An occasionally unwieldy but likeable adventure with a timely and resonant message.
There's a curiously old-fashioned feel to Ever Oasis - though perhaps not so curious when you realise it's been made by Grezzo, the studio hitherto best known for its 3DS remakes of Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask, and led by Secret of Mana director Koichi Ishii. Like those games, its origins seem to lie in a bygone era: in this instance, it's as if some lost N64 game has somehow been revived, with all that implies. By turns awkward and beguiling, it compensates for its shortcomings with lashings of character and charm.
You're Tethu, a squat little hero who finds himself appointed the chief of a small oasis. This has sprouted up around a giant, watery bloom encircled by a lustrous rainbow that helps keep the ravaging forces of chaos at bay. It's rather parched as the game begins; your job, with the help of friendly water spirit Nesu, is to transform it into a leafy, flourishing sanctuary for the various tribes wandering this barren desert land.
Before long, your first visitor arrives, and the game settles into a moreish loop. Each new arrival asks you to fulfil a request or two before they'll become a permanent resident. If they belong to the same Seedling tribe as Tethu, they'll plant a heart-shaped stone that blooms into a store, whose goods will attract the shopaholic Noot tribe for a brief visit. The booth's takings - which, amusingly, you collect by launching a small tornado - are the currency you'll use to pay for further developments, or to help synthesise new weapons and gear to arm yourself for expeditions.
Beyond the gates of the oasis, you'll find creatures - beetles, cobras, sand rats - driven hostile by the blight. They're relatively easily dispatched, and will drop items that can be used to restock booths. Tethu can head out alone, or form a party of three; either way, their meagre health gauges are boosted significantly by the oasis itself. When it's doing well - and when more guests have made it their home - you'll benefit from more HP. You'll want to keep it topped up, then, which means making sure all residents are happy by keeping stores well-stocked and uprooting the sporadically-appearing chaos weeds that put everyone in a gloomy mood.
There's a constant sense of being kept pleasantly busy; of having slightly too much to do at any given time but in a good way. Unless you're wilfully ignoring people, you'll usually have two side quests pending beyond the mission that advances the story, with a couple of bits of gossip from current residents to tempt you away from the critical path as you seek out potential new settlers. In turn, they'll probably ask a favour, which sends you somewhere else. And if you're in a hurry, you'll find plenty of conveniently-placed warp spots to cut down on journey time. Just about every time you return to base, you'll find you've achieved more than you set out to, your pockets stuffed with materials to keep store owners sweet.
Meanwhile, any time the population threatens to become unwieldy, you'll unlock a new ability to delegate some of your chiefly responsibilities - and even a fast-travel feature that saves you trekking from one end of the oasis to the other. You can place a statue next to a row of shops to hoover up their earnings with a single whirlwind, and while you'll need to speak to vendors individually when levelling up their booths to stock new items, you'll gain the option to replenish their goods in bulk. Residents who don't own booths, meanwhile, can be enlisted to exploration teams, who'll forage monster parts and materials from locations you've previously visited, saving you the bother. It's good to be the boss!
Gradually, the oasis starts to feel like a proper home: a place upon which you can stamp a bit of personality. You can choose a booth's colour once it's levelled up, and even prettify the roads on which they sit. If you think visitors might appreciate shopping on a street carpeted in coffee beans, says Grezzo, be our guest. And while shops always need restocking, residents are slow to lose their smiles, which means you can afford to idle awhile. It's a lovely place just to be, with Yoshinori Shizuma's character designs enlivening a cosy, inviting haven. It's particularly lovely when night falls, as store entrances offer a warm welcome with a vibrant orange glow. Step outside for some late-night questing, meanwhile, and you'll see sands glistening brilliant blue beneath a bright, low-hanging moon.
With its delightful setting and those smart systems working so holistically, you might find yourself wondering why you're not having as much fun as you'd like. Essentially, it comes down to the end being a good deal more enjoyable than the means. That aforementioned sense of having too much to deal with occasionally manifests in slightly annoying ways. When you're exploring dungeons - for which Diet Zelda is a simple and fairly accurate summary - you'll often find yourself hitting a roadblock because you don't have the character ability you need to progress. Which means warping back to the oasis, swapping out party members, and warping back. It's not a major hardship, but with such a range of skills (Digging! Mining! Transforming into a pellet!) required to fully pick a dungeon clean, you'll find yourself toing and froing with a frequency that blunts that all-important feeling of adventure. It's a bit like making repeat visits to the local shop because you keep forgetting something off the list.
Given the studio's experience, combat is surprisingly woolly and unsatisfying, too. Enemy tells are easily read, and avoided with a dodge-roll, but there's a sluggishness that means you're almost certain to be hit when fighting several creatures at once - and they hit hard. With larger opponents, it all becomes a bit of a slog. You'll be several hours in before you've even unlocked a paltry two-hit combo, which is a good indication of its limitations. There are a few odd little quirks besides: the fruit shop is probably the first booth you'll upgrade, but until you (very belatedly) unlock an apple tree for the garden, you'll find it constantly running out of stock.
Were it not for those irritants, Ever Oasis would be a fine game, especially for younger players. Much as Nintendo might claim political ideas are for other developers to explore, its themes of compassion and inclusiveness feel particularly timely. Here is a game that not only emphasises the value of reaching out to other races and cultures during times of turmoil, but allows you to witness the tangibly positive effects their contributions can have. Moment to moment, Ever Oasis never quite matches the power of its message, but perhaps it's worth looking past the occasional nuisance to be part of a world that embraces outsiders as warmly as its own. If that's not too old-fashioned, of course.