I’ve never played Secret of Mana. So when I was given the opportunity to review Ever Oasis, the latest collaboration between Nintendo and developer Grezzo (Ocarina of Time 3D, Majora’s Mask 3D) whose president is none other than Koichi Ishii, creator of the Mana series, I didn’t know what to expect. What I got with Ever Oasis is a perfectly playable, generally enjoyable action role-playing game that has all of the promise of pleasant, fertile oasis but often feels coarse, unrefined, and arid like the surrounding desert.
Ever Oasis tells the tale of a Seedling who’s a Child of the Great Tree, a long line of wind-wielding Seedlings who, with the help of water spirits, can create vibrant oases, safe havens for all desert dwellers. When the Seedling’s brother, Nour, and his oasis fall prey to Chaos, an evil plant infestation, it’s up to them, with the help of Esna, a hopeful water spirit, to create and maintain the final oasis and last bastion against the rampant, corrupting effects of Chaos. As chief, they must provide for and protect the oasis from forces that threaten not only the residents of their little settlement but the tranquility of all life in the desert.
At the center of Ever Oasis is a clever concept, the marriage of standard action RPG elements to town management gameplay a stone throw or two away from Animal Crossing. Success means balancing both. The RPG side of the game is a fairly standard affair, traverse the droughty landscape hacking and slashing Chaos-corrupted creatures into submission, gathering materials, exploring caves and puzzle-ridden dungeons, and rescuing potential inhabitants for the oasis. Back in the oasis, those inhabitants build “bloom booths” which utilize the materials collected in the desert and not only net the player a share of the income but also draw new visitors and new occupants. As the oasis improves and the population increases, so does the player’s power and health meter. In fact, the strong majority of player strength and health is determined by oasis size and inhabitant satisfaction. Quite cleverly, delving into the desert benefits the oasis and managing the oasis greatly benefits party strength out in the desert. Unfortunately, neither the oasis experience or that out in the dunes is without problems.
Where Ever Oasis shines isn’t its namesake, oasis life, but out in the sandy desert, the action side of the game. The combat is well polished and feels as smooth as glass (which is comprised of sand, and therefore a witty statement…or something.) Combo-ing heavy and light attacks, deftly evading before continuing one’s own assault, and perfectly timing a barrage before the enemy can retaliate all feel great. What’s more, as the game progresses and player level increases, so do the number of combos and player abilities, adding even more depth to the combat. Some variety comes through different enemy types, each with their own attack patterns and ranges, while the rest is provided by alternating villagers in and out of the three-man party. Each villager, controlled by AI when not by the player, has their own unique combination of weapon, skill, and abilities. Some villagers can stun an enemy while others are adept at evading. Some carry crossbows, others hammers, boomerangs, spears, or even magic wands. And at any time the player can switch between controlling the chief, always in the party, to any other member of the party with a touch of the d-pad. If swinging a sword gets tedious, switch characters to deal pain from a distance with a crossbow or play a deft, spear-wielding character.
When players aren’t in control, AI competence and intelligence leaves something to be desired. All too frequently AI allies get downed by easily evaded moves. Similarly, on too many occasions I had to tackle a series of enemies alone because my allies were preoccupied running in to walls rather than around them. Though Ever Oasis never seems cheap or unfair, there’s also an unsavory trend toward the end of the title where monsters are paired with projectile-launching plants in what feels like a dishonest difficulty spike that’s less difficult and more annoying, especially with enemy’s tendency to attack when off screen and their proclivity for paralyzing attacks. What’s worse, even when knocked down, characters can take damage, and every so often the player might get ping-ponged around when attacked by an enemy offscreen and given no opportunity to recover. These moments seem somewhat severe in a game that never feels dubiously challenging.
The game’s best moments, out exploring the caves and dungeons of the desert, are Zelda-esque, a balance between combat and puzzle solving and are, particularly later in the game. Unlike Zelda, most of Ever Oasis‘ puzzle solving doesn’t involve a gradually unlocked toolset but instead revolves around different character classes and how they interact with different objects around the map. All oasis residents feature a different combination of weapon and abilities. Certain objects require a certain skill to interact with. “Paraflower” character types, for example, can shoot out of specific flowers and then sail to otherwise unreachable areas. Other objects require certain tools or weapons only carried by specific characters such as spears, shovels, or picks. While caves and dungeons never require any more than three abilities to fully navigate, optional treasure and materials litter each and every cave and dungeon and require entirely separate abilities and weapons to reach or acquire. An inability to swap party members on the go means an unwelcome trip back to the oasis or simply not bothering. Luckily, players can warp to the oasis at any time and, thanks to the “Aqua Gate” mechanic, warp back to the exact point they left off from there. In the end, the design decision is mostly harmless but still entirely annoying.
Were that the only time players had to warp back to the oasis. Regrettably, however, developer Grezzo seem overly zealous in their blending of ARPG with town management and elements that should be completely independent of the oasis can only be done there. In proper RPG fashion, characters can be equipped with better weapons and stat boosting accessories, but only while in the oasis, despite much of the gear being found while out exploring in the desert. Side quests can only be activated within the confines of the oasis, and only one at a time. Consequently, two fetch quests, even to the same location, means two separate trips out into the desert. While it may not seem like much, it’s these small oversights that completely derail any sense of rhythm in game and mar what should be a pleasant, painless experience.
Then there’s the oasis. The chief’s responsibility isn’t just to protect the oasis but to provide for it as well. Hacking and slashing beasts, pots, cacti and more provides materials for resident booths. Those booths provide the player currency and attract more visitors. Those visitors can then become residents if they like the oasis or after the completion of some sort of fetch quest. The more residents, the more the oasis level rises. As the oasis level rises so does its size and the amount of space granted to the player for new booths and attractions. The bigger the oasis, the bigger the strength and health boost, the full benefits of which can only be reaped if citizens are happy. Regularly keeping shop inventories stocked with desert materials ensures citizen happiness and so the oasis cycle goes. Raid, restock, repeat.
Initially, this process is fairly enjoyable, but with time gets tedious and chore-like. At its best, it’s an engaging, pleasant diversion from the rest of proceedings. At its worst, it’s padding that inhibits players from experiencing the more fun aspects of the game. Acquiring new residents gets repetitive and luckily only once did the game force me into acquiring more residents before I could continue with the campaign. Other times when I’d work on my oasis, I’d level it up hoping to get an oasis size upgrade granting me more space for new booths as I had residents waiting in the wings to build their shops, shops I needed to attract particular visitors, only to get a feature I didn’t particularly need instead of a larger oasis. While the game helps players expedite the management process as their oasis grows, giving them villagers who can forage into the desert to collect materials on their own, for example, new features arrive too late or feel like too little to alleviate the sense that much of oasis life is mandatory chores. While certain growth feels rewarding, like leveling up the oasis level and receiving an immediate boost to HP, other growth means more work, and all work and no play makes Timmy a dull boy. Restock a booth enough times and it’ll be ripe for an upgrade, meaning new abilities for the booth owner but also meaning they’ll need more materials to keep the booth running resulting in shortages or mandatory expeditions into territories players wouldn’t otherwise have to visit.
In many ways Ever Oasis supports its central concept. Exploits in the desert provide materials which provide for the oasis which in turns provides benefits to the player for future exploits. Somewhere in the sandstorm of ideas blowing around is a brilliant game. Certain elements certainly shine through, like the game’s fun desert motif, attractive art direction, and engaging creature designs. Other elements feel unrefined, too many potential party members, for example, means a scarcity of significant character development. Worst of all, too many small grievances, like the game’s insistence upon always, always, ALWAYS returning to the oasis even when players are contentedly immersed below the sands of the desert chip away like blustering sands at what could have been a monumental spiritual successor to a beloved classic. In the end, I enjoyed my stay in this desert oasis, I’d even think of visiting again, but with too much coarse sand blowing in my face, it’s a place I could never call home.