Secret of Evermore is an Action-RPG and the first and only game by Squaresoft (now Square-Enix) to be produced in the USA. It is based on the "Ring-menu" interface previously seen in Secret of Mana. However, despite this similar interface, the two games are not directly related, as Secret of Evermore shares no common theme with the "Mana" series. Instead, the story revolves around a boy and his dog who are thrown into a parallel universe by a strange machine and must figure out a way to return back home. Every part of Secret of Evermore is shaped around a person that was stranded there from the "real" world and is mostly based on different historical eras. It's actually a very decent game that has received good reviews and uses its own visual and musical style, and yet many people despise it to this day because it is not "Secret of Mana 2" or even because it is not Japanese enough. Unlike most RPGs, Secret of Evermore generally tries to stay low-key and upbeat.
Like most video game heroes, the protagonist is your usual do-gooder type character. However, unlike most JRPG heroes he can speak... but he doesn't have too much of a personality, except when he quotes a line from his vast knowledge of fictional B-movies ("Mars Needs Lumberjacks" and so on). As a true All-American hero, he also has a knack for one-liners. Being the sole member of the team with opposable thumbs, he's the only one who can use weapons and alchemy formulas. If he dies, it's Game Over.
The Hero's loyal companion. His love for chasing cats is the cause on the heroes' misadventures and of many other important events throughout the game. He takes on a different form in each of the game's universes. In the real world, he's a scruffy looking mutt. After entering Evermore, he is turned into a lumbering feral beast in Prehistoria, in a sleek greyhound in Antiqua, in a lovable poodle in Gothica and finally into a toaster/robo-dog in Omnitopia (a design which might be inspired by K-9 from the Doctor Who series). While the dog is generally stronger than the boy, he really starts to shine in the last chapter where his robotic self can unleash devastating lasers from a distance. Although the dog can't speak, he can still "talk" to villagers, whom usually respond in dog-speak ("Who's a good boy? You are! Yes you are!")
Other Dog Forms
The story takes place in a small backwater town, aptly named Podunk, where the hero leaves the local theatre showcasing the newest B movie (The Lost Adventure of Vexx - "You could hardly tell that it was really a bunch of old tires and a garden hose"). His dog starts chasing after a cat and they both end up in the abandoned mansion of Professor Sydney Ruffleberg. They start fiddling around with a machine and, since one thing leads to another, they are transported to the world of Evermore where they meet the Professor and his butler Carltron. The meeting is short-lived as the butler politely throws them out of an airlock and into an escape pod. The two protagonists crash-land in a prehistoric jungle, confused. From then on the two travel the world doing good deeds for people and smacking anything that gets in their way throughout the four lands of Evermore.
The plot won't win any awards for originality (Hint: the butler did it! His motivations? Well, he's an EVIL butler, duh!), but there are quite a few well-written gags to keep the whole thing feeling fresh. Most of the characters are completely glossed over and maybe it's for the best. I feel it's always better to have too little storytelling than to have too much of it. You have to remember that Final Fantasy IV and VI were already out at the time and although both games had good plots, they were definitely a sign that games would become increasingly verbose, whether it was necessary or not. Nowadays, every character has to have either a tragic past or amnesia (preferably both) and there's usually a love story wedged in right after the evisceration of the local fauna. Thinking back, being swiftly sent on your way towards your next quest with a few one-liners in between doesn't seem like such a bad idea for a game.
Evermore is separated in four different universes, and each one of them is the creation of someone trapped in Evermore from Podunk. The first world you visit is Prehistoria, the brainchild of Elizabeth, a little girl who is apparently really into dinosaurs. It's mostly made up of a jungle, a tar pit, a swamp and a large volcano full of dinosaurs called Vipers who are up to no good. Your first mission is to save an alchemist from a giant insectoid thing called Thraxx (the one on the box, he's the hideous poster boy for the game) and then you'll take on the above-mentioned Vipers.
The second world is Antiqua, a mix of Greek, Roman and Egyptian Antiquity thought up by an archaeologist named Horace Highwater. Antiqua is basically some ruins and a large city separated by a gigantic desert. The desert is a pretty bleak place: it's a very, very long walk (at least a few minutes of real time) during which you are assaulted by poisonous spiders and tumbleweeds while your health is constantly dropping because of the heat. To make the experience even more disorienting, this happens without a single screen break (but the scenery keeps repeating on and on, like being stuck in a corridor from the Flintstones). Don't worry though, after the first time a Charon-like skeleton boatman will let you cross the desert in seconds. This boatman (who calls you by names like Sport or Chief) will even give you a "sightseeing" tour of the desert and he'll do it all for a single Amulet of Annihilation.
Where do I get one of those, you ask? Well, you find them in the market of Nobilia, the city at the end of the desert and also probably the most interesting part of the game. The Nobilian marketplace is a giant square where you can exchange money (called jewels) for other goods and trade them again and again to get new pieces of armor or special items that give a permanent boost to your stats. For example, jewels will buy you rice, which you can exchange for spices, some of those spices can be exchanged for perfume, your perfume and your remaining spices can be exchanged for a jewelled scarab which you can finally trade for a stone vest armor (and that's not even the most complicated transaction). Shopaholics should love this part.
Speaking of shopping, Secret of Evermore is one of the few games I can think of that uses more than one type of currency (talons in Prehistoria, jewels in Antiqua, the usual gold coins in Gothica and credits in Omnitopia). There are money changers that will convert one type of money into another but, as in real life, watch out for the steep exchange rate. The rest of Antiqua involves you helping out Horace in his archaeological dig by trudging through the local ruins looking for powerful artifacts, which the hero will give out to the first evil impostor that comes along, as per RPG protocol.
Gothica is much closer to the usual medieval RPG environment, but it is also the best looking and sounding part of the game. It is made up of two cities, Ebon Tower and Ivor Keep, separated by a giant chessboard. The plot involves going to the other castle to dispose of the impostor queen on the other side. Of course, the drawbridge is obviously up so this requires going around a gigantic forest and some stinky sewers to get there. The Dark Forest is reminiscent of the desert, although this time there's a trick involved to finding your way (don't worry it's pretty easy stuff). Another interesting thing about the forest is that you can find in it some nonsensical signs giving you "directions" ("Visit beautiful Gruelville, 25 leagues West").
Gothica's plot also includes some evil puppets that are hypnotizing the king by performing some ridiculous play about the puppets being, well... puppets ("Ah but does not a man pull thy strings?"). If you actually have the patience to listen to the whole thing, the hero will complain that this egghead stuff is making his head spin. Intellectuals will also get an extra kick out of the play since the puppets' names, Mephista and Old Nick, are both alternate names for the devil. Hmmm. The last and probably most surprising thing about Gothica is the moment when you enter the Inn in Ebon Keep and meet... Cecil from Final Fantasy IV (I sense that the people closely archiving Final Fantasy canon are still having nightmares about this one). He acts as an innkeeper and armor salesman and also gives you a bazooka, of all things. He's also a living cameo, so he asks you if you've heard of his adventures fighting Zeromus and becoming a paladin (I find it funnier if you pretend you don't).
After a bit of backtracking, you will reach the final area, Omnitopia, a futuristic space station where professor Ruffleberg is still doing his research and where you started the game in before being thrown to the surface. Like most other RPGs, this final part is very short and gives the faint feeling the game had to be rushed out the door. One of the interesting bits of this area includes a greenhouse where plants will kill you instantly if you don't shut the lights off (999 damage, the kiss of death). Surprisingly, the game's single optional boss (a duo of alchemy-casting faces) is hiding behind a locked door in the security office and the only way to reach it is to try the 27 possible combinations randomly. The game's final battle is actually a series of small battles with a cleaning bot coming to wipe up the mess between rounds. Don't bother the cleaning personnel however, as for every cleaning bot you kill, the next one will be accompanied by a killer spider to protect it.
Despite happening in real time, combat is still somewhat turn-based since your character has to wait a few seconds between attacks for his attack-meter to reach 100% so he'll be able to deal any real damage. There's only three main types of weapons (swords, axes and spears), but you get a new, more powerful version in each world. What is annoying, however, is that you have to level up each different variation independently. Personally, I've almost only ever used the spear as a weapon because charging it up allows you to throw it, which lets you finish off enemies from far away without breaking too much of a sweat. Combat itself is mostly enjoyable, except for fast flying enemies that are extremely aggravating and much too numerous in certain areas... but that's nothing a good spear chucking won't solve (take that, stupid flying skull!). You will also get permanent access to a bazooka near the very end of the game. The bazooka is quite fun and a glitch in the programming lets you have unlimited ammo, but by then the dog will have become a laser-powered doomsday machine anyway, so meh. The dog doesn't do much more than bite the enemy until he turns into robo-dog, but he'll always be the powerhouse of the team.
Alchemy is Secret of Evermore's spin on magic and one of the game's defining characteristics. Each formula requires using up a certain quantity of two different ingredients (or "parts") to produce the usual RPG spells (the holy trinity of magic - attacking, healing, buffing). New formulas can be found by meeting alchemists. You can only equip nine formulas at a time, but most alchemists will let you switch between those you have already learned. You can find ingredients (water, grease, wax, feathers...) by buying them in stores or the dog can sniff out some on the ground almost everywhere in the world. Levelling up formulas requires casting the spell again and again, so this can get both costly and tedious (although you really don't have to do so, since finishing the entire game requires very little grinding). Some of the formulas are really well hidden and require either luck or a guide to actually find (there's an alchemist hidden somewhere in an oasis in the desert... good luck finding him).
The visuals of the game are quite good compared to other games on the SNES (but it was also released towards the end of the console's lifetime). The color palette uses a lot of darker or earthen tones so it's a game that's a lot less colourful than say... Secret of Mana. The darker tone is very deliberate, however, as the overall intention seems to make the environments look more realistic, as much as they could be on the SNES. The "realistic" graphics blend quite well with the ambient soundtrack of the game. Plus, every area does strive to respect the historical theme it's supposed to be in. Well... everybody knows that dragons went extinct just after the Middle Ages and that mummified cats and minotaurs were everywhere during Antiquity, right? If anything, Secret of Evermore should get a medal for actually having enemies that are even remotely appropriate to their setting. One thing that is annoying, though, is that many of the villager sprites seem to repeat ad nauseam (what's that guy with a toga doing in Gothica?) All in all, the game has a much more American style to it, which was apparently one of the requirements specified by the powers that be at Square headquarters in Japan.
The soundtrack was composed by Jeremy Soule and, like most members of the Evermore team, it was his first experience in the videogame industry. He would later go on to make several other soundtracks for Western RPGS like Icewind Dale and Guild Wars. Secret of Evermore's soundtrack is mostly atmospheric, something that is quite rare in the SNES era. There's actually three or four different tracks made almost exclusively of bird calls and the sound of the wind.
Speaking of bird calls, they are the only sounds you can hear in the background while crossing the gigantic forest under the chessboard. Most other games would put some kind slow, moody tune to heighten the experience, but seriously the only music that translates the actual experience of walking alone in the woods is no music at all. Simple, but brilliant. The actual quality of these ambient noises isn't terribly high, but considering the sound hardware, they sound very decent. The game does have some musical tracks, however. Most of them are rather melancholic and, once again, ambient. Gothica has most of the best musical tracks, especially around the two twin cities, but the first track from the Halls of Collosia in Antiqua is also very well done. There is one faster paced track, though and that is the boss theme. The only problem is that's it's a terribly grating song with stressful tribal drums and creepy synthesised chanting. It doesn't fit well with the overall style of the game and it would probably be better at home in a Silent Hill game. The biggest complaint about the soundtrack is that none of the musical pieces are terribly catchy or memorable by themselves. You probably won't remember them the same way you would remember your favorite tune from Final Fantasy VI or Chrono Trigger (or yes, Secret of Mana). The musical tracks are simply there to back up the visuals and the gameplay, which isn't the flashiest way do to things but it's still an accomplishment in and of itself.
If there's one thing Secret of Evermore is full of however, it's glitches and secrets (let's be fair here, it's glitchy by console standards... it's still considerably better than some PC games). Sometimes those glitches and secrets are actually working in conjunction to make the game feel more mysterious than it would otherwise. Although I've personally only witnessed some very slight visual bugs, there's apparently a whole list of stuff that can go wrong if you do certain things (beware, some are game-breaking). The game's manual lies to you too, as there's a bit in there about weapon masters that can supposedly teach you new skills, but that's complete rubbish. Boy, do I remember scratching my head wondering where those guys were. There's also a special item called the Magic Gourd whose effect is specified as "unknown" within the game. Its real effect is actually: nothing at all.
Still, there are a lot of little details about the game that are both intentional and useful, while some are just interesting. You know how some games have a little extra after the screen showing "The End"? Well this game has an extra after an extra after an extra. Just keep waiting, you'll see. My favourite secret however, is the town crier in Nobilia. If you speak to him enough times, he'll exclaim that "this is all a videogame!" in a fourth-wall breaking display of lucidity. He'll then say that if he's lying, the powers that be (you, the player behind the controller) should strike him down. You then get the choice to turn him into a goat, a chicken or a basket. If you decide to spare him, he'll give you a better piece of armor. Funny AND useful. Personally, I find turning the man into a basket even funnier (The comment from the guy next to you is: "Hey this guy isn't a nut case! He's a basket case. Get it? BASKET CASE! Ha!"). Also, there's another Final Fantasy cameo in the game: if you look closely at the crowd during the fight in the coliseum, you can spot Relm, Mog and other character sprites straight from Final Fantasy VI.
It's impossible to write an article about Secret of Evermore without mentioning its rocky relationship with Secret of Mana. Strangely, even if the explicit directive given to the programmers was to make a "Mana-like" game from an American perspective, the entire code had to be built from scratch. So it wouldn't be exactly fair to say that the game is a rip-off, despite the fact that it openly borrows the same Ring-menu interface. One thing missing, however, is the possibility to play the game cooperatively with a friend: that's a big minus no matter which way you put it (although I've always thought of RPG gamers as loners... but I guess even loners have little sisters). The other huge argument against the game is that the team was somehow diverted from Seiken Densetsu 3 (aka the "real" Secret of Mana 2, if you're not aware of the Japanese names) to make Secret of Evermore. This is obviously untrue, since the programming team for Secret of Evermore was freshly hired in the States and a lot of them were getting their first "real" job in video gaming.
On the other hand, it might be true that it was Square's marketing plan to give Westerners Secret of Evermore and Japan Seiken Densetsu 3 (there are some grounds to the argument, as Evermore was never released in Japan and Seiken Densetsu 3 was only released there). This might have been part of Square's overall plot during the early nineties to get more Americans to buy their games. Even if that's the case, you should direct your hate mail to the bigwigs at Square who had a wet dream about market segmentation and not to the rookie developers who tried to make the very best first game they could. Final Fantasy Mystic Quest was another game with the same "let's get those Yanks to buy our stuff" goal in mind and it was arguably a much worse game, despite being made in Japan.
Another argument that was made against Secret of Evermore was its lower quality standards compared to other Square games. This is hard to deny, but it's partly excusable. Considering the complete lack of experience of the team, I'd say things actually turned out pretty well. I'm thinking about Silent Hill again since this franchise was also put in the hands of rookie non-Japanese game developers with disappointing results... twice (my guess is that experienced and well-organized programming teams already belong to the other big players... and there's also the cost issue). The most extreme japanophiles would say that stupid Westerners don't understand the complexities of Japanese creations, but I sure wouldn't go that far. Foreign or not, having participated in a previous game in a series gives the programmers a great advantage in knowing what should and shouldn't be done and where to take a franchise next. So putting an established franchise in the hands of a completely different team is always a risky proposition. On the other hand, putting up the cheapest and greenest team you can find probably doesn't help, either. Honestly, I'd love to see the budgets for Secret of Evermore and Seiken Densetsu 3 to see how they compare. I'd also love to see Square-Enix produce more games overseas not as a way to lure Americans or short-change the production team, but as a way to give games a broader appeal and a fresher perspective. The same could also be said about American or European game companies. Heck, why not the whole world? I'm telling you people, I have a dream!
Getting back to the subject at hand and in conclusion, Secret of Evermore is at the very least a history piece for being the only Square game to be made in America (a "history piece"... this should rack up the price on ebay). I've been trying to find a defining characteristic to explain the game and if I had to describe it in one word I'd say that it's humble. The word zazz has being going around for a while on this site now, and that's probably exactly the "quality" the game lacks. No character ever spills out their entire angsty life story. There are no funky hairdos and over-the-top character designs. Nobody ever turns into an angel in a post-cataclysmic final battle in space while flying around in a wormhole (with a choir singing orgasmicaly in the background, no less). Just a boy and his dog going on an adventure. The graphics are mostly realistic and the music doesn't even try to upstage the action. There's also a little bit of humour added in, just to make absolutely sure the game doesn't take itself too seriously. This is as close as it gets to zazz level 0. The zazz basement, if you will. But what kind of game does that make? Elegantly understated or just weak programming? I'm going to have to quote Forrest Gump on this one and say that maybe it's a little bit of both.
Fictional B-Movie References