Sting / Ubi Soft
When it comes to role-playing games, it’s no secret that the Sega Dreamcast received little fanfare in North America. Compared to the RPG behemoth that was Sony’s PlayStation (not to mention its successor, the PlayStation 2), Sega’s swansong system didn’t exactly rack up a massive library consisting of the popular genre. In the mid to late nineties, RPGs were in the hands of nearly every video game enthusiast on the planet, thanks in no small part to Square Soft’s monumental release in the form of Final Fantasy VII. From 1997 onwards, role-playing games had found themselves in the spotlight for a good few years as release after release flooded almost exclusively onto Sony’s debut console. Known as the system that top tier RPGs called home, the PlayStation dominated the landscape when it came to leveling up characters, forging weapons, and committing to side quests. That said, Sony’s competitors, Sega and Nintendo, found themselves left out in the rain with regards to the genre, only managing to release a handful or two of titles onto their Sega Saturn and Nintendo 64 platforms. For the most part, this pattern unfortunately continued for Sega, as the Dreamcast only received localizations for twelve (give or take) RPGs in the west. Compare that number to the 75+ role playing games that released in North America for the PlayStation, notwithstanding the genre’s immense popularity at the time, one could automatically surmise that the Dreamcast was coming up short in that specific department. But although the Dreamcast may have lacked the immense variety that the PlayStation offered when it came to the genre, it did manage to successfully launch some absolutely groundbreaking titles, some of which went as far as to redefine how we look at and play games today. Titles such as Yu Suzuki’s Shenmue and Yuji Naka’s Phantasy Star Online have gone on to become downright legendary names within RPG circles as they still hold just as much influence today as they did twenty years ago. But what about the few other releases that managed to grace the Dreamcast, yet couldn’t quite live up to the impact of those mentioned? From the onset, Evolution: The World of Sacred Device, had a lot to deliver on. Released at the tail end of 1999, Evolution was the first true role playing game to hit the Dreamcast, and although it may have had a few rough edges, it still managed to be pretty awesome.
Evolution: The World of Sacred Device is a dungeon crawling RPG that (when loosely defined) is a game that consists of sending the player out on their own to explore floor after floor of treasure and enemies. Personally, I’ve always found dungeon crawlers to be extremely addictive, as the gameplay itself is usually rather simplified and doesn’t spread itself too thin by incorporating a ton of other gameplay elements that just don’t fit within it (a downfall that all too many of today’s games seem to enjoy employing). While exploring dungeons, players can level up their characters and their abilities by fighting their way through battles with monsters. The battle system in Evolution is conducted in turn based fashion and involves all of the classic RPG elements such as attacking, guarding, and casting a variety of spells. The cast of characters that you’ll be working alongside in the game is a really terrific one. Mag Launcher, Evolution’s main protagonist, is a 17-year-old boy that loves anything to do with exploring ruins (the dungeons in which the majority of the game takes place) and recovering valuables from within them. I really like Mag’s sense of humour (or lack thereof) as his exchanges with his family’s butler, Gre Nade, are usually pretty funny. Mag accepts missions of his choosing to fulfill in the ruins from an establishment called The Society. Linear Cannon takes up the role of Mag’s mute partner, a kindhearted girl that never speaks but supports Mag in nearly everyway. Speaking of Linear, the majority of the game’s story focuses solely on her, as the chief antagonist of Evolution, Prince Eugene, hounds her throughout the game, obsessed with the fact that she herself is a legendary device called Evolutia. As you can probably surmise, Prince Eugene wishes for nothing more than to procure Evolutia for himself and goes to great, menacing lengths to do so as his preoccupation with Linear intensifies.
The gameplay in Evolution is really tight. Whilst exploring dungeons of varying size and depth, Mag and his friends will undoubtedly encounter vast arrays of monsters. As I touched on earlier, the battles with said beasties are fought with each character taking turns to formulate their next moves. Every character is equipped with a weapon of some sort, but Mag and a few of his companions enter the ruins packing Cyframes – weapon based extensions of the user equipped with them. Mag’s Cyframe, the Aeracomet, is a massive hand that extends from a pack on his back, whereas two of his other pals, Chain Gun and Pepper Box, also enter the dungeons with unique Cyframes of their own. Gre Nade is equipped with a shotgun of sorts, while Linear decides it best to dish out brutal attacks with a frying pan. All of the weapons and Cyframes in the game can be upgraded or swapped out for stronger varieties (including the frying pan) and can be found within ruins or shops. I’m a big fan of turn based RPGs and always will be. I like being given the time to put together a strategy at my own pace as opposed to the frenzied, real-time gameplay that 2002’s Kingdom Hearts popularized and seemingly cemented into being the new standard. Thankfully, there’s none of that to be had in Evolution, as the game sticks to the old, tried and true formula of having the player grind their way through countless battles that are conducted at methodical paces. At the conclusion of each brawl with a monster or boss, the player is awarded the usual experience points (renamed skill points) and the occasional item that role-playing games of the time were known distribute.
Considering the year of its release, Evolution looks incredible. A great example of the game’s graphical prowess could be to compare it to 1998’s Quest 64, another misfit RPG that I am (shamelessly) a fan of. The difference between the two games with regards to visuals alone is night and day and still gives me a sense of appreciation for everything that the Dreamcast brought to the playing field, all before ushering in a new millennium of technology. Whether the discussion is circulating around graphics, ingenuity, online gaming – you name it, the console truly was ahead of its time. From the introduction of the game that rockets in with an exciting cut scene (the aesthetics of which could contend with an Xbox 360 title), to the models of the characters themselves, there was certainly some extra spit shine that went into making this diamond in the rough sparkle. Some of the heavier criticisms that Evolution received back when it was in prominent rotation were aimed at its uninspired designs for the ruins in which you spend a lot of your time. I wouldn’t entirely disagree with these denunciations, as quite a few of the floors that you’ll traverse do look almost exactly the same, but to be fair, that’s a pretty common trait among dungeon crawlers. A quick glance at 2000’s Torneko: The Last Hope is all you need to see that the trend of somewhat bland landscapes within the genre would continue, yet the meat and potatoes of dungeon crawlers have never been found within their environments but more so in their addictive, time crushing gameplay. That said, I still think developer Sting did a great job at detailing Mag’s home of Pannam Town and the dwellings within it.
Evolution’s soundtrack is really killer and can range anywhere from jolly to downright menacing. Masaharu Iwata (of Ogre Battle and Final Fantasy Tactics fame) did yet another fantastic job at making an RPG sound beyond immersive and authentic. By far, my favourite track in the game is the tune that accompanies Mag’s journey through the Heaven Ruins, as it manages to evoke unique feelings of melancholic stillness – seriously soothing with a stark touch of pensive sadness. Did I mention that this soundtrack is killer? The sound effects for spells and attacks are okay at best and the game wasn’t supported with voice acting beyond the occasional phrase or grunt upon having one of your characters make a move within battles, but all of that would fortunately change with the game’s sequel.
Evolution had more than enough to live up to when it came to meeting RPG hungry Dreamcast owner’s expectations, and for some, it just couldn’t quite reach those lofty standards. The console mostly catered to every genre but role-playing games (in North America, anyway), so when one or two releases trickled out of the pipeline, fans of the medium would flock to whatever they could get. Evolution isn’t the sharpest RPG ever made, but what it represents is wholesome, hard work that went into an exciting project during an even more exciting time in gaming. The game has always given me a warm feeling every time I spin it, and a lot of that stems from how it showcases itself as a charming, easy to grasp import that wants nothing more than to take you on a fun, yet mild, ride. This is one release that’s been overlooked since it launched, so if you’re looking to sink your teeth into something besides Grandia II or Skies of Arcadia, give Evolution a chance, it may be worth more of your time than other reviews would have you believe.