(PC Review) Evoland

Developer: Shiro Games
Publisher: Shiro Games
Genre: Role-Playing Game
Players: 1
Reviewer: Marcus Way

Overall: 6.5 = Fair

Minimum Requirements:
Intel Core 2 Duo 1.8 GHz, 1 GB RAM, 3D graphics card comp. with DirectX 9.0c, 50 MB Hard Drive space

Evoland is one of those rare breed of homage games that crop up from time to time. Developed by Shiro Games, it is the team’s love letter to those 8-, 16-, and 32-bit role-playing games of old that have inspired so many of today’s designers. With direct and indirect references to Diablo, Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy, Legend of Zelda, and Ultima, it’s a four- to five-hour journey through some of the genre’s most memorable titles. As effective as it is in reveling in its source material, however, it fails to strike a chord of its own.

At its most basic level, Evoland is an adorably charming one-trick pony. The story it tells is a basic one, of a hero meeting a girl and going out to save the land from an evil menace. Completing that story will take players through the evolution of the genre, and that is where the heart of the game lies. Tucked away in the many treasure chests scattered across the land are mechanic and engine upgrades. And everything is upgraded: there are upgrades to add textures, pre-rendered backgrounds, attack combos, mini-maps, life bars, HD backgrounds, merchants, random village children running around, 3D fights, and even the “Annoying Sound” from The Legend of Zelda when Link’s life is low. Each upgrade is accompanied by a text tag that pokes fun at what’s been uncovered, such as, “Looks like the scenario is lacking proper branching here…” for the Forced Choice upgrade and “I guess that’s not exactly Fort Knox.” for Pressure Plates.

At its most basic level, which is where the game starts, Evoland begins around the age of The Legend of Zelda and Ys—sorry, PC gamers, no wire-frame first-person dungeons here—with GameBoy-style monochrome visuals and quickly evolves to include the ability to travel on a world map and fight in random turn-based battles (Final Fantasy 3), in trap-filled dungeons with cracked walls susceptible to bombs (The Legend of Zelda), and in graveyards filled with hordes of enemies that drop coins and gear (Diablo). For fans of the genre, the callbacks are great for a laugh, and the numerous play styles offer a decent amount of variety. By poking fun at old conventions, players get a succinct summary as to how far the genre has come while also getting a serious dose of nostalgia.

One of the strongest sequences in the game is an area puzzle that requires players to switch between 2D and 3D. The pixelated 2D sequences represent an earlier time while the textured polygonal 3D age is the same area but at a later date, with the young sprouts and impassable tall stones of the 2D world morphed into full-grown trees and easily traversed weathered rocks. By switching between the two, paths can be navigated, torches lit, and dungeons uncovered. This is also a fairly clever reference to games like Evoland itself and others like it, as modern titles that are specifically designed to ape those feelings of yesteryear by mimicking their design without any particular interest in modern mechanic progression. Unfortunately, there are too few moments like these. So much of Evoland’s charm relies on the player having experienced the older titles firsthand, rather than evoking that sense on its own; it effectively copies elements but doesn’t do much with them. The short length of the game means that eras are passed at a breakneck pace, which leaves little time for the developers to create something more original out of the material rather than a constant string of winks and nudges.

Evoland offers bite-sized snacks of a small meal when it has the ingredients for a feast. The mechanics are all there for a game from three different eras, albeit slightly simplified in some cases, though none of them are fully exploited. I think that is largely because, small team size aside, the game really is about the references and jokes made possible by the evolution of the mechanics rather than really exploring the mechanics themselves. That doesn’t mean it isn’t enjoyable or isn’t exceedingly clever, though. There is a simple card game that offers a chance to kill time by playing a competitive townie, which not only encourages exploration, since it uses special cards hidden in some of the more remotely located treasure chests, but it also reminded me of the rock-paper-scissors mini-game tucked away in Ultima: Exodus. The game works best in cases like this, when it marries its references and mechanics into a layered experience.

But in the end, it’s all about the references. In fact, the game is so reference heavy that I honestly have no clue if the many typos are actual typos or are themselves references; it’s like an Escherian meta-nightmare scenario of references collapsing in on themselves. The one positive to this approach is that there is plenty to pick up on and point out, and there’s a nice sense of community when sharing some of the more obscure catches with others. Hopefully Shinto will make something more substantive with everything they’ve designed for Evoland—and that’s something to look forward to.

Playing Evoland is like being escorted around a museum by a hyperactive child too excited to let the visitor focus on any one piece for any length of time. Before the 8-bit exhibit can be fully appreciated, it’s off to the 16-bit era, and so on, until the tour is suddenly over. What’s left is a game that skillfully employs nostalgia but offers nothing compelling in and of itself. For those who have spent years crossing the grassy fields of Final Fantasy, exploring the dungeons of Zelda, and battling the undead in Diablo, that could very well be enough; for others, however, it’ll be little more than teaser. At $9.99, though, it’s not a bad way to kill a Sunday afternoon.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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