We don't want to speak too soon, but for the time being it seems like the British summer has finally sprung, with little in the way of rain, cloudy skies and sudden unseasonal snow showers in the forecast for the next few days - although how fleeting this good weather is still remains to be seen, especially considering the schools break up soon. But between the still-far-too-hot sleepless nights, the anti-histamine-induced brain fog and the repeated sun cream applications (curse our Celtic heritage!), we've had a new reason to stay up late in bed, as we've been channelling the summer spirit with Nintendo's latest role-playing adventure-cum-town-building sim, the adorable Ever Oasis.
Set in the middle of a sprawling desert, Ever Oasis puts you in charge of your own little nest of tranquillity - a bustling oasis that serves as a place of refuge and calm for the myriad explorers, adventurers and lost souls passing by. However, all is not well in the world, as a nefarious force known as the Chaos has been warping the wildlife that roam the sandy plains, turning them into vicious monsters, whilst simultaneously draining the power from prosperous oases far and wide. As the chief of the sole surviving oasis, you take it upon yourself to fight back against the Chaos and eradicate it once and for all, before the whole desert falls into ruin, all whilst trying to grow your little retreat into something people will travel far and wide to see.
In practice, Ever Oasis plays most like a hybrid of The Legend of Zelda and Animal Crossing, with a sprinkling of a more traditional role-playing adventure thrown in - when you're not out exploring dungeons, beating bosses and strolling through the desert sands, you'll be kicking back in your oasis, building shops, growing crops and helping out your inhabitants with their problems. While that may seem to be blending two very different styles of play together, it's something that actually works rather well - as proven by the dual farming/dungeon crawling Rune Factory series - and Ever Oasis is a surprisingly nice little title that will sadly slip under the radar for many, thanks to its lack of portly plumber protagonist.
In essence, your oasis is very much like a little town, and it falls to you as the chief to take it from a barely-there pond in the middle of the desert to a bustling centre filled with shops galore. As your oasis grows, you'll attract new residents, each of which has their own unique store they bring to the table - and they'll happily set up shop in your oasis, providing you help them with a quick quest, be it handing over a number of healing potions to mend their wounds, providing them with some fruit to munch on, or perhaps just a favourite shop to stop at, effectively linking it to another quest. Complete the quest in question, and the character will be begging you to let them move in - and providing you have the space for it, you can plonk down their unique 'bloom booth' (read: shop), which will not only net you periodic profits to spend however you wish, but will also in turn attract more and more residents to help grow your oasis further. Sometimes, would-be residents require a bit more work before they'll move in, and when chatting to the folks that pass through your oasis, you'll sometimes hear of rumours of characters stranded in a cave, or searching for a particular artefact nearby - pop over and lend a hand, and the grateful folk will no doubt stop by your oasis to pay you a visit, perhaps begging you to take them in in the process.
Not just a good place for rounding up stray adventurers, the ruins, dungeons and caves that litter the desert also contain vital resources for restocking your stores (your townsfolk are mostly useless, and so you'll need to go out and do their dirty work for them), upgrading your weapons and synthesising healing potions, along with some rather important gems known as Lumite Crystals. Generally found in the depths of the dungeons and guarded by powerful bosses, these crystals are the key to stopping the spread of the Chaos for good, and reclaiming the desert once more - but finding each of the three crystals in turn does take a fair bit of work.
While most of the characters that move in to your oasis spend their days as shopkeepers, many also lead an amazing double life, and can often be collared to join you on your adventures into the surrounding dungeons, where their skills come in pretty handy for solving the myriad of puzzles you'll need to pass in order to proceed. Whether it's using Roto's roll-up-into-a-ball skill to pass through a small hole and open up a locked door from the other side, making use of blanket store owner Miura's long spear to pull on a high up switch, or simply digging up useful materials with the help of professional juicer Evia's spade, taking along the right friends is key to making your way through the winding dungeons of Ever Oasis, and figuring out whose skill to use where is part of the fun. One drawback, though, is that you're limited to only bringing two villagers at a time with you, and later dungeons often require a wider range of skills to explore, meaning you'll sometimes need to pop back to your oasis and shake up your party periodically. Frequent teleportation portals that'll take you back home do make the job easier, although it is a tad irritating to suddenly find you need that guy you swapped out a room ago in order to proceed. And, given that you spend a lot of time in dungeons chopping and changing between the characters in your party, it does feel like Nintendo have missed a trick slightly by not including any multiplayer support, a la a slightly less gimped version of The Legend of Zelda: Triforce Heroes.
Of course, the game's dungeons aren't exactly peaceful places to hang out either, and you'll often find the rooms crawling with monsters cruisin' for a bruisin'. Fortunately, battles are a pretty straight-forward blend of fast-paced button mashing attacks and well-timed dodges, with different characters have different weapons which are more or less effective against different classes of enemies - although that doesn't stop them all chipping in when a scuffle kicks off, with combat often devolving into little more than whack-it-till-it's-dead. Boss fights push things up a notch, adding in falling pots, fireballs and earth-shaking area of effect attacks to dodge, although they're still none too difficult, in fitting with Ever Oasis' easygoing nature. In fact, depending on how happy your citizens are back at your Oasis, something called 'Rainbow Protection' not only bolsters your entire party's health, but also gives you a limited number of revivals should you be defeated in a particularly nasty fight - the happier your folks are, which is mostly done through keeping your stores fully stocked, the bigger its effect will be, and the easier you'll find your dungeon excursions.
Despite the bleakness that rages outside of your Oasis, Ever Oasis is a cheery little game, with everything you do eliciting rainbows, fireworks and well done jingles - for an adventure set in a sand-filled desert, it's surprisingly colourful. The artwork is similarly charming, from your created character (male/female, skin colour etc) to the chibi 'Seedling' characters and other desert folk that fill your town, as well as the fat penguin-like Noots in their Hawaiian-style shirts and novelty sunglasses, who are up there with some of the most adorable - and fashion savvy - RPG creatures this side of Final Fantasy's Moogles.
Ever Oasis is a game that has its fingers in a lot of pies - Zelda's puzzle-filled dungeons mixed with Animal Crossing-esque town building and hints of a more traditional role-playing adventure all add up to create a unique little title, reminiscent of Fantasy Life, Rune Factory and the like. Chock full of charm, and with a rather addictive adventuring/town development loop, Ever Oasis has a lot to like, and proves that Nintendo's six year old hand held still has some life in it yet.