Reviewed: January 15, 2003
Released: December 3, 2002
What better present for the GameCube's first anniversary (plus a couple weeks) than its very first RPG title. Ubisoft brings us the long awaited next installment in the ongoing Evolution series of games from Japan, with their new release, Evolution Worlds. GameCube owners of all ages can take part in a fantastic RPG experience that mixes traditional RPG elements with fanciful characters, enchanting graphics, and a unique story that unfold through gameplay and cutscenes.
If you have played any other console RPG games then you will feel right at home with Evolution Worlds, but in the kid-friendly tradition of Nintendo this game has been tailorerd for the younger and first time RPG crowd. This is what Final Fantasy would be like if Play School or Leap Frog were designing video games, and for that reason the more seasoned adventurer may dismiss this title (as I almost did) before giving it a fair chance.
The first time I loaded up Evolution Worlds I was a bit skeptical. I had recently finished Final Fantasy X and was fairly confident that nothing could surpass it. And while Evolution Worlds doesn’t begin to compare to the scope or scale of FFX or any of the more adult RPG’s, it does have a certain charm and appeal that kids will instantly pick up on and adults will come to love.
Evolution Worlds breaks a lot of conventions; the first being the lack of any opening movie. As soon as you hit the START button you are dropped into combat in some sort of James Bond pre-credit action sequence. You keep waiting and waiting but the credits, the movie, the music never appear. You don’t even see your first pre-rendered cutscene until many hours into the game, and even after that the movies are few and far between.
The cast of characters is inventive, charming, and hilarious if nothing more than their ridiculous names. If our hero, Mag Launcher won’t put a grin on your face then try the tomboy adventurer, Chain Gun, or the sexy Pepper Box, or how about your guardian, Gre Nade? You are introduced to these characters in such rapid succession that you barely have time to stop laughing from one name when they throw another at you. The only character that doesn’t have a funny name is the doe-eyed Linear, and even that name is a bit odd.
There are more than 100 characters that populate the world of Evolution Worlds and you will meet most of them in your hometown of Plannum and the larger city of Museville later in the game. These are the two cities where you base your dungeon crawling adventures out of, buy supplies, and recruit new party members.
In the world of Evolution Worlds adventuring isn't a hobby, it’s a career. There is a Society that has been setup that does nothing but search ruins and collect artifacts for education and research purposes. That is where you, Mag Launcher comes in. You are a Cyframe adventurer from a long line of adventures. Your Cyframe is a cybernetic extension that gives adventures specific powers. Some Cyframes fly, others are multi-function cannons while others can morph into a variety of weapons. Cyframes can be upgraded and given new abilities by finding and installing parts you find in your explorations.
While Evolution Worlds has quite the inventive and original concept behind the scenes it fails to break any new ground in the actual gameplay. A typical session might consist of going into town, buying a few supplies, talking to a few people, going to the Society and getting your next mission then heading off for a dungeon crawl that consists of a 5-10 level maze with a couple dozen traps and plenty of monsters. Survive the maze and reach the boss fight at the end of the dungeon to get a big prize then return home to restart the entire process.
Once the story kicks in things start to move along nicely but you will still have that lingering “been there done that” feeling in the back of your mind when you are in your 300th melee and rearranging your limited inventory to make room for that 20th healing potion. There just isn’t enough variety in level design or creature design to keep things fresh and by the end of the game you will simply be enduring the gameplay to see the story unfold. Thankfully, Evolution Worlds clocks in at about 40 hours of gameplay; about half of a typical Final Fantasy game.
There is a lot procedural stuff you need to keep on top of while playing. You will constantly be getting new items so you need to go to the Equip menu and see who needs what. The ingenious interface shows you how each item will positively or negatively impact each character in your team before you equip it.
You also need to keep learning new skills to broaden your scope of magical and non-physical attacks. Each character has a unique Talent that can be used once per mission. These are generally quite powerful but offer dubious results. Linear can try to “talk” to the enemy and send them away, while the sexy Pepper Box can sweet talk our hero, Mag and boost his attributes. Other skills are based on the Cyframe of each adventurer. Mag’s Cyframe can morph into a giant hand or a hammer with various levels of destruction. Pepper can shoot fire and lasers. Chain has a flying Cyframe that can do aerial attacks in a variety of patterns.
You don’t have to be equipped with a Cyframe to use skills. Linear has a whole set of skills ranging from Prayer and Healing to playing the Ocarina to lull monsters to sleep or cause an unforeseen tragedy. Gre has some interesting skills of his own including the ability to perform temporary upgrades on Mag’s Cyframe and is also the accomplished chef, able to create a variety of dishes that monsters cannot resist eating for some humorous and effective results.
Most of Evolution Worlds is based around combat. You can only have three people in your party and you will seldom encounter more than 2:1 odds in combat. When you are outnumbered, most of the party will have at least one or two types of area-effect attacks or multiple target moves. Combat is where a bit of strategy comes into play. The first thing you need to do is create your formation. You have a 3x3 grid in which to place your three characters. Being closer to the front gives you greater attack strength but also sets you up for the most damage. Characters with range weapons like Pepper’s rifle or Gre’s shotgun can lurk in the middle or back row while Mag and Chain are most effective up front.
Combat is done with either a normal attack or a skill attack. Skill attacks require the use of Fight Points (FP). A typical skill may use anywhere from 15-60 FP’s and your total FP is based on your experience level. Each time you use a normal attack you regain 4-6 FP’s, so you can start to see the strategy forming already. Skill attacks do massive damage, often to multiple enemies, but if you use them exclusively you are going to run out of FP’s and find yourself in trouble. You will need to learn how to use a clever mix of skill and normal attacks and use all the characters to compliment the others. If Mag is running low on FP then he may need to switch to normal attacks while Pepper or Chain picks up the slack with their skills until he can recover.
Linear is one character who is with you for all but a few missions. This means you normally only get to pick your third party member choosing from Gre, Chain, or Pepper. Each offers their own strengths and weaknesses and there is some strategy involved. If you leave any one character out of the action for too long you will start surpassing them in experience and levels and they will no longer be a useful addition to the party. You have to either keep cycling the third member or settle on a favorite and use them throughout the game.
One thing that traditionally bugs me about RPG games is the insipid amount of random wandering monster encounters. Evolution Worlds has none of these. There is a fixed amount of monsters per dungeon and you can effectively clear out a dungeon if you are methodical enough. As an added bonus, you can always see monsters, either on your radar/map or in the actual game screen. You can then decide if you want to run or fight. You can also try to sneak up from behind and get a surprise initiative, giving your party an extra round of attacks before the enemy starts fighting back. This works both ways however, and if you try to run or avoid a contact they can surprise you if your back is turned.
Combat is turn-based with a clever display of portrait buttons along the right edge of the screen showing the order of attacks for everyone in the melee. This is a great tool for instantly seeing who is making the next move and there are several skills and magic items you can use to adjust this fighting order. A good example is Linear who can actually give her “turn” to another character. Considering she seldom does more than 120 points damage with her normal Frying Pan (yes, frying pan) attack, passing to Mag who does 300-600 points is a strategic and effective move. You can also use the Quick Attack to re-insert yourself into the attack order ahead of schedule.
As creative as all of this sounds, it unfortunately becomes tiresome and repetitive after the first 8-10 hours. The dungeons or ruins are small and uninspired, consisting mainly of a lot of passages and 4-6 rooms per level. You wander the halls avoiding lots of floor traps, fight about 20 encounters per level then head up the stairs to the next. By the time you reach the boss on the top level you have acquired enough “stuff” to defeat him with minimal effort. Take your prize, go home, and prepare to do it all over again.
The graphics in Evolution Worlds have a certain charm and uniqueness that took me totally by surprise. Coming off of Final Fantasy X, I was admittedly unimpressed when I began this game, but after a few hours I was converted. Everything is in 3D and you can choose to play the game from a top-down perspective or drop the camera down behind Mag and play as a third-person adventure. There are times when the camera forces to an overhead view and there are other times when you find you simply must drop down to the floor to see certain thing, like exploring the Society Museum in Museville.
The characters are all your typical anime-style, doe-eyed creations with incredibly detailed textures and are simply a delight to watch. There are all sorts of subtle animations that give these people their own personality. Pepper is dressed in a sexy outfit complete with tight jeans – one leg ripped off, with a leopard print bandana and a pair of Oakley-style glasses that she tilts up to wink and blow kisses. Gre is the prim and proper butler dressed in a 1776 colonial type suit whose primary weapons are good manners and great cooking skills. You can’t help but smile when he puts on his chef’s hat and whips out the dinner tray complete with dome cover and offers it to the enemy. He then bows politely as they eat then wretch on the ground.
The monsters are exquisitely detailed and quite creative. Even the creatures you might recognize have a clever twist to them such as the giant mouse, Big Ben who wears a giant gold earring. There are simply too many monsters to name, but a few of my favorites are the poison dart-blowing natives, the spinning totem poles, and the giant ostriches. I picked these mainly due to their high level of detail such as face paint on the natives and their grass skirts, or the detailed feather textures of the giant birds.
Special effects are as creative and numerous as the monsters. Every skill and attack has a unique animation that will have you experimenting with as many skills as you can afford to acquire. Some of Mag’s combo attacks are multi-move chains that go on for several seconds with glorious lighting and particle effects. When Linear plays her Ocarina musical notes swirl around her then attack the enemy. When Pepper fires a triple laser attack she first throws out a refracting mirror that splits the beam. Even subtle skills like Gre encouraging Mag to boost his stats are fully animated.
The two cities are fairly interesting with plenty of buildings you can go inside and talk to people, buy items, or simply explore. There is a huge amount of detail that you simply cannot see from the overhead view. I was shocked the first time I hit the Y button and saw the world from my party’s eyes. It nearly transcends the RPG genre.
Things start to fall apart when you begin the dungeon crawls. Regardless of whether you are fighting in the training tower, the ruins, the forest, or the ice level, the maps all consist of the same narrow passages connecting a few rooms. Everything is designed around tiles so it's all very square or rectangular in shape. After about 15 hours of playing I got to the forest mission and I was admittedly excited about some new scenery. Unfortunately, the forest is nothing more than the same style mazes I had been playing up to that point with leafy and branch textures replacing the stone of the ruins. The same is true with the ice level, although there was some creative use of a misty fog to break up the monotony.
The final thing to mention are the wonderful cutscenes that are made even more special by their extremely limited use. You won’t even see your first movie until many hours into the game, and then you are treated to only about a half-dozen more after that. This just makes you appreciate them all the more, plus they don’t interfere with the flow of the gameplay.
The music is good but simple in nature. There are no complicated orchestra scores or techno tunes. Some of the most enchanting music is found in the scenes where Linear is playing the Ocarina. Most of the music is a quiet background theme that breaks into an energetic sequence when an encounter is triggered.
Sound effects are spectacular and match the style, quality, and uniqueness of the visuals they compliment. There are convincing sounds for each of the weapons and all of the various monsters have interesting and creative sounds. I was mildly disappointed that there was no support for any type of surround sound, but the game still sounds great.
Despite the cornball dialog in this game the voice acting is really topnotch. With the exception of Chain Gun, I found all of the characters’ voices perfectly suited to their visual design, and they spoke their lines with conviction and a quality I wasn’t expecting from a translated import title. Chain Gun was the exception, and I found her annoying voice grating to the point where I only took her on one mission and that was enough. Mag is convincing as the impetuous young adventures and Gre is voiced with a proper British accent typical of an English gentleman. Pepper has a sexy voice with a musical quality, and Linear has the sweetest voice of all.
While this isn’t actually part of the “sound” I do need to compliment the people who handled the translation of this title and the resulting written captions. Out of the thousands of lines of dialog I counted only one typo, which is simply amazing. I also enjoyed the subtle use of emoticons (hearts and musical notes next to the text) indicating the tone in which the lines were being delivered. Those with hearing disabilities will truly appreciate this feature.
Ubisoft claims 40+ hours of gameplay for Evolution Worlds and I would have to agree with that estimate. I finished the game in just under 30 hours, but I had also just completed FFX, so I was in the RPG-groove. Considering this title is targeted toward the younger gamers, I would expect a much longer playing experience.
For the perfectionists out there who are looking for the ultimate quest, there are 200 special Appraisal Items you can collect. These are special items that are not part of your normal inventory. Many of these items can be combined to create more valuable items and all of them can be sold to the museum in Museville for big bucks. Combined items are worth more than their parts, but the parts are often spread across multiple dungeons, plus you’re not always sure what’s a part and what’s a single item.
Finding these items will prove to be the ultimate challenge, as they are almost always off the beaten path, located in dead end passages or in remote corners of a maze level. To put this quest in perspective, I was actually looking for all of these items and when I finished the game I had only recovered 89 items. Apparently, I wasn’t as thorough as I thought I had been.
Evolution Worlds is quite simply a wonderful RPG that is perfect for the entire family. There is some mild violence but nothing terrible and anyone old enough to grasp the strategy elements of the turn-based combat system is certainly old enough to handle the mild content in this E-rated game.
Evolution Worlds is about half the size of your typical RPG game, but with the limited scope of the dungeon design and repetitive nature of the gameplay you will be more than ready for it to end when those closing credits roll. Right now Evolution Worlds has the luxury of being the first true RPG on the GameCube. Bigger and better titles will certainly follow, but for now you won’t find a better anime-RPG than this.