There was once a game called Secret of Mana. It was a fine little cartridge, crammed full of Action/RPG goodness, and it enjoyed moderate success before passing quietly into nostalgia. It was a Squaresoft product from a time when Squaresoft could do no wrong, and it was thought that it would be forever remembered fondly. However, scandal ruined these hopes, for years later, another Squaresoft game was released entitled Secret of Evermore, and many people began to raise questions when they saw that more was stolen from the game they loved than just 2/3 of the title. Still, it was a neat game that I enjoyed. Here’s my review.
The date: 1965. The place: Podunk, USA. A small town located just north of the middle of nowhere. A quiet town inhabited by friendly folk and kindly kids. In fact, there was only one questionable character among the lot of them. Professor Ruffleberg, mad (but not in an angry sort of way) scientist extraordinaire, was your run-of-the-mill psychotic genius. He was the usual sort, living in a run down mansion filled with pizza, mummies, and rusty chainsaws, experimenting with the laws of inter-dimensional transportation, convincing local intellectual types to aid him in his experiments. On one dark and stormy… uhmmm… day, he began yet another of his wacky and failure-prone experiments with the help of his butler Carltron, his daughter Elizabeth, and two other townspeople. Predictably, something went terribly wrong…
The date: 1995. The place: Podunk, USA. A slightly larger town still located just north of the middle of nowhere. A town that’s still pretty quiet despite thirty years of progress. One day, a local boy exited his neighborhood movie theatre after seeing one of his favorite flicks, pet dog following along faithfully. No one knows what he originally intended to do next, but whatever they were, his plans were ruined. A stray cat ran through the streets for no good reason (don’t you hate when they do that?) and our hero’s pup was soon in hot pursuit.
Not wanting to lose track of his best friend, the boy began chasing as well, and soon, they reached an old deserted mansion. The cat fled within and the dog followed, giving the boy no choice but to enter too. Once inside, it was obvious that the cat was long gone, but there were more important matters to attend to.
The inside of the place looked like a scene out of “The Pale People of Planet V.” Strange objects littered the floor, wiring hung loose and lifeless from the ceiling, and dust covered all in a thick blanket. After scrounging around for a while, the boy found a secret panel that led to a strange back room, dominated by a gargantuan steel and glass structure. Although he was intelligent enough not to activate it, the dog started chewing on some cords and a moment later, they were both getting shocked with thermonuclear electro-bolts.
After the brief teleportation process, the two found themselves within a strange satellite facility. Industrial fans and flashy doodads lined the walls, but they didn’t have long to explore as a large, creepy looking man quickly escorted them to, what he so playfully called, the Exit. Inside, the boy barely (well, easily) managed to fight off a pair of security droids with a hand bazooka he found lying on the floor and quickly ran into an escape pod to avoid any further confrontations. The dog had already entered the pod, and had kept busy while waiting for his master. With the controls completely destroyed due to an overactive canine, the boy jettisoned himself and hoped for the best.
The date: how should I know? The place: Evermore’s prehistoric plateau, a land of dinosaurs and plants that bite back. The boy awakens, slightly tenderized from the crash but not in poor condition, and finds that his dog and his boom stick are nowhere to be found. After calling a few times, a hulking behemoth of a wolf appears, only to stand, tongue wagging, before its master. As a test, the boy throws a stick to find out if this is his real dog. When it comes back with a human femur, the boy knows he found his mutt. And so, armed with a skeletal leg and an encyclopedic knowledge of every B movie our world has ever created, the boy and his pooch begin a carnage-and-comedy-soaked adventure into the heart of Evermore, searching for a way back to a land called Podunk.
Secret of Evermore is an Action/RPG made during the later days of the SNES. For some reason, it received more hatred than any other Square title since Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest, but the game was really not bad at all. Gameplay was solid, fusing the system from Secret of Mana with a few new ideas: some good, some bad.
You control our hero from overhead as he travels throughout Evermore, a strange land made up of several historical eras. Along the way, you and the dog must battle with wild animals, evil robots, vicious monsters, and other such threats in the usual manner. As you explore the various dungeons and areas the game offers, you collect swords, axes, spears, and eventually a bazooka (with limited ammo) for your personal use.
Sadly, this is a large step down from the huge variety of weapons in Secret of Mana, but the rest of the battle system is fundamentally the same. After each attack, your hero’s concentration bar empties and quickly refills to 100%. While it’s recharging, you are incapable of attacking at full power. This keeps you from simply cornering the enemy and slashing it to death and forces you to use some hit-and-run strategy in combat. Also, if you hold down the attack button after striking, the concentration bar will begin to fill up after reaching 100%, depending on how many enemies you’ve killed with that particular weapon. For every 100 foes defeated, a new weapon technique is learned, two per weapon.
For instance, after you kill 100 enemies with your spear, you learn to throw it. After 200, you gain a more powerful and faster throw. Your dog also gains more powerful attacks for every 100 slain foes, but because it cannot change weapons, it becomes mastered very quickly. For the most part, your dog will be doing most of the physical combat.
The boy, on the other hand, gets to play with alchemy. This magic system, although buggy, is a personal favorite of mine. As you explore the world of Evermore, you will meet alchemists from time to time. These scientists play around with various natural components, mixing them in certain amounts, hoping to find useful formulas. Lucky for you, they are usually willing to part with their formulas once you visit them. Some spells, like Flash, are necessary to find along the way, while others require careful searching through some of the most convoluted dungeons I’ve ever seen.
Now, instead of the usual MP nonsense, this game gives you a good explanation as to how this guy can fling fireballs and heal wounds. Along your quest, your dog will occasionally sniff out alchemic components. These range from water to wax to radioactive meteorites. Once you’ve collected enough ingredients and have the appropriate spell, you can cast the alchemy at any appropriate target. For example, casting the Hard Ball formula requires one part crystal and one part clay. For every use of the spell, you lose the needed ingredients. Other spells require larger amounts of elements. Acid Rain will use up three parts water and one part ash, severely limiting the number of uses you have for it. Because some formulas require the same ingredients, you often have to compromise when using magic. Cast too many Cure spells and you won’t have enough roots to use a Heal when you need it.
At first, all of your spells are terribly weak. The only way to build up magic power (aside from gaining levels which improve all of your stats) is to repeatedly cast the spell and level it up. Once a spell receives enough use, it improves in power and becomes much more potent. Sometimes, ingredients are so expensive and rare that constant casting is tricky, and it’s often a tough choice to make when deciding if you should stick with your primitive-yet-experienced Flash or move on to an unused Nitro.
However, there are a few problems with this system. Due to the fear of running out of components when you really need them, some players may fear using alchemy at all. By the time they reach the point where a spell could be useful, they find it so weak that it’s useless. Don’t ration too much. Also, the game suffers from too many spells that do nearly the same thing. I really had little use for alchemy when I went through the game, so I’d have to recommend finding a few good spells (Crush, Heal, Super Heal, etc.) and sticking with them. It’s really an interesting system that could easily be improved upon. Any new titles willing to give it a try?
Aside from gathering new weapons and spells, you are also able to find armor, helmets, gloves, and collars (for the pooch). For all human equipment, there are three of each type in each era. Some pieces are bought with the local currency (Talons, Jewels, Coins, or Credits) while others require side-battles, exploration, and usage of the game’s addictive-yet-small barter trading.
At certain points in the game, you find marketplaces where consumer goods can be traded, offering no usage value but allowing further trades. For instance, you might find someone offering the magic Gauntlet of Doom in exchange for 12 bags of rice, 3 souvenir spoons, and a tapestry. In order to get all that, you must find a rice salesman, a spoon salesman, and a tapestry salesman and purchase the necessary goods from them.
However, not all of them will accept real money. The tapestry salesman may decide to hand over one for a handful of beads. In that case, you must hunt down a bead salesman and get the goods from him so you can trade for other goods from some other guy in order to finally receive a neat glove from yet another person. Sound evil and irritating? It is. Fortunately, it’s fun too. Aside from simply acquiring armor, you can also get accessories in this manner. Some, like the Silver Sheath and the Armor Polish, improve your basic stats, while others, like Insect Repellent and the Magic Gourd, provide other, less general bonuses.
As a final note on gameplay, I’d just like to remind everyone of the wonderful two-and-three player modes available in Secret of Mana. They’re gone now. Admittedly, the three-player mode would have been impossible without a third character, but the least they could have done was provide for two. Well, actually, they did the least that they could do, which was one player control over one character at a time. Certain areas of the game do require you and the dog to go your separate ways, but for the most part, little ever changes except for your dog’s form. In each era, he has a different appearance and different stats. Despite a few bugs, the game is very enjoyable and rekindles fond memories for Secret of Mana fans.
The game also provides a wonderful visual experience. Like its predecessor, Secret of Evermore boasts highly detailed sprites on 2D backgrounds, but both have been improved drastically. Sprites are now more detailed and provide better character animations, although there are still a few odd looking moments. The backgrounds are some of the system’s best with wonderful colors and several animated areas. Tar bubbles, moles pop out of holes, and everything is very crisp and detailed. Spell effects are nice as well, each having their own animation and most being somewhat silly. Crush, for example, drops a huge stone fist on the enemy, while Sting releases a swarm of killer bees. Enemy design is decent, although heavily palette swapped, and there were a few truly memorable bosses.
Music, however, was not quite as wonderful. Although the sound quality obviously utilized much of the system’s potential, the soundtrack was a bit undersized. I’m not saying that there were too few songs. I’m just pointing out that few, if any of them, were more than 60 seconds long. Other areas have ambient effects in the background like birds chirping, crowds murmuring, or beasts roaring to help set the environment. It might not get on your nerves, but don’t expect to be humming it later on.
As for sound effects, these were far more appreciable. Axe swings and sword slashes were nice, but the splattering of spiders and the various explosions were what really worked well. Most spell sounds were also enjoyable, and I doubt that any game before this one had such impressive electrical jolt noises.
Of course, one of the things that drew the most hatred towards the game was its quirky plot. The tale of a boy and his dog, lost in some strange fantasy world and trying to return home, seems only a gender-swap away from The Wizard of Oz. However, the story is completely different from any game you’ve seen before. Rather than focus on one major plot point, the game is broken up into several smaller quests, each one bringing you closer to escaping the bizarre world. These are by no means fetch quests (Which are almost completely absent from the game), and each advances the plot a bit and provides some interesting background.
Main characters are easily distinguished, and although they develop little, they do manage to interest you a bit. After all, you have to wonder how Miss Bluegarden can stay so fat in a tower filled with nothing but rats. Sounds a little Survivor-esque to me…
Anyway, the story focuses more on being funny than coherent and succeeds well enough, mainly due to the countless B movies our protagonist discusses along the way. Don’t expect Square’s usual SNES storyline fare, but instead enjoy this Secret of Mana knockoff for what it is. Also, make sure to hunt down guest stars from Final Fantasy IV and VI! Apparently, they all seem to be stuck in Evermore as well…
The only thing I can point out that really bugged me control-wise was the lack of multiplayer modes. Ignoring that, the only minor irritant that comes to mind would be the dog’s component sniffing. Every once in a while, you will find an area where the dog keeps telling you to search for ingredients, but to no avail. Sometimes it is just a false alarm and you wind up wasting your time clicking for hours, while other ones turn out to be simply stubborn and you miss out on an item. Just remember – those things can be bought for relatively low prices. There’s no need to spend hours trying to hunt down every one of them.
Overall, Secret of Evermore is a game that doesn’t quite qualify as a classic game. Instead, it’s more of a novelty game that just wound up angering the wrong people and quickly received an unmerited reputation. I would suggest this for those who played Secret of Mana and liked it or for those who don’t mind a silly plot, but most people should be able to enjoy it to some extent.