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SummaryA worthy cousin of the Secret of Mana.
The GoodBefore 1997, RPGs had a hard time making a splash on the console market. Sure, they were popular and well-selling genre in computer space, but when it came to exchanging little green slips of paper for little gray cartridges, success was limited with RPGs. Games like Final Fantasy and Secret of Mana had cult followings, but they were hardly flagship titles. Even the venerable Chrono Trigger was met with only modest sales in the US, despite having sold millions in Japan.
There were several attempts by several companies at making inroads for the console RPG, but they had universally flopped. Nintendo was so sure that the smash hit Dragon Quest would take America by storm that they over produced, and when the renamed Dragon Warrior failed to make a dent, they ended up giving away copies as an enticement to subscribe to its fledgling Nintendo Power magazine. Square’s attempt, Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, whose ads promised that by playing you’d receive a brain transplant, was also met with face palming. Having been released after Final Fantasy II in the US, its simplistic mechanics, ludicrously cliché plot, and Game Boy quality graphics in fact did little to turn the American market to RPGs, and is now widely regarded as one of the worst games ever to bear the FF moniker.
Unlike Nintendo, however, Square, whose bread and butter is RPGs, was undaunted by its initial failures. They felt that if it wasn’t the complexity of the games that had ultimately kept Americans away, maybe it was the Japanese-ness. Thus Secret of Evermore, the first and only Square game crafted by a wholly American team, was born. From the get go, SOE was intended to be a Secret of Mana –type game, but Americanized. Contrary to popular belief, however, it doesn’t share a game engine with SOM, nor was it created as an alternative to localizing SOM’s sequel. In fact, the name was simply Evermore until late in development where ‘Secret of’ was added in order to capitalize on Mana’s success. The American team was mostly game industry freshman working on their own with next to no support from Square Japan.
The story of SOE feels America. Rather than being the tale of some angst-riddled figure of destiny preordained to save the planet, SOE focuses on a classic boy and his dog premise in which the misbehaving pooch gets his master, a kid from Podunk USA, into trouble when he chases a cat into a creepy, old mansion where 30-odd years earlier there was a strange disappearance. After an encounter with the house’s nefarious caretaker, the duo is whisked away to a strange fantasy land. It’s all very Wizard of Oz.
The world our protagonist lands in is made up of four different themed areas: Prehistoria: self-explanatory; Antiqua: Greek, Roman, and Egyptian; Gothica: late middle-ages; and Omnitopia: a space station. You begin in Prehistoria and work your way through each epoch. Through the course of this, you find that each area is the fantasy of one of the denizens of Podunk that vanished on that fateful night. Ultimately, it turns out that the characters are trapped and their worlds are more nightmares than dreams. Overall, the mood is darker and a bit bleaker than what was commonly found on the SNES at the time.
The hero’s passion for old B-movies also plays a role in the premise and execution. On occasion the hero quips a line from a favorite fictional Saturday matinee star, and there are little nods here and there to some real classic films, as well as references and at least one cameo from other Square games. The story isn’t the stuff Pulitzers are made of. Still, it’s American trite, not Japanese trite, and done with enough of a wink and a nod that it comes off as charming without being too on the nose.
The team that worked on SOE did a spectacular job of recreating the Secret of Mana experience, even more so than any of the actual SOM sequels have ever done. The ring menu and combat system are spot on. Weapons and spells level up in power as you use them and you can charge your weapon to release a more powerful strike. The fonts look the same. The Mode 7 sequences are the same. The ‘aggression’ grid still exits and is still not terribly useful. Most everything you’d expect is there. There are differences, though.
Your inventory has an increased capacity in part to support a magic system that’s completely different and largely unique to the world of console RPGs. Rather than having MP like most contemporaneous games, you have a list of alchemical spells you can equip that require various reagents. Most spells use one to three constituents. As you use spells, you use up those reagents and when they’re all gone, you can’t cast any spell that relies on them. Reagents can be purchased in shops or can be found out and about around the world. Your dog can assist in this process by sniffing them out like a pig in search of truffles.
One other cool feature of the game is the economy. Although for the most part, buying and selling is par for the course, each area features a unique currency with a different exchange rate. There are also two markets in the game where commodities can be bought or sold. This makes for a neat little trading mini-game where you can exploit the differing values of items and currencies in differing markets to make money.
The developers of Secret of Evermore used a different video mode than in most Square RPGs. The result is that the SOE sprites and tiles are bigger and more detailed than those in SOM. It doesn’t make it a stronger game graphically necessarily, because the palettes chosen were a lot darker, more fitting with the game’s mood. SOE also made use of the 3d pre-rendering that was so popular after Donkey Kong Country. Unlike DKC, however, the effect is a lot more subtle and blends better with the traditional 2d backgrounds. In the long run, this means that the games visuals have aged better than most games that relied on the same kind of tricks. The bosses, by and large, are fully rendered creatures and look appropriately epic.
The best part of SOE is its music and sound. Jerry Soule (currently of Skyrim fame) composed the score at the ripe old age of 20. It was his first foray into the world of game music and it’s brilliant. Rather than J-Pop or baroque orchestral themes, Soule crafted ominous soundscapes interspersed with musical interludes. While you’re unlikely to find yourself humming these tunes in the shower, in the context of the game, they’re very effective. For instance, during a sequence where you’re travelling an abandon road through a maze of woods, the only sounds encountered are the occasional hoots of an owl and the leaves rustling in the breeze. It beautifully captures the isolation and eeriness of the moment.
The BadSecret of Evermore, although quite good, remains flawed in a few areas. There is no multiplayer for starters. Although I don’t consider this a huge strike against the game, I know many SOM fans that played that game with family and/or friends and for whom that was half the fun. I soloed them both, so not having the option was lost on me. Regardless, if you’re expecting it, it doesn’t exist. I don’t know if this was rectified in the Virtual Console re-release, but I suspect it wasn’t, as those sorts of things usually aren’t.
The micro-economy doesn’t play as big a role in this game as it could. Nowhere is it articulated why the trading system exists or how to really use it. Most of what you get out of it are some decent pieces of armor, but even those are eventually eclipsed by items purchased through traditional means. Although I could see where it would become tedious to schlep junk around the world just to trade it, there was an opportunity here that feels missed.
As mentioned earlier, despite the richness of the graphics, the drab palettes undermine what is otherwise wonderful art. In some areas, such as the Egyptian temple or crossing the desert, the sameness of the surroundings has a disorienting and labyrinthine affect. Most of the dungeons are very square-ish and the later ones feel Spartan and under-designed.
The pacing of SOE is off. The game is fairly short for a typical Square RPG. Most of your time is spent in the first two areas, but the last two breeze by so quickly that you get the feeling that the game was rushed out the door. Despite this, it’s not difficult to become lost or stuck. Sometimes the directions you receive are just inadequate and you’re left wandering around until you happen upon some area of some place that you hadn’t happened before. I felt this way especially in Gothica. There is also some unwelcomed backtracking towards the end. Lastly, there are a number of bugs in SOE, a handful of which can render the game unbeatable. Even the ones that don’t screw the pooch completely still can cause an hour of your time to be lost because you hadn’t saved recently enough and you wind up stuck on a screen with no way out. One can cause your stats to drop permanently.