There is no shortage of indie games designed to appeal to our nostalgic side, with hundreds of "retro puzzle-platformers" on offer. There are so many, in fact, that very few of them feel sincere anymore. Independent development can prove just as cynical as the big-budget arena, as the reliance on "old school" aesthetics demonstrate.
This is not to say, however, that there aren't games made with a real love of the medium's roots, that have been designed with genuine heart rather than cold calculation. These games can be told apart through their inventive ideas, charming personality, and demonstrated knowledge of a past so often vapidly plundered.
Evoland -- a shameless tribute to both The Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy -- is one such game. At once a grab-bag of silly references and a keenly observed tribute to the games that helped build action-adventure and role-playing games, Evoland is more than just a showcase of retro graphics.
That said, the retro graphics are vital in this game's case.
Like DLC Quest before it, Evoland is all about slowly building up a game from the basics, though the satirical reasons are quite different. When the adventure begins, players are transported to a monochrome and blocky world, evoking memories of old Game Boy graphics. The world is littered with chests, and opening these chests slowly transforms the world around our hero, as well as the way in which players control him.
At first, players get to unlock directional movement, music, and basic combat with a sword. Before long, however, Evoland proves true to its name by providing chests that change the graphics themselves, adding color, and eventually transitioning from an 8-bit to a 16-bit style. Later on in the game, there's a leap from 2D to 3D visuals, which then evolves to add pixel details and, finally, full HD textures.
Along the way, turn-based battles are added to the game's overworld between dungeons, splitting the game into Zelda-inspired real-time dungeon crawling, and Final Fantasy-inspired RPG traversal. Though both styles of play are rudimentary, they offer the basic trappings we've come to expect -- bombs, arrows, and puzzle elements for the dungeons, experience and gold drops for the overworld.
Evoland is a simple game with a simple story of saving the world from a stereotypical bad guy, but by refusing to pull the same trick twice, it manages to keep itself interesting beyond the surface level videogame parody. During the course of the short adventure, players will get to fight bosses in both real-time and turn-based scenarios, add a party member and a summon monster, and even tackle a dungeon in full-on Diablo-style hack n' slash mode -- complete with pointlessly amusing loot drops. For some light distraction, there's also an optional card game tournament, representing a streamlined version of Final Fantasy's Tetra Master/Triple Triad games.
Combined, Evoland's elements form a love letter to some of the most venerated games in their respective genres, and it's surprising just how well the shifting gameplay types work together. By keeping things at a fundamental level, the game ensures things never get too convoluted and tiresome, but I do feel it could have done more to exploit its best ideas.
One area in particular involves hitting crystals to switch between 3D and 2D graphics, solving puzzles by changing the perspectives back and forth. It's a fantastic slice of gameplay, but like everything in Evoland, it is merely a slice. Once this one section has been completed, it is done with. Likewise, players get an airship at the very end of the game, and can backtrack to dungeons with new gear to find hidden areas, but the amount of optional content is limited at best, with only new cards or hidden stars to acquire for mere bragging rights.
Everything Evoland does is heartfelt, amusing, and very well put together, but the end result leaves me hungry for more, eager to see an extrapolation of the central gimmick, which just comes across as surface-level stuff outside of the one area that utilizes it in the gameplay. I certainly hope it gets some content updates in future, because the central premise has been far from mined of its potential, and I could see the studio being clever enough to make all sorts of fresh styles work.
It stands to reason that the game looks great, from its black-and-white beginnings right up to its full HD finale. As a 3D game, things certainly don't look as gorgeous as the console offerings it mimics, but it's still dripping with character, bright visuals, and lovingly designed environments. The soundtrack is also excellent, treading the line between nostalgia and originality with expertise. My only wish is that each track lasted a little longer before looping -- like everything else in Evoland, the music is terrific, I just want more of it.
Evoland makes for a thoroughly enjoyable few hours, and I'd recommend it to any Zelda or Final Fantasy fan in a heartbeat. While a few of the referential jokes cross over into cringe territory, most of them hit the mark, and there are a few little gags that really encourage a smirk, if not a real-life, out-loud chuckle. It's incredibly difficult to fault what's on offer, but it's quite easy to lament what isn't there -- chiefly a lot more of what's on offer.
THE VERDICT - Evoland
Reviewed by Jim Sterling