Evergrace is the first RPG I’ve allowed myself to play on the PlayStation 2, since I’d had very bad reports about most (if not all) the others so far. Evergrace at least looked vaguely promising – a Zelda-a-like, with 2 characters, an almost Pokémon-esque array of weaponry and armour, true paperdolling (something I’ve always, bizarrely, liked – I think it’s in defiance of the heroes always looking the same), a character ‘development’ system based upon what you equip, where equipment changed your base stats, and it looked real pretty in the box’s screenshots. And then I took it home.
Now, let me set the scene here, for the purposes of the review. My house is the local gaming haven. My housemates each have a PC, I own the three major consoles (PlayStation, PS2, Dreamcast) and we often have friends around. For the first playing of Evergrace, present were Huw, my anime-oriented housemate, and Steve, my technically-minded friend. Together, as a trio, we reviewed the game in a bizarre kind of MST, and thus I present some of our findings. I turned the game on, and we watched the rather pretty introduction sequence, which showed rolling hills, bright forests, an incredibly large number of flying things, and, of course, the main heroes.
Then we hear the music, and all three of us simultaneously winced. It’s very hard to describe Evergrace’s music, but I’ll give it a go. Take an orchestra, and divide it roughly equally into 4 parts (as in, the different sections, not the actual people, although you would have to feel sorry for the single triangle guy.) Give each of them a different musical score, designed so that when played together, the sum effect is to make each separate bit sound as bad as possible. Then, just to put the icing on the cake, make them start at very slightly different times and with different tempos, just for that extra grating effect on the ears.
Not wishing to spend any more time than necessary, we start the game, and choose Sharline, not opting for Darius because the manual states Sharline has more of a focus on long range weapons, and we figure they’d be more useful until we have the hang of the game. Then, we watch the character introduction. According to the manual and the blurb, Evergrace has a rich, multifaceted story, full of intrigue and wonder. So imagine our surprise when, amidst poorly-dubbed speech, Sharline summarily faints, wakes up in a strange bed, and watches the woman who saved her get kidnapped.
Now, what would you do? Well, like any young girl who’s in an unknown land without weapons or armour, Sharline decides to eschew finding her way home and instead decides to go and save someone she’s known for about approximately 3 seconds. So, she goes (or doesn’t, if you don’t rigorously check it) around the ruined house, finding a bow and a pot. This is where one of the few strengths of Evergrace comes into play: the characters evidently have a little common sense in there somewhere, because a couple of button clicks later, and Sharline is wearing the pot as a makeshift helmet.
As I head through the first area, fighting away, I’m suddenly alerted by Huw that my weapon’s about to break. Sure enough, I swing at the next enemy and I’m suddenly wielding a broken sword, severely damaging both my stats and my effectiveness. This is a major problem, not just at the start but throughout the game: it’s far, far too easy to break your equipment, particularly if you use certain pieces. For instance, Sharline’s best armour has, say, 350 durability. However, it sucks away 6 durability a half-minute just through wearing it, and if you don’t keep a close eye on it you’ll be spending an immense amount of money on repairs.
The only lead Sharline has to go on is a name: The Human Research Lab, and she bravely sets off to find it. After about 2 minutes of aimlessly running after the monsters that randomly spawn, we find that every route is blocked, and we decide to enter the shop. Note that there are no towns in the game, despite the loading screen telling you any amount of information about them – in fact, there’s barely anyone to interact with, and when you do find someone, it is nothing more than a simplistic fetch quest. The shops, instead, are mythical little places that you warp to at every save point, which will sell you armour and weapons and items, repair them, buy them back from you, and sell you monster descriptions, which then go into a separate section at the main menu along with items you’ve gained.
The array of weapons and armour you can purchase (and find, though I’ll come back to that later) in the game is, indeed, an impressive one, and to our surprise none of Sharline’s armour was ridiculously revealing, which made for a refreshing change and slightly reinforced the Character Common Sense Quotient, which had taken a big hit from the preposterous plot hook. Quitting, I had the clever idea of running around, finding the spawning monsters and getting the best available weapons and armour straight away. And indeed, it worked, much to my dismay; the balance factor in Evergrace is minimal. It’s quite possible to buy up the best stuff at the start and upgrade it to the point where you won’t use anything else for the first 75% of the game.
You might, however, be tempted to use other things simply for the weirdness factor. Late game, a bonus dungeon is available, where a large number of ‘rare’ items can be found that can’t in the normal course of the game. Looking at the item list that I have after completing the game with Sharline, I can see swords, clubs, claws, frying pans, a large squeaky toy hammer (if you’ve ever seen the anime Child’s Toy, you’ll know exactly what I mean.), a bunny hat, a large halo, a hat shaped like a penguin, an entire bird’s nest (with birds), and rather worryingly, Sharline’s best armour, which all looks straight out of some cheesy robot / superkid series, transparent visors and all. Think a human version of a PSO RAcaseal, and you’re getting there.
Thusly equipped, we face the first puzzle: a gate, stating “Do not lift your arms in anger to pass through here.”. I de-equip my weapon, the gate opens, and that’s the general level of puzzles throughout the game. I also come across a signpost, which states “Human Research Lab” and almost appears to be pointing off the cliff next to me. In a spirit of happy inquiry, I throw my character off the cliff… and I’m treated with a Game Over sign. No health loss, no returned to the entrance of the area, but a straight out Game Over. And there are a lot of cliffs and pits in this game, which soon become absolutely infuriating, particularly when you’re forced to fight on them – one hard sideways swing from the enemy and it’s game over. In addition, if you’re, say, fighting at a doorway while on a bridge, and do a lunge attack with a spear, the game has the worrying tendency to assume you want to lunge towards the bridge edge rather than the monster right in front of you, and consequently hurls you off the edge itself.
As for combat, it’s a Zelda-a-like: face swing direction, press button. However, it does make good use of the PS2 pad: You have a stamina bar, which will slowly drain when running and slowly fill the rest of the time. Lightly tap the attack button, and you’ll use, say, 10% to do a light swing. Ram the button down to spend all your bar for lots of power. If only the swings actually looked different, I’d be happy, but there’s no visual difference, save looking at the bar, to see how much you used. In addition to normal swings, weapons and armour have Palmira Actions, which will suck away at a weapon’s durability and your stamina bar but, say, cast a spell or do a large combo.
Moving on, we pursue the nasty villain to the top of the Human Research Lab, and are forced to take a serious credibility hit as the Big Bad Nasty Guy makes you fight a doll-like boss character, and then taunts you to follow him, teleporting you to a lava cave not far from where he has gone. Quite why a villain would do this, I don’t know. But, as ever, it’s useless to argue: there’s no way whatsoever to get back through the game to the easier areas, in case you’re finding it tough going. Simply put, you’re stuck there. This is particularly annoying as you reach the final boss – the entrance teleporter gives you no warning it’s the last area, and once you’re there all that remains is a Save crystal. If you have no money to upgrade your armour and weapons, or no way to enter the Secret Dungeon, then you have to fight the boss with what may be woefully underpowered items.
Note, I said no money to upgrade your items. There is minimal character development in this game – the only stat building you, as a player, do is by collecting disposable items that give you a bonus 5 or 10 points to spread around, with a max of 200 on each stat. Given that, late in the game you’ll be running around on, say, 600 strength anyway, it’s a fair increase but you’re rarely likely to get anywhere near that amount of stat items. In consequence, you have to make do with the stats your weapons and armour give you, and to get better, you must upgrade it. This further reinforces the method of going through the game with the same, constant, equipment: after all, if it’s upgraded to the same level as everything else, it’s still going to be what you use. A HI-level starting item kicks a LOW-level item from near the end of the game into a dumpster.
Once you’ve trudged through the entire game with one character (and believe me, trudging is the word, here – it’s slow, tedious, and although it’s a short game the sheer unforgiving nature of the game makes it a long slog) you’re not even allowed to sit back and watch the credits. As you enter the boss room, the screen fades out, and you’re switched to the other of the two characters. Forget making your first character ready for battle: whatever he or she entered the room with is saved, and that’s the state they’ll be in when you finally reach that point with the other character.
Overall there’s barely any sign of the rolling vistas and the pleasant locations seen in the intro: in fact, there aren’t any pleasant-looking locations in the game. The design is often simplistic and bland, with a greyness pervading throughout the game. About the only well-done thing graphics-wise is your character, as if they’d paid more detail to the paperdolling of the character than to anything else, which is very likely what happened.
So. That’s the game, what about the Secret Dungeon? Well, the Secret Dungeon’s nice and simple – you work your way down through a labyrinth, effectively, as monsters spawn and you find unique items. The level design is immensely simplistic, consisting of square ‘rooms’, with a barrier so you can’t fall off, connected by small bridges, some of which you have to fill in by killing monsters in order to drop blocks down into them. Some of the bridges fade in and out of sight, making them even easier to fall off. Simply put, this part of the game looks and plays even worse than the rest of the game: simplistic geometry and yet firing an arrow caused slowdown to such a point the arrow looked like it was moving through tar. (Oh, yes, Sharline, the “long-range” character, out of 15 different weapons, had 2 bows and 2 spears. If you count, that makes 11 weapons that aren’t long range. Darius had more than Sharline.)
To sum up Evergrace, well… to do so, I’d have to use the line Steve came out with after a few hours play: “Alan, are you sure you put this disc in the right console?” And you know, he’s right. As I look at it, all I can see is a PlayStation game that has been both rushed and burnt onto a Playstaton 2 disc in order to try to make it sell better, and trying to use the gimmicks of the paperdolling, the immense amounts of weapons and armour, and the secret dungeon to try to get by. In that sense, it fails miserably. With more time, more thought, and more content, it could have been so much more. I haven’t actually completed the game: I can’t bring myself to, Darius is partway through his quest with exactly the same problems in gameplay and design I encountered in Sharline’s quest. An ultimately uninspiring and underachieving game.