A man and his dog is a bond that lasts forevermore

Secret_of_Evermore_Logo

Secret of Evermore (1996)

Although I do like cats more, I definitely agree with the assertation that dogs are a man’s best friend. Yes, I know there’s some dogs out there that are specifically trained to kill on sight, and won’t even consider easing their jaws until you’ve become dead meat. Well, those doggies aren’t your friends. But you know those lovably dumb dogs that follow you everywhere, always want to know what you’re doing, and get all over-excited when you come home. You couldn’t invent a better pet if you tried, could you?

It tells you a lot that the Super Nintendo’s Secret of Evermore stars just two playable characters, a young boy and his dog who are the best of friends. And it’s funny that you have this wonderful man-about-a-dog relationship playing out on your SNES, because actually, Secret of Evermore and myself have historically had a bit of a difficult relationship.

Was Secret of Evermore a sequel to the wonderful Secret of Mana? This game certainly borrows a lot, but the first thing that’s unique about Evermore 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 a lot of members with little to no game-making experience.

No, Evermore didn’t ‘replace’ Seiken Densetsu 3, later known as Trials of Mana, either. The latter game would have been released way late in the SNES’s life-cycle, it had plenty of glitches, plus there was an awful lot of text in there to translate, against what would have been a pretty tight timeframe – poor old Ted Woolsey would have had heart palpitations.

So what the hell does Secret of Evermore end up as, in these circumstances? It obviously parrots Secret of Mana. Surely it’s a sequel? Or a quasi-sequel? A spiritual successor? An homage? An experiment even? Ultimately, is it fit to lace the boots of other SquareSoft juggernauts released during the 1990s?

Well, the story is set contemporaneously in 1995, unlike most RPGs you’ve ever played. Except EarthBound, I suppose. 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 unnamed boy emerges from the cinema with his dog. So close is the relationship between boy and dog that the cinema authorities happily let the dog in, which is nice.

Incidentally, this cinema trip demonstrates one of the few other personality 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. If only the boy had a bit more personality beyond that – sometimes the other NPCs might as well be talking to his hound.

Anyway, the duo find themselves in a derelict lab, where the inquisitive boy starts pressing all manner of levers and knobs. They find themselves transported briefly to a futuristic land, before crash landing in a strange new world named Evermore. Well, there’s the secret anyway: Evermore is split up into areas representing four distinct time periods.

Of course, what really chains Mana and Evermore together, like that old cartoon Catdog, 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 probably led to Secret of Evermore being judged by high standards, and opened it up for some very raw criticism.

That doesn’t bode well, because the areas you’ll explore in Secret of Evermore don’t really inspire. You’ve got Prehistoria, a dangerous locale that plays home to ancient creatures like dinosaurs and vicious plants, with civilisation being limited to mud huts.

Here, you get to see one of the best remembered features of the game: your faithful canine companion changes forms, depending on what region he’s in – here, he becomes a shaggy wolf-dog, depicted in a pretty frightening manner in the game’s TV advertisement.

Next is Antiqua, with moribund Ancient Halls and Pyramids to get lost in (or even render your game unwinnable if you sink the wrong bridges). The dog is a greyhound here, pretty fast creatures as we know. Just a shame that the game itself can’t gain momentum – indeed, I’d consider the Antiqua adventure to be the litmus test of the game, for any players beginning to waver.

It was gonna be the end of the road for me, when I was just about ready to sack the game off for good during the mazy Pyramid sections. But being a legend, 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 a pitch-black dungeon represented the highlight of the game for me.

A wonderfully haunting theme begins to play as the boy is rescued, along with his dog, now assuming the form of a pink-haired poodle. Finally, the game turned to a more traditionally medieval, arboreal RPG setting – a little generic, perhaps a little too much like other SNES RPGs. But its beauty represented a certain comfort. I thought, “Finally, after a drab first half, the game can begin to shine.”

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. Alas, the experience ends with a short, not so sweet foray through the space station of Omnitopia, a cobbled together final boss and a fairly abrupt ending.

Even your now-overpowered robodog who looks like a toaster on wheels can’t save it. It was vastly disappointing to watch the game perk up in Gothica, only to slump to its worst on Omnitopia. Evermore, it has to be said, only really hits home with one area out of four.
Instead of a traditional magic system, Evermore 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.

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 extra alchemy formulae down – so long as the relevant characters haven’t glitched out of existence, never to return, that is. There are no real mini-games or things to collect or shoot for, beyond levelling 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 compact 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, but that’s really it.

The graphics do a great job at conveying the game’s atmosphere though, there’s definitely a sombre mood to the game that just wasn’t typical of games of the era. That’s a plus point for sure, and it’s worth checking Evermore out for this reason if you’re sick of twee colours. But personally, I still find it a pity that the atmosphere can be so dreary.

Finally, the music and sound, and this is where I can give the game some unreserved praise, some credit where credit is due. With SquareSoft’s excellent record in RPG music, Evermore had much to live up to. But their plan of bringing in new hires for this game extended to the composer’s role 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” was 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.

Secret of Evermore really is an awkward kind of game to appraise though, probably not helped so much by its laboured backstory. I do advise you to give it a look, as one of the more unique games of the Super Nintendo. For me though, I’m afraid to say that I found getting through this one to be a dog of a job.

24 November 2020

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