Four years ago the role-playing game (RPG) genre was pretty much dead. But then Blizzard released Diablo and Interplay released Fallout, and suddenly both the action RPG and the classic team-based RPG were back in style. And not only that, but unlike other suddenly popular genres, the RPG genre (in general) didn't see a host of clones and copycats. On the good side, that means that there are now a lot of excellent games for people to choose from. On the bad side, it means that developers have to compete against the likes of Diablo 2 and Baldur's Gate 2, and that must be a daunting task. So what's a small developer to do? In the case of Russian-based Nival Interactive, best known for its Rage of Mages series, the answer seems to be to throw out a 3D engine, advertise big numbers -- 80 quests! 100 hours of gameplay! 300 monsters! -- but then forget to add the things that make an RPG enjoyable. The end result, Evil Islands: Curse of the Lost Soul, is sometimes fun and satisfying, but more often than not it is slow, boring and repetitive.
In Evil Islands, you'll play Zak, a young man who suddenly appears on an island with no memory of who he is or how he got there. Starting with just a brass knife and little fighting ability, you'll go on a multitude of quests, pick up better equipment, gain experience, add skills, and eventually learn your destiny. That is, you'll do all the usual role-playing stuff. But Evil Islands isn't a clone. It tries out several new things, and, if anything, it ends up being sort of a hybrid between Diablo (with single character action and a similar combat engine) and Baldur's Gate (with an interesting story and numerous conversations and quests). The problem is that a lot of the gameplay decisions don't work very well, and so being different doesn't equate to being good.
Let's consider some of the new things Evil Islands does. One is the Commandos-style stealth system. Enemies can only see in the direction they're facing, and so you can crawl or crouch to move around undetected, and then sneak up behind an enemy to backstab it or steal from it. That gives you the option to stealthily complete a quest or kill everything in sight or use some combination of the two. The problem is that you don't get any reward for being stealthy, and so the best option is always to kill everything, and since backstab is far too weak, the whole stealth angle often goes out the window because there isn't any point. The only time to sneak around is when there's some creature out there that you just can't kill (like a big old troll early in the game).
Another new aspect of Evil Islands is that you can construct both spells and equipment. Spells start out with a keystone, and then you can add runes to make the spell more effective or last longer or be cheaper to cast. However, each rune also makes the spell more complex, and so you have to balance out the power of the spell versus your ability with magic. Similarly, equipment starts out with a blueprint, and then you need to add a material and maybe a spell to complete the object. Plus you have to balance the weight of the object with how much weight you can carry. This aspect of the game works pretty well, especially with the spells. For the equipment, it's a little too easy to pick up the best blueprints and materials for the island you're on, and so there's no excitement (like in the Diablo series) to search for equipment.
The last main difference between Evil Islands and other RPG's is in character creation and advancement. Evil Islands doesn't have a character creation system; you're just stuck with Zak, so if you prefer to play a female character you're out of luck. As for advancement, there aren't any levels or classes. As you gain experience you add hit points and stamina (which doubles as mana) automatically, and once you have enough of a surplus of experience points, you can buy skills and abilities. Skills are relatively cheap and include things like combat and magical knowledge. Abilities are much more expensive and include things like health and attribute bonuses. The problem here is that abilities are so expensive that you'll only be able to buy maybe 10 during the entire game (out of about 70), and so you won't be able to do too much to improve your character. Also, even though it appears you can focus your improvements on spellcasting or fighting or sneakiness, there's only one real path to follow (sneakiness doesn't pay off enough and you can't rely on magic), and so there's no real replayability for the game.
As for gameplay, Evil Islands has a lot in common with Diablo. It's an action RPG, and you'll spend most of your time killing creatures. Combat is simple -- just click on the creature you want to attack -- but it might be too simple. There aren't any skills to use, and since you don't regenerate stamina while fighting, you can only cast three or four spells during a fight. Also, you can't run away from a fight because creatures will chase after you, and so, basically, once you click on a creature, that's your total input until the fight is over. And so the only real strategic element of the game is in maneuvering your character around so you only fight one creature at a time.
There are also numerous quests to complete in the game, but even though the Evil Islands engine allows you to do things like open doors and pull levers, very few of the quests involve puzzles. In fact, most of the quests are of the basic fetch and kill variety, and they're indistinct at best. Plus, it's hard to tell which quests are necessary and which aren't, so you can't really skip quests even if you want to. That's a problem for the game because, for example, on the first island all you do is run errands for people, and none of the errands advance the plot one bit. Since the first island takes up about half of the playing time for the game, Evil Islands gets off to a terribly slow start, and it doesn't start to get interesting until the second and third islands when you finally start learning something about who you are.
One last note about gameplay: Evil Islands is really difficult. You can't run away from fights, critical hits will kill you all the time, and there are a limited number of creatures in the game, so you can't proceed at your own pace. Plus, there are only two difficulty settings for the game, and the “normal” (highest) setting is right next to being impossibly difficult. I gave up on that setting after a few hours when I couldn't even kill a simple orc without a ton of saves and restores. And even when I was on the “novice” setting, I still died more than enough times.
The graphics for Evil Islands are solid but not spectacular. There are several nice touches, like the wide variety of equipment animations, the nice day/night cycles (with associated shadows that move in tune with the sun), and the fact that creatures can shrink or expand with the weaken and strength spells. But there are some bad things as well. Characters look a little bit blocky when you zoom in, the colors are a little muted, and there are all sorts of clipping problems (crawling often makes it look like your character is swimming through the land). But overall all the graphics do their job and show what they need to show, and do so in a distinctive manner.
The sound, however, is a very poor aspect of the game. The background music is nice enough, and it does a good job of switching between standard and combat music, but the voice acting is atrocious. The actors say their lines clearly, but almost none of them actually try to act the lines, and most seem to think that giving their character an accent is acting enough. The main character is especially bad. Plus, Nival compounded the problem by giving the main character voice acknowledgements and several random sayings for in the gaming area, so you have to hear him even when he isn't in a conversation, and even if he had done the lines well you'd still get sick of him -- especially when he whines and says things like, “This is boring.” If I hadn't been reviewing the game I probably would have turned the sound off.
The interface, on the other hand, is pretty nice. There are a lot of things to deal with in the game, from casting spells to choosing a way to move to (potentially) controlling multiple characters, and all of them are controlled through simple mouse clicks and (reconfigurable) hot keys. Plus, the information panels are about as well laid out and unobtrusive as possible, and several can be removed from the game screen entirely. Lastly, the camera controls work well, and Nival even allows you to alias up to four settings, something I wish more games would do.
Usually when I install a RPG on my computer, I end up playing it twice. That's because -- again usually -- there are enough choices that could be made differently to make a second trip worthwhile. But not so with Evil Islands. The world is fixed, the quests are fixed, the encounters are fixed, and I don't think I'd make any significant changes in how I built up my character. Plus, the ending to the game was amazingly quick and unsatisfying, and so, taken as a whole, the Evil Islands experience isn't something I'd have any enthusiasm for going through again, or even trying in something like multiplayer mode. So if Nival Interactive was hoping for its game to carve a niche for itself in the RPG genre, I think it missed somewhat badly. The Rage of Mages games were better.