Here’s the thing: ‘therapeutic’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘good’. And, as its title might suggest, Ever
Oasis is endlessly therapeutic. It’s a pleasant blend of action-RPG and town sim with modest aims: earnest storytelling, simple combat and a gently repetitive core progression system. Ever Oasis never really leaves its comfort zone. But then, we get the distinct impression it isn’t trying to.
It’s a far cry from Secret Of Mana, the seminal SNES RPG that remains Ever Oasis director Koichi Ishii’s greatest legacy. It struck out into innovative territory: a realtime combat system with an ‘action gauge’ to master, a levelling system that rewarded considered play, and a forward-thinking item system. By contrast, Oasis retreats into antiquated habits at every turn.
And it’s cosy enough at first. After a dark force called Chaos ravages their home, protagonist Tethu must team up with kindly water spirit Esna to build a new oasis. And barring a blip with an archaic, and poorly explained, manual save system that sets us back half an hour – a cruel mistress, nostalgia – it’s easy to sink into the routine. You potter about the hub, harvesting fruit, chatting to the chibi populace and prodding the puffball, penguin-like Noots into delighted, delightful little squeaks. Despite the parallels with Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon, however, daily conversations don’t ever stray into the aimless or atmospheric. You, chief, are here to do a job.
The job, it turns out, is ‘fetch’. You head out to the desert, where resources and enemies lie, in search of new residents to grow your community. While many will offer to plant Bloom Booths – squat shops that regularly produce the Dewadem currency if you keep them stocked – back home, the most valuable have skills that aid you in dungeon exploration. There’s an endearingly analogue method to discovering a new one; they’re not marked on the map, clues involving horned grottos or pottery caves encouraging you to scan the skyline for viable landmarks instead.
Once inside, the adventurer’s spirit is dampened somewhat. Puzzles and solutions are obviously signposted by the same combinations of copy-pasted elements – an upturned piece of debris, perhaps, or a type of bloom called a Paraflower – that float selfconsciously in otherwise barren environments. It’s here that residents’ unique skills come into play – though ‘unique’ is really a euphemism for ‘downright bizarre’. Your Seedling is one of a party of up to three heroes. Some carry spears that can pull switches and lever obstacles, or crossbows that’ll help you hit out-of-reach switches; others can use Paraflowers to fly across gaps, or transform into pellets and whizz through holes.
Whimsy abounds, then – but the novelty soon wears thin, thanks to a poorly implemented party system. Your way is blocked by a giant boulder, but you didn’t bring your pal with the giant hammer? Too bad: you’ll need to warp back to your oasis hub via an Aqua Gate to switch out characters, then return to continue with the right tools. With plenty of dungeons requiring more than three kinds of specialist resident to fully complete, it’s a common and frustrating occurrence that increasingly robs dungeon-crawling of any satisfying flow as the game progresses. There’s plenty of ill-advised backtracking, too: as your character’s Gale ability powers up, new areas of previous, long-stale dungeons must be revisited.
Realtime 3D combat, while ultimately rather shallow, manages to recapture a little of the lost momentum. Again, success is dependent on who and what you bring into battle, although nowhere near as definitively: certain enemy types are weak to swords or boomerangs, for instance, which can give you an edge. Even a simple two-hit combo takes a good few hours to unlock, but with a lock-on ability and a neat little dodge-roll in your arsenal, the waltz of death entertains. Unfortunately the camera struggles to keep up, switching between party members mid-fight is a fumble and enemy attacks are signposted miles in advance.
Manage to fall foul of a blow, however, and you’ll be sorely punished for it: even low-level enemies are capable of nasty hits. Fortunately, if your home oasis is thriving, you’ll gain an overshield of sorts, a significant amount of HP tacked onto your meagre health bar. And you will have to thrive to survive. This is the crucial link between RPG and town sim, as the extra HP you can receive is proportional to the overall happiness of your hub. Keep running back to restock those Bloom Booths and fetch residents their lost property, and life out in the wild will be easier in return.
It that all sounds seamless, it’s because it is, and the quickly established loop is part of the problem. While compulsive, it doesn’t necessarily come off as meaningful. Ever Oasis means well, even if it doesn’t mean much. Light customisation is available for your bustling oasis; you can purchase a music-making Melody Wheel, for instance, to run on between chores. We’re pleasantly surprised when we earn an in-game achievement for waving pointless hellos to the adorable Noots. Even the story has real heart; we find ourselves attached to particular residents’ character arcs, and even more so to eternally optimistic water spirit Esna.
There’s a real earnestness to Ever Oasis’ tale, as Ishii and team meditate on our relationship with nature and the value of coming together to build a better, more hopeful world. It’s unfortunate that the actual substance of the game doesn’t trouble itself to embody that reaching ambition, content to stay resting comfortably at the wellspring of other, better games’ ideas. But then, we remember this is the final respite for a console coming to the end of a long journey. In that respect, perhaps Ever Oasis is a fitting last gasp.
Puzzles and solutions are obviously signposted by the same combinations of copy-pasted elements