Monday, July 8, 2013

Evoland (Shiro Games, 2013)

Way back in 1978, when I was just a baby, a musician named Frank Zappa released a song called Joe's Garage as the opening track of a concept album of the same name. When I first listened to the song, I thought it was a good tune. It told a fun story, and I liked how it changed the arrangement around as it went.

Years later I was watching the History Channel (back when they actually had shows about history, I've ranted about this before) and they showed a program on the history of rock music. It started with folk, country, and blues roots, and traced it through Mowtown, Elvis, the Beatles, surf, punk, psychedelic, sort of the entire route of inspiration that rock music took over the decades.

Shortly after that, I listened to Joe's Garage again, and it hit me. This song was genius! This one song traced the entire history of rock music in order from the its roots up until the birth of heavy metal in the late 70s. Being too young to be familiar with the historic timeline, it went completely over my head when I first heard it, but it was all there.

But, music isn't the only form of media where this type of nostalgic journey can take place, as was proved by Shiro Games when they made Evoland.

Evoland is less subtle about its purpose than Joe's Garage was (wow, did I just call Frank Zappa subtle?), but it could be argued that video games are in general a less subtle form of media. Evoland attempts to trace the evolution of gaming. Or, more specifically, the evolution of adventure games. Well, kind of.

There's no reference to classic PC text adventures or graphic adventures, and if you have fond memories of Adventure on the Atari 2600, hold on to them because you won't find any reminders here. The evolution presented here starts with The Legend of Zelda, which admittedly is when adventure games went mainstream. It's also a bit out of order. The NES was released years before the Gameboy, but for the purposes of the game, starting in black and white just makes more sense.

So, what exactly is Evoland? As I mentioned in my Wake review, retro themed games are a growing trend right now, but I've never seen one take things as far as Evoland. Rather than emulating the graphical style and  game mechanics of one era and genre, Shiro Games has meticulously recreated almost a dozen different styles. Mostly, it emulates games from the Zelda and Final Fantasy series, both 2D and 3D incarnations of each, but there's a good chunk of Diablo thrown in later in the game too.

The game evolves through treasure chests. Each time you open a treasure chest, there's a chance of evolving the graphics, audio, or gameplay in some way. Sometimes chests are blocking your path to ensure that they are opened. On the graphics side, the game goes from black and white, to 8-bit NES style color, to 16-bit SNES style color. The game eventually transitions from 2D to 3D with Mode 7 effects, pre-rendered backgrounds, and full polygonal worlds with upgradable levels of texture detail. The gameplay starts as a 2D Zelda clone, but grows as it offers turn based battles, random encounters, hack n' slash loot dungeons, and even the obligatory fetch quest.

Actually, I've never seen a game combine real-time action adventure combat with authentic turn-based JRPG  combat quite as smoothly as Evoland does. Some parts of the game have enemies crawling around that you have to attack with your sword (or bow and arrow, or bombs), and in other parts you battle your enemies by selecting for each member of your party to attack, or use items or magic from the menu. Even the inventory and pause menus change depending on what part of the game you are in. It is a little weird that the potions you buy during the RPG sections can't be used to refill your heart containers in the action adventure inspired sections, but this game tends to put gameplay before narrative, so it's probably more fun this way.

It is worth pointing out that none of the different mechanics presented are very deep, at least not compared to the games that they are based on. This can be seen as either a positive or negative aspect depending on how you look at it. I generally saw it as a plus because as the game isn't terribly long, expecting the player to master as deep of an upgrading and leveling mechanic as might be found in a much longer game, and then do it again several more times would be unreasonable. What you essentially get is a light version of each style. Bombs and arrows are unlimited, as is your magic in the turn based fights (go ahead and heal every other turn!). Leveling up automatically picks the best stats to affect, and purchasing upgraded armor automatically equips it for you. In some ways, this more streamlined approach is actually an improvement to the pacing of the game. Walk into a save station for example, and the game is saved, keep walking. I much prefer that to the whole mess of: Would you like to save your game? What slot would you like to save to? Would you like to overwrite the previous save? Are you sure? As the annoying meme floating around the internet lately likes to say, "Ain't nobody got time for that!"

As with the games that inspired it, there are plenty of boss battles to go around. What makes the boss encounters of Evoland special though, is that each one is presented in a different gameplay style. If you've played the classics that inspired them you'll have no problem as they pull the same tricks you've come to expect over the years. Remembering how you redirected projectiles in Link to the Past or how often to use offensive or defensive magic in Final Fantasy will be useful info to keep in mind. As I was never as much into the Diablo series as I was other games, it didn't surprise me that the Diablo inspired boss gave me the greatest challenge.

The audio side of the game is equally as impressive as any other aspect of the game. The game starts out silent with sound effects and music added later from their own treasure chests. We go from classic electronic sounds and authentic chip-tunes to digital audio effects and sample based music. Eventually we enter the CD-Rom era with full pre-recorded music tracks and modern high quality sound effects. This would all be expected as part of the game's presentation and style, but what took me by surprise was just how good the music was. The sound track not only matches both the audio quality and musical style of the classic games being paid tribute to, but it does it with some incredibly well composed and catchy tunes. I'm glad that since I got the game on, it comes with the complete soundtrack as mp3 files.

As somebody who grew up playing adventure games, and then played Evoland while in my mid-thirties, I feel that this game was made specifically for people like me. As was the case for 3D Dot Game Heroes, I'm probably almost exactly the target audience that the game was made for, and for that I can say that if I could go back in time and recommend the game to myself, I definitely would. But should I recommend it to you? That's a hard question to answer. As was the case with Joe's Garage, the genius of the game could easily go over the head of younger gamers who don't get the references. The fact that the main character's name, Clink, is a cross between Cloud and Link doesn't mean anything to gamers who don't know who those characters are. Several of my favorite aspects of the game such as the blue pixelated loading screens while swapping out pre-rendered backgrounds in the FF7 inspired town could easily be seen as annoying defects by others. I'm not saying that it's not a fun game, or that the nostalgia is all that makes it worth playing, I'm just saying that it will be a much different experience for some than it is for others.

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