Price: £34.99 [shop around]
Genre: Action RPG
There are too many games now. Instead of letting the game's mechanics speak for themselves, for most of the early hours of my playthrough of Ever Oasis I was trying to describe it in what TV Tropes would call an 'X Meets Y' fashion. You know, Animal Crossing meets Zelda, or Secret Of Mana meets Sim City, or Lost Vikings meets Fantasy Life. I did that when playing Luigi's Mansion 2, as well. Let's just say I'm going to try not to pigeonhole titles like that in future.
You choose your character's binary gender and skin colour (you can be blue or green, if you'd like) before the fairly sad prologue. You, Tethu (male) or Tethi (female) (I named my female character 'Tethina' - it's my journey, dammit), live in a village in an oasis. Your brother, the mayor, works with a water spirit to keep things afloat. Moments later the dark force Chaos ruins this peaceful idyll. Your brother's last action is to send you away on the wind, just before his village is destroyed. You then find your own water spirit - Esna, now the last of her kind - and start your own tiny town. NPC's stumble into the oasis and become permanent residents in exchange for the accomplishment of some task, usually to gather x of an item, or find something they lost on the journey over. They then open a shop of some kind that persuades more folk into your oasis.
And so the gameplay loop goes for much of the early game. You head into the desert in a party of up to three, yourself and two residents, to gather materials to keep the shops afloat. You can take control of any party member and some villagers have special skills that let you explore your surroundings more thoroughly: you yourself can create gusts of wind to trip fan switches, whilst some colleagues can roll into balls to fit through tight spaces, or hammer large rocks to bits. There's a simple joy to this. However, as I've played Animal Crossing: New Leaf, I expected you to have to get know the residents; with the rate they turn up, you can't. One or two people seem to arrive every day and wait patiently for you to execute their fetch quest. Thank goodness for the guys who just want to live in the oasis and not open shops. But Ever Oasis is not Animal Crossing.
Once you get to a certain point in the game, you can restock shops automatically and send parties of villagers out to scavenge. This allows you to concentrate on the unfolding plot: protecting the oasis from Chaos by collecting three plot devices. The dungeons are well designed to make use of the abilities of new villagers as they appear, although even the hardest one would be early in the third quarter of a Zelda game. They're pretty linear, too, but never less than fun. At some point in the game it dawned on me that each villager who turned up with a new ability was like getting a new item in a Zelda game: der der da der, you got Miura, whose spear can trip a certain type of switch. But Ever Oasis is not The Legend Of Zelda: The Sand Waker.
A special mention needs to go to the design team. There are six races in the game: Seedlings (which is what you are), Noots (see above), Water Spirits (see Esna screenshot below), Drauk (tall reptile types), Serkah (trolls, whose mouths are like side-on claws) and Lagora (foxes). They're all beautiful and very distinct, giving the game a good deal of its personality. Each villager has their own squeak or giggle when you select them on the field, too. All this, combined with the gradually unfolding map's pretty and varied locations, breathes life into Ever Oasis. Whilst it might be hard to get attached to villagers, it's easy to succumb to the charms of the world.
Let us speak flaws before we continue. The music is mundane. It's not a challenging game, though it is of above average length (no). It could help the player a bit more, too. An example: some of your villagers' powers are activated when they step on certain tiles. If your dude doesn't have that power, they shrug, and a graphic of the ability you need appears above their head. You warp back to the village and speak to the line-up changing guy (who has an Evil Monocle for no reason) to update your team. Ideally you would be able to search for residents with the ability, but no; you can't even see that graphic in their résumé. Instead you plough through the list manually and get confused as a few of the powers are very similar. More after the break.
Welcome back to The Flaws Paragraph*. It's also worth bearing in mind that the game takes a long time to properly kick in and, when it does, its plot and message are not complex or original. At times it feels like an indie game with a bigger budget. Combat is not particularly advanced and can get very repetitive. Finally, I lost touch with the village when the 'Restock All Shops' ability kicked in. Some shops need the same items to make their goods but they only go to the residents who will make most profit: I only found out some of the little guys were losing out when I toured the village. That might be my fault, mind - I think you can scroll through the shop list and find out who's low on stock but I couldn't be bothered by that stage. Naughty.
So those were the flaws: where is the brilliance? The game's single finest idea, in my humble, unsubtle and often wrong opinion, is that the happier and larger your village, the more HP you have. This links the two halves of the game brilliantly: neglect your residents and your paltry base HP will halt your progress faster than Nintendo Switches sell out. At certain points in the game the village's morale drops and you will feel the difference in combat. The dungeon design is also really good: the best ones could be dropped into a pre-Breath Of The Wild Zelda game and would fit right in.
Listen: I know it's a 3DS game, a console which is fairly old at this stage. I know other reviews around the old Interwebsnet have been mixed. I know that it's ridiculously, irritatingly pleased with you when you do almost anything (New Villager GET! *rainbow fireworks* Quest ACHIEVE! *mega joy all round*). I know it's a mixture of ideas from many different games, which might make you think it would struggle with its own identity. I also know that the only game like Ever Oasis is Ever Oasis and, although it took a long time for me to warm to it, I'm really glad that I did. The most fun I've had on the 3DS all year.
Final Verdict: This mish-mash of ideas probably shouldn't work, but it does: it's somehow more than the sum of its parts. Nintendo did the right thing when they chose to reward Grezzo for their duties on the 3DS remakes of Ocarina Of Time and Majora's Mask: the result might not be a life-changing game but it can definitely hold its head up high in the 3DS's ever-increasing library of RPG's.