We've reached that magical time of year where we all look back at what we've played across the past six months and put everything into one of two boxes: Loved It, or Sorry, What Was That Again? And while I'm still playing it, in those gaps in the day that portable gaming fills so well, new (note: not New) 3DS exclusive Ever Oasis isn't going to fall into the former category.
Which is a disappointment given the on-paper precedent for the game. It's the work of Grezzo, the Shibuya-based studio that, until now, has been best known for its work converting Zelda series games to the 3DS. Ocarina of Time 3D and Majora's Mask 3D, both theirs. In 2015, the company also co-produced Tri Force Heroes and a non-Zelda title, The Legend of Legacy.
Factor in, too, that Grezzo's president is Koichi Ishii, the man who designed and directed the original Secret of Mana and several sequels and spin-offs, and also has credits on a number of Final Fantasy games, and you'd think Ever Oasis was set up to be an action-RPG heavyweight.
Alas, however, this new title—which Ishii directs and co-produces—finds itself caught between worlds. Between being a Mana-like role-player, all questing into caves and defeating dungeon-lurking boss creatures; and more of a micromanagement-heavy settlement simulator, like Animal Crossing I suppose, mixed with a little Harvest Moon.
Either, or, and you're fine—but combined, these twin pillars of core gameplay actually distract from the other, all the time. And how the player character Tethu performs in one side will directly impact your performance on the other. Ever Oasis is a constant juggling act between what you want to be getting on with, the fun stuff, and dealing with the gripes and groans of other characters who've run out of fruit, or sticks, or fluff to make blankets from.
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But to leave them unstocked is to suffer in the field, as your town, your oasis in the middle of an otherwise pretty inhospitable desert, effectively has a happiness meter—and the higher that is, the more extra health points you (and your party of up to three) receive on leaving its sanctuary for exploration and combat.
There's a lot more to it than the above, of course—and how and when you interact with the many and varied supporting characters who settle at Tethu's oasis, some of whom can be taken out on adventures to put special skills, such as digging, or turning into a small ball (obviously), becomes a cycle of satisfying rewards, in and of itself. But there's always that other thing that needs seeing to. This rumor of someone close by, we'd better go see to that. But then, all of these "chaos" plants are sprouting in the vicinity, and we can't leave those. There's never a moment, past the opening hour or so, when there's Just One Thing to focus on.
Or at least, that's the experience, so far, a good few hours deep. Truthfully, I don't feel a great urge to see Ever Oasis out. It's okay, something that if you had nothing else on the go for your 3DS, you'd happily kill some hours with. It's not up there with those N64 Zelda ports, or, say, Bravely Default or the latest Fire Emblems, so far as system role-players go. But while it constantly bothers the player to see to seemingly trivial matters—guys, really, I'm the only one who can pick fruit around here?—there is quality about it, as you'd hope given the personnel.
Character designs are endearing, each different race easily identifiable through body shape and size. The music, by German composer Sebastian Schwartz, is consistently gorgeous, even when it takes a turn for the sinister as night falls over the sparkling desert sands. Combat is lightweight but serviceable, and item and equipment management is kept relatively streamlined, with effective optimizing options available to those who want them.
It just doesn't quite all come together to comprise a compelling whole—and when I look back at the games I've genuinely enjoyed in 2017 so far, they all have a better handle on what Ever Oasis (and so many other games, for what it's worth) doesn't: motivation, and momentum.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and What Remains of Edith Finch are two wildly different video games, but both understand those two m-words. The motivation in Zelda is made clear at the very beginning: shit is fucked in Hyrule, Link, so please go and unfuck it. How you do that is entirely up to you, once the pretty brief opening area is cleared. The game's world, open from the outset essentially, is a great motivator itself. And the momentum comes from the player marking their targets, plotting their routes, telling their own story without feeling harassed by time-sensitive distractions or penned in by linear questing.
Ever Oasis takes so long to shake itself free of tutorial-like sequences that by the time you're out there in a party of three, switching members in and out to make the most of their individual abilities, the hunger for exploration and investigation has waned. It lacks thrust, force, purpose for the longest time—instead content to introduce the player to stocking mechanics and the significance of smiles around the oasis. And I get that, I do, in the context of this game—but it's just not a lot of fun.
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Edith Finch is a brief game, which is a motivator for anyone who's time poor through work and family commitments—oh, hi there. But it's because of the terrific and moving story, magically articulated through ever-changing means of interaction, that one sticks with it—not just because its credits will roll sooner than you'll get Tethu some new threads in Ever Oasis. Edith Finch is a masterpiece of "what's next" intrigue. It keeps you guessing—but most of the time, expectations will land nowhere near what it delivers. It feels legitimately unprecedented in its presentation, and that's the most brilliant fuel for momentum.
Grezzo's new game, in contrast, never shakes free of its twin sets of influences, from the community harmony precedent and the sword-swinging action-RPG games of Ishii's past. It never rises above them. Any old-timer like myself looking for a game that evokes the same feelings that Secret of Mana did will likely be left wanting—although the nostalgic thrill of seeing a trio of adventurers out there together does initially bring back warm memories of Randi et al. (Haha, Randi.)
Maybe these are unfair comparisons— Ever Oasis isn't a similar experience to either BotW or Edith Finch, and isn't pitched as an alternative, or complementary experience to either. But when I think about what drives me to stick with a game, to get into the heart of it, maybe even to see it through, it does come down to motivation and momentum. Which is probably why I'm belatedly loving 2014's Wolfenstein: The New Order, right now. I can't remember the last time I played a shooter that so elegantly laid out its reasoning for your actions, its crystal motivation, and staged them across such an exciting and varied campaign, its electric momentum.
Again, it's not a meaningful comparison, triple-A FPS to handheld RPG. But of that and this, I definitely know which I'm going to finish first. Which is saying something given that, of the two genres, I'm always more willing to go on an adventure.