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In January this year, we brought you news of an upcoming video game that quite literally evolves as you play, starting off as a monochrome mass of pixels before slowly introducing virtually every gaming mechanic and action RPG element that we’ve come to know and love, culminating with full-on 3-D visuals, giant demons and a suitably epic plot. That game is Evoland, and after long last it’s available to buy from today.

RocketNews24 was fortunate enough to receive a review copy of the game late last week. Having poured over the original promotional video for so long, it was with high expectations that we sat down with the full game for an extended session of hacking, slashing and critical dissecting. The finished article, we’re happy to say, is absolutely spellbinding.

Created by Shiro Games, Evoland is based on the Ludum Dare winner of the same name. For the uninitiated, Ludum Dare (from the Latin “to give a game”) is a video game creation competition which sees indie developers put together a full, playable game in less than 48 hours’ time, which — as we learned from watching the huddles of programmers beavering away at computers during our visit to Tokyo’s wonderful PicoPico Cafe — is no mean feat. Receiving enormous praise and having been played more than 300,000 times to date, Shiro Games knew that they were on to a winner with their game, setting to work on a fully realised version of their homage to all things RPG.

Harkening back to earlier versions of Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda and Square Enix (then simply Square)’s Final Fantasy series, Evoland quests players with not just the staple save-the-world-from-dark-forces action adventure plot, but also with actively transforming their game into something worthy of today’s home consoles and gaming PCs. By opening chests in the game world, players unlock both in-game abilities and technological advances, changing the game in the blink of an eye.

Take a look at these screen shots; it’s hard to believe that they’re all from the one same game.

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The game is packed full of homages and cheeky winks to action RPG classics, slowly introducing the ability to “invade people’s privacy” by entering houses, talk to villagers and, eventually, wield numerous weapons while equipping a multitude of performance-altering charms and trinkets. As a long-time gamer, seeing the game world change in real-time is a genuinely mesmerizing experience that I can only liken to sitting in a room surrounded consoles from the original NES to PlayStation 2, frantically changing game cartridges and swapping discs, wondering how we ever survived without X’s game play mechanic or Y’s visual effects.

It’s the game’s humour and attention to detail, however, that really blew me away. From the outset it’s clear that Evoland is a game that has been crafted with a tremendous amount of love, care and genuine attachment to the genre; something that is seldom possible in today’s multi-million-dollar titles put together by hundreds of artists, designers and programmers. To give an example (I could go on for hours, but then I’d hate to spoil your fun!), after working my way through Mode 7-style world maps and turn-based battles and marveling at how much difference a little ambient lighting and extra layers of texture make to a game, I started to feel like I had Evoland pegged. There was much more to come, certainly (I was still working on a paltry three hearts of life energy and my inventory looked suspiciously empty), but I felt like I’d been surprised for the last time. Upon entering my first pre-rendered PlayStation One-era village, however, something happened that brought a huge smile to my face. Guiding my character (whom I’d named Rocket, naturally…) towards the edge of the static scene to follow the path, my screen suddenly went black and a message – at once familiar and yet somehow alien – appeared before my eyes.

between screens genius

When a studio intentionally adds semi-invasive loading screens to its game, you know its heart is in the right place. With this single “loading” screen, I was instantly back in the mid-90s, marveling at Final Fantasy VII while my friend’s chunky grey PlayStation clicked and whirred beside the enormous living room TV. Rather than holding a photo album of past gaming greats in front of players’ faces, Shiro Games is essentially thrusting an old, uncomfortable controller into their hands and asking them to take a good, long sniff of that overheating plastic box that’s struggling to read the game disc and make 32-bit visuals happen on the screen. And it works brilliantly.

▼ Even Super Mario‘s Bowser makes a minor cameo.

bowser homage

Evolving technology and transforming visuals aside, Evoland even manages to hold its own as a game in its own right. Controls — once you unlock free directional movement and a few abilities that is — are responsive, physical strikes and magic spells feel just as full and satisfying as in the games it mimics, and even in our pre-release version of the game we didn’t encounter a single bug. Even while making notes and taking far too many screen caps of clever devices or cheeky comments that the game throws players’ way, I found myself lost in the experience on numerous occasions, hammering away at my keyboard as the game momentarily morphed into a dungeon crawler and wave after wave of creatures charged me down, or flicking through abilities during turn-based battles and wondering whether I ought to slip in another attack or heal my struggling party. Far from a one-trick pony, Evoland employs a number of genuinely engaging mechanics and has both sword-swinging, spell-casting, potion-using action as well as dungeons and environmental puzzles to be solved; there’s plenty of challenge and entertainment to be had here.

Wonderfully aware of itself, Evoland treats long-time gamers to a trip down memory lane while affording those too young to remember RPGs as they were before the days of CD-based consoles and FMV sequences a chance to see where the games they enjoy today came from. Whether you’re a role-playing game fanatic or a video game virgin, this is a gaming experience that we recommend with a full row of hearts.

You can pick up Evoland now for PC or Mac direct from Shiro Games’ official website, or via Steam and GoG from tomorrow.

Images: Shiro Games / RocketNews24