It had so much potential: a video game that showcases the evolution of role-playing games. But Evoland falls short on every count. It distorts your nostalgia, fumbles its throwbacks, and never comes into its own. It’s a shallow imitation of the real thing. And that sucks. Because it could have been amazing.
Evoland does at once too much and too little with the gag, trading depth for an unfunny punchline and never actually charting the evolution of RPGs. It’s the most egregious example of wasted potential I can remember—a concept that lit up forums and gaming news sites excited to play the evolution of a popular genre, rather than just read or hear about it.
But Evoland barely stretches its muscles beyond a tiny sampling of tired tropes brought to the world by Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger, Zelda, and Diablo. Yeah, that’s right, Diablo. In a game mired with old-school Japanese leanings, there’s a Western hack-and-slash dungeon crawler thrown into the ring.
Only it’s done almost as an afterthought, like halfway through the project the developers sat bolt upright and went, “Oh, shit, what about Western RPGs? Ah, we’ll just throw Diablo in there and it’ll all be fine.” Except that isn’t the case at all, because there was a Diablo mode in the original Evoland Classic Flash game.
Final Fantasy is the thing that’s new here, and it muddies the waters something awful. Evoland Classic was great because it was an interactive journey through early action RPGs, wrapped around genre-stalwart Zelda. It didn’t really follow through with it, but it was made for the Ludum Dare 48-hour game jam—so you wouldn’t expect it to.
You had a graphical evolution, touching on developments both in the Zelda series and elsewhere through the genre, and a mechanical evolution, introducing gameplay concepts and technologies that developed through the early history. It made sense, even if the Diablo bit might have been better as, say, a Secret of Mana evolution, given the Japanese focus.
It’s bizarre that for a game so clearly intended to showcase generational improvements in console RPGs, Evoland suffers from an appalling (lack of) coherence in vision. Is it aping the Final Fantasy series, or the Zelda series, or just Final Fantasy VII and A Link to the Past? The answer is yes on all counts, depending on where you are in the game.
This is a problem for two reasons: middling, uneven, sometimes-terrible execution, and flawed vision. I’ve already touched on the flawed vision part, so let’s talk about the execution.
Evoland is dull; it’s lifeless and mediocre. It starts so well, initially holding steady to the action-RPG tropes, then quickly loses focus. You soon find yourself fighting random encounters on the world map while listening to music and watching animations made to be as close to Final Fantasy as possible without, you know, being Final Fantasy.
It still seems kinda neat at this point, bringing nods and grins as the visuals morph (love the Mode 7 bit) and plot tropes start to pile on top of gameplay tropes. Then Evoland decides to just rip off Final Fantasy VII—only with Zelda-like dungeons and the occasional nod to Chrono Trigger—for the remainder of the game. And it does so in terrible fashion.
Well, with one exception. A time-travel mechanic lets you morph the world between 8-bit and modern-ish styles at the touch of a crystal. It’s used for puzzles in some places, and it’s delightful. But you don’t get to use it for plot contrivances, a la Chrono Trigger/Cross, or anything more meaningful than burning a sapling to the ground. You could build a whole game around this concept, but here it’s barely more than an afterthought used to flesh out the puzzles.
There is a plot, by the way—or at least some semblance of one. Evoland borrows key events from Final Fantasy VII and sprinkles bits from Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VI, and the Zelda series in to overpower you with nostalgia. I love those games, despite their uneven difficulty and melodramatic plots, but Evoland butchers these moments. Its characters have about as much charm and emotional resonance as a sheet of plywood.
The evolution unlocks lend the early parts of the game a great sense of momentum. The cheeky references to 8-bit tropes—“What’s with all the kids in video games anyway?” and “You can now freely invade people’s privacy!” being my favorites—provide a gravity all their own, but as these slow down the game does too. There’s none of the snappiness of Half Minute Hero’s rapid-fire quests, and Evoland’s identity crisis soon wears you down.
Evoland sets out to explore the evolution of (console) role-playing games, but it never really gets beyond 16-bit SNES games—and a single PlayStation game—developed by Nintendo and Squaresoft. It keeps improving the fidelity of graphics, but never adopts the more realistic style of character model. It also never introduces new overworld combat systems or mechanics, once the basic turn-based thing is complete, even though Final Fantasy evolved its combat with each installment.
Most egregious of all, it falls flat on its unspoken promise to be either a patchwork of the genre’s shining lights—with a vague and silly trope-ridden story of “greatest hits” parodies—or its own game—with a new plot built around ever-evolving graphics and gameplay (remember how well Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden drew elements from a bunch of 8/16-bit JRPGs in a totally unique and ridiculous package?).
Evoland looks like a bunch of great RPGs, and it sounds like them too, but it never really plays like them. There’s no epic Final Fantasy plot (even as it lifts key events whole), nor a stirring adventure through dangerous lands. Just surface-level references to memorable moments, minus the magic that made them special.
Evoland is a caricature of several great games, and a weak one at that.