one save takes 8 blocks).
(out of a possible 10)
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