In 2012, the 24th iteration of the Ludum Dare game jam ran, revolving around the topic of “evolution.” Now, unfortunately, much of Ludum Dare 24 has been lost besides games uploaded to other platforms, because the official website now only goes as far back as the 37th iteration – finding a link to a page for the 24th jam just leads to a 404 page. However, I found a video by game curator that captured footage of the jam’s winner – and the prototype for the game I’m talking about today.

Today, I’m looking at Shiro Games’ Evoland. One of the main designers for the game was Nicolas Cannasse, who developed the original prototype that won Ludum Dare. The central conceit of Evoland is that it’s a game that portrays the evolution of video games – mainly RPGs.

I got Evoland and the 2nd game all the way back in 2016 and… haven’t really touched either of the games. My playtime for the first game is artificially inflated because I distinctly remember Steam having a weird glitch where the game didn’t really close, so I can’t say how long I actually played it.

In going back on my occasional quest to knock something out of my game backlog, I discovered that I had actually been gifted Evoland Legendary Edition at some point, presumably because I owned the other games. Legendary Edition is a compilation with both of the Evoland games, which is convenient. Now, what’s less convenient is that the game inexplicably has a 3rd-party launcher? I hate it, make it go away.

Anyway, for the sake of my personal time, I’m only looking at the first game – for now. As far as I saw, the only differences between the original Evoland and its compilation version are small fixes, so you won’t really be missing much if you don’t play the original Evoland. Except maybe you won’t have DRM.

You start out in a basic monochrome area, only capable of moving right. You do so and open a chest, which grants the ability to walk left. Another upgrade and the screen expands. Another one and a new mechanic in the form of a sword to swing is introduced. Another and sound is properly added to the game, then color. All the while, pop-up notifications make all the relevant quips, like some observational video game webcomic.

And soon, you unlock a story. You are the hero, Clink, who meets with a girl named Kaeris who’s trying to stave off a rotting influence from the demon Zephyros. It… really isn’t in-depth. It feels like a parody of an early JRPG story, but without as many jokes. How does the evolution stuff factor into the story? Well. We’ll get to that.

The game is dominated by two gameplay styles. The first is the Zelda-based exploration, with the sword swinging-puzzle solving action that’s familiar. The second is a turn-based RPG, where some dungeons and the overworld will instead throw you into random encounters. There’s also a certain later area with a different style and a playable Triple Tri- excuse me, Double Twin card game, which kinda feels like a game of luck since you aren’t allowed to choose the make-up of your deck before starting a match.

As you proceed through Evoland, more things are added to flesh out the experience. The later game areas change to a simple but cute 3D style, with the fidelity of the textures and music being upgraded toward the end of the game. The Zelda style segments gets more mechanics added on to it, creating a more satisfying experience. As for the RPG side of things? That’s in a bit.

Now, the thing about the evolving game world thing is that after about an hour and a half, there are no more interesting “evolutions.” After a point, most of the “evolutions” are just adding new NPCs into the world, which is… boring.

The only interesting late-game divergence is one area in the game, where the gameplay diverges down a different evolutionary route and becomes a Diablo-like. However, this is the only area where this gameplay shift is present – the rest of the game is the Zelda-action and basic RPG gameplay that you’ve gotten used to.

Speaking of which, as new things stop being added into the game, it quickly becomes apparent that the RPG part of Evoland is incredibly shallow. It’s super basic and doesn’t really evolve past the basic formula besides aesthetic changes. For something that takes inspiration from Final Fantasy VII with some sense of love, Evoland‘s RPG side sure feels like what people that hate turn-based RPGs think the genre is. Maybe it’s not as noticeable if you’re doing a casual run, but the basic RPG encounters just becomes annoying if you’re backtracking around for 100% completion.

The Zelda portion of things, however, may be the most interesting part of the game in that some of them actually explore the evolution aspect of the game with dungeons where you can flip between 2D and 3D which is framed as time travel. You have to travel into the 2D past to destroy young trees before they grow in the 3D space and you have to travel to the 3D future to get over stepping stone blocks which are 2D blockades in the past. Personally, this is where the game shines the best, but in shining, it also highlights how outside of this, the game… doesn’t actually do anything with this evolution mechanic.

There is no actual narrative reason for the evolving game world. Nobody comments on it, there’s no in-game justification for why the world is the way it is, it’s just there. If you stripped out the evolution stuff, Evoland would essentially just be a playable version of an average 2000s gamer webcomic, because the evolution stuff is ultimately just a gimmick.

Given the villain’s whole deal about decaying the world, maybe he could have been regressing the world and the evolution stuff would be you restoring it. Maybe the decayed lands could have been areas that regressed down Evoland’s idea of the video game evolutionary chain. I’m just asking for something that doesn’t make the game’s main idea feel like a gimmick.

In the end… Evoland is just kinda okay at best. The problem with playing the game was that its best parts were at the beginning of the game, where you see the game’s mechanics affix themselves to the world around you. Besides the Diablo area, Evoland doesn’t really maintain that high. It’s kinda disappointing, to be honest, but hopefully the second game will improve on this front?

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