Evan’s Remains review
If Evan’s Remains is about anything, it’s about how the simple things in life make it worth living. This notion encapsulates a gameplay experience that takes very basic elements – elementary logic-based puzzle platforming mechanics and clean 2D pixel art – and weaves an emotional storytelling experience that demonstrates it’s not the number of obstacle types or colours in a palette that matters, but how they’re used. Unlike many of its platforming brethren, this debut title from Argentina-based developer Matías Schmied (aka maitan69) shifts the genre’s focus away from just twitchy reflexes and precision landing, instead providing puzzles worth pondering and concentrating on spinning a good science-fiction-tinged yarn in a style inspired by Japanese visual novels.
Dysis, a plucky girl with a knack for cracking cryptic clues, receives a letter asking her to meet the eponymous boy genius on an uninhabited island. Predictably, of course, he’s nowhere in sight when she arrives, and so our young protagonist sets down the beach to find him. Yes, at first this tale does sound like the typical setup for an elaborate fetch quest. This tropical manhunt, however, is just a springboard from which to dive into the suspicious origin of Dysis’s employer Up-Bring Labs, and into the intriguing history behind this former paradise’s ruins. And on a more personal level, the ancient, forgotten skeletons of a once-great civilisation are the metaphorical representation of a far more human story about regret, making amends, and the lengths a person is willing to travel to prevent what they cherish from fading away.
To say anything more is to get into spoiler territory. The premise is intentionally vague – it’s less a story and more a series of questions. Who is Evan? Who is Dysis? What is this island? What are the monoliths for? How does it all fit together and what does it all mean?
Given that the few characters used to tell this story aren’t well fleshed out – the exceptions being the main protagonist, Dysis, and Clover, a tight-lipped, withdrawn young man you’ll meet later – it’s quite surprising how effectively this is done. Be warned, though, that your bond with the above pair is forged through many a line of dialogue – brevity is not on the menu. While the script is interlaced with instances of charm and poignancy, the classic ticker-tape text interface and the backseat role it puts you in could bore and frustrate those who prefer having at least a choice in the story progression, and the warmth of spoken dialogue.
If you find the thought of all that reading a bit tedious, however, may I draw your attention to the island’s towering monoliths, which literally stonewall Dysis on arrival. These rocky behemoths might not look all that exciting at first glance – they’re burnt sienna, full of cracks and overflowing with ivy – but this is a bit of sneaky immersive camouflage. Due to the two-dimensional nature of this side-scrolling adventure, walking around these obstacles isn’t an option, so to go forward, you must go up.
The puzzles in Evan’s Remains centre around strategically arranging a series of virtual stepping stones higher and higher until you’re able to leap over a pillar on the far side of the screen. Organising these platforms into alignment requires a bit of logic and a spot of agility, because standard blocks will disappear when you jump off them and only reappear when you hop onto a ‘toggle’ block. It’s relatively straightforward, but there’s something incredibly satisfying about this elaborate game of hopscotch. Deducing the perfect sequence might require two pounces to the right or a long jump to the left, or even strategically falling back down, as contradictory as that sounds. When you prevail, you'll feel a little smug and a whole lot smarter.
As the complexity steadily increases, you’ll have to contend with blocks that either slide, transform into other platform types, or teleport Dysis to previously unreachable areas. A highlight, while not used often enough, are the momentum-transferring trampolines that will launch you to ever more perilous heights. Schmied wrings every drop of creativity out of this limited range of platform types. Games such as the Rube Goldberg-esque The Incredible Machine can overwhelm a player by blasting bucketloads of interactables at your poor noggin. The single-screen brainteasers of Evan’s Remains respect the fact that not everyone has superhuman multitasking skills. And the butter-smooth controls, whether with a keyboard or a gamepad, mean this challenge never gets too frustrating.
The absence of deadly environmental hazards encourage fun experimentation, and it doesn't matter how convoluted these climbing sections become because they’re never insurmountable. If you do get thoroughly bamboozled, however, there’s a nifty feature that allows any puzzle to be bypassed at any time. Either way, you're rewarded with more bits of story upon completion.
Neither the puzzles nor the story would be nearly as enthralling if not for the polished presentation. Designing a vivacious world on a flat plane is no easy feat; too much clutter could obscure vital puzzle elements, while an overly minimalist approach might feel as lively as a graveyard. That elusive sweet spot is nailed here: waves roll over the sand in the foreground, leaves and sparkly butterflies float across the screen, and waterfalls tumble over ledges. As night descends and the moon rises, you’ll travel along a multilayered backdrop of pastel fields, forests and, curiously, an industrial area. These small details – along with the soft, acoustic indie rock score, which is worthy of a listen on its own – evoke deeper immersion.
But don’t let these serene surroundings lull you into complacency, because there’s more to Evan’s Remains than just sun-baked beaches, platform-hopping and softly strummed guitars; it also has a techno-grungy dark side. The last thing you’d expect as you’re skipping along the shore is to be suddenly transported to a gloomy suburban house where Clover and Vincent, a rather suspicious character with a murky past, discuss the nature of existence and regret. These Beckettian interludes add an extra layer of mystery and depth, but as they lengthen with each intermission, you might start pining for the arrival of Godot.
The dissonant contrast between the vibrant island and dreary house and how they are connected to Dysis will make more sense as you uncover the reasons behind Evan’s disappearance. Along the way you’ll even bump into a rather preoccupied Clover, who’s now more interested in studying the monoliths than chatting about the nature of things. The monoliths also might explain why Up-Bring Labs sound ever-so-slightly on edge whenever they pop up via video call. Unfortunately, the sheer scope of the story becomes far too ambitious for its mere five-hour length; plot points are left dangling while character motivations remain under-explored to the end.
These issues reflect the pacing issues that plague the last section of the game. Until that point, cool reason is balanced out by the warm sparks of Dysis’s personality, and you’ll have flowed continuously between puzzles and snack-sized bites of the story. So it’s quite jolting when our heroine is nudged aside and you’re shoved into the boots of a character you’ve never played before (whose identity I’ll leave to players to discover), re-solving the few original tutorial puzzles with no new variations. Worse, the previously understated sci-fi elements that have largely been set dressing until then burst into the foreground, in all their jargony glory. It’s enough to give you narrative whiplash.
From there on it’s mostly just talking – the game abandons its puzzler pretences and your contribution is whittled down to occasionally moving a few feet to activate the next cutscene. All this conversing is burdened with exposition, and while the plot twists, somersaults and U-turns back onto itself, the characters themselves become so confused that as the minutes tick by, one of them even graces us with a full recap of events. Evan’s Remains has a lot to say, so much so that it runs out of conundrums before it does story.
Yet while this rushed ending – which relegates the player firmly into the role of passive observer – may leave an odd taste, overall the intuitive gameplay, cute but sophisticated presentation, and evocative atmosphere will carry you through an adventure worth remembering. Even though it trips up over its own abundance of narrative in the final stretch, such that anyone looking for a little less conversation and a lot more action might want to think twice, puzzle platform fans will find a lot to love about Evan’s Remains along the way.
While the overly convoluted plot devolves into a straight visual novel near the end, until then you’ll be drawn in by the intuitive gameplay, vibrant side-scrolling world and the intriguing mystery that make Evan’s Remains such a satisfying puzzle platformer.