It never occurs to me till I sit down with something like Ever Oasis just how grim and dark so many video games are. Violence permeates everything, apocalypses and dystopias everywhere. I may be drawn to those dark places but, nonetheless, in such quantity they do become a little oppressive. But at least it makes you appreciate games which sit at the opposite end of the spectrum.
Ever Oasis is a new 3DS RPG from Grezzo, who previously worked on the Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask 3D ports. That lineage shows itself in several ways here. Ever Oasis is about building an oasis in a vast desert, gathering resources by venturing out into the wastes and bolstering the merchants who settle in your paradise. This in turn draws in more residents, allowing the settlement to flourish. It's a straightforward game but has its depths — even if they take some time to reveal themselves.
For starters, if a stall is well stocked and successful then you get currency to establish more stalls. Like tending a garden, if you care for it it will grow. More stalls means more resources to gather, and your oasis grows more rapidly too. So whilst in the early game expanding the oasis is hard yet gathering resources is easy, the reverse becomes true as you progress. This means you end up spending less time in the oasis itself and can travel further afield, with the aid of more tools and items. It's a nice organic structure that gently encourages exploration without just dropping thousands of waypoint markers on you.
Managing the oasis and catering to the needs of its inhabitants is one side of things, but the game's combat is where the Zelda influence shines through. Ever Oasis is pleasantly devoid of the usual RPG quagmire of endless loot with variable stats, instead focused on a few unique abilities. The first is the ability to summon a gust of wind, which is learned by blowing away dust. Yet beyond the basic utility you find lots of cool ways to use it in puzzles and knocking fruit off trees. Your arsenal feels like a little suite of tools, appropriately enough for an avatar that's as much a gardener as a fantasy hero.
All those things are strengths but what really struck me about Ever Oasis and kept me playing was the sheer joy of this world. There's a wonderful vibe of unbridled optimism throughout the whole game. Characters are sincere, encouraging you at every opportunity. The world is bright and lush, even at its most hostile. Combat doesn't end with you killing foes — instead you remove the affliction that's made them monstrous and they return to their natural state, unscathed. All-too-convenient? Absolutely, but it's such a pleasure to be a real goodie for once, rather than some blankly smiling force of death.
The only real challenge comes from the distant spacing of save points. Ventures into the desert can lead to a chunk of lost progress should you fail to return home regularly. It is perhaps the only aspect at odds with the game's otherwise laid-back design, but it does at least provide some mild difficulty to your quest.
A welcome wrinkle comes later in the game as you begin to recruit other characters to form a party, letting you switch between them on the fly and make use of their unique abilities. Once this is in place the enemies do become a little more demanding and your options a lot more engaging. This can end up a little overwhelming, and extensive dungeons can end up forcing you back to the oasis to swap out certain party members for one with more suitable abilities, which is a rather tedious back and forth.
As you roam and explore, it's always easy to be swept up in the lush world. Inspired towers of water anchor your oasis in the world, casting a rainbow over the whole green place. Saccharine sweet for sure, but damned if I didn't enjoy my stay here. This doesn't feel like a world of epic questing and battles against tyranny — you sleep in a hammock, for goodness sake, so it's more like being on holiday. And that's without even mentioning the Noots, stout bird-like people who visit but never stay and greet you only with an adorable squee. They're extremely cute. Ever Oasis fills your adventure with colour and cheer like this, never anything less.
There is an overarching purpose beyond building the oasis (you have a sibling in need of rescue) but it's very much in the background. The game is narratively shallow, devoid of meaningful conflict or real stakes, but that seems fine. It's nice to have something that's entirely focused on making you feel good. Whilst this makes it a great fit for younger children, something unfalteringly wholesome, it's also appealing for adults. Something to relax with and soak up some joy at a pleasant pace between long shifts, all the easier on a handheld.
Ever Oasis isn't a game about destruction, about tearing things down or slaughtering foes by the dozen. It's about helping things grow. This is obviously at the core of the game, the entire premise in fact but it then ripples out into every element. Much of this could be described as busywork: collect resources, find items, manage the oasis. Yet it's all so simple and intuitive that I found myself having a lovely time with busywork. You don't spend hours lost in menus or hacking at tree trunks with a clunky axe until a meter fills. You blow fruit from branches, get handed gifts by grateful residents, and clobber monsters with a giant hammer.
RPGs have dabbled with community and resource management plenty of times. Fallout 4 had a fairly involved settlement builder. Yet where other games tack the idea of town-building onto an action RPG, Ever Oasis feels like it started as a game about building a place and the action RPG came later.
There are two ways to look at Ever Oasis: you could consider it shallower than its many influences, or acknowledge that being simpler and streamlined is kind of the point. The sheer ecstatic joy that's woven through this world, the warmth that pervades everything, is a perfect antidote to so many other games. Ever Oasis isn't the deepest RPG, but 3DS already has a tonne of those. The laid-back approach to questing and resource management make it this a lovely escape, a holiday where you get the privilege of building the destination too. Ever Oasis lives up to the title: this is an unexpected pocket paradise, and well worth a visit.