Ever Oasis might be a new IP, but it comes from a long and storied pedigree: the brainchild of Secret of Mana creator Koichi Ishii, and developed by Grezzo (of the 3DS Zelda remakes and StreetPass Garden/Flower Town fame), while it certainly reflects the influence of its creators’ earlier works, as a full package it feels fresh and undeniably new. A mix of action-RPG and town-building elements set in a beautifully colourful fantasy interpretation of ancient Egypt, it’s also some of the most fun we’ve had on the 3DS, and comes as a real treat late in the system’s life.

When the curtain rises in Ever Oasis, you’ll find yourself (as fashioned in a gender- and skin-tone-inclusive character generator) in a thriving oasis headed up by your elder brother, the chief. Inside, the oasis is a haven of calm and bustling commerce, but beyond, a force known as Chaos threatens to envelop the desert, turning animals into monsters and ravaging travelers. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for Chaos to encroach upon the oasis, and as your brother tries his best to hold off the evil, you’re told to flee, wander the desert, find a water spirit, and use your special power — as a Seedling and a Child of the Great Tree — to grow a new oasis.

It’s a relatively simple setup, but we loved learning more about Ever Oasis’ world — the imagination and care that’s gone into the lore at its heart is wonderful to watch unfold. It also feeds into a fantastically fun gameplay loop. Once you do find a friendly water spirit — the charming, Isabelle-like Esna — and use your seed to start a new oasis, you’ll be starting from scratch, and in order to build up your oasis — now the last known refuge in the desert — as best you can, you’ll need to balance town-building and exploration in equal measure.

In terms of the town, that means expanding your population by recruiting new residents, and having them set up shop in Bloom Booths — personalized stores that eventually start to line your main street. These Bloom Booths sell everything from potions and juices to robes and turbans, and you won’t be the only one benefitting from them; other residents, as well as adorable penguin-like creatures called Noots, will gladly buy up stock from the Bloom Booths in town. Once they do, you’re able to take a share of the profits in the form of dewadems (Ever Oasis’ currency of choice), and use that capital in turn to upgrade and expand the oasis. Of course, if you want more shops, you’ll need to recruit more residents, and that’s not all — it’s a dangerous world out there, and your shopkeepers aren’t exactly equipped to go gather the materials they need to sell in the face of Chaos. To solve both of those problems, you’ll have to leave the comfort of your watering hole and venture out in into the desert.

Outside the confines of your oasis, the game’s other side shines: exploration and action-RPG combat. Once you head out, you’ll control your Seedling from behind-the-shoulder perspective, traipsing across the map in search of resources, enemies, recruitable residents, and puzzle-filled dungeons. Exploring feels natural, so that you’ll often pop out after one of those goals and then end up following up with several more; we’d often go to gather a resource for a Bloom Booth product — cactus juice, say — and then end up spending a half-hour getting as far as we could in a newly uncovered dungeon. 

Whether you’re extracting cactus juice or cutting down enemies, the controls are easy and smooth: the Circle Pad moves your character, ‘A’ acts as a weak attack, ‘X’ as a stronger follow up, ’B’ performs a dodge, and a tap of the ‘L’ button lets you lock on to a nearby enemy, or switch between targets. ‘Y’ activates your magic — or puts away your weapon so you can run away from foes faster! — and also bears our only real issue with the system; you have to hold ‘Y’ for slightly longer than a normal button press to get magic out, and while it probably has to do with the ability to charge it up and choose a direction to fire, we frequently whiffed the windup. Other than that, however, combat is fast, fluid, and fun, and though it starts out simple, you’ll unlock more combos and moves as you go. 

You also won’t be alone for long. As you discover various members of the other tribes in Ever Oasis’ world — the spear-wielding Darkus, the strong, hammer-flinging Serkah, and the Lagora, agile masters of the twin blade — you’ll be able to recruit them to your party, and most likely to come live in your oasis as well. Enemies and dungeon puzzles both make full use of the three-character party, so that certain enemies are weak to spears, or others to swords, and that progressing through parts of dungeons will require a hammer here, or a twin blade there; it’s delightfully Zelda-like. 

You can switch between party members with a quick tap of ‘Up’ or ‘Down’ on the D-Pad, with the other two being controlled by the AI, and three feels like a magic number for this; it’s easy to use all three characters, and to exploit their specific strengths, without ever feeling overwhelming or overly complicated. The strength of the three-person system does make us wish there was local multiplayer included in the package — there isn’t — but it’s still a blast as a solo adventure. 

The town-building and exploration-action portions of Ever Oasis are both fun systems in their own right, but the game really shines in how they feed into eachother. There are obvious bits of overlap — recruiting new residents so you can both expand your town and have more potential party members for exploring, or the fact that new Bloom Booths will sell items that can make you more powerful in the field — but also some truly thoughtful, on-theme crossovers that contribute to the irresistible forward momentum of the loop. 

One of these is your ‘Rainbow Protection’. This power, granted by the rainbow arcing over your oasis, adds a considerable amount of HP to each of your party members when you venture into the desert, and lets you revive where you fall in battle a certain number of times, and its strength is directly proportional to the happiness — as measured by individual ‘Smile Meters’ — of your villagers. Keep your populace happy by providing them with ingredients they need, keeping up with the main street, and making consistent improvements and they’ll reward you with some very real combat advantages.

There’s also the synthesis system, which lets you craft better weapons, gear, and healing items using resources you find in the field. It’s addictive on its own, and we settled into a routine of heading to the Synthesis Tree in our home every time we returned from the desert, but it also represents a nice blending of the two gameplay types, in that new recipes come from expanding your oasis and ticking off To-Do list quests given by residents. 

Ever Oasis is built on a wonderfully solid gameplay foundation, then, and it’s absolutely worth playing for that alone — if the explore-build-create-explore loop above sounds appealing, you’ll have a wonderful time here. But Ever Oasis is also worth playing for another reason: the boundless sense of joy that pervades it. In addition to Secret of Mana, producer Koichi Ishii also had a hand in several Final Fantasies, where he created both the Moogle and the Chocobo — and you can see the charming innocence, sweetness, and fun embodied by both those characters alive and well in Ever Oasis. This is a game where defeated enemies shrink down into cuter versions of themselves and run off, reformed; where you can build a ‘Melody Wheel’ in your Oasis just so you can run on top of it and play out a tune; and where you bloom new bodegas by planting and watering a new resident’s seed of hope within their heart. It is, simply put, a joy to play.

A good deal of that comes from the game’s art style and graphics, as well. The colourful, anime-ancient-Egyptian-themed character models are a delight, and their hugely varied outfits set a high bar for in-game fashion in RPGs — not to mention the Noots, which are up there with the aforementioned Moogles as some of the cutest RPG animals in recent memory. The world itself is also as bright and appealing as can be, and it’s impressive from a technical standpoint as well — we loved watching night fall over the desert for the shimmering silver sheen that washes over the sand after dusk. If you’re a fan of the 3DS’ stereoscopic 3D you’ll be well-served here as well; the added depth helps make the world pop, and adds a nice effect to the talking heads cutscenes. Our only issues with the graphics are some occasional lapses in framerate (playing on our old 3DS), and a behind-the-back camera that doesn’t always line up with where we’d like it to be vertically — a problem apparently fixed by the New 3DS’ C-Stick. But those are minor gripes in an overwhelmingly impressive package; Ever Oasis is an explosion of colour from start to finish, and we can’t get enough.

The same can be said for the excellent music, composed by Sebastian Schwartz. It’s a bouncy, orchestral soundtrack with a cinematic feel, that borrows Middle Eastern motifs and instrumentation while foregrounding flute melodies and excitingly varied percussion rhythms. One of the most notable parts about the music in Ever Oasis is how it transitions relatively seamlessly from overworld themes into battle music as soon as you get within range of an enemy — it’s both thematically satisfying and useful, letting you know if something’s sneaking up on you from behind with a martial musical flourish. Our sole disappointment with the sound design is a lack of either voice acting or text-advancing gibberish-voice in cutscenes; it feels fine when there’s music behind, but on the occasions when cutscenes are silent — usually for added emotional effect — the silence can feel distracting.

On a similar topic, it needs to be said that for all its strengths, silence is not one of Ever Oasis’ finer points, especially as regards the extended tutorial that makes up the game’s opening hours. The water spirit Esna acts as your guide to the systems and nuances of the desert world, and while the information is genuinely helpful (and nicely spaced out), seasoned gamers will feel at least a few steps ahead of Esna’s explanations for a while. If ‘Hey, listen!’-style handholding is a turn-off, know that you’ll need to wade through a decent bit to get to freedom, but it’s very much worth it when you do.

Conclusion

Ever Oasis isn’t just a brilliant adventure, it’s also one that’s come at the right place and the right time. For 3DS RPG fans, who’ve had an unthinkably rich array of JRPG greats to choose from over the system’s lifespan, Ever Oasis is a nice reminder that there’s still plenty of room for innovation on the six-year-old handheld. Its addictive main gameplay loop, fun combat, amazing (and truly different) sense of style, and kindhearted nature make it feel like nothing else; though it reminds us of Rune Factory 4, Animal Crossing, Tri Force Heroes, and Final Fantasy Explorers in turn, this really is its own experience, and one we’d recommend to any action-RPG aficionado.