Sunday, June 30, 2013

Evoland: A Little Rough Around the Edges

June has nearly come to an end, and I still haven't written a single article. It's tough working six days a week, but it doesn't help that I've been trying to play three games simultaneously. So I figured I'd try to play through a short indie game and write a quick review of it, and on an impulse bought Evoland for $9.99 on Steam. Less than 48 hours later, and before I'd actually started playing the game, Evoland went on sale on both Steam and GOG for $4.99. So the lesson learned is this: never buy a game unless it's on sale, because it will surely go on sale immediately after you buy it.

Evoland is supposed to be a nostalgic tribute to classic action/adventure/RPGs like Zelda and Final Fantasy. The gimmick, here, is that the game progressively "evolves" from the historic roots of video games up to something more modern. The gameplay begins at its most basic, with visuals reminiscent of the original GameBoy; as you play, you unlock extra mechanics (like background music, health meters, save points, etc) and watch as the graphics steadily upgrade themselves to that of the early GameCube. It's an intriguing premise that does manage to kindle nostalgic memories of fonder times, but is the game itself any good?

Unfortunately, the full game experience doesn't quite deliver on the great potential of the premise. We've all replayed some of our favorite games hoping to relive childhood passions, but the problem with Evoland is that it merely reminds us of other games, without offering much substance of its own. That's good for jogging fond memories (which is without a doubt fairly low-hanging fruit), but the experience rarely transcends simple nostalgia. It's basically like the game is trying to stand solely on references without having its own unique stamp to tie everything together. Don't get me wrong -- the "evolution" gimmick is very unique, but that's not enough to carry the weight of a $10 game. 

The main issue with Evoland is that the bulk of its gameplay feels rudimentary and rote. Taking its main influences from Zelda and Final Fantasy, different sections of the game alternate between Zelda-style top-down dungeon crawling with real-time combat and FF-style world map navigation with turn-based combat. These gameplay styles capture the basic feel of each game but ultimately feel like lame, underwhelming imitations that just don't come close to capturing the magic of playing an actual Zelda or Final Fantasy game. The turn-based combat, for instance, follows the "active time" system where you wait for a gauge to fill up before selecting an action, but there's literally no depth to the combat system besides selecting "attack" until you win, which makes these portions of the game pretty boring.

There's one sizeable portion of the game, for example, where it turns into a Diablo-style hack n' slasher, with enemies coming at you in swarms and dropping piles of gold and random loot. It looks like Diablo, but it doesn't implement the gameplay mechanics in a wholesome way. Dropped loot is automatically equipped, and there's only one item to be found for each equipment slot, so you don't get the satisfaction of managing your inventory and playing with different types of gear -- the stuff that made playing Diablo actually fun. As it is in Evoland, you just mash the attack button over and over again until you reach the boss. The loot itself doesn't even provide worthwhile bonuses to your character; it's just there to parody or make reference to other games and mechanics in the flavor text. And at that stage in the game, all the gold you collect is basically worthless, too. 

Furthermore, mechanics don't carry over from one game "type" to another. When you're in the Final Fantasy random-encounter, turn-based combat sections, you earn experience points towards leveling up -- but these stats become completely irrelevant once you enter a Zelda section. Weapons and items you unlock in the Zelda section (like bombs or the bow and arrow) can't be used in conjunction with Final Fantasy's turn-based combat or in the Diablo hack n' slash combat. The effect is to make each section of the game feel somewhat fleeting and trivial, because there's barely any continuity between them. The game comes off feeling like a bunch of random ideas mashed together without any glue to hold it together.

The first half of the game lacks any real form of imperative, because it doesn't give you any kind of set-up, story, or goals. The early gameplay basically just amounts to wandering to the next available space and opening treasure chests along the way, which introduce the new gameplay mechanics and upgrade the aesthetics as you go. There's no incentive to keep going, except to see what new thing will be introduced with the next treasure chest. As neat as it is to see the game progressively build itself up from basically nothing, I feel like the experience could've been more enjoyable if the game had a little something more going on.

The actual "story" doesn't really begin until the game's finished establishing all of its most essential building blocks (roughly 1-2 hours into the experience), but the story isn't enough to rustle anyone's interest. Like the gameplay, it feels rudimentary and rote; it's there out of necessity, not because there was an actual story that wanted to be told. While exploring the world map, you rescue a young girl who then takes you to her village. Once there, you learn that the town's been devastated by an evil villain, whom you must stop. From there, you have to go to two different dungeons to collect two halves of an amulet to gain access to a tower to fight the boss. It's incredibly basic, and since the characters have no personality it's hard to actually care about what's going on. It's just going through the motions.

The most interesting aspect of the game's evolution gimmick is that it makes you appreciate features and mechanics that we've come to expect and now take for granted. Playing the early portions of the game, I was reminded of how primitive combat was in the original Legend of Zelda and Link's Awakening, when you could only move in four directions along the square grid patterns. Once I'd unlocked free movement -- the ability to move off the grid -- combat became so much more feasible. Likewise, in the beginning you reach a game over screen after taking a single hit from an enemy -- something typical of early Nintendo games -- and so it was an immense pleasure finally to have a health meter once I'd unlocked it.

The other particularly neat spot with the evolving graphics comes when you get the ability to time-travel. Time-traveling between past and present was a big mechanic of Ocarina of Time, but what's unique about time-traveling in Evoland is that you travel between gaming eras. You end up switching back and forth between full 3D visuals and classic 2D graphics, and use the differences between the two eras to solve puzzles and navigate throughout the world. That's a pretty cool mechanic, but unfortunately like the rest of the game's elements, once you're through with that particular area, the time-traveling mechanic never comes back.

The game isn't very long, either, which makes it a little harder to justify the asking price. It took me four hours to beat the game with a 92% completion rate. The completion rate is sort of like Metroid, based on how many hidden stars and trading cards you acquired, but that's the only replay value the game has -- backtracking through a dozen areas you've already cleared searching for bomb spots you saw and passed a long time ago, but didn't have access to bombs at the time. Before facing the final boss I went around looking for new areas, but just didn't have the willpower (or the desire) to go for 100% completion. Of course, the four hour length is a bit of a blessing, because with how crude most of the gameplay is, the game might have gotten stale and tedious and worn out its welcome if it were much longer.

The bottom line for Evoland is that it's an interesting idea, but it doesn't reach its full potential. Nostalgia is a powerful thing, and the similarities and references to beloved titles like Zelda and Final Fantasy may be enough to make the game enjoyable for some gamers, but I feel like Evoland needs to transcend the nostalgic references and do something unique and worthwhile on its own in order for it to be considered a truly great game. It's a quality product that deserves praise for the effort that went into it, but I just didn't have as much fun with it as I thought possible for such a wonderful gimmick. 

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