Evolution: The World of Sacred Device is the first traditional RPG to hit the US Dreamcast, and, at first glance, it hints at how truly spectacular RPGs can be on the new generation of gaming hardware. Its crisp execution and beautiful visuals will immediately impress players. Ultimately, however, Evolution succumbs to extreme monotony in its gameplay and turns out to be only an average RPG.
In Evolution, you play as Mag Launcher, a spirited young adventurer aspiring to follow in the footsteps of his missing parents. In the world of Evolution, adventurers rely on machines called cyframes to defend themselves from the rigors of the dungeons that they explore, and Mag, despite his youth, has proven his mettle on many occasions with the help of his hand cyframe.
3 years ago, about a month after his adventuring parents first disappeared, a mysterious silent girl named Linear Cannon appeared at the doorstep of the Launcher mansion, where Mag and the family butler Gre Nade live. The enigmatic lass offered no information, carrying only a note from Mag's father telling him that it was imperative that Mag looks after and takes care of Linear.
Mag, being the good son that he is, has followed his father's wishes to a "T", bringing Linear along on every adventure he has undertaken since that fateful day. As a result, the two have become very close friends. As the game begins, Mag is aspiring to find Evolutia, a legendary cyframe of reportedly limitless power. The acquisition of the coveted machine holds a double meaning for Mag: not only would he be able to help provide a source of power strong enough to supply the entire world, he'd finally make enough money to pay off his family's outstanding debt to the Society, an organization that sponsors adventurers.
The first thing that RPG fans will notice about Evolution is its stunning visual presentation. Evolution's graphics are constructed entirely of polygons, and they are by far the most impressive polygonal graphics yet to grace a US-released RPG. The level of detail in characters and backgrounds alike is incredible; Evolution is the first polygonal RPG which I've played that has the painstaking visual intricacies formerly reserved for 2D and prerendered RPGs.
In addition, the spell effects are impressive and sometimes border on spectacular; a variety of grand effects are utilized. The animation of characters and enemies is remarkably fluid, too. Perhaps the only visual weakness of Evolution is that a significant number of objects in the background are overtly angular in their appearance, but this flaw does pale in comparison to everything that the game does right visually.
Although the character art isn't spectacular, it is solid. The superdeformed characters are somewhat cutesy, but they fit the mood of the game well and manage to be reasonably appealing.
The second thing that fans are likely to notice about Evolution is its impressive execution. Despite its reliance on relatively simplistic RPG gameplay mechanics, Evolution boasts some of the crispest execution seen in recent RPGs. The turn-based battles are carried out quickly and smoothly, and enemies can be seen and easily avoided before they attack. Spells manage to avoid taking up profuse amounts of time in their casting, and loading is impressively quick. Perhaps the only significant execution flaw is that the scope of the camera is a bit small for the overhead view of the dungeon maps.
There are also some interesting features in Evolution's gameplay, too. Most of the playable characters use cyframes as their primary weapons. Like in Final Fantasy VII's materia system, various cyframe parts can be equipped on these cyframes, and the parts are what give characters access to spells and special attacks. Additional spells can be learned through the expenditure of TP, which are gained in battle, and cyframes can be upgraded to possess greater strength and hold more cyframe parts.
Although its superior execution keeps it interesting for a few hours, Evolution quickly becomes an extremely boring game to play. The layout of the game is absolutely atrocious; the overwhelming bulk of the game consists of exploring lengthy and monotonous randomly generated dungeons. The random generation of the dungeons is actually relatively insignificant, but this is only because the dungeons are so annoyingly complex and convoluted that nobody would bother learning them even if they were preset.
In addition, there's only one town in the entire game, and players will likely spend only minimal time in it. As a result, there's very little non-dungeon play, and Evolution ends up too far on the exploration side in its gameplay to be enjoyed by anyone other than hardcore dungeon searchers.
At first glance, Evolution appears to be nothing more than a find-the-all-powerful-artifact quest, and, unfortunately, from an event-based standpoint, it fails to progress far beyond that. In addition, the storyline presents nearly nothing in the way of plot twists and excitement; it remains quite predictable throughout its length. Although characters show a bit more personality than those of the average RPG, they remain underdeveloped. Perhaps the worst thing about Evolution's storyline, though, is that the entire plot feels like little more than a side quest in most RPGs of today.
The translation turns out to be passable in quality, though. The text is laden with grammatical and spelling errors, but the dialogue does exhibit a bit more personality and humor than that of the average RPG. Dialogue flow, while not impressive, is adequate.
To its credit, Evolution does fare well in the control department. Characters can move in 8 directions, and they move quite quickly through the twisting dungeons. A walk button can slow them down when there are items to be explored. The analog stick is supported for movement, though I personally had a slight preference for the directional pad. The camera can be manually rotated in 22.5 degree increments, giving good precision of viewpoint control. The menus are reasonably organized, though some of the item descriptions in the menus are somewhat lacking.
The primary weakness of Evolution's control is that characters are a bit over-responsive in their movement. As a result, precise positioning is still sometimes difficult, which is problematic because sneaking up on enemies and opening chests both become unnecessarily harder to do.
Evolution comes up pretty average in its sound department overall. The sound effects are strong; they show that the Dreamcast has a superior sound processor to that of previous systems. The intermittent voice acting (left in Japanese) that accompanies attacks is done well, too.
However, Evolution's soundtrack, despite being reasonably pleasant to listen to, turns out to be an utterly pedestrian affair. None of the tunes hold compelling melodies, and nothing about the score as a whole stands out in any way at all from the countless other RPG soundtracks out there. This comes as a bit of a surprise, since Masaharu Iwata, the composer, has been a major contributor to some of the finest game soundtracks in recent history, such as Tactics Ogre, Final Fantasy Tactics, and Treasure Hunter G.
Overall, Evolution's visuals and execution ultimately fail to overcome its monotonous layout, and it turns out to be no better than average, as far as RPGs go. Not recommended unless you feel like you have to own the Dreamcast's first traditional RPG.