Release Date: April 11, 2006
There's a black sheep in every crowd -- someone who doesn't quite fit in. That alone stands as one of life's little truths and extends even so far as into gaming genres. Platformers have their Klonoa, RPGs have the Tales of series, puzzle games have Yoshi's Cookie, and so forth. Not even the slightly-defunct "catch 'em all" monster husbandry genre is without its odd one out. Past the routine, perky adventuring of Pokémon and the more serious, combative Digimon series, there lies a third choice. Monster Rancher seems to take more after its Tamagotchi ancestor, focusing on raising and training your monster through creation to its eventual passing on. It's got a niche following in its own niche genre, but the series seemed perfectly happy with that.
... until 2006. Enter Monster Rancher EVO. EVO is a black sheep even amongst black sheep. In a series that is known for its quirkiness, EVO rebels in its own way – by trying to conform with the competition.
EVO is the story of a young man named Julio, a young, inexperienced member of an everyday traveling circus who, for some reason, plays a magical accordion. What ties this in to the rest of the Monster Rancher series, naturally, is that the monsters you raised in the first four games are your performing partners.
The story starts with Julio's companion monster running off after a particularly poor performance, though it's later explained that said monster was likely reaching the end of its days. Naturally, such an event traumatizes poor Julio, leaving him wide open for a mysterious girl with the power to summon monsters from Saucers (the plot device du jour which is responsible for the ability to get monsters from other games and CDs in pretty much every Monster Rancher game) to edge in on his life and on the circus troupe. If this looks like the setup for Wacky Hijinks tm, you're fairly safe in your guess.
If this sounds like more plot than the other four Monster Rancher games combined already, though …
... well, you'd be correct in that guess, too. EVO brings to its table a more RPG-like feel, providing NPCs and exploration and dungeons full of semi-random encounters. That alone is both EVO's single saving strength and its single most fatal flaw. How so, you may ask? It's simple. Introducing a more smoothed-over, mainstream play experience alienates the diehard fans – the one biggest source of the Monster Rancher sales for the past three games – while at the same time not offering enough to truly appeal to the mainstream crowd. In other words, it's not Monster Rancher 4, nor is it Final Fantasy VII. By not quite falling into either group, it ends up being a third entity all its own, one that lacks in pretty much every category when gone over with a fine-toothed comb.
Average is the name of the game here, folks, if you hadn't picked it up. That pretty much covers the entirety of the game, and were I a lazier writer, the review could be finished with that line alone. Shame I'm not all that lazy, I suppose.
Both in the visual and audio fields, the game fails to impress – sure, everything looks polished enough, but nothing pushes the envelope. Models are simple and cartoonish, which is a niche that has thankfully always worked for the Monster Rancher series. Sounds are, as common with many typical games, just there, though the music is notable for being disgustingly tinny, much like in every other Monster Rancher game.
Naturally, the controls are just as stubborn as the other Monster Rancher games, the monsters not always wanting to do what you say until they're good and thoroughly trained. Walkabout controls are likewise slippery, too; avoiding monsters is a chore compared to simply plowing through them, and many a time has this reviewer run back to the previous area just by getting stuck on a wall.
What keeps the game from being just like every other Monster Rancher game, then? To be honest, the heart is the very core of the system. Gone is training and feeding your monster into a fighting shape. Fighting is still present as are the typical tournaments, but both have had their emphasis toned down radically. Monsters can be trained five at a time, much like Monster Rancher 4, though training has changed in its intent quite notably. Training is no longer done to raise stats; instead, training is done automatically on a weekly basis to raise a monster's motivation, which allows it to do better in circus performances, which then raises stats. This makes fine-tuning a monster an exercise in tedium and pointlessness; instead of monsters dying of old age as in the earlier games, they simply lose steam until the point of, "Hey, you should probably retire them."
Luckily, dungeons are a fair bit better than Monster Rancher 3's adventure mode, though this reviewer can't compare it to the fourth game. Almost like a beer slam of Tales of Symphonia and ... well ... Monster Rancher, the adventure mode places Julio and the lead monster of a group of up to three in a sprawling dungeon filled with treasures and random monsters that just kind of amble around. Much like Tales of Symphonia, the monsters are featureless blobs of darkness as they wander about on the main dungeon screen, and only initiating a battle with them (approaching from the back, as always, being the best choice) will reveal them for what they are.
Battles are slightly different, due to the ability to use three monsters at once. The same "use Guts to perform moves, regain Guts by idling, lose Guts by getting attacked" system is present, and the only noticeable difference, aside from having to give orders to three monsters at once, is that when said monsters are in alignment, they can chain their moves together for more powerful combos.
Essentially, Monster Rancher EVO can be considered an evolution similar to a lion "evolving" into a domesticated cat. What we have here is a game that tries to hit all of the bases and instead misses every last one. It doesn't measure up as a Monster Rancher game, it doesn't measure up as a standalone RPG, and it doesn't measure up as a worthwhile PlayStation 2 title so far into the system's run. Rent it if you really must try it, but don't be surprised if you find the game to be a snoozer.