Life was hard as a JRPG fan back in the '90s. If games were released outside Japan at all, it was usually six months late, with inexplicable title changes and mangled translations twisting the knife.
Under the circumstances, you can understand why the Square fanbase didn't take to Secret Of Evermore. Conceived specifically to appeal to an American audience, the game was markedly different from Square's similarly titled, but unrelated, Secret Of Mana, which preceded it by three years.
Evermore featured a B-movie plot about a science experiment gone wrong, and an alarming lack of cute rabbit creatures or traditional magic. Even the soundtrack was unfamiliar, with dark ambient tones replacing the wistfully catchy scores that had been ornamenting Square's output for the past decade.
Here's the thing, though: it was brilliant. And it's still brilliant. Firing it up again now, more than ten years since the last time I traipsed across Evermore with my beloved pet dog, I was bracing myself for the cold hard face-slap that often accompanies your return to a beloved childhood game - and it never came. But you don't need to take my word for it: I Asked Jeeves for his impartial butler-opinion and he said, "Please... let me die. Also, Secret Of Evermore is an amazing game." So there you go. It's FACT.
Why is it so great? Well, it isn't because of the characters, who are largely two-dimensional, interchangeable and forgettable. And it isn't due to the combat, which can feel horribly unforgiving at times. It certainly isn't down to its protagonist, who bucks the time-honoured JRPG trend for mute heroism by being an annoying, unflappable jerk. But even with all that taken into account, Secret Of Evermore is simply one of the best exploration games I've ever played.
QUOTH THE RAVEN
Game designers misunderstand exploration. They seem to think all we want from a game is bigger landmass - as if acres of empty, unrealised space can somehow satisfy the need we have to wander dangerous or uncharted territory.
Evermore's world - that is, Evermore - is many times smaller than the vast, open tundra of something like The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, but it's also much riper for exploration. That's thanks to a stunning contribution from composer Jeremy Soule (who I'll get to in a moment), and a series of environments more suited to the rigorous prodding and plundering of your average tomb-raiding adventurer.
Evermore is a world created from the imaginations of four castaways who have been stuck there since a "scientific explosion" (approximately 76% more awesome than a regular explosion) in the 1960s. Prehistoria is positively prehistoric, home to dinosaurs, giant bugs and primitive people.
Antiqua recalls ancient Greece, comprising a piratical coastline, an ancient Colosseum and a yawning desert linking the two. Gothica, meanwhile, is yer typical medieval kingdom ruled over by a mad, puppet-wielding queen, and Omnitopia is a space station located on the moon.
The last is the weakest area of the four, but the other three are simply a joy to explore, in large part due the game's extraordinary, atypical score. Since Evermore, Soule has gone on to soundtrack dozens of games, but it's his very first work here that's left the greatest impression, imbuing every screen of the game with a mournful atmosphere thick enough to hack with a machete.