There are many reasons I should have known what I was getting into with Everhood. For one, creators Chris Nordgren and Jordi Roca haven’t been shy in expressing how indie darling Undertale heavily inspired them. From the visuals and text boxes to even the story, it’s plain to see. But even with that knowledge in hand and its description as an “ineffable tale,” Everhood shocked me time and time again, not just because of what happens, but because I couldn’t put it down.
You control Red, a wooden gnome whose arm is stolen by a thief, and you must explore the weird and wonderful world of Everhood to find where it is. And Everhood is a paradise for weirdos. There’s a vampire who can’t stop sneezing (called Nosferatchu, and sorry everyone, good luck beating that pun in 2021), a mage who powers his toilet with batteries, and a pair of slime brothers who make a living handing out planks of wood. Everything embraces the absurd and the silly. At times, the writing is hilarious. There were also times where bafflement caused that laughter. No two moments are the same, and within minutes you can go from kart racing to fighting an underwear-wearing knight.
Exploring Everhood, everything is laid out behind multiple doors, each leading to a different part of the world. Everhood is an unapologetic cacophony of styles and colours, and because of its absurd tone, it all works together. Every location is weirdly charming, bubblegum-filled cave and desert presented in full 3D, and all presented in a simple retro-style. But visually, the game is marred by a few minor technical glitches, like pixels and sprites from one location getting stuck on the next screen, which can take you out of the moment.
Getting around can be a bit of a pain too. Controlling Red on a Switch Controller feels awkward because of the 8-way movement. Red’s default walking speed is slow, but on the Switch, double-tapping the d-pad (or control stick) to run is sometimes awkward, which made running away from something trying to crush me incredibly more annoying than it needed to be.
While it stands out for being loud and colourful, Everhood‘s rhythmic combat is the star here, and it’s fantastic. It’s important to note that this is not a rhythm game, which takes some adjusting to. Instead, the enemy is attacking in time with the music, and you need to watch the notes and dodge by moving left and right and jumping. Some notes move between lanes, others are too tall to jump over, and timing your jump can be exceedingly tricky, especially if you’re used to timing actions perfectly with the music. Your health regenerates over time, but you have to start the fight again if it goes to zero. I learned the hard way: when the first piece of music started playing, I instinctively tried to move to the beat, but this got me killed quickly. When there’s so much going on on-screen at once, it can be a pretty steep learning curve.
I loved every second of every battle, partly because most of them were short, but also because they’re all so varied. In one part, you play a board game with friends and get a sword to deflect red notes. In another, you’re in a maze, being chased down by a monster (with terrifying sound-effects!). If you get caught, you have to escape by jumping onto a spring. If everything is too hard, you can adjust the difficulty level at any point in the game, including straight after losing a fight. Rather than reduce the intensity of the notes, it changes how fast your health regenerates.
Another reason I loved getting into a dance battle was, naturally, the music. There’s such a range of styles and genres throughout, and all of it is amazing. Every character and conflict has a motif, instrument, or musical style unique to them. I’m being attacked by a bin playing Flamenco music in one fight, while a huge beast is rocking out while trying to take me out in another! I couldn’t sit still while trying to dodge all of these attacks. I’m buying this soundtrack the second it hits.
If the game were just full of dancing combat, then I’d be over the moon, but as you progress, the game isn’t shy dropping hints about more important things going on. Strange text from a disembodied voice sometimes appears on the screen, and there are brief flashes of characters without names. I had to keep going to find out more. Who was dropping these hints? Who was this mysterious character that kept popping up during fights?
Then, around the halfway point, when I thought my quest was done, Everhood dropped a huge plot twist on me that, without spoiling too much, drastically changed the tone of the game. And then I remembered something the game had told me earlier:
“Expect the unexpected.”
Now, the varicoloured world and the catchy beats start to feel less absurdly amusing and more disturbing in an uncomfortable way. The dark secrets of the world, and of Red’s journey, were coming to light. The noises made by the maze creature were no longer terrifying because Red had a new-found power. I wasn’t being chased anymore; I was doing the chasing. And I wasn’t comfortable with this power. I was no longer questioning what was going on out of bemusement but out of genuine concern.
This new power that Red acquires in the second half of the game affects combat too. All of those little tweaks had been building up to this moment: where I could fight back. Instead of dodging and surviving, you can now deflect attacks by absorbing two notes of the same colour in a row and then throwing it back at the enemy. If you get hit, you lose the power and have to absorb two notes again. It’s just another small wrinkle to a very challenging system, and it changes these dance-offs significantly.
The way the story and gameplay shifted and made me question my actions was remarkable. I’m still thinking about how the characters’ interactions with Red changed after everything dropped, and how the game tackles truth, life, and death in a way that makes you question every action in a good way. I’d started to get attached to characters like Green Mage and the thief who stole Red’s arm. And on a second playthrough, things only made more sense. There were times I was unsure this was the right direction for the game, as some characters appear last-minute, and many don’t get a lot of backstory aside from a few little tropes and quirks. You can refuse to engage, but the game pushes you towards a definitive answer, regardless of how many “endings” you get.
At first, I wasn’t comfortable with this, but being the kind of game that it is, Everhood posed a straightforward “answer” to my problems at the very end. It’s an “answer” I’ll leave readers to discover for themselves, but Everhood plays with relativism and absurdism throughout, and every time the game posed a question or an answer, I had to rethink everything again. And after a second playthrough, I knew it was the only way to play through the game.
Because of this, I’m still thinking about the inhabitants of Everhood, with their kaleidoscopic dance battles and outstanding music. Everhood wears its inspirations proudly on its sleeve, but it’s a different beast entirely. With hidden secrets, harder difficulties, and an absurd world that I’ve grown fond of, I think I’ll be back more than a few times to get on the dance floor with some old friends.