Imagine waking up amidst ancient ruins in a strange world, wearing only flimsy garments and possessing nothing more than a crude hunting knife. Even worse, you can't remember who you are or how you got to this strange place. This is the basic premise behind Evil Islands, an impressive hybrid RPG that boasts slick 3D graphics and elements of both action and strategy gaming. The game is the brainchild of Russian developer Nival Interactive, the same company that brought us Rage of Mages. We recently had the opportunity to put the press demo of Evil Islands through its paces, and, for the most part, we liked what we saw.
As this game begins, your character - an unlikely hero named Zak - wakes up with no memory and very little clothing. The few locals who see him stumble out of the ruins and flee in terror, leaving Zak even more confused. Quickly, you will stumble onto the game's quest-based flow, as the first objective is to follow the frightened folks in the hopes of finding a village or other settlement. After some exploring and a bit of simple combat against wolves and wily boars, Zak finds a village. Unfortunately, the path to the place is guarded by a pack of ogres. Again, you learn another key concept early in the game: It is often better to sneak past an opponent than engage him (or it) in open combat. So Zak crawls past the creatures and enters the village - to a very surprising hero's welcome.
Turns out that the people of this land - called Gipat - have a legend about a strange hero emerging from the ruins. So whether he likes it or not, Zak is now that hero. At this point, the village chief will explain a bit about the village and its situation, begging Zak for help with a few minor tasks. These are the first significant quests in the game and will serve to familiarize players with the controls, the game mechanics, and the experience system (which is fairly nifty). Of course, it also turns out that the chief is not an entirely honest man, nor are most of the other folk in the village, but that will all be explained more fully in the final release of the game. For now, Zak must content himself with a series of quests at the behest of the chief and his archrival, the penny-pinching village craftsmen.
Graphically, Evil Islands resembles an elaborate mix between Myth II, Populous: The Beginning and Diablo (or more accurately, Nox). You control Zak and as many as two companions with familiar click-on-a-spot-to-move mouse controls. The camera view is fully under your control, and you can rotate, tilt, and zoom in and out at will. You can also "program" a handful of preset camera angles, which can then be called up via hotkeys.
In general, the camera controls in Evil Islands are solid, though things can get tricky when you get into a fight. Here, as in Diablo and its many clones, the mouse performs double duty: Click on a location, and your character will move to it, click on a creature, and your character will attack it. Characters can be controlled individually or in groups. In this version of the game, at least, controlling three different characters separately in real-time is extremely difficult. Your own characters often obscure your view of the bad guys, so it's easy for you to unintentionally click on a character instead of an attack target. As a result, you find yourself ordering one of your guys off to another spot on the map when you were actually trying to swing your obsidian axe at a goblin's head. You can, of course, zoom and rotate the camera quickly to get a better angle, but combat plays out very quickly in Evil Islands, and you may find that no camera movement is fast enough to save one of your characters from an ill-timed maneuver.
Controlling the Action
To compensate for the speed of its combat system, the game offers a pause feature that allows you a respite as you issue movement, attack, and spell-casting orders to your band of adventurers. The relative weakness of your characters - especially at the very beginning of the game - and the ability to pause the game lend a strategic flavor to Evil Islands. You often have to temper aggressive tendencies in the face of overwhelming opposition. In one spot, for example, you can team up on and attack a very powerful brigand chieftain - and get slaughtered - or you can sneak around behind him, steal the quest item you need from him, and vanish back into the night safe and sound.
Even at this stage of development, we were impressed by the intelligence of the three controllable characters. The AI pathfinding is quite strong, and it was rare to find characters wandering off in some ill-considered, long and winding route. The game also manages creature-looting intelligently. Instead of having Zak handle all of the corpse-searching after a battle, you can simply click on a body, and the character closest to it will perform the search. Once you're back in a village, all of the items you found will be in a single inventory pool.
Like any good RPG, Evil Islands offers a slew of inventory-management options. In the demo, these were all available through the craftsman. After you complete a quest for this fellow, he will let you buy and sell wares as any normal shopkeeper might. However, he can also create blueprints from items you show him, allowing you to create your own items in the future. So long as you find the necessary materials for an item - leather for a pair of bracers, for example - you can craft them using the inventory menu system. The game uses a very Diablo II-like feature called the constructor system to facilitate the creation of custom items. Using this feature, you can craft your own items (from the aforementioned blueprints) or attempt to make one item more powerful by adding magical items and other objects to it. Magic is not critical to the demo and is, in all honesty, not mentioned much by the demo's built-in tutorials. The system in place appears to be extensive, however, and the constructor menu can also be used to craft new spells.
Some special graphic and weather effects lend Evil Islands an impressive look and feel, regardless of the situation. Dynamic time-of-day changes and the resulting increases or decreases in ambient light are all very impressive in the game. The reddish glow of dawn is especially good-looking, and the nighttime glow of goblin campfires looks great as well. Weather effects in the press demo were limited to rain (which was quite nice), but the full game promises to have additional effects fitting for the snowy and desert terrain of the other two islands.
Evil Islands also uses a texture-changing effect to illustrate character and creature damage. In other words, Zak will begin to look bloody when he is injured, as will the other characters and monsters in the game. Even more impressive, the game lets you target particular body parts during combat. Creatures have the same ability, so if Zak is injured in the leg, he will suddenly not be able to move as quickly as he should.
Zak doesn't exactly move very speedily, though. In fact, if there is one element of Evil Islands that seems disappointing at this stage, it is the character movement. Zak and his cohorts meander very slowly from point to point - and there is a lot of ground to cover and re-cover in this game. You can have the characters run for short bursts, but this wipes out their energy (which also doubles as a mana supply for spellcasting). Even a slight increase in the movement speed would be a welcome change.
Though there is undoubtedly some game balance-tuning going on at this very minute, we'd also like to point out that the flame-spouting bat cubs are entirely too powerful at this point in the game's development. It just doesn't seem right that three adventurers can take down a hulking orc archer and a burly brigand hero, only to get their collective butts handed to them by a single measly bat. Aside from this leathery-winged cretin, however, the game's monsters seem to be very well balanced thus far. Weak creatures - such as the goblins - are incredibly powerful in packs, while powerful creatures - such as the orcs - can be handled quite easily when they're alone.
Zak's voice is the only other element of the game that seems in need of work at this point. We realize that Zak is supposed to be an unlikely, even unwilling, hero in the story, but does his voice have to be quite so whiny and annoying? And we're not entirely sure what he means when he keeps yelling, "I am in!" during combat. But we suppose we'll have to live with this voice for Zak, since it's no easy task to swap out countless spoken dialogue lines at this point in a game's development.
And even with the annoying voice, Evil Islands has plenty of other positive traits with which to hook gamers. Aside from the excellent 3D engine, this game offers an intriguing mix of RPG, action, and strategy elements and the promise of a vast gameworld filled with duplicitous "friends" and hordes of nasty creatures. It all cooks up into a veritable gaming feast, which we can't wait to sample once Evil Islands is complete. The game has already been released in some parts of Europe, and it should be localized and on store shelves here in the US within a few months.