Through light stumbles and heavy falls, Ever Oasis will be able to please – to different and somehow uncertain degrees – anyone who wants a dose of role-playing thrown into their Animal Crossing, or vice-versa
In a world that is overrun by Chaos, a dark force of unknown origins that drains joy out of people and turns animals into aggressive monsters, various oases spread around a desertic landscape serve as peaceful refuges. Inside their gates, people are free to live, trade, and work together to create a healthy friendly environment; outside them, many dangers lurk. Eventually, however, Chaos grows stronger, and – one by one – the safe havens begin to succumb upon being attacked by its servants. When the very last oasis suddenly falls from its prosperity to total annihilation following a nightly attack, its chief – by using the last ounce of his strength – sends his younger sibling out into the world. Cradled inside a seed, the future oasis leader lands close to the fountain of a water spirit named Esna, who proceeds to say she is the last of her kind. As water spirits and their fountains are the birth place of oases, she urges the young seedling to join her in creating and maintaining the world’s final oasis and, consequently, its ultimate hope to fend off Chaos.
It is with the introduction of these very high stakes that Ever Oasis begins. One naive seedling and an inexperienced water spirit are all that stand in the way of doom, and it is up to players to find a way to balance the need for adventure that the fighting against Chaos entails with the equally urgent necessity to keep their oasis healthy, happy, populous, strong, and protected. With these two facets in place, Ever Oasis proceeds to build an experience that pairs up the town-keeping aspect of the Animal Crossing franchise with the exploration and dungeon-solving found in The Legend of Zelda. What comes out of that mixture is a role-playing game is a bit flawed, starting with a storyline development that leans too heavily towards the cheesy, but that is still able to come off as charming, colorful (despite the very limited palette of environments the game’s premise locks the art department into), fun, and full of heart.
No amount of work and talent would be enough to create a game whose town maintenance features are as deep and engaging as those of Animal Crossing while its adventure is as enthralling as that of a The Legend of Zelda title; moreover, such a combination would be potentially overwhelming for players brave enough to try to juggle those activities. That is why Ever Oasis brings those two sides together by making them lighter: for the oasis to run smoothly, travelers need to be drawn into its gates, have their needs met by the chief so they feel like staying, and the shops that get built need to be provided with the materials so that their goods can be produced; meanwhile, the puzzles that need to be figured out while out in the world and the regions that need to be explored are nicely designed but far more straightforward than what one would find inside Nintendo’s flagship franchise.
In fact, for the most part, the adventuring and oasis-keeping walk hand in hand. As Chaos starts to threaten the peace of the place, the chief is tasked with recovering three artifacts that will further power up the protecting aura that emanates from the fountain and the water spirit. Invariably, the finding of these objects will send players towards monster-ridden open fields, the numerous big and small caves they house, an encounter with a new race of desert folk who hold the key to the artifact, and a dungeon that culminates with a boss battle. As they do so, players will naturally bump into lost travelers or eager adventurers who – upon hearing of the oasis – will promise to visit the place.
With a certain frequency – which can be either once every day or whenever the chief decides to drop by the oasis – the place’s gates will open to receive both shoppers, who will just come in looking to buy from the stores, and travelers, who will become residents if certain requirements are met. Sometimes, all they want is the availability of one or more specific products; on other occasions, they will ask the chief to recover items that have either been lost in the overworld or snatched by monsters. Regardless of the goal, Ever Oasis is kind enough to show, on players’ maps, a mark that displays the location of the desired item.
One small annoyance that arises from such a situation is that, at any specific time, only one sidequest can be activated, which means only one marker will be shown on the map. It would be perfectly fine if players were free to switch between active quests whenever they felt like it; however, that is not the case. Switching between active sidequests can only be done from within the oasis, and although it is possible to warp back home from anywhere in the world with two touches on the 3DS’ bottom screen, it is nevertheless dumbfounding such a limitation exists.
Once requirements are met and travelers decide to stick around, their willing hands can be employed for the well-being of the community. Seedlings, such as the chief, will offer to set up specialized shops, which will lure new consumers and travelers besides earning the oasis some much-needed cash, and they can also be assigned to tend the oasis’ garden, planting seeds and flowers that can be used as resources both in the shops and in the forging of new equipment. Additionally, other races of desert folk will also pop up, and although they do not have the trading skills of seedlings, they are useful warriors that can – alongside the chief – form a three-member party to tackle the dangers that lurk in the desert.
Most of the residents will also carry with them rumors and information regarding new travelers that they got to know while out in the world. Such intel may pinpoint a specific cave where a potential visitor can be located or vague details that indicate that if, for example, an ice cream shop gets constructed, a certain someone is sure to appear. This creates a rather interesting and time-consuming (in a pleasant way) cycle in which every new resident paves the way for the arrival of a new visitor, allowing players to willingly take a break from the main adventure and focus on making the oasis’ population grow.
Thankfully, taking care of the oasis is not just an aesthetic matter. As the number of residents rises, the oasis can be leveled up, which aside from making the place actually bigger – opening up space for more shops, adding new levels to the garden, and more – also increases the HP of the party members and unlocks the recipes for the forging of more powerful equipment and healing items. Moreover, if players fail to keep shops properly stocked, leave many residents idling, and let party members fall in battle, the happiness of the oasis goes down, which negatively impacts the extra HP.
Truthfully, given Ever Oasis is not a brutally challenging game, the little rewards that are given to those who keep the place running smoothly are not absolute musts: one can easily make do without either extremely powerful weapons or the added HP. In order to counter that, at certain points in the adventure, the game builds blatantly forced walls that stop players from progressing if the oasis has yet to reach a specific size. They are neither annoying nor tough to meet; however, not only does the fact they exist reveals Ever Oasis could have integrated the two gameplay universes it contains a little bit more effectively, it also corrodes a bit of the freedom that is so vital to a game that tries to emulate aspects Animal Crossing.
That liberty is also slightly harmed by how many parts of the overworld are locked away until characters with specific skills make their way to the oasis. Due to that, many times, further progressing in the construction of the oasis – that is, looking for the travelers that are mentioned in the rumors – can only be done if players go back to the main adventure and unlock new areas and characters. All of those little constraints shackle players to tackling activities in a predetermined order, when a looser and – in a way – smarter progression that allowed gamers to truly take control of their fates and the destiny of their oases would have done wonders for the game.
Despite that, taking care of the oasis, and watching it develop and grow more beautiful is undoubtedly fun. To make the whole process even more pleasant, Ever Oasis – little by little – provides players with town-keeping tools that greatly streamline the life of the chief, allowing gamers to – via simple menus – send out expeditions into areas that have already been explored so that materials from monsters or from the environment can be gathered; provide each shop with the components they need to manufacture their goods; and manage the garden.
Some irregularity is also present in the Ever Oasis’ adventure aspect. The game’s action-based combat system is simple but fun, and the nice variety of enemies and bosses packed into Ever Oasis makes those encounters be nicely varied; the problem is that as the party can be composed of three characters, two of them are always controlled by the CPU (with players being able to freely switch between characters as they see fit) and the game is not exactly very bright when it comes to avoiding blows from enemies and attacking in the most effective way. However, given Ever Oasis’ difficulty never rises to high levels, such issues are not as frustrating as they may sound.
The greatest design mishap of the game, in fact, lies elsewhere: in the caves and dungeons. Offering a combination of mandatory battles with puzzle solving that is good, but never brilliant, these places build riddles (and offer optional collectible resources) that require the special skills and weapons of the oasis’ residents, such as an arrow and bow to hit distant targets, a hammer to slam switches, a wand to light up dark areas, and other more idiosyncratic abilities like turning into a ball, mining, or digging. Given the limitations of the three-member party, and since all characters only have one skill and one weapon, it is not uncommon to be in the process of exploring a cave or a dungeon only to find out that no character that is currently out of the oasis has what is needed.
The solution to that problem is warping directly back to the oasis (a feature that was almost certainly implemented to reduce the pain of this annoying occurrence), going to the desk where the party is assembled, selecting the character that has the necessary skill, warping back to the point where the party was, and – finally – solving the puzzle and hoping that the following room does not hold yet another riddle whose required skill is not held by any party members. The lack of a menu option to change the party while out of the oasis is, therefore, a considerable oversight that harms Ever Oasis’ exploration facet.
The conclusion is that a lot could have been done to make Ever Oasis a more solid experience. The two gameplay elements that make it up could have been integrated more firmly by more thoughtful design; and, individually, those parts could have turned out far more engaging if simple steps had been taken to avoid minor and recurring annoyances. Still, through stumbles and falls, it is a good game: taking care of the oasis is fun, and watching it grow is a joy; furthermore, going out into the world is motivating not only because there are nice puzzles and locations to be found, but also because the development and upkeep of the oasis depends on it. Therefore, the experience, which holds a twenty-hour adventure that can be greatly extended by those who want to take their oases to their full possible glory, will be able to please – to different and somehow uncertain degrees – anyone who wants a dose of role-playing thrown into their Animal Crossing, or vice-versa.