I had some great expectations for Evolution 2 when it popped through the door into my sweaty palms, and I immediately went and popped it into my DC. The box certainly promised great things – lovely 3D graphics, masses of gameplay, a promising-sounding random dungeon generator, and best of all, a totally subtitled script – no more bad dubbing! As you might expect, I was looking forward to this. Briefly pausing to read the backstory, given that the original Evolution, being an RPG, was available in Britain for all of 10 minutes, I then switched on the DC and proceeded to play.
You take the part of Mag Launcher, a young adventurer from Pannam Town currently traveling to Museville, where you’ve been summoned (by a note saying they want ‘The Greatest Adventurer of Pannam Town’) to perform tasks for the Society. Far from being a Mafia-like group, no matter how it may sound, the Society is in fact the local archeological institution, and they’d like you to go and retrieve certain items from certain digs that other adventurers couldn’t handle.
Joining you on your journey is the quiet, shy Linear Cannon, a girl your father charged you to look after before disappearing and who can wield the power of Evolutia, a mysterious and powerful force that no-one knows very much about, save that it is linked to the ancient race that died out long ago. Throughout the game, Linear is the only party member you’re forced to have alongside Mag, and you’ll want her there, her skill with healing (and frying pans) being top-notch.
Also coming along for the ride is Gre Nade, your family’s butler who likes toting a shotgun around. Now, the more observant readers will notice a running theme here. I’d call it a running gag but it’s far too obvious, especially when the train you’re initially riding on is boarded by bandits and you head into the next carriage only to find your rival/friend, Chain Gun.
All too soon, in drop the bandits, and you’re thrown into a battle, which is a pleasingly simple yet unoriginal concept. Your characters are within a 3×3 grid, one on each column, their position along the column determining how ‘offensive’ their stance it – near the front, they’ll take more damage, but do more damage, and conversely they’ll be doing and taking little damage if at the back rank. It’s a turn based system, where you gain turns based on your Agility – a nice added feature is a little pictorial list down one side of the screen that lists whose turn will be next and also shows status effects or low health.
The obvious commands such as Attack, Skills, Run Away, Defend and so on are all present, but the skill system deserves talking about. Most characters use a CyFrame, which is basically an ancient exoskeleton that has been adapted in this time era to have a variety of different ‘parts’ available to be bolted onto it. For Cyframe users, each part has 3-8 skills, purchasable with technique points earned after each battle and used with FP. For those of you who like to completely xp build, don’t worry – characters you’re not taking with you do earn reduced xp and tp.
Skills range from straight damage (generally Chain’s department) to different elemental attacks (from Pepper) to status effects – Mag in particular has a number of these, ranging from Silence and Paralysis from Megaphone parts to Blinding from Light parts. Some of the skills and parts are downright wacky, my favourite being Final Voice, where Mag basically creates a huge microphone and shouts at the enemy.
Those characters without Cyframes use normal weapons and have fixed skills, again that need to be purchased with technique points. Both Linear and Gre handle the healing side of things, along with status spells, both beneficial and detrimental, rather better than offence, but both of them also have rather bizarre skill sets, Linear having the ‘Prayers’ set which allows her to move HP and FP back and forth between characters and which allows other characters to go in her lieu, whereas Gre has an entire set of skills dedicated to powering Mag (and Mag alone) up.
Alongside these skills, your characters also have talents, skill that take no FP but are only usable every X numbers of battles based on the skill. Mag’s Talents are based on which characters are currently in his party, and suitable to that person – Gre will cheer for Mag, Linear will give him a present, Chain’ll tease him, and so on – and all will up a certain statistic for the battle or recover HP or MP. Linear has the fantastic talent of looking cute and asking if the enemy would possibly leave them alone, a move that fits her character perfectly. Talents also ‘level up’ with use, becoming more powerful (and getting different sound files) as they go.
Upon reaching town, you notice lots of fun things to do. There’s the large and evil-sounding ‘Tower of Despair’, the standard accoutrement of shops and a bar, and the hotel, to which Gre immediately heads, leaving you, Linear, and Chain to look around the city. After some wandering around and checking the town out, your characters spend the night in a hotel, before going to see the Society in the morning. There you’re given your mission – to plumb the depths of a number of local ruins that just happen to be helpfully full of monsters (every hero needs experience, you know) for a number of very special Appraisal Items.
I’d best explain – on your adventure, you’ll come across Appraisal Items, say, ’round squiggly thing’ and ‘long blue pole’. When you take these back to the Society, you can either sell them for money, or create Rare Appraisal items with certain combinations – in this case, ’round squiggly thing with blue pole attached’ – that sell for yet more money.
But what you’re after aren’t Appraisal Items or Rare Appraisal Items, oh no. You’re after Special Appraisal Items – so called, presumably, because they’re the only ones that are ever visible – and the first is waiting for you in the Blaze Ruins. Getting ready and equipped for battle reveals something about the battle system it took me a fair old while to notice – you don’t gain any money whatsoever from battles, only from items and chests. The prospect of limited money isn’t a pleasant one, and that’s where the Tower of Despair comes in. It’s a 50-floor dungeon where the enemies give very little XP – only TP. In addition, it’s random every time you go in, and a great place to search for Appraisal Items and equipment. Returning and going through this dungeon several times throughout the game is essential, if rather boring after a while.
Going around dungeons is done in one of two ways – either the top-down view, which shows your characters running around and quickly becomes annoying due to the fact it’s not quite top down so your characters are out of sight a lot of the time. The other method, where the camera sits just over one shoulder of the current main character, is much preferable, and gives a fairly good view of the dungeon, if it is rather reluctant to let you see around blind corners – the most irritating thing about the camera in question being that it won’t let you rotate the camera out of walls – in other words, if your character’s backed up against a wall you cannot put the camera any further back than either side of you.
Enemies are visible in this game a la Grandia and the like – they’re able to move around, actively spot and chase you, and if you or the monster run into the other’s back, then that counts as a surprise attack. At plenty of points in the dungeon you can dimly see lighter areas of ground, where a trap awaits. Most are detrimental, damaging your party or dumping a status effect on you, but a couple of traps are friendly, restoring HP, FP, or both. The map system’s extremely helpful, showing monsters and treasure chests, and is both zoomable and can be set to be relative to your direction or to the compass. It’s essential.
The graphics in Evo 2 are a treat, and made even crisper with the help of a VGA box, which, by the way, I heartily recommend to any Dreamcast user with a computer monitor knocking around the house. Characters are vivid, emotive, and cheery, appropriate to the setting, while the graphical effects and special moves are always pretty. Enemies are often palette switched, unfortunately, but it’s a minor point. Sound, again, is top-notch; the game benefits greatly from the original Japanese voice-over, although Mag’s voice is far, far too high, causing winces from this particular reviewer. Music is generally average, but some tracks are nice and atmospheric, suited to the locations you’re crawling about in.
The gameplay’s a little too generic for my tastes – beyond the Talents there’s very little in terms of innovation here, while having to actively build up gold by constantly going in the Tower of Despair gets extremely boring after a while – imagine Diablo 2 – boring enough – combined with the length of console RPG battles (I’m going to get flamed for that, yes, but I’m feeling cocky today.) Despite all this, there’s relatively little actual game and plot – I managed to go through the game in a total of 26 hours, which included at least one Tower of Despair trip between each main dungeon. The plot quickly becomes more complex than the initial premise of ‘go into ruins all the time’, but never progresses to utterly enthralling. Nicely, though, upon completing the game you get a ‘replay’ mode, which gives you more things to do and a 300,000 Gold debt to pay off at the start of the game. I’m still not sure whether it’s a good thing or not.
Overall, Evolution 2: Far Off Promise is, well, promising. Unfortunately, it becomes too repetitive too quickly to be anything better than merely a good game. Nevertheless, it’s a good RPG for the Dreamcast, meaning it’s still a rarity. If you played and like the first, by all means pick this up – as I understand it, it’s more of the first game. Otherwise, I’d recommend this to any DC owner feeling a little starved for RPGs, but be wary: it’s very easy to get bored at this game. If you’re able to stick with a game ’til the end, pick it up by all means.