Wot I Think: Evoland

By John Walker on April 15th, 2013 at 7:00 pm.

Beginning life as a LudumDare #24 winner, Evoland is now a complete, released game, that sets you on a journey through RPG history. Literally. As you play, the genre evolves around you. Mixing together elements from Zelda, Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest and Diablo, is the result the sum of its parts, or falling through the cracks between? Here’s wot I think.

Evoland could have been just a gimmick. It would have gotten away with it too, so strong is that gimmick. But impressively, this playable tour through the history of Zelda-like RPGs manages to feel like a game in itself at the same time.

Starting off in black-and-green, your character – only named once you’ve evolved enough through the genre for such things – begins only scrolling left and right. By opening chests, new innovations in console RPG gaming become unlocked. These take the form of big leaps, like updating to 16-bit graphics, and tiny details, like the inclusion of volumetric lighting. And they especially effect the style of game you’re playing, as you drift from GameBoy-ish simplicity to Diablo-esque complexity.

It’s risky territory, riffing off clichés of a genre. Ironically embracing the most familiar tropes tends to ensure your game is a collection of tired tropes. But Evoland, to an extent, avoids this reasonably well. There are a couple of underground dungeons, replete with traps, collapsing floors and combat challenges, but they tick two important boxes. 1) they’re fun. 2) there are two of them.

It’s this smartness with balance, throwing in references but not labouring them, that gives Evoland its charm. Except for, and wow is this a big one, bloody random encounters.

The game mixes combat styles along with everything else. Often you’ll be equipped with your sword, and later bows and bombs, running around in real-time, swishing at the baddies. Depending how far through history you’ve advanced, you’ll be running on the axes, then given free movement, and eventually in the game’s best moments, the ability to “time travel”, switching back and forth between its most modern rendition of 3D, and its 16-bit, top-down nostalgia. (Switching between the modes changes what you can access based on graphical rules, setting up some splendid puzzles, and creating a section that really stands out as an idea worthy of a game of its own.) However, other times you’ll be in a more JRPG-styled turn-based combat, you on the right, enemies on the left, choosing attacks and defences from a list. Much later on, the combat gets properly frantic, even throwing in a few nods at combos.

And it’s those JRPG moments that are a millstone around Evoland’s neck. Whatever you feeling about random encounters in RPGs, whether you think them a wonderful inclusion or a bunion on the raspy foot of gaming, they’re rubbish here. The reason they work is because of their intricacies, the threat of failure, and the joy of judiciously reached success. None is on offer here, with none of the 67 billion encounters offering a glimmer of threat, but rather a tiresome chore to wade through, over and over and over and over and over and over again, just because you wanted to run from one point on the larger-scale map to another. While for a lot of this you have a companion character (who also nicely teases the ways of companion characters in games), each has literally one attack for most of the game. There’s absolutely no fun to be found here, none of the rest of game’s twinkly-eyed humour, but instead a tedious slog that interrupts your fun.

Were they only to appear as you made your way along the plot’s route, then I think it would have been fine. A game like this could hardly not chronicle such combat (although I fail to see why it couldn’t have added some more interesting attack choices, and indeed made any of the battles even vaguely difficult). But unfortunately, another of Evoland’s finest features is some good reason to go back to previous areas. As you play, various bonuses are inaccessible, hidden behind rocks you can’t yet blow up and the like. So as you advance once more, there’s the opportunity to go back and search out what you had to miss. Except, to do that involves having to traipse across the random encounters maps every time, interrupted every few seconds with a battle you aren’t going to lose, nor have any fun not doing so. Such that I just gave up on the notion, infuriated.

Quite why one of the chests couldn’t have added in a quick-travel map I’ve no idea. Unless I missed such a thing, of course, but I was fairly comprehensive.

Other issues? Well, the most unfair one would be a criticism of how far forward its chronology reaches. Clearly, as an indie project, there wasn’t going to be the resources or budget to create something as rich and graphically detailed as a PS3-style action-adventure RPG. But it’s still a shame that things seem to finish in an early Gamecube era. I had hoped at one point that rather than unreachable fidelity, it might instead opt for some entertaining guesses as to where the genre might go next. But there’s nothing like that here. The other issue could perhaps be argued to be part of the game’s tribute ways, but bad checkpointing before multi-stage boss fights are never endearing. It only took me three goes to defeat the final boss, so it wasn’t horrendous, but I’ve yet to relish the opportunity to play the same section of game again, three minutes after the last time.

Grumble grumble, but you’ll understand that it’s because it’s stuff that gets in the way of Evoland being the charming pile of loveliness it should be. Yes, the story’s nonsense, but it’s supposed to be, and wittily done. Finding two halves of an amulet, searching for an ancient evil, etc etc. What this is really about is that excellent gimmick, rendered so very well: walking your way through the history of a particular branch of RPG, and not only getting to see those advancements having their effect on the world around you, but at the best moments, those differences becoming part of the game themselves.

It’s £7, and will last you maybe three or four hours. most of which are very enjoyable indeed.

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36 Comments »

  1. Ultra Superior says:

    6/10

  2. IshtarGate says:

    Evoland feels like a great idea, like a sort of documentary of the evolution of games, particularly Japanese ones. In execution though, it doesn’t feel quite right. Maybe it’s just that I’ve never played Zelda (or cared to), but I thought most of it was tedious and the only moments I enjoyed were the sudden technological leaps.

    To someone who didn’t grow up on console games, I would’ve appreciated if it actually was a documentary-style project, with information on which game introduced which gameplay concept or technological innovation, especially since the rest of the game feels like little more than an admittedly accomplished portfolio project.

  3. Urthman says:

    I don’t understand how this

    none of the 67 billion encounters offering a glimmer of threat, but rather a tiresome chore to wade through, over and over and over and over and over and over again

    and this

    It’s £7, and will last you maybe three or four hours

    can be describing the same game.

    • jrodman says:

      Perhaps the first description is of the early 8-bit phase of the title, and the latter is how it is after it updates to modern times?

    • Convolvulus says:

      I can find things tedious in much less than three hours.

    • Sparkasaurusmex says:

      I think 3 or 4 hours is a very conservative estimate. If you enjoy it it’s likely to last much longer.

      You start out without a health bar or hearts, so it’s mario-style one touch deaths, and it takes a while (10 minutes, conservatively) just to get a control scheme unlocked that allows you to run around easily. So it’s kind of hard, I guess.

      I’ve played about an hour and have barely unlocked 16 bit style graphics…only traveled on the random-encounter-world-map once.

  4. m_a_t says:

    I puchased and played it this week-end and I was mezmerized at how much attention had been given to detail like the settings, the riddles, the characters, the music. I loved the part where you activate chrystals to jump back and forth between flat mode and 3D mode to resolve certain puzzles. Could it have been inspired by Giana Sisters:Twisted Dreams? What I felt, on the other end, was that the game left me wanting for more. It felt very short. It was very short. All that effort for such a short game? I mean: I mever programmed a game but I imagine the greatest effort to be in the creation of animation models, music, settings and not in the insertion of quests. Once you have all your tiles to make the game, isn’t the game in itself the easiest part? Go there, retrieve that, bring it here. Listen to some babble. Go another place, do something else. I wish a game so beautifully done that relies on such a great idea could be as vast as ULTIMA or the like. Wouldn’t that be great? Or has anybody ever heard of TASKMAKER? No? Okay… I’m done :)

  5. Low Life says:

    Has anyone made a SHMUP with the same idea? I once pieced together a concept for one, but this kind of thing very much requires competent art, so that naturally led to nothing.

  6. hypercrisis says:

    Since it’s an homage to games that rarely exist on PC, I’m expecting most references will be missed by a lot of us?

  7. jonfitt says:

    a tiresome chore to wade through, over and over and over and over and over and over again, just because you wanted to run from one point on the larger-scale map to another.

    So a JRPG then.

    Thankfully they’re not my main recollection of the history of the RPG. Rogue evolving into Dungeon Master, or perhaps Ultima, then evolving through Morrowind etc. would be something I’d like to see.

    • Bhazor says:

      That would be cool if only to see all the backward steps.

      • Aerothorn says:

        This just in: Bhazor actually an alt of Wizardry.

        • Zakski says:

          I miss Wizardry, He was the sort of person who would claim that the only true way to play rpgs on the computer is through excell and then we all laughed at him like it was a sit-com

          • InternetBatman says:

            I miss Wizardry too, except when he was talking about Obsidian. He seemed mad at them because they’re the only mainstream company interested in making old school RPGs, but the RPGs they want to make are a generation later than the ones he liked. He did have extensive knowledge and an interesting viewpoint, even if I didn’t agree with it all the time.

          • Hmm-Hmm. says:

            I miss Wizardry more on principle, I suppose. People have many varied tastes and opinions and I think it’s good to have RPS be a reflection of that rather than being a ‘me too’ crowd (which I don’t necessarily think is the case, mind). I’d hazard that behind a lot of the more outspoken voices and opinions lie similarly strong beliefs and passions (and perhaps ignorance). Of course, if it gets the better of people sometimes that leads to some rather preachy or obnoxious attitude that doesn’t invite discussion as much as invite people to sigh and move on.

        • Bhazor says:

          Actually I meant the opposite. Small scale home brew isometric turn based low budget rpgs turning into Bioware’s big budget block busters turning back into isometric turn based low budget indie things.

          The fact I’m pleased by this is surely a sign Wizardry was a contagion.

  8. Curly says:

    Evoland is a handful of clever observations padded out with a really terrible game. The developers clearly wasted my time with repetitive mindless combat in order to justify the game’s price. I blame everyone who ever complained about not getting value for money from a shorter game, myself included.

    • fooga44 says:

      The problem was they added the menu base combat when the classic 2D zelda style combat was good enough. Classic action oriented zelda 1 based on map combat was better then menu based.

      Menu based combat can be made fun but many JRPG’s get it so wrong and Evoland is one of them.

  9. yeastcapp says:

    felt like there were so many missed opportunities playing this. for example, it was a good idea to have “storyline” as an upgrade, but what if there were several storyline upgrades throughout the game? first would be basic storyline, then storyline with pathos, then deep/meta story or something, where characters become self-aware or somesuch

  10. djriverside says:

    SPOILER:

    Is the pinnacle of gaming a Sonic-esque boss battle?

    Also, does the game provide any intriguing commentary on the evolution of games? Apart from one very clever (and obscure) Jacques Derrida reference near the beginning, not really.

    The free flash version is great fun though and lacks the problem of ugly JRPG elements!

  11. Zogtee says:

    I thought it was mediocre at best. I have played most of the games it references and I was surprised at how quickly I lost interest in this. Everything is a reference to something else. It’s essentially a clever idea with a hint of a proper game attached to it. Why not take some time to build a world and story of your own, instead of just referencing games that did?

    • A Boot Stomping a Human Face says:

      That’s kind of the point.

      • Zogtee says:

        My point is that it needs more than just references to hold it together. As it stands, it’s just a collection of other people’s work and ideas with no identity of it’s own.

  12. Danda says:

    Evoland feels a bit like DLC Quest 2.0 with the whole “upgrade to earn basic functions” gimmick. Both are very cool games.

  13. bill says:

    Unfortunately, I have sworn on the blood of all RPS commenters to never ever play a game with random encounters again.

    Otherwise this sounds pretty cool. Shame.

    • Mirqy says:

      But you’re commenting on an RPS story – doesn’t that count as playing a game with random encounters?

      Wait, have I just endangered the blood of all RPS commenters? Sorry everyone.