Ever since I was young I have always loved desert and water levels in games. Some of my colleagues may joke that this is my compulsion to always be on the opposite side of largely agreed upon opinions, but I truly find these areas fascinating. I loved how both these level types were often beautifully designed yet incredibly hostile. They both can appear vast and barren on the surface, yet underneath they are deeply complex and mysterious. It should be no surprise then that Ever Oasis caught my eye when Nintendo unveiled it at E3 2016, considering it’s a game centrally focused in a desert. And while its setting had my curiosity, its gameplay got my attention as a ridiculously adorable RPG with some interesting Sim elements woven in.
In Ever Oasis, players take on the role of a boy or girl who is destined to become the chief of their own Oasis. Players begin the game in their brother’s Oasis until it is overrun by the agents of Chaos—the antagonistic force that turns animals into monsters, and lush greenery into a barren desert. However, with his last ounce of strength, your brother manages to send you to a nearby Oasis; the last Oasis in the desert. There you meet the last Water Spirit: Esna, who, with the help of the player, vows to make the biggest Oasis and rid the world of Chaos.
Initially, I thought Ever Oasis would be similar to a game like Rune Factory, with daily chores mixed in with RPG dungeon crawling. In that regard, I figured much of the sim elements would be more self-serving to the player. However, I was impressed with how well managing your Oasis actually ties to both the narrative and the gameplay. As desert wanderers find your Oasis, meeting their individual conditions will prompt them to settle in your refuge. Certain villagers can build shops, which others may need as a requirement for settling, and villagers can give you quests to find other settlers in the desert.
As villagers build shops, they’ll depend on you to venture into the desert and collect the materials they need to keep their stock up while certain items can be grown in the Oasis garden. When residents and visiting Noots (adorable penguin-looking bird people) buy items from the shops, the player can collect Dewadems, a form of water-currency used for purchasing items, building shops or watering plants in the gardens. Now you may be wondering, “what does this have to do with the gameplay and narrative?” Well, as more and more people settle in your Oasis, it increases its level, raising its size and the number of people who can live there. The happiness of the villagers increases the Oasis’ strength which not only plays to the goal of fighting back the Chaos, but also grants the player bonuses out in the desert.
The player’s base health is actually quite low, however extra health is added based on the strength of the Oasis. As the villagers’ happiness goes down, so does the amount of health to be added when in the field, so you’re incentivized to assist your villagers and keep your Oasis thriving.
Combat and dungeon crawling is pretty straightforward which works well for a game so adorable, and clearly targeted towards a younger audience. In a lot of ways, it reminds me a lot of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, in how you lock onto a single enemy; and even the way you transition between rooms is reminiscent. However, combat is a little basic, starting the player with simple light and strong attacks, and I was a bit surprised at the lack of a standard three-hit combo. While you do gain more combat abilities as you level up, it does feel very restrictive.
There are some light puzzle solving elements in dungeons and caves which requires two extra party members with specific abilities. Party members will naturally help out in combat, however, both members will attack whichever enemy you lock onto, so there isn’t a lot of room for strategy when facing multiple enemies.
Ever Oasis looks and sounds beautiful too. I particularly like how character races are based off desert dwelling creatures like the Drauk: a race of lizard people, and the Serkah: a race of scorpion people. Despite the limitations of the 3DS, the desert landscape is beautifully crafted with sand shifting like rivers and shimmering like gems, and even interesting locations like giant pots and genie lamps. The soundtrack is whimsical and fun, being lighthearted and upbeat when in the Oasis, and epic and sweeping when in the desert (a score that is hilariously reminiscent of Lawrence of Arabia).
While the game is incredibly well put together, it’s by no means perfect. Partner AI can be a bit spotty at times, and there were a few instances where I saw them just standing still during enemy attacks. The systems for changing equipment and even taking quests are kind of archaic too. You can only change equipment from a chest in your house, or the kiosk where you set a party, and if you change a quest, sometimes you have to speak with the quest-giver again to reactivate it. Not to mention you can only track one quest at a time (save for the main quest which is always tracked). The day-to-night clock seems incredibly fast leaving you very little time to explore, which wouldn’t be a problem if stronger enemies didn’t appear at night, and a lot of the early portions of Ever Oasis feel like one extended tutorial. Just when you think Ever Oasis has given you the reins, it introduces some new mechanic and it’s another tutorial. It might say something of the design that it’s so intricately woven into the gameplay, but it did feel a bit tedious.
Despite these minor flaws, Ever Oasis is a fantastic and ludicrously adorable game, and a perfect example of Nintendo’s plans to keep the 3DS alive. It’s hard to imagine something like this being on the Switch without being blown up to the size of something like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Its presence on the 3DS makes it an excellent small-scale RPG with a tighter focus, and a small world that feels epic.