I’m particularly fond of RPGs that feature a more intimate narrative trajectory. As much as I enjoy thwarting the grand designs of an evil empire now and again, there’s something decidedly soothing about settling into a world where conflict is secondary to cooperation, where people come together and celebrate life instead of striving to disrupt it. Ever Oasis, the brainchild of Mana series creator Koichi Ishii, falls somewhere in the middle of these two camps; it’s the story of a tender soul carving out a safe haven for weary travelers in a world beset by entropy. Straddling the line between town management simulation and action RPG, Ever Oasis largely succeeds at bridging the gap between its disparate genres. It’s not a perfect marriage, but few marriages are, and its optimistic message is as refreshing as a desert vagabond might find an oasis full of crystal-clear water.
There is serenity to be found even in the most insignificant moments of Ever Oasis.
The player takes the role of a Seedling chief, a child of the Mana Tr— er, Great Tree, who is tasked with developing their initially tiny oasis into a fully fledged sanctuary safe from the influence of a malevolent force known as Chaos. This oasis draws power from the happiness and health of its residents, so the chief must simultaneously manage its facilities and attract would-be settlers by taking regular excursions into the desert beyond. In practical terms, this means Ever Oasis is a simulation game with shades of both Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon that turns into a sort of Zelda-lite when circumstances necessitate a trip to an area already consumed by Chaos.
Every traveler who settles in the oasis (all of whom are unique, by the way) can construct their own market stall called a Bloom Booth. Once established, the player must supply these Booths with raw materials found in the world at large, which residents then turn into specialty products that they sell to birdlike vagrants called Noots. Noots will pass (waddle, really, on account of how adorably pudgy they are) through the oasis, but never settle, so finding ways to appease their tastes is key to developing a successful marketplace. The chief can then collect earnings from these shops and invest them in further town infrastructure, like cultivating a garden or building entertainment fixtures to attract the attention of even more Noots.
The larger the oasis grows, the more threatened it is by Chaos. At regular intervals in the story, Chaos will encroach upon the city gates, and the chief must venture into increasingly distant dungeons to acquire items that keep its dark tendrils at bay. Unfortunately, these dungeons are the most uneven aspect of Ever Oasis. The problem here lies in the way their puzzles clash with a central gameplay mechanic. Townspeople can be recruited into the chief’s party of three adventurers, and each has an assigned class that comes with a unique non-combat skill or two. These range from being able to activate heavy switches using a hammer to lighting magic crystals that illuminate dark rooms. The trouble is that every puzzle has exactly one solution, and if the player does not have the appropriate character(s) in their party, they have to teleport to the oasis and add them before teleporting back and continuing onward. This happens again and again, impeding the flow of gameplay, and it gets worse as the game progresses. It reaches a point where nearly every room in a given dungeon will require a specific combination of characters to complete, and it’s irritating as all get out to watch the action grind to a halt so frequently.
Yet those frustrations melt away after breathing in the game’s resplendent atmosphere. Ever Oasis is a feast for the eyes; it retains much of the aesthetic DNA of the Mana series, featuring lush greenery and shamanistic motifs that bespeak a reverence for nature. The oasis is as much of a character as any Seedling; it’s rife with beauty and personality, growing larger and more verdant as more travelers arrive. Tiny buds blossom into enormous flowers that embrace delicate dwellings. Colorful fairies dance on the surface of rippling water. A micro-shower of desert rain gives way to the most diminutive of rainbows. It’s gorgeous enough that I actually found myself activating 3D from time to time to appreciate the depth of its environmental design. To play Ever Oasis is to bask in the splendor of visual minutia.
It’s not just a pretty picture, either; Ever Oasis has a knack for introducing quality of life improvements to its gameplay loop right as they begin to feel necessary. Starting to grow weary of collecting profits from each Bloom Booth? There’s a fixture that will consolidate them into one lump sum for you. Tired of restocking each vendor’s wares? A villager soon arrives to ease the tedium by taking that job upon herself. Fast travel options too limited? Make the oasis large enough, and you’ll find your options widely expanded. The game takes a bit too long to truly open up — I often felt like I was fighting for it to let go of my hand long after I felt capable — but there’s plenty to do once the training wheels are off.
There is serenity to be found even in the most insignificant moments of Ever Oasis. It’s a mellow sort of game — one that feels eager to soothe the soul. There’s also a pervasive cheeriness to Ever Oasis that makes it hard to stay mad at when things go south. Its light, jaunty soundtrack and the sheer artistry of its visual design help to obfuscate its mechanical foibles, resulting in an ultimately imperfect game that’s still easy to love.