Evil Islands (2001, RPG): The Netbook Gamer

If you are familiar with the PC RPG genre and think of games from Eastern European developers from early in the last decade, you will likely come up with thoughts of bug-ridden releases with loads of patches, poor translations, terrible dialogue, and overall sloppy games. Things have come a long way to the point of excellent games such as The Witcher and Drakensang and Divinity II, but it is still worth playing many of the earlier games because what they lack in polish they often make up for in original ideas and gameplay. Of course, sometimes they are junk. So which path will lead us to Evil Islands? Read on and find out!

I always find it more interesting to hear about how folks come upon games they missed at the initial release and what their thoughts were when playing those games, than to hear from those who knew about the upcoming release and just bought and played with everyone else. This is particularly true when you get an older game with no expectations. I say this because as I said before I came back to the RPG genre only about 7 years ago and therefore missed pretty much all of the initial reactions to many games from the so-called Golden Era of RPG.

For myself, I heard of Evil Islands in the summer of 2009 on the RPGWatch web forum when someone brought up a couple of ‘lost gems’ and commented that we should try them. I discovered that the game was available to trade on Goozex, but then while waiting for my copy to arrive – and getting ready for a business trip – I bought a digital copy on GamersGate, and gave it a shot.

Evil Islands is a 2001 game by Nival Interactive (well, released in late 2000 in Russia and Europe and early 2001 in North America). It is a single player game that features a fully 3D engine and a camera that can be panned and rotated freely. Technically it is a real-time game but features a combat system similar to games such as Baldur’s Gate, where you can pause to queue up actions for your party. And yes, while the focus is on the single player action, you do gain up to two followers to help you on your quest.

As for that quest, it begins pretty typically as you wake up stranded and without memory amongst ancient ruins. A small winged creature is by you as you regain consciousness, but quickly leaves. Then you encounter a group of praying villagers, who spot you and begin to exclaim that they have found ‘the chosen one’ and quickly flee. So naturally you need to follow them to their village so you can start taking on quests that occasionally help you learn who you are, encountering monsters along the way.

If it sounds like a fairly banal beginning, it is – there were so many cliches pulled out, heaped on with mediocre dialogue and voice-overs that I barely made it through the first hour of the game. Yet I am glad I did, not because it is an all-time great game, but because there is fun and variety and challenge and a different sort of RPG experience than what we usually get to play.

Graphically Evil Islands is not a bad looking game even after nine years. That is somewhat surprising given how poorly many 3D games of the era have fared, particularly low-budget ones such as this. The characters are nicely detailed, the environments have loads of contour and foliage as you explore, there are shadows cast by objects, things like cloaks show motion effects, and more. As you venture throughout the world you will see areas that are distinctly different, and fast changing day/night cycles full of weather patterns like rain and snow and high winds. You won’t mistake this for a recent game, but given the size and scope of the game I found it very visually pleasing.

The music works fairly well but is neither particularly varied nor plentiful. In each area you are treated to a different set of synthesized sounds that are appropriate to the weather and culture of the area. But again, Evil Islands came at a transitional time when most games were fairly adept using digital music, and so even for an older game the music seems simplistic and repetitive. Particularly repetitive is the battle music, to the point where I played much of the game muted.

However, the environmental sounds you encounter in each area are wonderfully done. Depending on the location and time you will hear a variety of sounds that are appropriate and give a solid sense of place & time. The voice acting, on the other hand, is best described as terrible. The voices use rather odd dialects and often sounds like the actors really don’t know what they are saying. However, it really never detracts all that much from the game, and I just tended to play silently.

As you move from area to area you will notice that there are two main types of areas: combat and non-combat. As you might expect, in the combat areas, you are pretty much limited to battling everything you see, with the exception of a few quest related dialog exchanges. In non-combat areas you can get quests, advance the plot, trade items, construct and deconstruct advanced weapons, and so on. It seemed like a convoluted system when I first encountered it but after a short while it was perfectly natural.

The ‘meat’ of the game is in the combat, character progression, and massive scope of the areas you need to explore. Make no mistake – this is a very difficult game, and it is HUGE. You will easily spend 80 hours getting to the end. The game takes place across three islands: Gipath, Ingos and Suslanger. Each has a different landscape and weather pattern, and each is filled with different types of challenges.

The combat system is real-time with pause (RTwP) as mentioned, meaning that you can play the game largely as an action-RPG in the style of Diablo, but also pause everything whenever needed to issue commands to your party. In many games that distinction doesn’t matter, but Evil Islands is a very punishing game in terms of difficulty. Early on you are instructed on how to use stealth to sneak by a couple of (large) enemies; if you choose not to take that advice, assuming you can take them on one at a time using hit and run tactics … you will die. I know, I tried several times.

So the game makes actual strategic use of stealth as well as all-out action combat; everyone will need to spend time and skill points advancing either melee or ranged combat and potentially magic. I chose a ‘battle mage’ build, as the game really doesn’t support an all-out mage class. You really need to be good with weaponry to survive, but I found it immensely satisfying to use magic sprinkled in with the melee to soften up the crowds.

The skill system is interesting, as once you add points to one skill the cost for everything else increases. That means that if you start to focus on swords, don’t even bother looking at axe skills because they will simply be to expensive. That goes for pretty much everything – in every skill area you will need to be very careful about your choices. Sometimes when watching the costs increase exponentially it feels like the game is simply laughing cruelly at you!

The cruelty of the skill system is matched by the difficulty of the game. As I mentioned, if you choose to go toe-to-toe with a large enemy or a crowd or similar-level foes you will die quickly. Later on in the game you will be better able to pull from crowds, thin things out, and generally deal with larger amounts of enemies. But you still need to always be cautious, because even at normal difficulty the game is punishingly hard. But it is fair, as you can always find a way to proceed, unless you make a low-level jaunt into the middle of a crowd of trolls!

I mentioned that the graphics of Evil Islands were nicely done, but I have read that in 2001 the game required some serious graphics hardware to run properly. Fortunately the passage of time has done wonders, as Evil Islands runs perfectly at the highest possible settings I could find without ever encountering a single issue or framerate issue.

There are times when looking for ‘gems in the rough’ all you find is the rough! But with Evil Islands I found a huge game with tons of positives – and plenty of negatives – but overall a very fun and challenging experience that rewards planning and careful selection of skills and battle tactics. There is just a TON of gaming value here for a bargain price – if you are interested in this sort of game definitely grab it either at GamersGate or on a trading site such as Goozex.

RetroGamer Perspective: Evil Islands is not really one of those games folks think about wistfully – because most have never heard of it! So it doesn’t hearken back to some lost age like discovering Icewind Dale for the first time, but it is still a bit of RPG genre history worth discovering for many.

Netbook Gamer Perspective:
– Digital Download / CD version? – you can get the game from GamersGate for $9.99. The CD version is long out of print but can be found for cheap on eBay or Goozex.

– Installation Notes: CD-install is a single disk with no online authentication, serial number, code wheel or other restrictions. Digital Download is a single-click to install.

– Disk Space Requirements: full-install of either CD or Digital version takes ~575MB.

– CD Required to Play? Yes – for the CD version you will need to have the CD in the drive or a virtual drive. Obviously not required for the digital version, nor is there any post-installation verification ever performed.

– Control Considerations? Standard action-RPG controls melded with pause and command-stacking similar to the Baldur’s Gate games.

– Will it run on a VIA C7? Yes!

– Will it run with 1GB RAM? Yes!

– Special Considerations for running in Windows XP, Vista or Windows 7? Evil Islands runs perfectly on all modern Windows systems without any issues.

– Compatible versions for other OS such as Linux or Mac OS? No, but the performance on the netbooks leads me to believe that it should run fine on any emulator such as Wine or Crossover or Parallels.

– Notes on the Digital Version: The Digital Download version is fully patched but otherwise just a digital version of the original game without any special compatibility or resolution enhancements.

Conclusion: This is an absolute gem of a netbook game, and one of the sorts of games I originally intended to play when I started doing this: I had never played, it was modern enough to run easily, still looked pretty good, had netbook-friendly controls, and offered an experience that most folks had missed but was still worth checking out. Evil Islands is a flawed gem, but I am thrilled that someone brought it to my attention and that I was able to find and play it through!

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