The DIY appeal of the Monster Rancher series has always been its biggest selling point. Though it's seen plenty of superficial changes, the gameplay has remained mostly unadorned over the four previous entries, with the focus remaining squarely on the core tasks of breeding your monsters, training them, and ultimately pitting them against other gladiatorial monsters. Monster Rancher EVO represents a huge departure for the series, as it all but abandons the previously stripped-down formula in favor of something more similar to a traditional Japanese RPG. It's true that the series wasn't gaining a lot of momentum before, but in its new form, Monster Rancher EVO dilutes the basic activities that made Monster Rancher endearing in the first place, and it's not particularly great as an RPG, either.
Though the title Monster Rancher EVO is a none-too-subtle nudge that the series is "evolving," perhaps a more suggestive and accurate title would have been Monster Rancher Goes to the Circus. While past Monster Rancher games very intuitively had you tending to monsters who lived on your ranch, EVO puts you in the role of a young, feathered-haired trainer of monsters who travels the world with the circus, putting on little song-and-dance routines with your sole monster, until one day when your costar inexplicably flips out and runs away. Fortuitously, a young girl capable of conjuring monsters virtually out of thin air shows up around the same time, joining your troupe of performers and taking an extra-special interest in your character's development into a world-class monster trainer. From here you'll go off on a series of rather disjointed adventures as the circus moves from town to town. As much time as the game invests in lengthy, text-based conversations between characters, there are no breakout characters worthy of the emotional investment that a really good RPG will evoke, and the story arcs you encounter in each of the different towns you travel to feel more like bends in the road.
Aside from all the big-top trappings of the circus, EVO offers several other notable changes to the Monster Rancher formula. Of course, beneath it all, the actual monster-creation process remains the single most compelling activity. There's just something about being able to stick virtually any CD or DVD into your PlayStation 2 and see it produce some bizarre monster, which has always made the fact that you can acquire special in-game "saucers" with which to birth certain monsters a bit puzzling--like, why bother? Once you've got your monster, your first priority is to create a training regimen that best suits the personality of both your monster and the trainer. Your character is the only trainer at first, though eventually you can use other members of your circus troupe as monster trainers, and each has a different training style. A bond also forms between monster and trainer over time, and the stronger the bond, the better your monsters will perform. Since switching trainers breaks the bond, it's essential to establish a good match the first time around.
The actual training process is all extremely hands-off, with you choosing the intensity of the training and the performance-enhancing gadget that each monster will train on. Different gadgets increase your monsters' stats in different ways, and though you start off with a few stock gadgets, you can also build your own gadgets from scratch at special shops found in the different towns. Gadgets basically prep the monster to put on a particular type of performance when showtime comes around, which is when you actually get involved. Performances simply require you to successfully complete a rhythm-based minigame that starts off easy, and stays pretty easy for quite awhile. How you perform here will determine the payoff of the weeks of training leading up to showtime. It's just too bad that the performance minigames are so repetitive and mind-numbingly dull.