I remember first picking this up back in that almost surreal period when Neo Geo Pocket games were just those weird not-Game Boy games on store shelves instead of the ridiculously expensive collectibles they’ve sadly become (oh how I wish I’d bought Cotton!) and the Dreamcast was a shining beacon of modem-equipped hope: I had a good time with it, I think… although I can’t remember much about the handheld version bar a general “Hey, this is nifty!” sort of feeling. So this replay’s as much for me as it is for anyone else, really.
Released in 2000 in Japan and also, bizarrely, the UK – please bear in mind the English translation’s so rough nobody could be bothered to spellcheck “dameged” – Evolution: Eternal Dungeons‘ a handheld port of Sting’s similarly titled Dreamcast game Evolution: The World of Sacred Device.
Naturally the NGPC, beautiful machine as it is, never had a chance of replicating the 3D models of the original so in trendy modern terms this could be considered a “de-make”; the game’s been rebuilt from the ground up for SNK’s dinky portable and they’ve done a damned good job of it. Absolutely everything from the original is recognisable at a glance, from roaming enemies in ancient ruins right down to way floor tiles change their appearance as you delve deeper into a dungeon. Your party’s battle sprites may only be sixteen pixels high but even then there’s no mistaking the back of Linear’s head for Pepper’s, or confusing Gre with Chain – it’s clear to see that this is a port that’s been handled with care and attention to detail.
Of course even the most well-crafted minuscule sprites can’t convey the range of emotion or animation their 128-bit counterparts do so to make up for this deficit whenever someone speaks or a significant event happens the large view window is filled with expressive character portraits or even unique cutscene artwork. The quantity and quality of the character reaction portraits is almost unbelievable, breathing some real charm and personality into party members and NPCs alike – even more so than the Dreamcast original in my opinion.
Hub area Pannam has been scrapped entirely as a typical free-roam RPG town and is instead presented as an adventure game-like list of locations to choose from that branches off into sub-lists of people to speak to and nearby interactive points of interest. For example: Mag’s House>Mag’s Room>Photo or Pub>Pepper>Ask her to join your party. Overall these changes don’t just feel like a great compromise but a genuine improvement, giving quick access to everything you need without losing the little bits of flavour text and interactions that can bring a place to life.
The music has received just as much loving attention as everything else, coming across as pleasant chiptunes that work just as well here as they did through a TV.
All of this attention to detail on the presentation side of things would mean nothing without a game to back it up, and happily Evolution’s extensive dungeoneering and formation-dependant battle system also survived the transition.
If you’re not at all familiar with the Dreamcast RPG this is based on it goes like this:
Mag Launcher, typically bouncy RPG lad, his mysterious and largely mute lady friend Linear Cannon (yes, the daft naming convention applies to everyone and is as forced and tedious as Galaxy Angel’s dessert-themed gang), and your choice of one of his obliging acquaintances go off adventuring for loot, glory, and to ease the Launcher family’s crushing debts.
This is accomplished by setting off from your own personal airstrip in the archaeology-obsessed Pannam Town and checking out the local ruins (your choice from a selection) which all take the form of a large one-direction dungeon split across many, many, floors.
These randomly-generated ruins follow a Shiren-like presentation of rooms and corridors filled with the usual smattering of treasures, trap tiles, and assorted monsters out to make your life difficult. Like Shiren (again), these enemies visibly roam around the dungeon, moving only when you do and sometimes chasing after you if you get too close; leading to some cat-and-mouse games if you’re making a dash for a treasure chest or trying to get through a room without getting caught up in four different battles.
If you do get caught or deliberately run into an enemy yourself a turn-based fight begins, with your side on a 3×3 grid and the enemy forces standing opposite on a 4×3 grid. The turn order for both sides is displayed as a single bar on the right hand side of the screen much like Game Art’s Grandia or Falcom’s “Trails” series so you can see exactly who’s due to attack when, allowing you to gang up on enemies before they even get a go or trying to gauge if you can survive long enough for your healer’s turn to come around.
A small but extremely welcome detail – especially unusual in an old handheld RPG like this – is being able to read full in-game explanations of every skill and item before using them, as well as visual markers letting you easily see who something’s going to effect and if an attack or support skill is going to hit a specific row or column. The animations very neatly back this up too; sprites visibly move out of the way if they dodge an attack, a horizontal fire attack will produce a brief wall of flame in the correct place, and special attacks for characters and bosses trigger one of several unique event graphics.
A great deal of importance is placed on the positioning of both you and the enemy: some creatures are always trying to force characters to come close and certain bosses have devastating attacks if you’re on the front row. You can move individual team members forwards or backwards once per turn (to line up for a heal or pre-emptively avoid a monster’s attack), at the cost of any other actions. This can be a bit frustrating if you’re constantly being dragged forwards, but I guess that’s what SPD boost skills and equipment’s for (as is plain old grinding).
The NGPC’s small screen does give battles one small but constantly irritating problem, as unlike the Dreamcast original you can’t see a character’s max HP (or FP) so just have to take a guess and hope for the best. It’s not a game-breaking issue because you will always have a general idea of where “Oh heck, we’re in trouble now!” is, but it does make it harder than it should be to keep an eye on your health.
The good news is if your party do die they’re only kicked back to town so very little’s lost even with the worst outcome and with one quick trip around the shops to upgrade your Cyframes (offensive equipment that gives access to various skills and boosts), sell off your extra bits of junk, and stock up on healing items later you’re straight back in the dungeon – and don’t even have to start from the beginning either!
Barring a few special events this is the entirety of your gameplay loop: Pick a dungeon, work your way through it, lose to the boss a few times, eventually flatten it, then after some upgrades and shopping go do it all again.
This simplicity works against the home release of Evolution, where it ranks as a pleasant but unexceptional C-list RPG from the same year that brought us games like System Shock 2, Planescape Torment, Silent Hill, and Front Mission 3. But on the NGPC these weaknesses become strengths to a certain extent and this straightforward approach makes the game an incredibly accessible RPG that can be casually dipped it at will: It’s impossible to get lost in a game with only one town where every location is on a list and dungeons are self-contained one-way crawls – even the most forgetful of players will take mere seconds to work out how to get back up and running.
Complimenting the pick-up-and-play design is a save system that I can only describe as perfect: Regular saving can be done at any time you’re not in a conversation, event, or battle and these saves pick up exactly where you left off – no restarting from the last dungeon floor cleared or finding yourself teleported back to Mag’s home. But even better than that is the auto-suspend feature found here and in a few other NGPC titles (the Cardfighters Clash games are probably the most well-known) – you can turn the system off at absolutely any point and, so long as you didn’t remove the cart between then and now, when you turn it back on you’ll be asked if you want to carry on from this suspend spot – brilliant!
Evolution’s problem is that for all this heart and polish it still feels like it falls down on the wrong side of “lite” RPGs. If Mystic Quest is an example of basic RPGs done right (helped in no small part by that incredible soundtrack and the fantastic visible battle damage on enemy sprites) then Evolution is more… inoffensive. Nobody is going to mind playing Evolution, but if you made even the smallest pile of mid-tier RPGs and asked people to pick one for themselves this is unlikely to be the game anybody would reach for.
Which puts Evolution in an odd place: It’s true to say that it’s very easy to play and suits the format well, but if you asked me if I actually recommended it I’d have to say “Not really”. The character portraits do a lot of heavy lifting but their personalities as well as the story in general are paper-thin and nothing you haven’t seen done better elsewhere. “Nothing you haven’t seen done better elsewhere” applies equally to the gameplay, with no shortage of competent and accessible roguelikes released between then and now. This is a well-handled port that found a good home on an RPG-starved format, but the game itself is relatively ho-hum.