A fanciful dress-up system, a cursed crest and a 32-bit style in From Software's RPG
Evergrace is one of the four RPGs available at the launch of the PS2 (the others are Orphen, Summoner and Eternal Ring, the last one from the same developers of Evergrace). From Software decided to enter the market of videogames for PlayStation 2 with three games: Evergrace, Eternal Ring and Armored Core,
From the very beginning, Evergrace was a PS2 project. Somewhere during the development, it was decided to restart from scratch and release it for PsOne because of the vast market around the old console. After a while, the developers realized the game was too ambitious for the PsOne and decided to port it back to PS2. This explains why Evergrace is still partially tied up to the style and logic of the first Sony console and absolutely unable to take advantage of the possibilities of the new hardware or to reach the graphic effectiveness of some games for PsOne (Dino Crisis 1 and 2, Resident Evil 3, or Final Fantasy 9). Yet, this little RPG has its own good points, many ideas that, if fully developed, could have created a truly memorable and original role-playing experience.
Darius and Sharline are the two heroes of Evergrace; their destinies, apparently separated, are actually part of the same story. Darius has been an orphan since he was a kid, and his misfortunes (his parents' killing, a classic RPG theme) are apparently caused by a cursed crest he bears on his right hand. The legend tells that those born with these crests on their body are destined to suffer the worse catastrophes and bring unhappiness and bad fate to those who surround them. Darius, seeking revenge against those who have destroyed his family, departs on a journey. One day, he gets lost in the forest of Billania - his search for the truth behind the sign on his hand begins here.
The cute red-haired Sharline is also a crest-bearer, another cursed outcast. Suddenly, one day, she is transported to the kingdom of Rieubane.
The game is introduced by a beautiful movie that shows the lost kingdom of Rieubane; the movie is good enough to make the mouth of hardcore fans of RPGs water, but it sets a standard that the rest of the game is unable to adhere to. While you are asked to choose one of the two characters when you begin the adventure, during the game you will be able to switch character and play the story from a different point of view by using save crystals. The stories of Darius and Sharline are separated, but they intertwine at many key points of the game.
It is just too bad that both characters are badly developed, and dialogues are often unable to explain the true reasons behind their actions. From the very shoddy beginning - where basically both heroes are magically transported to a magical kingdom in some sort of magical place - to the unimpressive end, Evergrace delivers a predictable, weak storyline that pale in comparison with average RPGs available on other older platforms.
Evergrace's strongest point is the high degree of customization it offers to the player. Weapons and armors in the game can be customized using magic gems called "Palmira"; Palmira gems change an object's attributes and let you "shape" a weapon the way you want and need it. The game also features a unique dress-up system. Throughout the adventure, you will find various types of equipment, from classic armors to crazy stuff, including a cute pair of rabbit ears. In addition to making the game look definitely more colorful than most average RPGs, switching dresses also has an effect on the gameplay. For example, if you mix well dressing style and colors, you may get discounts on what you buy from shops.
Unfortunately, the developers didn't have the time to fully develop their ideas, and the result is a game that feels often incomplete, just a shadow of what it could have been. The environments are beautiful but repetitive (there are no real towns in the game, nor that many characters to interact with), and explorations are never as fun as one would expect from a good RPG. To proceed in the adventure, you need to solve many puzzles. This means you will often have to look for objects, switches, and keys, but also that you will need to wear a particular object to perform a required action, like wearing a pair of boots to ride an elevator. When you are stuck, you are often forced to try everything you have in your inventory, until you stumble on the right object. If this sounds amusing, in practice it makes the experience boring and uselessly cumbersome.
Character level grows as soon as you pick special seeds dropped by enemies on the battlefield, but the battle system, fundamental in any RPG, is another aching point. To Evergrace's credit, battles are not as frequent as in other RPGs, but this is obviously no excuse. A power meter, or stamina meter, depletes everytime you hit your enemy or run, so you are often forced to wait in between blows to let the meter recharge. This, coupled with the dull A.I. of the enemies make battles more a nuisance than anything else after a few hours of gameplay.
The use of the new full analog controls of the Dual Shock 2 is interesting. According to the pressure exerted by the player on the button, the amount of the inflicted damage increases or decreases. This could be a point in favor of Evergrace, one of the first PlayStation 2 games to use this kind of feature, but the truth is that, for various reasons, you will end up using the maximum strength for each hit. All things considered, this option remains useless and superfluous in Evergrace.