A quick look at the newest game releases will reveal that, more than ever, the industry is obsessed with providing the most dreary and hopeless environments for people to play through. It may be from a growing belief that gamers have 'grown up' and anything that isn't grim is for kids. And this is really relevant now thanks to a new generation of consoles and PCs grabbing much attention in the industry and developers are using this opportunity to show off their latest games. That's why a game like Ubi Soft's Evolution is such a breath of fresh air. From start to finish, Evolution avoids the melodramatic storyline and goes headlong in the direction of light-hearted humor and charm. As the first and only RPG on the Sega Dreamcast, Evolution is a sign of good things to come.
Everything in Evolution emits a charm and sense of humor that is lacking in the RPGs currently garnering industry attention. For one, the lead character, Mag Launcher (all the characters in the game are named after weapons munitions), is not like the standoff-ish Squall from Final Fantasy VIII. Instead, he is a happy-go-lucky kid who goes about his day in a totally upbeat mood. This optimistic and light-hearted nature is further exploited by the games supporting cast. In addition to his friend, Linear Cannon, Mag can travel with oddball characters like his uppity butler, Gre Naid, a voluptuous adventeress, Pepper Box, and an annoying little girl called Chain Gun. Each is full of personality and bring loads of humor to the game just when the story needs a kick.
Evolution also brings us a very unique look. Being the first 128-Bit RPG on the market, the high-resolution (640x480) graphics and 3D environments and characters can be considered a given. But what impressed me was that the developer, Sting, did a great overall job with the games graphic direction by creating a game with consistently rich colors and crisp textures. The characters in the game have a rather eclectic look to them; with gaudy clothes and anime-heavy designs, it's to the developers credit that this translation to 3D was made so well. As icing on the cake, Sting managed to add mapped facial animations to each character. During the course of conversations or even during battles, this feature punctuates the games most poignant moments, from the most hilarious to the most grim (these were rare), and further brings the characters to life. In the context of a press release, a feature like this can seem miniscule, but when observed in action, it adds to the game in an important way and should be appreciated.
The games biggest surprise for me was the combat system. While still a turn-based system at heart, Evolution's combat system places much more emphasis on battle formation than any other RPG of its kind. During a battle, each character is placed on one of three grids that extend from the foreground to the background. If, for example, Mag was at the front of the formation, he would have much more powerful attacks than a party member who was one or two grids behind him. Conversely, his defensive abilities would also be much weaker being that he is so close to the enemies (making him much more susceptible to attacks). And, if he decides to move back in the formation, he will naturally improve his chances defensively but at the expense of his offense.
But I know the question todays RPG gamers have (especially those who've play Square's PlayStation Final Fantasy games) is: how are the spells and attack animations? Well, unlike those aforementioned games, the spell and fighting animations are not at all exorbitant; in fact, they are actually quite enjoyable. Wanting to cram more personality into yet another part of the game, Sting has created some of the most unique animations you can find in an RPG. Almost every attack or grouping of spells comes with a unique animation. Take, for instance, Mag's Cyframe attacks. Since a Cyframe is a machine part used to enhance ones own human abilities, Mag gets to do some off-the-wall attacks that can range from multi-combo hits to earth shattering maneuvers (that can wipe out all the enemies onscreen). Each is unique and full of the prerequisite wow-factor that oftentimes carry RPGs nowadays. On the other side of this coin are the humorous moves of the snooty butler, Gre Naid, whose attacks are generally there for comic relief (which is fine, because they do do the job). Gre's version of a Sleep Spell involves him walking over to the enemy and lecturing them until they slip into a coma. Even more bizarre is an attack where he feeds the enemies poisoned or spicy foods (the look on his face while he's doing it is priceless). All the while, thankfully, there are little to no load times for the animations and they are short enough to make one forget about the loading torture that is Final Fantasy VIII.
Hearing me go on about the combat system as I did, it would be a correct assumption that the games focus is on the fighting. Evolution's main selling point is its randomly generated dungeons; this simply means that I could revisit the same dungeon repeatedly and never get the same layout (which garners thoughts of high replay value and sounds great on paper) but after seeing it in action, I can't say that it does the job. As you might expect, the designs of the dungeons can be quite simple, meaning long corridors or hallways that lead into medium- to large-sized rooms. Randomly, the rooms are placed in different spots but I believe it's the corridors that do the most moving and therein lies the problem. The corridors could sometimes range from incredibly long to incredibly short but either way, I was usually lead in circles as most of the corridors connected to form loops or U-turns.
As if that wasn't enough, Sting decided to thrown in more than a fair share of traps to screw up my journey. Usually, I'd have no problem with that but this game went a little overboard. There is guaranteed to be a trap located in every room so navigation is always tricky but after running into a few traps, I resorted to the cheesy tactic of hugging the wall to get through an area unhurt. Granted, some traps do well like replenishing all of the crew's hit points but most of them do dastardly things like wiping out my entire inventory of health items or blinding my crew. As an aside, there is a rare item, which is sometimes made available, that can show me where all the traps are and what they did but it was not worth looking for because it would only drag the game on. Speaking of dragging on, Evolution is a tease when it comes to battles. The enemies are in plain sight so I could easily pick and choose when I wanted to fight, but when it came to bosses, even after I wiped out every monster in a dungeon, I found that I was still lacking in Hit Points to defeat them. This meant a lot of backtracking to take on even more monsters and having the fight so much can get truly tedious, especially when you consider that there can be as many as 20 floors in each dungeon. Eventually, it gets to be too much.
If we all agree that story is king in all the great RPGs, then Evolution comes up short of greatness. After seeing the opening intro and cut-scenes, my interest was peaked. Here, I learned about Mag's father going off to find the elusive Evolutia Cyframe and, in essence, leaving poor Mag to single-handedly repay the mounting family debt. I was also curious about what the deal was with Linear and why she seemed to be so important to everyone. But as the game progressed, this all seemed to be thrown onto the backburner and everything fell into a predictable cycle of sending me off to the ruins (where most of the game is spent) just to come back to town for a few more snippets of cut-scenes. Admittedly, everything builds up towards the end but before you get there, its very easy to forget that there was any tension or conflict to begin with. The lack of any meaningful character interaction also doesnt help Evolution's cause. Progress in the game occurs only after a dungeon is beaten and not through any sort of dialogue. I think a little more emphasis on this side of things would have balanced out the games tone overall. As it stands, Evolution is weighed down by all the action elements.
Considering all the RPGs on store shelves and on the horizon with morbid subject matter, a game like Evolution could be passed up for not going that route. There isnt an end-of-the-world scenario here spanning multiple discs and hours of FMV just to advance a majorly generic storyline. Instead, what you will find in Evolution is a game with an excellent battle system, solid graphics, and a light-hearted story with lots of laughs. In my case, this was such a breath of fresh air that I would consider it a good start for the Dreamcast RPG library.