In my opinion, one of the early developers squeezing the most out of the Playstation 2, in terms of quality games is From Software. Armored Core 2 and Eternal Ring were excellent launch titles, and Evergrace is a solid enough game to warrant a purchase, especially if you're a fan of From's other games. Basically, the game plays like a third-person version of King's Field, but in a much stranger world than the Isle of Verdite. The game does away with the standard leveling up found in other RPGs and also plays more like a deliberately paced action game, so it's already got two things going for it.
The story unfolds as you go through the game, so you'll have to watch all the movies and pay attention. You can play the game as either Darius or Sharline, and they share separate plotlines and abilities, so you'll end up going through the game twice in order to see everything you can in the Rieubane Empire. Darius is the fighter type, and uses close range weapons like swords and axes, while Sharline prefers bows and spears, and can also use a few close range weapons. Rather than level up by killing monsters, you can increase your stats by either equipping better armor, accessories and weapons, or collecting Blue and Red Fruit, and using them on your selected character. The game has an odd quirk that smart players will no doubt exploit, and you may want to skip this next sentence if you don't want in on this spoiler. Early on in both quests, there are certain monsters that drop the Blue or Red Fruit when you find and kill them after you leave the shop, which means you can enter and exit the shop and max your stats out in about two or so hours of gameplay.
Thing is, you'll need to- while the monsters early on are pretty easy to kill, later on, you come upon some really fast moving and deadly creatures. I'm used to From's RPGs having some slow, yet determined monsters, but when you open a door and have two or three monsters come running at you and actually chase you through a hallway- it's unnerving. Especially if you're not sufficiently equipped to defend yourself- some monsters will actually guard against whatever you're throwing at them, forcing a hasty retreat to the shop for better goods. Others cast spells constantly; forcing you to used your own spells or ranged attacks. Bosses, in particular are really nasty, as you're always fighting them in really tight quarters, and without the proper weapon or weapon/armor upgrades, you'll be dead within seconds, and it's back to your last save point, and back to the shop.
The cool thing about the shop, besides its selection, is the shopkeeper who'll give you a discount if you give him one of the rare mushrooms you come across or put together an outfit that's well-coordinated and colorful. Unlike most RPGs, your equipment actually changes as you acquire it, and running around with a soup pot, bunny ears or a pumpkin on your head will put a smile on your face. It doesn't actually fit the deadly serious story one bit, but I guess you have to find humor where you can. You also have to keep an eye on the durability of your equipment- it'll fall apart if you don't duck into the shop to get it fixed on a regular basis, or use a Billiana gem for that on-the-go repair job. There are some pretty interesting puzzle elements like a teleport unit that requires a bit of ingenuity to operate, or doors that require you to equip a certain item or weapon to open. Since the monsters have a tendency to show up unannounced in some areas, you'll be scratching your head and watching your back at the same time. Getting caught between 2 or 3 of the stronger beasts here means a quick death, as they'll take turns wailing on you until you drop.
One of the more interesting things about Evergrace is that it uses the Dual Shock 2 analog buttons quite well. You can adjust the button sensitivity so that you don't use all your power when swinging a sword or pulling a bowstring- this comes into play a great deal if you find yourself running from monsters to gain some space to fight. You recover energy gradually when you stop running or after you use a weapon or magic spell, and if your bar is yellow, your weapon strikes will be ineffective, especially early in the game. Another nice touch, if you're a big King's Field fan, is the names of some of the characters and monsters are the same as in the KF games, which hints (perhaps) at a connection between the two somewhere (maybe). I do know that From is doing King's Field IV and Evergrace II for the PS2 in Japan, so we'll see what connection, if any exists.
The graphics are nice and colorful with some lovely touches, such as leaves falling from the trees and some huge statues and ruins scattered about, and the game seems to take place during the autumn, with the sky an odd green or orange hue. Later areas range from a hellish cavern with lava and weird warping walls and floors to emerald hued hallways with floating platforms. It actually feels as if you're in another world. Well, another world with not too many people in it- the environments are very sparsely populated, and if not for the frequent visits you'll make to the shopkeeper, you'd think you were in an empty movie set. There are less than 20 speaking characters in the game, and they usually share a bit of info and then have not much else to say. The monsters are more or less mutated versions of the ones found in the King's Field series, and you can view the bestiary along with an item menu when you re-load a saved game. The sounds are decent as well, and the musical score is another From classic, but some people will find it to be too weird with it's otherworldly medieval/tribal warbling- at least it's different than the usual heroic stuff found in most RPGs. The voice acting is hit or miss, par for the course for a game of this type. It's easy to see why there haven't been that many RPGs released here with full voice acting- someone's always going to be unsatisfied with the end result.
With the sparsely populated areas and relatively slow pace, it's easy to find fault with a few of the games' more interesting attempts to do something new. Since you don't level up by killing monsters, you'll find yourself staying in one area where they constantly respawn, building up Palmira gems (the game currency) in order to buy and repair your gear. This can get dull, especially if you want to get some of the more expensive items. Also, the game doesn't tell you which items you need to activate certain events, so there's a whole lot of trial and error. Also, items in the shop change in each area, so if you miss that magic amulet, it might not show up 'til later (and then again, it might not). But the loading times are decent, and overall, I found little to complain about as I was playing. Again, this game is one of From's little experiments, so it's not for everyone, but those willing to dive into it will find Evergrace a decent little diversion from the norm.
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