I always appreciate a game that succeeds in trying new things. Having become bored-to-tears with the current state of role-playing games, I've been searching for a game that digs its own unique little fox hole on the battlefield of cookie-cutter RPG epics. I think I might have found one in a quirky little thing of a game called Evolution 2.
The sequel to Dreamcast's very first RPG, Evolution: World Of Sacred Device, Evolution 2: Far Off Promise doesn't tell a particularly enthralling story, nor does it provide much of a break from the familiar RPG fighting. What it does do is take a more logical and fun approach to a genre that has changed very little over the years. Although they all sport similarly ridiculous names (perhaps as a parody), the characters in Evolution 2 aren't the brooding, melodramatic losses that infest every other RPG. Quite the contrary, they're almost always smiling and jumping around.
The game's young lead, Mag, is a happy adventurer who can hardly wait for his next job. His cohorts include a pompous butler named Gre; a whiny little pain-in-the-ass named Chain; a timid, skinny twig of a girl called Linear and the no-nonsense flirt, Pepper. Evolution 2 imaginatively combines this wacky cast with a different and lighthearted game philosophy to give the game energy and charm. Here we have adventurers who don't use swords and shields in their battles. They fight with frying pans, wooden mallets, giant bowling balls, vacuums, megaphones and propellers. They heal and strengthen each other by shouting words of encouragement and exchanging gifts.
Evolution 2 caught my attention in many other ways once I got into it. This game is set up a bit differently than the rest of its ilk. There's no pointless walking around on a world map waiting for invisible beasties to attack you. Instead you jump straight into the fray, and try to imagine this—you can actually see the monsters in the places you explore, so you can avoid them if you want to. Not only that, but you can even sneak up behind enemies and surprise them to get the advantage in a fight, and they can do the same to you. This is also a game that says, "Look, there's no way in hell a giant rat, a cockroach or a rhinoceros is going to leave behind money after you kill it—that doesn't make any sense. Animals don't carry cash around, so in this game you have to earn your money in different, more sensible ways." Indeed, in Evolution 2 you make your living by working for The Society—an upper-class university that commissions Mag to find artifacts for one of its museums. After each successful excursion, Mag and his team are compensated for their work. Money can also be earned by collecting "appraisal items." These are prehistoric valuables you find throughout your quests that the museum will buy from you, but they can also be stored and combined with each other to create "rare appraisal items," which are worth even more money. Now why can't other games think of simple, logical things like this?
Evolution 2 isn't a very long game. It can be completed in under 15 hours—so by typical RPG standards it's a pretty short affair. The game keeps itself brief by cutting out the unnecessary traveling and fighting in between destinations and instead focuses strictly on exploring labyrinthian dungeons and fighting the many monsters in them. This is both a good and a bad thing in my opinion. It's good because the gameplay is simple and tightly focused. It's bad because since dungeon hacking is all you do in the game, it can become extremely tedious. Despite the fact that you can pick your own fights with the monsters, there's no less fighting in Evolution 2 than in other RPGs that feature random enemy encounters. You still have to fight to gain experience and attack points, and most of the time there's no getting around an enemy that's in your way. The game does have a fun fighting system that allows for many ways to attack, and you can plan your strategy through various battle formations, but it still isn't enough to keep the action from becoming monotonous.
All of the game's dungeons basically play exactly the same, which makes it easy to lose interest. The variety of monsters and the level design never changes much while you're playing through a particular dungeon, so it always feels like the same thing over and over again. As the game progresses, the dungeons only take longer to complete, so it's easy to lose your patience and just try to find the exits as fast as you can. The dungeons are filled with numerous traps and hidden rooms to keep you on your toes, but there isn't enough differentiation in the gameplay from dungeon to dungeon to really make the game break out from the standard RPG mold. Also worth noting is the item management, which can be a real pain. This is true especially at the beginning, when you're very limited as to how much the team can carry. Later in the game, you acquire various backpacks that allow you to carry more, but even then you're forced to constantly drop items in dungeons to make room for others you find.
It's hard not to like a game that's filled with so many good ideas, especially one that's so technically sound. Evolution 2 features brightly colored visuals, well-written subtitles and a fantastic musical score. And if you can live with the nature of the repetitive dungeon fighting, the game actually plays pretty well. However, I couldn't help but think that the game was merely a foundation for something that could have been much more. The game can be played from a helicopter view of the action or a behind-the-back view that brings Evolution 2's world up close and personal. While in the third-person perspective though, I never felt the atmosphere of this world like I should have. Everything looks good, but the game never truly comes to life. There just isn't enough to do in this world for it to feel like anything else but a game. It's all combat and preparing for combat. While playing, I kept wondering what Evolution 2 might have been like had it not limited itself and had maybe gone for that epic feel. Instead it stays small and different—which is admirable—but why settle for cruising altitude when you can achieve orbit?
If you can endure the many hours of dungeon exploring and monster fighting, you won't be rewarded by the game's story, either. The characters are fun to watch, but the plot isn't very interesting, and before it's all over the story deteriorates into the boy having to save the girl from the evil guy. However, I did like how the game grades your performance at the end. If you can meet certain criteria upon finishing the game (collecting all the appraisal items, fighting more monsters, making better time), you'll be treated to different outcomes, so the incentive is there to play the game better. The game is also filled with frenetic, slap-stick Japanese dialogue that will leave you in stitches.
I played another Dreamcast RPG last year called Time Stalkers that shared many of the basic concepts found in Evolution 2. Time Stalkers was lousy because it couldn't find a way to make its ideas work. Evolution 2 is the game Time Stalkers wanted to be. It manages to live up to its creativity by employing smart and useful ideas that actually move the genre forward, and it sustains its uniqueness with fun energy and a much-appreciated sense of humor. There's a lot to like in this game, but ultimately its limited scope almost reduces it to an "RPG lite." To a certain extent, that was enough for me. Then again, I would've have liked to have seen what else this game could have achieved had it tried just a little harder.