Release Date: April 4th, 2013
Publisher (Developer): Shiro Games (Shiro Games)
ESRB Rating: N/A
When I first got wind of Evoland‘s concept, the trope, “Lampshade Hanging” came to mind. For those who don’t browse Tvtropes on a regular basis, lampshade hanging refers to the act of a creator of a story that actively acknowledges the things that make a story tick, such as plot hooks, cliches, and references. Evoland makes use of this particular trope by making it an essential part of its gameplay, which results in an interesting game that documents the evolution of the adventure/RPG genre.
Evoland originated as an entry for the 24th annual Ludum Dare, an online game jam in which developers had 48 hours to create a complete game. Shiro games’ flash game, Evoland, (Now titled Evoland Classic) was the winner of the jam, and through fan support and Steam Greenlight, the developer has released a more complete version of Evoland.
Evoland‘s main gimmick revolved around opening treasure chests to progress through the game. However, instead of containing items like coins or weapons needed on your quest, these chests unlock game features, such as music, new game mechanics, and graphical upgrades.
Continuing where Evoland Classic left off, Evoland includes even more features and unlocks, the most notable addition being 3D graphics, which Evoland Classic teased during its endgame.
The Primordial Ooze
You start Evoland in a monochrome, low-resolution box, limited to only moving in one direction. Your first few unlocks are basic controls, higher resolutions, music, and other game features that are noticeably absent at the start of the game. You start out wandering around a grassy field, killing off octopi and bats with your sword, a la Legend of Zelda. There wasn’t a lot of variety in the enemy types, but the lack of the life bar at the beginning of the game made contact with an enemy a death sentence (and a trip back to the title screen), which made things interesting, and frustrating. While I appreciated Evoland‘s dedication to emulating the frustration of earlier games, I feel that life bars should have came into play much sooner. This frustration is negated a bit by the plentiful save points on the map, but needing to go back to the title screen to load your save game seemed a little excessive.
After carefully treading through the starting area, you unlock the Overworld, and the entire world around you becomes much bigger. You can walk to different towns, fields, and dunegons, and you feel like you can go anywhere at first, but in reality, the world is very stifling, many of the areas are closed off until much later in the game, making the overworld more like table dressing than an actual part of the game. Along with the overworld, you get one more unlock to make your journey even more treacherous: random, turn based battles.
The turn based system Evoland uses resembles the kind of systems that early Final Fantasy games used, but without the depth or options that Final Fantasy offered. Each random battle consists of mashing the attack button over and over until the monsters disappeared off the screen. After that, you would get money and experience, and occasionally level up.
Leveling up in Evoland’s Final Fantasy mode increases stats like attack, defense, and health, but the change in stats doesn’t ever seem noticeable beyond higher numbers. It would have been nice to see levelling up effect different play modes. For example, If increasing the life stat during random battles effected how many hits you could take in Zelda mode, it would create some incentive to actually grind through the random battles. A new attack or magical spell to play with every few levels wouldn’t have hurt either. I feel like that the random battles were a missed opportunity to make something interesting. However, it seems that Shiro Games decided to keep the old cliche of annoying random battles in the game, for better or worse. Thankfully, these battles are usually limited to the overworld, with a few exceptions.
One of these exceptions is a particularly long cave that you need to go through in order to unlock 3D mode. The cave is a long trudge as the game gets bogged down with random battles, the action is broken up a little with the introduction of a new party member, which turns the usual “Spam attack until all the monsters are dead” gameplay into “Spam attack and heal until all the monsters are dead” gameplay.
After the ordeal in the cave, you finally unlock your life bar, and from there, there is a considerable slowdown on the unlocks. There are still feature unlocks like smoother graphics and upgraded sound, but its about this point where I began to find more vanity items such as stars, which were collectibles hidden across the world, and Double Twin Cards, which are used later for Evoland‘s card-based minigame.
Trimming the Evolutionary Branches
Shortly after you unlock 3D mode, you run into your first dungeon, and following the traditions of Zelda, it combines fighting baddies and solving puzzles. The dungeon isn’t anything to write home about, but the addition of new enemies such as skeletons and wizards made walking through them considerably harder. Other than the new enemies, the dungeons were full of simple puzzles and obstacles that eventually cumulates to a pretty basic boss fight, which was more difficult due to the hordes of enemies that chipped away at my health, particularly the wizards that tend to teleport right in front of you before throwing their fireballs your way.
The 3D mode also paved the way for some interesting mechanics. One mechanic is time travel, in which you hit time crystals to switch between 3D mode and 2D mode. There are certain things you can do in certain spaces. For example, there are dimensional stones that can only be passed by in three dimensional space.
There are also trees that you need to burn down with flaming arrows in the past (2D mode) so they won’t grow into roadblocks in the future (3D mode). The mechanics made for one interesting puzzle mid game, but unfortunately, the developers didn’t explore the idea further. It seems that in Evoland, proven mechanics and puzzles takes precedent over short-lived innovation.
Evoland continued to alternate between Zelda-style adventuring and Final Fantasy random battles for a while, until it suddenly changed into a Diablo-esque game that caught me completely by surprise. For a brief half hour, Evoland became a combo-spamming hack and slash with ludicrous loot drops that, while useless, made me smirk a few times. (Particularly the pink gauntlet of the miniature equine variety) Running through a cave and fighting off hordes of enemies really broke up the action of the game, but like all the good parts of the Evoland, it was short-lived. When I exited the cave, it was back to switching between Zelda and Final Fantasy.
An Evolutionary Dead End?
While the game started out strong, by the end, I was feeling a little bit burnt out. There was a point where I felt like the game was going through the motions, introduction to surprisingly addictive minigame, obligatory death of companion character, and, as a finishing touch, a final boss fight straight out of Ocarina of time. I didn’t feel accomplished when the credits rolled, I felt relieved that I didn’t have to suffer through any more random battles, relived that I didn’t need to relive the frustrating mechanics of earlier RPGs.
There was a lingering feeling of missed potential as I finished the game. If the developers could have just went off the timeline a little bit, and use the foundations that it set up to create new and interesting ways to use old mechanics, the game would’ve stood out better, and would’ve at the very least made it more interesting. Evoland proved with its time traveling puzzle that it had potential to combine all the unlocked mechanics to create something new and unique, while still maintaining that nostalgic feel.
Overall, Evoland is a playable documentary about the mechanical innovations of the RPG/adventure genre, without innovating anything itself. The game plays it safe by pandering to the old school gaming audience, which might turn off more casual gamers. If you’re the sort of gamer that gets the jokes, throwbacks, and references to older games, you will appreciate Evoland‘s take on the genre.