Secret of Evermore (Review) (1996)
Secret of Evermore and myself have historically had a bit of a difficult relationship. It first stems from my love of its forefather, Secret of Mana, a SNES Action RPG that’s one of the best pieces of software the mighty console possesses, and for me one of the finest games of all time. It is reasonably well known, and very highly regarded.
Then we have Secret of Evermore, a Squaresoft game that’s rather more obscure – obscure enough that I hadn’t heard anything of it until I chanced across it one day on a SNES ROMs website, filthy prepubescent pirate that I was. In fact, I hadn’t even realised it’d ever been released in Europe until about a year ago. I’d simply assumed that we PAL gamers had been sorely deprived of it, like nearly all other Squaresoft SNES RPGs and many other SNES RPGs in general. Mais non, we did indeed catch a fleeting glimpse of it, not long before the Nintendo 64 arrived. We actually seemed to do well enough in Europe with SNES Action RPGs, with many of them seeing localisation into the various European languages.
Was Secret of Evermore a sequel to Secret of Mana? The answer is no, and that’ll become quite clear during the course of this Intro (and those who know the story of the game can safely skip the rest of this section). The game certainly borrows a lot from Secret of Mana, but the first thing that’s unique about the game is that it’s the one and only game created by ‘Square USA’. These were a team of new hires for the US branch of Squaresoft, which included many members who had little to no game programming experience. As such, there was no localisation job required for English speaking players, and the game’s script is notably better for it. Good news for long-time Squaresoft translator Ted Woolsey!
Now to quickly turn our attention to yet another game. Secret of Mana actually did receive a legitimate sequel for the SNES, entitled Seiken Densetsu 3 – ‘Legend of the Holy Sword 3’, the Japanese name for the Mana series (Secret of Mana is in fact ‘Seiken Densetsu 2’ in Japan). Seiken Densetsu 3, a fantastic game as it happens, has still not left Japan to this day.
Secret of Evermore has often gotten bad rep for being perceived as the game that we Westerners received in favour of Seiken Densetsu 3, with a typical reason given being that the more Western-oriented game would have been more appreciated by players in the USA in particular, favouring Squaresoft’s strategy at the time. Brian Fehdrau, head programmer of the game and an occasional presence on Secret of Evermore forums and talking points, has stated that it was true that Squaresoft hired a new team and charged them with making a Western-flavoured Secret of Mana-esque game that would strike familiar chords with the US audience. But they were a team of completely new hires, working almost fully independently, and anyway there was no need to bring localisers in for the game since the developers spoke English from the start. As such, the notion that the development of Secret of Evermore leeched resources that would have been allocated for other games, including Seiken Densetsu 3, is quite wide of the mark.
On that note, Fehdrau has stated that Breath of Fire 2, Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI were all localised for the USA while Secret of Evermore was in development – three games that certainly required lengthy periods of time to localise for the USA, and all terrific titles (or at least, Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI were) about which the USA audience certainly had no cause for complaint. Incidentally, those 3 RPGs never did make it to Europe anyway, at least on the SNES. So we did not get this game “instead” of Seiken Densetsu 3. Really, the reason that Seiken Densetsu 3 never came out of Japan probably relates to its somewhat glitchy nature, particularly in battle – an important concern with Nintendo, even if Final Fantasy VI had some evil glitches and so too did Evermore itself, which we’ll get onto later.
Hail to the mighty spear! The dark, sometimes sombre look of the game can be hit or miss with gamers, but I certainly appreciate its effect
There was also a not insignificant level of text to translate in Seiken Densetsu 3, and so late in the SNES’s life as well – poor old Ted Woolsey would have had heart palpitations. Issues relating to nightmarish text compression also surfaced as well, contributing to the length of time it took for a terrific fan translation to be released by Neill Cortett. As to why we still haven’t seen the game officially released outside of Japan, especially when taking into account the release of Secret of Mana on iOs and a translation for Seiken Densetsu 3 already existing, I can’t come up with much. A pity, because it’s one of the finest games in Square’s entire arsenal.
Time to finally put all that build-up aside, focus less on the what-might-have-beens and examine the only thing that matters: the here-and-now. What is Secret of Evermore? It obviously parrots Secret of Mana. Surely it is a sequel? Or a quasi-sequel? A spiritual successor? An homage? An experiment even? Ultimately, will it be fit to lace the boots of other Squaresoft juggernauts released during the 1990s? Let’s find out.
The story is set in 1995. You play as a young blonde boy from the town of Podunk, which I take to mean that the story begins in some pokey little town in an unidentified part of the United States. On one eventful day, the boy emerges from the cinema with his dog. So close is the relationship between the boy and the dog that the cinema authorities seem to not bother objecting to letting the dog in, which I suppose is some nice unwritten characterisation. Incidentally, the cinema demonstrates one of the other few character traits the boy possesses – his love for B-Movies. When confronted with a strange or dangerous situation, he tends to sperg out for a moment and liken it to fictitious films with crazy characters. It’s a little corny, but it can be funny and at least it’s unique to the game and the boy’s character. If only he had a bit more personality beyond that.
Anyway, a cat runs past the pair on the street, prompting the dog to chase after it, prompting the boy in turn to chase his dog. The cat runs into a derelict lab, with the dog and the boy in pursuit. Once inside, the inquisitive boy starts pressing all manner of levers and knobs. The pair find themselves transported briefly to a futuristic land, before crash landing in a strange new world named Evermore.
The world of Evermore, and therefore the entire game, is split up into areas representing four distinct time periods: the self-explanatory Prehistoria; Antiqua, which is a mixture of Ancient Rome and Ancient Egypt with some elements of Ancient Greece thrown in; the medieval period of Gothica; and finally, the technology-driven Omnitopia space station.
The four areas are kept completely separate and each have their own casts of characters and mini-plots. The downside of this is that there’s only one overarching plot point which drives the game forward, and that’s that the boy and the dog are trying to get back to Podunk. No villain is set up, information about Evermore is never really given to us, and many characters are left behind once the boy leaves their timezone, at least until the very end when they’re revisited briefly. It means the range of characters is diverse, but characterisation suffers as a result.
It’s fair to say that, as a character, the boy himself is a bit of a non-entity. No real emotional scenes, and not much dialogue beyond meek acknowledgements or expressing wonderment at the zany situations he finds himself in. He does playfully rib the dog sometimes, which can be humourous. More of that might have been nice, but I can hardly criticise the game for it. He is a little obnoxious in the way he comes across though, which is unfortunate.
One of the main reasons this game comes in for heavy flak is that people go into it expecting a bigger and better Secret of Mana, or at least something heavily reminiscent and at least as good as its “predecessor”. I know that’s what I expected. And really, it’s only natural, with the game incorporating Secret of Mana’s famously effective ring menu system, stamina-based real-time combat, levelling of weapons and spells and similarity in other control options. For the sake of the programmers, it’s worth pointing out that the coding for these purposes was not merely copied, but redone from the ground up. And they did a bang-up job: both the look and feel really are identical, which provides the first comparison we can draw between this game and Secret of Mana.
What really chains the two together is the title of the game. Having played and likely enjoyed Secret of Mana, a new and improved ‘Secret of…’ game seemed destined to make gamers wet their pants. Hence, the name of this game was reluctantly changed from simply ‘Evermore’ to ‘Secret of Evermore’ as the game was nearing completion, following orders from on high. This perhaps helped the sales somewhat (although the game still appears to be quite obscure) but it had an undesirable consequence: unless this game was a massive improvement, it would never be able to escape the shadow of Secret of Mana.
This led to Secret of Evermore being judged by the absolute highest standards, and opened it up for some very raw criticism. I suppose that, with the Squaresoft brand attached, it was going to be judged by very high standards anyway. But to be fair to Squaresoft (and, by proxy, to the programmers), they had taken a bold punt on a team of new hires, dictated that the team’s work was to be similar to the highly acclaimed Secret of Mana, and let them get on with it.
Unfortunately this meant that, upon release, Evermore began to be seen as a letdown, an unworthy successor. Considering that the programmers and designers clearly tried doing many of their own things all throughout, this is a very unfair consequence to lay at their doors. I am trying to look at this game independently of my favourite game of all time, which is very difficult. But I feel it necessary to understand first and foremost why the game designers took or were forced to take certain decisions in the making of Evermore.
I don’t mean for that to be an admission that I’ll be giving the game an easy ride either, based on the simple fact that the creators of this game were all US-based and English speaking, thereby making it easier for them to express to us years later the reasoning behind their decisions – and how things didn’t always go the way they had planned. I just want to look at this game as independently and as objectively as I can. Henceforth, there will be absolutely no more direct mention of Secret of Mana.
Once the boy emerges from the shuttle that he crash lands on Evermore with, he looks around for his dog in the swampy, mucky wilderness. A shaggy wolfhound comes to greet the boy, who throws a stick to see if this wolf will fetch it. It doesn’t fetch the stick, but it does bring back a bone, which is good enough for the boy – it’s his dog alright. The Bone Crusher is the first of the boy’s weapons, and he’ll pick up 12 in total – a sword, an axe and a spear for each of the four areas.
The combat system is simple, yet engaging: beating enemies gives you experience points, money and sometimes items, but there are no random encounters. Instead, you fight monsters in real-time, swinging your weapon at them while also trying to avoid their response. You can’t just run up and mash buttons though, you’ve got to recharge your stamina after each swing of your weapon. This sounds awfully labourious and time-consuming but it really isn’t: it promotes the player to pursue a more measured style of fighting. Creep in, smack the opponent and get out before they can hit you back. Each weapon has its own range and strengths for this purpose. The system works.
Speaking of which, each of the game’s weapons can be leveled up to a maximum of 3 levels, allowing the player to charge them up to cause a much higher amount of damage. It’s something that you’ll need to make use of later in the game to take down the fearsome bosses, and you’ll quickly find a weapon that’ll become your mainstay against tougher monsters; the relatively weak Horn Spear became my go-to weapon throughout the entire game for that very reason.
It quickly becomes apparent to the boy that he’s a long, long way from home – it seems to him as if he’s even a long, long way from his time period, with his surroundings looking distinctly primitive. He learns that he’s arrived in Prehistoria, a dangerous locale that plays home to ancient creatures like dinosaurs and vicious plants, with civilisation being limited to mud huts and armour being made from grass and dinosaur skin. Because of this, the environment of Prehistoria is a little dull and brown, but this suits the ambience and there’s a variety of different areas within Prehistoria to explore.
One thing that the boy soon learns, but something the player will have noticed if they paid enough attention to the status screen, is that all four areas use their own differing forms of currency. This is no real problem, as you can exchange it all immediately after arriving, albeit at an extortionate rate. Not that gemstones will be all that much use to the boy when he defeats an ally NPC’s evil clone in Prehistoria and moves on to Antiqua, as its home to a large marketplace that features a fun trading sequence.
The rest of Antiqua isn’t so fun, with moribund Ancient Halls and Pyramids to get lost in (or even render your game unwinnable if you sink the wrong bridges), culminating in a rotten underground section with tough creatures called Oglins. I’d call the Antiqua adventure the litmus test of the game for players beginning to waver – at least it was for me, as I was about to sack the game off for good during the mazy Pyramid sections, but I got it together and decided to press on.
For a few moments, it seemed like a great choice: the boy’s emergence into Gothica from the threatening, dark, Oglin-infested well represented the highlight of the game for me. After beating the boss, the wonderfully haunting Fields of Gothica theme begins to play as the boy is rescued. Finally, the game turned to a more traditionally medieval and forestal RPG setting – a little generic, perhaps a little too much like other games, but its beauty represented a certain comfort: “Finally, after a drab first half, the game can start to shine”.
The repeated backtracking between the remarkably similar Ivor Tower and Ebon Keep did get a little tiresome, but the story and background of the two areas as well as their respective characters was all much more compelling than the throwaway characters of Prehistoria and Antiqua. In Gothica, the goal once again is to thwart an evil clone; this time, you’re up against the clone of the generously built Queen Bluegarden.
The aesthetic is nothing new, but you’ll be delighted to reach the lush world of Gothica
After saving the first three areas of the game, the boy seems close to finally discovering the way of getting home to Podunk. That sets it all up for the climax on Omnitopia – not actually part of the world of Evermore, but actually a section of a large space station enveloping the globe (at least, according to official artwork). Professor Ruffleberg, the key to allowing the boy and his dog to travel back to Podunk circa 1995, resides on Omnitopia. To get up to the Space Station, the boy is given use of a rickety looking contraption called the Windwalker, which serves as the game’s airship. Most unfortunately, there is almost no point in even having an airship, given that there’s no side-areas to find and you only need to return to the other areas once for a fetch quest before the game’s final stretch. But better to have one than not, I suppose.
After a better show in Gothica, I had high hopes that things would continue on an upward slope for the final act, that at least half of the game would be memorable. Instead the experience ends with a short and not so sweet foray through the space station, a cobbled together final boss and a fairly abrupt ending. It was vastly disappointing to watch the game perk up in Gothica only to slump to its worst on Omnitopia. Secret of Evermore reminds me much of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, a game I’ve already examined, in this regard: a disappointing sequel of sorts (a spiritual one as opposed to a direct one) with slightly different mechanics to its predecessor, and split into four distinct areas. But while Majora’s Mask‘s second half was mostly strong, Evermore only really hits home with one area out of four.
I had previously thought that the developers were really let down by the upper echelons when it came to multiplayer – as it happens, there isn’t any. I was under the impression that this omission was due to the fact that the game was only intended to be shipped on a 12-megabit cartridge, which was later doubled to 24-megabits close to release (whether this was when the ‘Secret of‘ was tacked onto the ‘Evermore‘ title, I don’t know). By then, with deadlines pressing hard, it would make sense that it was just too late to implement a multiplayer co-operative mode.
Instead, the lack of a 2-player mode stems from the programmers’ inexperience with game coding, and the problems that a certain other game had faced in its own multiplayer sections. According to Brian Fehdrau: “If an experienced and clever team in Japan hadn’t quite gotten it right, it looked bad for us. In retrospect, I really wish we had sucked it up and worked out the kinks. I think that was a real failure on our part”.
I suppose a lack of multiplayer robs the game of potential heaps of fun. But, knowing this story, I can’t really fault the developers who surely had a lot on their plate, and I wouldn’t have wished to play through the game with someone else anyway, especially if it didn’t really work very well. So call me overly merciful, but I’m not going to slate the game on the strength of that. It’s perhaps unfair to give the game some leniency here, since once again the story is accessible in that it comes straight from an English-speaking developer’s mouth, but I’ll choose to just forget this potential issue. Just be aware of it, if you didn’t already know.
In place of a traditional magic system, Secret of Evemore offers a unique new method of invoking forces of nature to brutalise your enemies: alchemy. By combining a wide array of ingredients found all over the world, the boy can cast all kinds of formulae to heal himself or to blow away his foes. You’ll rely on only a few alchemy spells throughout the game, but this is suitable as every spell can also be leveled up, to a maximum of 9, which is a lot more time-consuming than it sounds. Many of the alchemy formulae are optional as well, which provides at least a semblance of a side-quest.
On the subject of side-quests, Secret of Evermore doesn’t really have any beyond tracking those formulae down. No real mini-games or things to collect or shoot for, beyond leveling everything up to its max. That’s not terribly bad, but it really doesn’t help the short length of the game: you can beat it within 10 hours slowing up. Sometimes compacted adventures are great, but the linear style of Secret of Evermore doesn’t lend itself well to replays. You could always do another playthrough as the dog, since the partner AI is very good (you’ll still need to tell the boy to perform alchemy) but that’s really it.
The graphics aren’t universally colourful, something that may not appeal to everyone, but the graphical team did a bang-up job of conveying the game’s atmosphere. Although it’s only speculation, it would seem from some of the official art and pre-release material that Secret of Evermore was intended to be a somewhat darker game, even if the finished article is more light-hearted. It makes sense, if it’s true, and the graphics combined with the sound give the game an enticing, foreboding atmosphere.
Each of the four areas have their own distinct look and palette swaps among the large array of enemies are not very common. The people of wildly different areas can look similar, which is a little jarring, but it’s nothing too bad. The boy and his dog in all four forms (five counting his original Podunk form) all have a very wide range of sprites, even if the boy could possibly have been a bit more expressive. Many of the alchemy spells also look terrific and have cool graphical effects.
MUSIC AND SOUND
Finally, I can give the game some unreserved praise, some credit where credit is due. With Squaresoft’s proven track record in RPG music (their best previous soundtrack, in my opinion, being from a game I’m no longer allowed to mention), Evermore had much to live up to. But the USA-based team of new hires extended to the composer as well, giving 19-year-old Jeremy Soule his first experience in the domain of video game music composition.
Limitations of the SNES coupled with Soule’s own ideas of “what video game music should be like” seemed certain to result in an experimental soundtrack, one that could go either way. The finished product is one of the finest hours the SNES’s sound chip has had, an impressive achievement considering the competition. I can understand the slight criticism that there aren’t so many longer songs, with the focus being more on atmospheric and ambient themes, but I think it really suits the game.
The music direction’s focus on building atmosphere means there’s not so many tracks you’d listen to outside of the game itself either, but for the purposes of this game review that’s neither here nor there – the fact remains that it was a remarkable debut for Jeremy Soule, who went on to be the main music man for Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and the Elder Scrolls games including Skyrim. Highlights of Evermore‘s score include the Fields of Gothica, Ebon Keep & Town, Ivor Tower & Town, the Pyramids, the Menu theme and the Intro/Credits theme.
Sound effects are a little sparser but are very nice as well: many of the enemy creatures make their own unique noises, the alchemy spells sound mighty, the weapon charging sound and the Windwalker taking off is cool and the multiple explosions of boss enemies sound great. Even the dog changes its bark slightly in different areas, a terrific detail.
PLUSES AND MINUSES
+ Rather obviously, the game didn’t need to be localised since the programmers and writers all spoke English natively, leading to a strong script with some funny moments. Indeed, the game was never translated into Japanese, because it was never even released there. I wonder has there ever been a fan translation by Japanese SNES players eager to play the game?
+ The dog morphs into different forms throughout the four areas of the game – from a scraggy wolf-like smellhound to a lithe greyhound to an elegant poodle and finally into a laser-firing toasterdog that just about carries you through Omnitopia.
+ There is a very large diversity in the alchemy spells and their effects. You only need a couple to actually beat the game with, and many are off the beaten path. Choosing which spells to take with you adds a small layer of strategy.
– There’s a few game breaking glitches in the game, making it possible for you to save your file in a situation where you can’t progress.
– The entirety of Omnitopia, especially having to shoot your way past those spinning blue Rimsalas in the corridors.
Secret of Evermore really is an awkward kind of game to appraise, probably not helped so much by its laboured backstory. I think I’ve finally gotten to the stage where I can judge it absolutely independently of any other game, including all of Squaresoft’s other products. Even so, the prognosis isn’t great. You can only give so much leniency to the game based on the development issues and the team being entirely new hires – after all, we might slate many Japanese games for their problems, but those games have their stories as well and we might not ever hear them.
Perhaps it’s best to see how the game lives up to its billing as a simple Action RPG. The plot isn’t so compelling, which damages the role-playing part, and you’ll try to avoid quite a few of the more annoying enemies in this game, especially in Antiqua and Omnitopia. That said, the battle system on the whole is nice, even if constantly buying and maintaining alchemy ingredients can be a little bothersome.
I always find that a terrific soundtrack can paper over many cracks in a game, or at least compel the player to get to the end, but even Jeremy Soule’s score might not be enough. I do advise you to give it a look, as one of the more unique games of the Super Nintendo, and at least try get past the Prehistoria part if you find the game mediocre to start with. But, while I hate to be so dismissive about an ambitious project like Secret of Evermore and with my apologies to the developers, if things don’t pick up for you after reaching Antiqua then you can safely eject the cartridge and forget all about it.