Secret of Evermore (SNES) Review

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Review by tankMage (February 2017)

Score: C-

   Secret of Evermore is a rather remarkable SNES RPG for a number of reasons. First of all, in a time when many console games were developed in Japan, SoE was made by a North American team and published by the famed JRPG titan, Square. Secret of Evermore also pushed the limits of what the SNES could do in terms of graphical detail and is filled with nice touches that bring the game world to life. Consequently, the artwork has a distinctly American air to it, which was unusual in an era when the console scene was ruled by Japan.

   Interestingly, Evermore has some dark overtones, which has spawned a mythology about its creation which claims that the game was originally too morbid to be published and Square had the final version edited to be more family friendly. While many of these claims are most likely fabricated (lookup Ed Kann and Secret of Evermore for more info), they are a testament to the originality of this title and its ability to captivate the imagination.

   While Secret of Evermore may be unusual and fun in many ways, it is not without some serious flaws. As SNES RPGs go, this game is a bit short and the level designs are perhaps some of the worst I have seen of any professionally made title. According to Wikipedia, many of SoE’s developers were new hires and the game was initially only planned to be 12 megabytes in size, but ballooned up to 24 megs during the development process. As usual, content was cut to deal with technological and budgetary issues, which helps explain why the game is a tad short. Even with its downfalls, SoE is an interesting title that boasts a few flashes of creativity. While it can be a chore to play at times, I found myself pushing through the low points so I could see what was around the corner for the protagonist and his shapeshifting pooch.

Story

   Evermore’s story is far from being a literary masterpiece, but at least the premise decent in its own right. Brilliant scientist, Dr. Ruffleburg, invented a machine that allows humans to visit worlds of their own creation. What was intended to be a brief trip turned into a thirty year odyssey after the machine malfunctions and traps Ruffleburg and his friends in the world of Evermore. The machine languished quietly in the scientist’s mansion until a boy and his dog accidentally discover it and are sucked into Evermore. To the boy’s surprise, he finds himself in a primordial jungle and his dog has transformed into a massive beast. The rest of the game focuses on the hero’s quest to return home and uncover the secret of Evermore (sorry, couldn’t resist working the title in).

Ok, gotta admit, snips of dialogue like this made me chuckle.

   While there are no shocking plot twists or deep moments of character development, this title manages to tell a humorous and marginally interesting tale. The developers seemed to enjoy poking fun at video game cliches and pop culture, which makes for a few laughs. There’s also a nice variety of areas to visit, each with its own theme and sub plot. The result is a rather lighthearted tale that can be a bit spooky at times (in its own way) thanks to its dark setting.

   Much of the initial promise of Evermore’s story goes untapped, sadly. The villain has an interesting back story, but is presented in the game as little more than a remote bogeyman that the protagonist barely interacts with. Plot holes are not at all unusual in video games, but Secret of Evermore has more than its fair share and many aspects of the story could have been elaborated on. In fact, to this day I’m not sure if Evermore is a virtual world created by a computer, an alternate universe, or simply another planet in our own universe, but maybe a little mystery is a good thing.

Some Greco-Roman nobles just wanna see the world burn.

Graphics

   This game boasts some fine graphics. The art team had access to some of Square’s best technology and went wild with it to create a game that is vibrant and distinctly western looking. Much of the imagery in this title is evocative of science fiction and fantasy films from the latter half of the twentieth century, so players will likely feel as though the world of Evermore is familiar.  Every weapon has its own sprite (or at least palette swap), the dog has several forms, there’s a ton of spell effects, and the environments are highly detailed. Even many of the enemies are imaginatively designed, including some of the bosses.

   One of the most impressive aspects of this title is the amount of detail packed into the landscape. Mushrooms sprout from tufts of grass, birds can be found pecking around town squares, and the devs even placed several Final Fantasy 6 characters in the Arena’s crowd. Almost every place you will explore has its own unique design, because the game rarely reuses tiles. Needless to say, the effort put into SoE’s visuals make the game about as immersive as an isometric 16-bit game can get.

   Secret of Evermore’s mobs are nicely designed, but there are some problems with the bosses. Many of the creatures you will encounter are goofy nineties RPG monsters, but they aren’t the usual skeletons, bats, and snakes one would expect….although there are plenty of spiders in this game. The hero will encounter man eating plants, undead turtles (Super Mario Bros. reference anyone?) and cloaked shovel wielding goblins to name a few of the oddities dreamed up by the devs. While the ordinary monsters are generally a refreshing change from the norm, the bosses were not terribly impressive aside from some exceptions. The most interesting of the bosses was Thraxx, a giant insect that resides in the remains of an even bigger insect, made it into the game’s cover. There is also a warrior named Vigor, that was an amusing parody of gladiator movies. Aside from that, some of the bosses look similar one another (in fact a few of them were blatantly recycled) and generally weren’t all that different from what you would expect to encounter in this type of game. To Square’s credit, the bosses were as finely detailed as everything else in the game.

   The weapons the boy uses also look good and have nice animations, but fall short in some regards. While some of the animations for special attacks are recycled, I still really liked them, especially one of the axe’s charge attacks where the boy throws the axe and it circles him almost like a boomerang (sure, it’s a bit over the top, but fun to use). While there are four versions of the sword, axe, and spear, each upgrade is usually just a palette swap of the original weapon. This did not bother me much however, because the devs at least put some effort forth to make it seem as though the upgrades look different from the originals, plus each weapon has its own unique inventory sprite.

   Speaking of animation, SoE has some fairly good ones for the playable characters, but many of the monster animations tend to be stripped down to just a few frames. The boy and dog perform a variety of actions, such as leaps, emotes, and different attack/block animations. This is even more impressive, considering the fact that the dog changes form several times. Unfortunately, the dog’s actions are not as thoroughly crafted as the boy’s and his special attacks all look the same.

   Overall, this game looks great and is a fine example of what the Super Nintendo could accomplish, but Secret of Evermore’s fine visuals gobbled up time and resources which could have been invested into other aspects of the game…

User Interface

   This game handles much like Secret of Mana and managed to improve upon the formula in some ways, but also made some of the same mistakes. First of all, the controls themselves work smoothly and are nicely mapped out, which is good, because this game may have been unbearable otherwise. Regrettably, the hit boxes for some weapons, like the sword and spear are pathetically small, which makes combat somewhat tedious (those who played Secret of Mana may remember encountering this issue with a couple of weapons). The game redeems itself by allowing the player the player to perform special attacks that can be “charged up” by holding the attack button down. These special moves are learned by using a weapon repeatedly and not only deal extra damage, but have much larger hit boxes as well. Even better, SoE improved upon this idea by allowing the player to move at a regular clip while charging, unlike in Secret of Mana which cut the player’s movement speed in half while charging. Another issue I found with the controls was that harvesting the materials the dog detects with his sniffer can sometimes be frustrating. This is mainly,  because ingredients detected by the dog are invisible and sometimes placed in odd spots or out of reach.

   Secret of Evermore also uses Secret of Mana’s “Ring Menus”. These menus appear around either the dog or hero (depending upon what button is pushed) and can be cycled through by pushing left or right. Everything the player needs is laid out in these menus, which are streamlined and very easy to use. Even better, the ring menu merely pauses the game without transitioning to a traditional full screen menu, which interrupts gameplay far less. Evermore did not really alter the Ring Menu system in any meaningful way, which is fine since it works quite well in its original form.

   All in all, the interface for this game would have been much better if not for the weapon hit boxes, but it managed to be fairly decent even with its flaws. The SoE team did a good job of adapting Secret of Mana’s engine to their own game and while it was a wise move for the most part, it did not come without its own downfalls, which I will discuss in the Gameplay section.

Music and Sound

   The musical score was composed by Jeremy Soule who went on to create a number of soundtracks, my favorite being that of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. Secret of Evermore was Soule’s first attempt at a professional soundtrack (according to Wikipedia) and a fine one at that. SoE has a number of well composed pieces, some of which are quite melancholy and moving. There are also quite a few ambient soundscapes, from windswept wastelands to jungles full of growing beasts. The use of ambient sound not only made Secret of Evermore more immersive, but also something of an oddity on a system that generally featured games with more traditional instrumental soundtracks.

   This game also has a nice lineup of sound effects, from the satisfying thwack of your weapon striking an enemy to the dog’s bark. In fact, due to its use of ambient soundtracks, which blur the line between sound effects and musical composition somewhat, it could be argued that SoE has the best sound effects of out of all Super Nintendo titles.

Gameplay

   Secret of Evermore’s gameplay is its Achilles’ heel. While this title has a number of interesting mechanics that redeem it somewhat, the level design, game balance, and boss designs are dismal.

   So where do I start with this mess? I suppose the most obvious and crippling issue with SoE is the stage design, which boils down to many of the dungeons being hastily assembled mazes. Now, I enjoy a good maze, but those found in this game have little thought put into them and seem to primarily exist to make the game longer rather than challenge the player. For example, the hero has to pick his way through the decaying skeleton…er…exoskeleton of a massive insect early on in the game. While the concept is original, it only serves to distract from the fact that the level is tedious to explore. This is thanks to the narrow pathways inside the bug which tend to disintegrate and force the player to frequently backtrack through the area to find the correct path. There’s no way of determining whether or not a walkway will collapse, so the player must to use trial and error, which further detracts from the quality of the experience.

   The bug shell maze is just one of many such stages and players will find themselves blundering through twisting and turning waterways, dark tunnels filled with teleporters, hedge mazes, and a number of other sloppily designed locations. To Square’s credit, they managed to at least do a good job of incentivising players to explore by hiding plenty of alchemy spells, ingredients, and gear in the dungeons. Some of the puzzles were even marginally entertaining, especially those that require the player to switch between the boy and the dog to open doors or clear obstacles.

   Now onto the enemies…which become increasingly disappointing as one advances. Many of the bosses are recycled along with normal monsters, which isn’t uncommon in games, but Secret of Evermore takes the practice to an entirely new level. There’s one boss that appears in the form of a palette swap or slightly altered sprite at least three times throughout the course of the game. There’s also a few enemies, like spiders, that appear throughout the adventure even more frequently than what one would normally expect.

   Even worse, mobs are often badly designed. Some enemies flit around the screen at speeds that your character can’t match and either have to be killed with alchemy spells or evaded, because it’s far too tedious to try to slay them with a weapon. Other monsters, including several bosses, are immobile punching bags. The bosses also suffer from plenty of design issues. To be fair, some of the bosses were thought out well enough, such as the Magma monster, who required a bit of strategy to defeat, but others were complete jokes. Very often battles came down to the hero spamming alchemy spells on a stationary opponent or wailing on them with charged weapon attacks. One boss only had a single attack and did little more than roam aimlessly around the screen casting its solitary spell.

   I touched upon the issue of the weapon’s hit boxes and usage in the user interface section, but I’ll reiterate my observations and opinions on weapons in general here. First of all, many of the weapons for the boy had poor reach and were a bit difficult to master since their attacks had to be timed carefully. Combine the finicky nature of the sword, spear, and ax with annoying enemy design and you have a rather frustrating situation. Fortunately, the dog is playable and presents himself as a better option for those who enjoy brawling, since his attack hitboxes are far more generously proportioned.

   I mentioned that this game is similar to Secret of Mana in a number of ways and managed to improve upon Mana’s weapon charging system as well as include some cool special attacks. Many of the special attacks have cool animations and they are worth taking the time to charge thanks to the damage bonus. Unfortunately, the special attack system is not as well realized as that of Secret of Mana. Each weapon only gets two special attacks and the boy has to learn the special attacks for each weapon he gets, even if the me weapon is just an upgraded version of the sword/axe/spear, which doesn’t make sense considering that the upgrades are presumably similar to the originals. Finally, the dog only has one animation for both of his special attacks (his final form is an exception to this rule), which are ridiculously overpowered. In the end the weapon mechanics of SoE are just another one of this game’s partially realized elements that turn out to be a something of a let down.

   This game also has an attack meter that forces the player to wait a couple seconds until it reaches 100% if they want to deal full damage (much like in Secret of Mana) making it more of a hybrid between a turn-based and hack ‘n slash RPG. This aspect of both games never made much sense to me and it really only serves to slow the pace of gameplay down. Without the battle meter system, Secret of Evermore would have handled more like Crystalis or even Legend of Zelda, which would have been a major improvement. To be fair, the meter does require the player to time attacks and fight more carefully, which is a good thing if you like a more cerebral style of gameplay.

   The bazooka deserves special mention, since it’s one of my favorite aspects of this title. Players get to use this weapon for a short time early on before losing it in an accident (don’t worry, you’ll get another one eventually), which is a nice way to contrast the it to the other weapons found in the game. Most of the bazooka’s appeal comes from the fact that one rarely sees such weapons in a 16-bit RPG and its ability to apply significant damage at range. Also, this weapon is the only instance where the battle meter seems like a reasonable representation of reality, since it would conceivably take the untrained hero a few seconds to load the bazooka after each shot. There are also several types of ammo to choose from, but they only really seem to vary in terms of attack power, so it purchasing ammo comes down more to a financial than a tactical decision.

   Secret of Evermore’s most novel feature (and perhaps best implemented) is its magic system, known as alchemy. Instead of using the standard magic points to cast spells, players must find ingredients and recipes in order to use magic. Hunting down ingredients and recipes added a touch of fun to this game and made exploration more rewarding. The ingredient system also adds a much needed layer of strategy, because the player can only carry so many alchemical reagents. Some ingredients are very rare and only a few can be obtained through the course of the game, so one has to be careful when casting certain spells. Players are also limited to only having about nine spells equipped, which helps limit an over powered mechanic somewhat. There are some downsides to the alchemy system, however. Constantly digging around for or buying ingredients gets repetitive. Many of the spells are overpowered as well, one of the worst being Barrier, which makes the boy and dog invulnerable for several seconds, allowing them to run roughshod over bosses.

   It also bears mentioning that certain alchemy spells were required to progress in the game and the implementation of this feature achieved mixed results. On one hand, it was fun lifting boulders with Levitation and the devs managed to make the spell fairly interesting by requiring the player to use boulders to form pathways in order to get through a dungeon. On the other hand, the only other spell of this nature, revealer (which made it possible to see invisible bridges) failed to impress me. Maybe it’s, because I’ve encountered more than my fair share of invisible/vanishing platforms over the years, but there was no real effort or originality put into this mechanic, since it only really required to the player to have the spell handy for a few obvious situations. At least levitate used a rare ingredient that the player needed to search the dungeon for and the concept was dressed up more nicely than that of revealer. Neither spell was used more than occasionally (revealer being limited to just one segment of the game and a dungeon), but maybe this is a good thing, seeing as how they seemed to have trouble making the ideas work.

   As I mentioned earlier, Secret of Evermore did manage to have some fairly well realized elements. One of my favorite features of the game was a market where the player can trade with NPCs for various bonus items. The items that can be acquired from the market aren’t necessities, but they can make life easier. Even better, this aspect of the game is completely voluntary, so those who find it boring do not have to participate. There’s also tons of hidden treasures and ingredients to find scattered throughout the game as well as a few Easter eggs that players may enjoy.

   Finally, this game is a bit on the short side for a 16-bit Square RPG and game of its memory size, which was a whopping 24 megabytes. Usually the total play time it takes to finish a game doesn’t bother me much, but after blazing through the final area and beating the last boss with a party that was not quite level forty, I could not help coming to the conclusion that a good deal of content was cut from SoE due to financial and technological limitations. This happens frequently in the industry and some of my favorite games appear to have been whacked with the ole’ budget axe here and there, but unlike Evermore their level designs and mechanics at least had some inkling of balance, consistency, and forethought put into them. SoE, unfortunately falls flat on its face after a promising beginning and many of its woes could have been avoided or at least mitigated had the project been managed more carefully.

Final Thoughts

   Secret of Evermore reminds me of the old trope where two children are picking from a group of kids for their sports team and there’s always this one kid no one wants in their team that ends up getting picked last. This kid might be a cool guy, but he just isn’t good at sports, which is a good analogy for this game. SoE looks good and sounds good and even manages to be original in some regards, but it just was not able to score points in terms of gameplay. In fact, if not for its fine trappings, Secret of Evermore may have gotten a D instead of a C-.

Recommendations

   Once a game starts to dip below the B range in terms of score, it becomes rather difficult to justify recommending it to anyone. In the case of Evermore, I would actually highly recommend it to 16-bit RPG fans for a number of reasons, despite its dubious quality. For starters, this game uses Square’s audio/visual technology from the mid nineties; consequently, it has the look and feel of a classic Squaresoft title, but with a more western style (since it was developed in the United States). Secondly, this game uses some ideas I’ve only seen incorporated into games very rarely, such as it’s alchemy system and Secret of Mana mechanics. So, in the end, Secret of Evermore is worth checking out, even if only due to the fact that it happens to be a rather unique, yet flawed SNES title.

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