Secret of Evermore
Developer: Square USA
The frame-up job—being convicted for a crime committed by someone else—is one of the great, can’t-miss premises of fiction. It’s a perfect hook for creating dramatic tension and hair’s-breadth escape sequences, not to mention the lingering mystery of who really did commit the crime that ultimately needs to be resolved. Will the A-Team evade Colonel Decker again this week while non-lethally solving some highly localized crisis? Was there really a one-armed man, or was Dr. Richard Kimball secretly a wife-killing psychopath? It’s an easy basis for a compelling yarn.
The frame-up is engrossing in fiction, because you’re ultimately confident that justice will be served. Yet things are rarely so neat and tidy in real life. There’s no guarantee that a falsely accused victim will manage to navigate the situation while evading the law, or that justice will ultimately be served. Far too often, an accusation sticks to an innocent party... and even if that person is eventually acquitted, their reputation may be forever tainted by association.
So it is for SquareSoft’s Secret of Evermore, a game reviled by the masses for the heinous acts it allegedly perpetrated upon its own Japanese cousin. Yet by all informed accounts, Evermore is completely innocent of misdeeds. Rather, it’s the unfortunate victim of poor timing and ugly circumstance.
Let’s consider the case. Square USA, the western arm of SquareSoft, had found middling success publishing the company’s best RPGs in America, but nothing rivaling the success those games enjoyed back home in Japan. The company was judicious in its selections of titles for localization, picking its best-looking and most accessible works. At the same time, it dabbled in the art of developing games specifically tailored to western tastes, though this unfortunately boiled down to nothing more than a couple of overly simplified and toothless bastardizations of Final Fantasy. First, Super NES masterpiece Final Fantasy IV was defanged in translation. Then the SaGa 3 team was tapped to create Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest?, which would more appropriately have been subtitled “My First RPG.”
Ultimately, the company found its best luck with Secret of Mana, the secret sequel to Game Boy classic Final Fantasy Adventure. Originally positioned as a Final Fantasy spin-off, the series -- aka Seiken Densetsu, or “Holy Sword Legend” -- quickly shed its Final Fantasy trappings for the sequel, adopting a new eight-element magic system and leveling mechanics that were based as much on how frequently characters used their available weapons and spells as it was on raw experience. Seiken Densetsu 2’s only real connection to its heritage was the presence of moogles as a status condition, and Square USA bravely published the game without reference to Final Fantasy, a first for the company (which had brazenly tried to pass off not only the the original Seiken as a Final Fantasy game, but the first three SaGa titles as well).
American audiences loved it. While it wasn’t a blockbuster success on the level of something like Street Fighter II, the game sold well and earned vocal acclaim for the way it added RPG-like depth and narrative to the Legend of Zelda’s action-RPG template. It was a gradual hit, selling steadily despite being a victim of the Super NES-era RPG tax that hit large-capacity carts with a $10 dose of sticker shock. Mana was a game that created Square fans in America, as suddenly the company’s name was attached to something besides Final Fantasy (and a handful of woeful NES titles best forgotten).
Needless to say, when first screens emerged of Mana’s sequel, called Seiken Densetsu 3, the series’ newfound American fanbase pegged it as a shoo-in for localization. And it was an exciting-looking game at that. The visuals were drop-dead gorgeous, bursting with detail and color that seemed almost too good to belong to a 16-bit title, and the game’s design sounded intriguingly complex: Players could select three of six different heroes per play, each representing a different nation of the game’s world, and the plot would vary wildly for every different team. Everyone waited... and waited... and waited....
...and that patience was finally rewarded when Square announced a game called Secret of Evermore. But to everyone’s surprise, Evermore wasn’t Seiken Densetsu 3 with a new name. No, it was a completely new game, developed in the U.S. specifically for the American market. Meanwhile, next-gen systems like Saturn, PlayStation, and Ultra 64 loomed large on the horizon, meaning the window for the arrival of “Secret of Mana 2” was terribly small—and growing narrower with each passing issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly that failed to bring an announcement.
The truth of the situation seemed obvious to Square’s burgeoning fanbase of amateur detectives. Obviously, this was all a sign that Square thought American fans weren’t good enough for the real sequel to Mana, so we had to settle for a shoddy ersatz imitation instead. This wasn’t the first time Square had pulled such shenanigans, after all! Even if you were willing to forgive Mystic Quest, there was still the time they localized Capcom’s thoroughly mediocre Breath of Fire? right square in the middle of the launch window where Final Fantasy V should have shown up. No, clearly Square hated American gamers. And those gamers transferred that perceived contempt in turn onto the substitute sequel to Mana.
Secret of Evermore never even had a chance.
It didn’t help that the game really did feel like a slightly lamer knock-off of Mana. It featured the same three-quarters-down perspective, the same action mechanics regulated by a turn-based system, the same ring menus. But the visuals were less colorful, the music less joyful, the story less epic. Where it really missed the point was its painful lack of multiplayer. What had made Secret of Mana such a success was its three-player simultaneous action. It wasn’t perfect, but the ability to take on all manner of mystical beasts and mechanical armies with the help of two friends gave the adventure a unique social appeal lacking in other RPGs... and, sadly, in Evermore as well.
Yet the question remains: Was Secret of Evermore really an assassin? Did it truly usurp the proper Mana 2 in order to further some dark agenda? Or is it simply misunderstood?
Over time, it’s become clear that the latter was far more likely the case. Seiken Densetsu 3 was among the first games to receive a fan translation, and Neil Corlett’s localization crew was fairly open about the difficulty of that process. SD3 was a huge game on a cramped cartridge, and the Japanese version -- already benefiting from the density of kanji text -- employed a custom compression system that would have made it practically impossible for a localized version of the game to fit within the confines of the ROM without the removal of massive chunks of content. The simple fact is that SD3 was likely never intended for localization, because the process would have been impossible.
Furthermore, Evermore’s developers have denied in several interviews that Evermore was planned as a replacement for a localized Mana sequel. Square was simply determined to open a western studio and begin developing titles for U.S. audiences rather than translating Japanese games and hoping for the best, and Evermore was their first effort. The game was originally to be called simply “Evermore,” and the Mana-style ring system was incorporated for its elegance and efficiency. The game shared no technology with either Super NES Mana game, and the story had no direct ties. Unfortunately, its title—the Secret being grafted on sometime later—its timing, and its overt debt to Mana conspired to paint Evermore as a far more nefarious creation than it really was.
Evaluated in that context, without the legacy of an unlocalized and highly coveted import classic glowering like a storm cloud over its release, and Evermore isn’t actually too shabby a game. For a first effort, it’s actually fairly impressive. The Evermore team was admittedly standing on the shoulders of giants by drawing so much inspiration from Secret of Mana, but even Albert Einstein considered that a valid methodology. Moreover, outside of the ring menu and turn-based action-style combat, Mana and Evermore have little to do with one another.
The games vary in significant ways. Evermore is a much more linear title than its predecessor, requiring very little backtracking as the unnamed hero travels through different eras of history. The plot also has considerably less gravitas than Mana’s post-apocalyptic tale of a war over the source of the world’s magic; it’s ultimately about little more than a boy and his dog trying to find their way home. It doesn’t even have a Final Fantasy Tactics Advance-style twist that transforms the protagonist into an ambiguous villain. No, the bad guy is a skinny, bald man with a Snidely Whiplash mustache and a tendency to monologue, which tidily sweeps away any doubts about his role with all the subtlety of a post-WWII B-movie.
Which was an intentional connection, actually. Square USA took their mandate to create a product for the U.S. audience with impressive literalism, heaping a slew of clichéd Americana on the game. The hero is a pop culture junkie, constantly dropping references to fake sci-fi films of the ’50s. They get old pretty quickly, but they do highlight one of Evermore’s more impressive features: an extensive, self-referential script in a 16-bit RPG. Admittedly, by 1995, Working Designs was already dropping Bill Clinton references in their localizations, but even with its corny plotline, Evermore was a bit more delicate than that. The bulk of the script was coherent, detailed, and about as intelligent as your better brand of Saturday morning cartoon. NPCs frequently broke the fourth wall, ridiculous fake film heroes were name-dropped, and the whole thing read a hell of a lot more intelligently than its peers. Granted, it was contemporaneous with Breath of Fire II and Lufia II, so that’s a bit of damning it with faint praise. Think of it this way: Much of Evermore was scripted by Final Fantasy VI/Chrono Trigger localizer Ted Woolsey. Now imagine the punchy dialogue and winking jokes of those games freed from the constraints of being crammed into a ROM designed for text in a much more compact language. That’s Evermore, for better or worse.
As an action RPG, Evermore isn’t too shabby, either. The loss of a second (and third) playable character definitely changes the game dynamic, resulting in a strictly solo experience. Yet it’s not entirely lonely, as the hero is accompanied by his shape-shifting dog, who provides AI-driven support that can be fairly useful. The dog is an essential partner for the game’s skill system, too; rather than rely on magic, Evermore takes a more scientific western approach by focusing on alchemy instead. Using alchemy requires both a formula and the components to cast a spell, and the dog’s keen nose is perfect for sniffing out hidden ingredients.
Unfortunately, this often slows the game to a crawl as you clear an area and wait for your companion to sniff out some precious item or another. Also, the resource-intensive nature of the alchemy system is intrinsically flawed, since the rarest items are extremely limited in availability, not to mention missable. Evermore makes an attempt to mimic Mana’s spell leveling system, but since building up your spell experience costs actual resources, parsimonious players will find their magic woefully underleveled by game’s end—or, alternately, will keep right on using leveled-up low-tier magic and ignore the ostensibly more effective formulae learned later.
Flawed as it may be, you definitely have to credit Evermore for trying. It had plenty of clever moments, like a seemingly endless desert that could be navigated with agonizing slowness on foot... or sped through with the aid of a vehicle. References to other Square games were neatly tucked away throughout the villages, be they overt—a retired Cecil Harvey running the local item shop being the most blatant—or more subtle, like Terra Branford hidden in the Coliseum’s audience. You get the impression that Evermore was made by people who really and sincerely liked Square’s other games, even if they didn’t quite cotton to what made the classics being imitated so great. That exuberance comes through in the game, and it does a lot to make up for its shortcomings.
Ultimately, Evermore isn’t some dark usurper. It’s just another imperfect chapter in Square’s ongoing efforts to seduce American audiences. As far as those efforts go, Evermore is one of the better attempts, ranking up with Parasite Eve, and definitely a step above the likes of Mystic Quest and Final Fantasy IV: Imbecile Mode. The tragedy of it all is that Square has been at its most successful in America when it doesn’t give a slap about scoring a hit over here. Final Fantasy VI-VIII, Chrono Trigger, Xenogears: Those are the Square games American fans love most, projects ultimately designed without regard for global franchising. It’s almost as though gamers love quality work, not marketing strategies. Go figure.
If nothing else, Evermore makes an interesting contrast to the recent Front Mission Evolved. Both were derived from existing franchises by Western developers in an attempt to cater to American audiences. Yet Evermore was imitative, dressing up the mechanics, interface, and format of Secret of Mana with a story and atmosphere intended to appeal to U.S. players. Evolved abandons the mechanical and narrative depth for which the Front Mission series is known in favor of a callow action game with a familiar name stamped on it.
Sincere imitation versus soulless impersonation? Frankly, I liked the old way better.