Version tested: PlayStation 2
Thought for the day: perhaps the travelling circus is a jinx. Excellent TV series Carnivale didn't make it past a couple of seasons, and Pee-Wee Herman's career suffered a severe downturn since the disastrous Big Top Pee-Wee (although touching himself in an adult theatre probably didn't help). If the travelling circus theme is a curse, then, it's one that's now caught up with Monster Rancher series.
Let's consider Monster Rancher EVO from the very beginning. The opening cut-scene features the sole monster of the circus running away out of shame at being such a terrible entertainer, and introduces us to our stereotypically plucky hero Julio and his compatriots. Bereft of any monsters, they have no show and it appears they'll have to give up. Unsurprisingly, out of nowhere Nayuta appears, a girl with the ability to create monsters using 'saucers'. She creates a new monster for the troupe, and the game begins proper.
Now, even if we try to ignore this ludicrous introduction (a circus of three people whose show consists of one rubbish monster juggling? A girl who appears out of nowhere, for no reason, and is unavoidably critical to the plot? And so on) the game doesn't ever seem to get off the wrong foot it's started on. You begin with only one monster and no space to create others, and the game slowly introduces you to its aspects.
To begin with, the game consists of setting a training schedule for this monster on a weekly basis, aiming to raise its motivation to perform a successful circus act at a scheduled show. Sadly, after the passing of each week you must ensure the training is being performed by manually checking, and you cannot set a training schedule for longer than a week - noticeably a backwards step from previous Monster Rancher titles, and one which adds to the tedium significantly. When you finally get to perform a show it is, if anything, even duller, as you take part in simple rhythm-action games - akin to Parappa the Rapper, providing you removed everything that made Parappa interesting.
This back and forth between the longwinded though barely interactive training segments and the dire show performance forms the core of the game even once you have a whole stable of monsters, and it is one rotten core. Luckily there's more to the game than that. You can schedule adventuring in your calendar, which adds a heavier RPG factor to Monster Rancher EVO than the previous games. The adventure segments very much follow the archetype of Phantasy Star Online, as you choose missions from your current town's guild before embarking onto a map to battle monsters and collect items. Monsters appear in the game world and so can be avoided, which is frankly preferable to taking part in the overcomplicated and clumsy battle system.
A crazy sort of mix between real-time and turn-based battle, up to three monsters can be under the player's control in each battle. Movable forwards or backwards independently in real time, they can be 'linked' with each other to fight better or perform combo attacks, and can also be linked to enemies to perform close-combat manoeuvres. They can only escape this link if the player breaks out their Track & Field skills on the square button to 'shove' the enemy monster away. Knowing when monsters are actually going to be able to attack appears to be a total lottery, so the player will probably resort to using R1 to flick quickly between monsters, hammering the attack button, and/or moving them backwards and forwards randomly in the hope that eventually either a projectile or a close combat attack will succeed.
Despite being a laughably uncontrollable mess, the RPG battles are still the most fun section of the game outside of the Monster Rancher series' traditional gimmick, the ability to create monsters by placing random CDs or DVDs in the console's disc tray - those'd be the saucers, see. Once you're able to train more than one monster it can be a tremendous amount of fun to trawl through your collection of music, movies and games to try and find the strongest or coolest monsters. I, for example, was disappointed to find that while my Criterion Collection DVD of The Royal Tenenbaums produced an ace-looking anthropomorphic hawk, Rushmore created a weedy looking skull with a flower on it. Sic transit gloria indeed. The few hours of pleasure to be found in disc-swapping discovery are sadly rendered null as once you have your unstoppably cool monsters, you won't actually want to do anything with them, as it'll only be a disappointment to force them into tawdry circus acts or clumsy battles.
The critical requirements of a Monster Rancher title, that monster-raising be streamlined and rewarding, and the RPG sections be challenging and playable, are miserably out of reach for Monster Rancher EVO, with almost every part of the title a confusing, tedious mess that should make the average player ill with boredom. Much like a circus, a very dull kind of child might enjoy it, but just like that child, Monster Rancher EVO stinks of sawdust and vomit.
2 / 10