All I've ever wanted in Pokémon is to be a gym leader—to build a community while simultaneously being able to strike out into the wilds. Alas, that hasn't happened yet; but if it ever does, it might look something like Ever Oasis.
Set to release on Friday, Grezzo's charmer of an RPG casts you as a seedling—a magical creature with the ability to build communities with the help of a water spirit. When the story begins, you are on the run from the forces of chaos, the last hope for life before chaos turns everything into an arid desert.
Together with a water spirit named Esna, you begin to grow a community with the help of travelers who wander in from the outside world. These travelers run the shops that you create, which you must periodically restock with materials that you harvest or take from the bodies of dead monsters. In return, you receive water droplets that can be used to grow more shops, or a bit later, to craft new equipment. You can also complete small sidequests to earn more townsfolk, who can be found in the world's caves and deserts.
Between growing your community, you spend a great deal of time in the outside world hacking and slashing at monsters. Ever Oasis is developed in part by Koichi Ishii, one of the key creatives behind the Mana series, and its pedigree is evident in the action RPG combat. In fact, Ever Oasis is much more of a dungeon crawler than an Animal Crossing or a Stardew Valley, both of which put a lot more emphasis on their individual villages. The town you build does have some bearing on how the story unfolds, but it's mostly there to serve as an illustration of your overall progress.
It isn't until you earn the ability to add two extra party members that the core of Ever Oasis starts to come into focus. Every character in your town has an individual weapon—swords, slings, hammers—and a special ability that lets you traverse the world's caves and dungeons. Many of the puzzles are a simple matter of using the right ability, but some are a bit more complicated. For example, you might have one character leverage a block into position so that your other party member can turn into a ball and bounce off it into position.
Party members likewise bring unique skills with them into battle. They are strong or weak against various monsters, and some have special abilities that can be activated to temporarily incapacitate a foe. The protagonist, who is always with the party, has a special whirlwind ability, which can be used to knock down flyers or lower the defense of sand-based enemies. All of these elements help to keep you on your toes, which in turn keeps Ever Oasis from becoming too repetitive—a common action RPG failing.
It quickly coalesces into a breezy little RPG in which you collect items in the morning, explore the world during the day, and retire at night. It's achingly cute, with seedlings being represented as Kewpie doll-like characters and monsters being more cartoony than scary. Your relationship with Esna is warm but sad, as you sit up late at night under the stars and learn about the world that existed before the fall. Thinking about how deserts are engulfing our own world, I found it poignant and even a little haunting.
The downside, I suppose, is that it can come off as a little too light. The town building in particular feels just the slightest bit too simple. You have little control over how the town looks, and your relationships are mostly limited to very quick conversations in the shops. In some ways it feels more like a convenient way to gate your progress than to add meaningful depth. I felt that most keenly when I was asked to host a festival, which brought the story to a grinding halt as I was forced to harvest enough materials to get my shopkeepers to give me the required number of stamps. It was a sequence that made the town feel like little more than artificial gameplay mechanic.
That feeling might have been helped by a greater number of in-depth sidequests. Especially in the middle part of the game, I often felt as if I was stuck passing time waiting for the next opportunity to advance the story. Harvesting collectibles felt a bit pointless in light of how many items I was able to gather naturally, and free-roaming exploration offered fewer rewards than I would have liked. Actually, I was surprised by how straightforward and linear it all felt. The opportunity was there for something a little more open-ended.
Still, it all manages to come together in a smart, enjoyable little package. The dungeons are the best part, but it is satisfying to watch your village rise as a reflection of your growing power. It's equally fulfilling to earn enough items to craft a new sword or piece of armor, even if the actual combat is rather easy (if your "smile rating" is high enough you can effectively be auto-revived when you die).
I ended up charmed and pleasantly surprised—both pleased by its polish and amused by how sickeningly sweet it could be. Taken a little further, it might have been up there with the best of the 3DS. But as it is, it's a pleasant little snack in the midst of a year that is rapidly becoming a feast for RPG fans.
Ever Oasis features a straightforward and easy to understand interface. The only point of confusion came in equipping new items, which is mostly handled in one particular booth. The rainbow text when you recruit a new resident is the only part of Ever Oasis that feels cheap.
The soundtrack in Ever Oasis is pleasant without being distracting, or really all that noticeable. It's perfectly passable, but not what I would characterize as a strong point.
Ever Oasis is quite simple, but its surprisingly expansive world and large enemies helps it to avoid feeling cheap. It looks just fine for a 3DS RPG.
Light and breezy, Ever Oasis makes for a pleasant little snack while waiting for the next wave of 3DS RPGs. Some of its core concepts could have been taken further, but it's still a well-executed RPG from a long-standing veteran of the genre.