I experienced a strange moment of déjà vu when I first set foot on the Altus Plateau in Elden Ring, the breakaway hit game of 2022. There was something about the way the golden leaves of the trees swayed in the breeze that stirred my memory. I had definitely seen this place before. I had walked through these abandoned ruins. I had gotten lost on these plains, and I had died under these golden leaves. In fact, I had died kind of a lot.
More than twenty years ago, I played a PlayStation 2 game called Evergrace that bore a strong resemblance to the Lands Between. Evergrace was also developed and published by FromSoftware, the legendary Japanese game studio perhaps most famous for its Dark Souls trilogy.
I was surprised to find very little about Evergrace online. As far as I can tell, the game hasn’t been covered by my favorite Dark Souls YouTubers, nor has it been discussed by the hosts of my beloved Bonfireside Chat podcast, which does deep dives into FromSoft titles and Soulslike games. Were it not for Evergrace‘s page on Wikipedia, I might have been tempted to believe that the game never existed at all.
As I hope this short essay will demonstrate, Evergrace deserves examination by FromSoft experts with the skills to tackle the game with the depth of analysis that it deserves, and I believe Evergrace stands as a representative argument for the value of video game preservation through digital archives and textual documentation.
Evergrace is a dark fantasy 3D action-adventure game developed and published by FromSoftware for the PlayStation 2 in April 2000, a month after the console was released in Japan. In North America, Evergrace was published in October 2000 as a PlayStation 2 launch title by Agetec, which had formerly localized and published the games in FromSoft’s King’s Field and Armored Core series. The PAL territories release of Evergrace was handled by Ubisoft, which published the game in January 2001.
As Clyde Mandelin has documented on the Legends of Localization website, many video game translations from the 1980s through the early 2000s featured poor localizations that could render even simple concepts and story ideas difficult to understand. Evergrace was no exception, and the odd translation choices in the English-language version of the game (including various misspellings of the main male character’s name) muddled the core components of its story and gameplay, which were already ambiguous to begin with. Gamers who had cut their teeth on player-friendly JRPG titles such as Ocarina of Time and Final Fantasy VII would find no helpful NPCs directing them to the next destination in Evergrace, nor would the game offer any tutorials to explain its complicated character customization mechanics.
The beginning of Evergrace finds your character in an uninhabited world filled with ruins interspersed with trees bearing golden foliage. The sky is a gorgeous color of aqua blue that provides a striking visual contrast to the red earth, and picturesque small streams flow through stone forests of toppled columns. When your character finally encounters another human being, an old man sitting by a locked gate, he warns you away from your quest. In the castle you seem to be trying to reach, he tells you, there is only death.
As the player, you’re probably not aware of having embarked on a quest. Your character’s goals are unclear, as is their destination. You’ll need to pick up background details from item descriptions and the game’s loading screens, which function as codex entries for characters and locations. Despite the relative openness of its world, Evergrace features Metroidvania elements that gatekeep your progress, and you often won’t understand what item or ability you’ll need to advance down any given route.
The real-time action combat of Evergrace is just as opaque as the direction of the critical path. Evergrace‘s battles are slow and measured, and the rhythm of combat is regulated by a stamina meter. Although it’s possible to increase your character’s stats with items occasionally dropped by defeated opponents, you’ll primarily navigate enemy encounters and environmental hazards by means of your equipment, which can be found or purchased. Unfortunately, the effect of any given piece of equipment is not entirely clear until after you’ve had some time to understand attack types and enemy vulnerabilities.
Despite Evergrace‘s beautiful graphics, which were a step up from the capabilities of the PlayStation and a lovely showcase for the technical abilities of the PlayStation 2 at the time, the game received mixed reviews. Reviewers criticized the lack of direction while chiding the complicated character customization system as “playing dress-up.” Indeed, your character’s appearance changes to reflect the equipment they’re wearing, which was a relatively novel concept in JRPGs at the time.
As cool as it was to see what your character would look like while wearing different armor, the nitpicky micromanagement of stats and abilities through interchangeable equipment wasn’t yet a common feature of mainstream console games, nor was it intuitive for adventure game fans (such as myself) used to the simplicity of the 3D platformers on systems such as the Nintendo 64 and the Sega Dreamcast.
Moreover, Evergrace‘s dungeons are filled with hidden traps and instant deaths that occur frequently and with no warning. Boss rooms are not marked, nor are save points. To someone trained in the “git gud” mentality of punishing Dark Souls style gameplay, this is all par for the course, but it could feel extremely frustrating and mean-spirited to someone used to the elegant design of the dungeons in the Legend of Zelda series, which gently guide the player forward instead of forcing them to sharpen their attention through repeated failure.
The Dark Souls DNA of Evergrace is apparent not just in its gameplay, but also through its opaque story, which is revealed only through obscure lore. The player can choose to begin the game as either of two characters, Darius or Sharline, neither of whom has much of a clue regarding where they are or how they got there. All they know is that their skin has been mysteriously marked by a crest considered to be cursed. Clues regarding what’s going on must be gleaned from rare textual artifacts found in the environment, as well as the environment itself, which is filled with ruins and threaded with massive tree roots.
What the player may gradually come to understand is that Darius and Sharline have been transported to the remains of the ancient Rieubane Empire, a legendary “Lost Kingdom” supposedly destroyed by cursed crest bearers hundreds of years ago. In reality, crests like the ones borne by Darius and Sharline are granted by “the Mother,” a deity tasked with maintaining balance between the natural environment and human civilization. The trees that fill Rieubane are meant to purify the earth, which was polluted by the magic of the empire’s wizards. Darius and Sharline were summoned by an agent of the Mother, a formerly human woman who seeks to break the stasis of the cycle of regeneration by opening the sealed ruins to outside influence.
Even in this brief description of the setting of Evergrace, FromSoft fans will notice various seeds of worldbuilding that have since sprouted into more developed forms in later titles, from the Darksign marking the Chosen Undead player-character in Dark Souls to the queen imprisoned in the towering Erdtree in Elden Ring. As I read about Evergrace, I was fascinated by the earlier forms of signature FromSoft leitmotifs that appear in the game, just as I was intrigued by its challenging elements of gameplay, which would later evolve into the characteristic trademark of the entire Soulslike genre of video games.
I don’t own a PlayStation 2 or a desktop computer capable of running an emulator, so I was unfortunately not able to play Evergrace for myself. To refresh my childhood memories of the game and its story, I relied on the Japanese-language Wikipedia entry, the in-game text archived on the Evergrace wiki, the game’s page on TV Tropes, and a scattering of videos on YouTube (especially Lvl Jake’s “Evergrace Finally Explained“). I also consulted a walkthrough on Game FAQs, as well as a few Reddit posts (like this one) about the two Japanese Evergrace novelizations. As much as I’d like to play Evergrace, both for research and for my own amusement, procuring the hardware to do so would require a significant financial investment.
In an article for Gamer Network, Sophie McEvoy summarizes a 2023 study performed by the Video Game History Foundation, which found that “87% of classic video games are ‘critically endangered.'” Some American universities, such as the University of Michigan, are working to create physical archives of older gaming systems, as well as instruction manuals, strategy guides, and promotional materials. The special collections of university libraries can be difficult to access even for professional academics, however, and copyright laws often take digital archives off the table entirely. As Dr. Nanna Bonde Thylstrup argues in a June 2023 essay for The New York Times titled “The World’s Digital Memory Is at Risk,” corporations have little incentive to archive older content when new content drives profits.
I believe it would be a worthwhile project to dig deeper into Evergrace in order to excavate the origins of many of the ludic and narrative elements that have exerted a considerable influence on game developers since the cult success of Dark Souls in 2011. As Evergrace is not available on the PlayStation Network or other digital platforms, however, curious fans and interested scholars must contend with issues of accessibility. Given the key position of Evergrace in the early history of FromSoftware’s development of a signature style, the game serves as a critical argument for the importance of video game archives, as well as the validity of written records. Evergrace may be set in a lost and forgotten kingdom; but, with any luck, the game itself will not vanish into obscurity.