Secret of Evermore review
An intricately woven experience juxtaposed by some seemingly random maze designs
Developer: Square USA
With the growing popularity of JRPGs in the west during the 90s, Squaresoft had quite a bit of work on their hands in an effort to cultivate their potential boom. Thankfully, they had a subsidiary in the good old US of A to back them up. In this instance, it's a spin off of the Seiken Densetsu series known as Secret Of Evermore (well, that, or a cash in from Square USA; it depends on who you ask). At a cursory glance, it would appear to be Secret Of Mana, only with different settings, two characters – a boy and his dog – and with an even more light hearted story. The more you play the game, however, the more you begin to notice that this isn't quite what you're expecting based on the first two Seiken Densetsu games. In fact, it's something much more than a mere fantasy story.
You could almost look at this as a transitional game of sorts for Nintendo's RPGs – Final Fantasy 6 had dabbled with steampunk elements while Star Ocean was essentially a full on love letter to Star Trek. Between Final Fantasy 6 and Star Ocean layed Secret Of Evermore, a game where the player controls a boy and a dog who travel between different realms within the planet of Evermore. How they got there involved his dog chewing the wires of a transporter at an abandoned mansion where a scientist used to live. Going between a prehistoric world, to an ancient Greek world, and then to medeval times to wind up in the distant future would have you believe that this is a time travelling story, but there's more to Evermore than meets the eye. Up until the point where it's revealed that Evermore is more than just a different world, you'll be more interested in the actual dialogue provided by not only the citizens, but also the boy.
Given that the boy is a big fan of cheesy science fiction movies, he's often quick to point out moments in those films that are relevant to his current situation. Whether it's specific moments (we're talking “it's like that time when that guy did that thing” kind of references) or tropes at play, he's not afraid to point them out for comedic effect. This is often something that would make me groan since referential humor, while often a great start to a joke, just winds up falling flat on its face if used on its own, but within the context of the concept revolving around “a sci fi movie buff in a sci fi world”, it at least works. A lot of that is due to the writing – it's snappy, oftentimes clever and manages to keep the player invested despite there not exactly being an overarching story beyond “I want out of this crazy world and back into my own” until sometime towards the end of the game. Granted, this makes the whole thing seem rather oddly paced as it takes quite some time for the plot to really get going, but it's the worlds and situations you bump into as you explore said worlds that grip you by the testes. By the end, it'll be the aesthetic and dialogue, not the actual story, that you'll remember.
At first, Secret Of Evermore appears to play an awful lot like Secret Of Mana did in that you go around, beating up enemies with a weapon, get experience points to level up and hopefully get stronger via stat increases and charaged attacks. Theoretically, you could keep beating them down as it's done in real time, but you have a stamina meter so that you can't just button mash. Whenever you attack, the stamina meter drops to 0% and has to build back up to 100% before you can hit with full power again. As you level up your weapon, you can hold the attack button and use charged attacks. Spells are also there to attack from a distance, and the more that they're levelled up, the more powerful they become. However, you'll quickly find out that things are a tad different - not only do you only have your canine companion, but you can't play with another person... well, I mean you can, but the other person would just be watching you play. Thankfully, the AI isn't pants on head *bleep*ing stupid as it can navigate around obstacles and attack when necessary more often than not. Where it rocks even further is that the screen scrolls even if your four legged buddy isn't on the screen, so there are no more moments where you're stuck because your idiot companions cannot walk around rocks.
On top of that, spells are a bit different this time around. Rather than MP, you'll be using whatever resources your canine buddy can find or that you can buy. From flints to grease to plants, there are plenty of ingredients that can be put together in order to conjure up magical powers such as fire, lightning, healing and magic reflection. Much like Secret Of Mana, Evermore's magic stops the game as you cast a spell, is a guaranteed hit and requires constant usage in order to level them up. This is usually where I'd complain about the need to grind a spell and then buy more resources if the spell's resources can be bought from shopkeepers and alchemists or run around and get the dog to sniff them out, but unlike Secret Of Mana, you don't need to really grind all that much, if at all. See, while that game requires some grinding with the spells you acquire later on due to how weak they are, this doesn't require nearly as much. You'll acquire most of your commonly used spells fairly early on which gives you ample time to level them up, and the later spells don't start off too badly, making the process of levelling them up not quite as painful as it could've been.
Actually acquiring them can be a bit tricky – while some are gained through story events or found in plain sight, others have to be found all over each of the various time periods; and I swear, a few of them would've had to have been found either by complete accident or out of extreme boredom, searching every last pixel. *bleep*, it's like I'm playing a Lucas Arts point and click game or something! The thing is that too many of them are either too similar, are too *bleep*ing weak to begin with or require ingredients that you can only find, thus limiting their usage (and also juxtaposing their initially weak nature). That's okay, you say? Well, as I've mentioned above, you don't need to grind too much, but what I forgot to mention was that you don't need to grind if you've been using it on the way. That's not even mentioning weapons – of which, there are only three types (swords, axes and spears), with each of the four worlds offering their own individual weapon of those types – which also need to be levelled up. Individually. In other words, you'll likely be sticking with the first spear that you get.
Furthermore, as much as I dislike Secret Of Mana, if it got one thing right that this game didn't quite, it's its levelling system. In Secret Of Mana, if you level up a weapon, you level up your mastery with that type of weapon, and if you level up a spell, you level up every spell in that respective spell's element. However, Secret Of Evermore has to doing it on an individual basis, meaning that just because you can use one spear fantastically, doesn't mean that you can use every other spear just as well. Oh, and game balancing issues strike again – I didn't choose the spear at random; it's virtually the best weapon type in the game as you can throw it once you charge it up, not only marking a fine balance between ranged and close quarters combat, but also making flying enemies easier to hit. Hmm I wonder which weapon I should equip – one of two marginally powerful weapons that are only effective in close quarters, or a weapon that I can eventually throw. Decisions decisions... thankfully, the decision is easier to make thanks to the Ring menu system from Secret Of Mana, where you can press up and down to access items, armors, weapons and magic.
If I was to grade this game purely based on mechanics and storytelling, I'd give it a B+ and move on – weapon and magic balance aside, as long as I can have fun with a game, that's all that matters. Sadly, Secret Of Evermore has one last trick up its sleeve, and it's the labyrinthine design of its dungeons. Some of them are fine as you can still pin point a decent route after a bit of exploring, but some of the others have a bad tendency to be about as convoluted as Metal Gear Solid's storyline with about as much clarity (if not less). Unless you're the Rain Man, you really need to make sure to pay attention to where you're going, because some of these mazes' layouts just make no goddamn *bleep*ing sense! A lot of it boils down to corridors looking eerily similar to one another, and when it's combined with layouts that were designed via randomly doodling on a napkin and then just straightening it out a bit, oh boy, it can get rather annoying.
By comparison, the puzzles aren't too difficult – perhaps any that involve the need to throw the spear can throw you through a loop if you didn't know that you could throw it, but other than that, a little trial and error hurt nobody. The enemies and bosses give you more challenge. They tend to sport simplistic patterns and it's a matter of knowing when to attack and when to fall back. They're also quite a bit of fun to fight as they can still give you quite a fight unless you're overlevelled, especially the bosses. Said bosses actually tend to be tricky as their simplistic patterns of attack – whether they try to squash you or fire balls of flame at you - can wreck you if you're not careful or flight of foot. But again, a little difficulty never hurts anybody. Really, this game sports tough but fair difficulty when it comes to combat; it's when there's a large amount of it in bullshit maze layouts that it goes from fun to annoying.
But really, there are some pretty cool puzzles to be found. Some of them involve you needing to switch control between the boy and the dog to activate switches so that they can progress through the dungeon. While they aren't about to “wow” you on a technical level, the dynamic between man and man's best friend is more than enough to make up for that, sort of like how Resident Evil's simplistic puzzles work best in the context of it being a haunted house with more to it than meets the eye. In fact, I have to say, the dog is pretty *bleep*ing awesome. Oftentimes, the dog will need to jump across chasms and activate switches to make parts of the world accessible for the boy. At other points, he's like a sharp sword and you're the staff – while you alternate between physical attacks and magic usage, the dog hits like a truck since he only has one type of weapon which will level up quickly, plus he's got a fairly high attack stat to begin with. When you're in trouble, your dog shouldn't be too far behind before he chomps down an enemy. Oh, and as I've said before, he doesn't get stuck behind walls. In fact, he's not a complete idiot when the AI controls him. He makes for the perfect companion and really – call me crazy if you wish – I don't miss Secret Of Mana's multiplayer at all because the AI is actually competent. I agree with the cliché. Man's best friend indeed.
If there's one thing that Secret Of Evermore *bleep*ing nails, it's the presentation. Now, that my sound weird after my diatribe on the maze-like levels and how paths can bleed together, so let's just say that besides that, this game has quite a spiffy look. It has a more realistic look... well, about as much as a 16 bit system can provide, anyway. Its colors are darker yet more pronounced when necessary, and the designs are rooted more in gritty realism than most of the other RPGs released at the time. Even the enemies seem to have this going for them, although it's more like a somebody donning a rubber costume that's somehow just as easy to move in as it would be to move in tights. I'd say a lot of this has to do with the immense amount of detail put into everything – there's a good amount of shading and tinting to make each object, each character and each background just pop out. There's just so much detail that it almost looks real. The icing on the cake is that the animations are incredibly smooth and the spell effects, ranging from fireballs to a giant fist and a swarm of killer bees, look just as amazing as the rest of the game does.
This game's crowning achievement, however, is the soundtrack. Composed by one Jeremy Soule. You may know him as the composer for the 3D Elder Scrolls games (from Morrowind and beyond), but while those games simply had epic soundtracks (they're good though, don't get me wrong), Secret Of Evermore's soundtrack is a completely different beast. Ranging from complete silence to low key music, it's clear that he certainly has an ear for ambience. It's one thing to have faint tribal drumming while you explore the prehistoric jungle; it's another to hear the leaves rustling and the animals making their own noises. In fact, whenever there are sounds to hear that isn't just the music, I feel that it perfectly captures the feeling of each location better than just the music, especially in places where there is little to no music. Some would complain that it's not melodic enough, but – and I'm sure Jeremy Soule would tell you the same thing – the soundtrack brings forth a level of tension, of drama that most SNES games' soundtracks don't, that most games need in order to truly create a perfect feeling.
However, Secret Of Evermore is a perfect example of questionable level design almost killing a game. Unfortunately, it's plagued by a few areas being labyrinthine to a fault. There are good mazes, and then there are those that make little to no sense in both their layout and its insistence on all of the corridors looking the same. There are a couple of other problems, such as the story feeling more like a catalyst for one liners than its own beast and the fact that you only level up one spell and one weapon rather than spell and weapon classes. Thankfully, it's the type of game that when it gets good, it gets really good, culminating into a fine experience unlike what you'd find on the Super Nintendo. This is mainly due to the grittier, more realistic graphics, the soundtrack's higher emphasis on ambience than melody and the game's penchant for more dynamic moments between the boy and his dog. However, I'd also like to say that this game can be plenty of fun to play through as combat tends to veer towards exciting while the dialogue is witty, clever and oftentimes ironic, feeling more like comic relief in an otherwise complete shithole of a world. It's due to the sum of its parts adding up to such an experience that I just can't stay mad even after prolonged periods of time being lost, and I doubt you will too.
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