Maybe it’ll grow on you
I’ve spent a decent portion of the year with “wholesome” games. I put that in quotes, not because I’m being sarcastic about it, but because the movement is rather nebulous. It’s hard to say what really counts as wholesome, but generally, if you’re not experiencing terror or gunning down corridors full of dudes, you’re above the bar in terms of wholesomeness.
I believe in the movement. Not because I hate violence in video games, I just think it’s too pervasive. More options are needed. Conflict resolution shouldn’t just escalate to a gunfight immediately.
However, I’ve been greatly disappointed by most wholesome games I’ve played this year. It’s not that I feel they fall short of being wholesome, they just often wind up being not much else. Grow: Song of the Evertree is a welcome reprieve from that; a game that succeeds in showing you can make a compelling experience without violence.
The story involves a life-giving tree that for a long time had provided harmony to the inhabitants at its roots through “the song.” One day, the song “shattered” and the people could no longer hear it. Soon, the tree was overrun by the withering, and everyone fled apart from one young alchemist who now sets out to restore the Evertree to its former glory.
Grow: Song of the Evertree is a multi-faceted game. To break it down, there’s gardening, city-building, and exploration. You plant seeds to build worlds that you cultivate, and this provides you with resources. You then use these resources to build regions of a town and attract villagers. In order to make progress, you then have to find a fragment of the song, return it to the Evertree’s heart chamber, then if your townsfolk are happy enough, you can push back the withering and expand your town.
If that sounds repetitive, that’s because it is. It’s made up for by the fact that there’s so much to do. You’ll often zoom off to your worlds in the branches and watch the same planting/watering/hammering animation ad absurdum, but there’s nothing forcing you to do that every day. You don’t have to develop a routine, you can go out and poke at whatever little project you have going.
It’s the fact that there is so much interplay when it comes to progression that it takes a long time to get old. Maybe you want to spend the day maximizing a town’s potential. Perhaps you’d rather run quests to try and make your townsfolk as happy as possible. There are even goals you can complete to gain various rewards. Much of the game is so satisfying, and Grow: Song of the Evertree is strangely well balanced for a game with so many individual mechanics.
The town-building, for example, is highly customizable. Not only do you have a lot of control over its layout, almost everything can be decorated with various paints and signs. You can even slap mustaches onto all your townsfolk, I’m not going to stop you and neither is Grow: Song of the Evertree.
The gardens you build in the Evertree’s branches are something special, as well. You create seeds by mixing different alchemical elements and the world is created based on that combination. At first, I was just getting some generic but colorful forests, but then I started getting weird stuff like a world that had moving eyeballs everywhere. The number of possible combinations is insane, and I’m left wondering just what is hiding in that algorithm.
The exploration isn’t any slouch either. Each area of the town you uncover features a short dungeon that is maybe less ambitious than your typical Breath of the Wild dungeon but is at least comparable. Each has its own puzzles and theme, and while the design can be confusing at times, it ties in well to the rest of the game.
This is all done under a sunny aesthetic. There’s a lot of hugging to be done. You can adopt creatures from your worlds, and gaining their trust is done through belly rubs and chin scritches. You can also take selfies with the animals, which doesn’t really gain you much aside from a warm feeling inside.
There is some combat if you want to get technical. There are blob things that sometimes roam around that you need to smack with your hammer. However, they don’t attack you, and hitting them just causes them to dissolve and release an insect that’s caught in their goo.
Grow: Song of the Evertree is certainly punching outside of its weight class. There’s a lot of content, and while most of it is extremely solid, there are some rough edges, but they don’t significantly detract from the overall experience.
You’ll definitely see them, though. While the game’s art style pops with vibrant colours, the animation is a tad rough. There’s lots of clipping and many awkward moments. If you jump from a high place, your character pops open an umbrella to prevent themselves from getting hurt. However, if they do this while carrying an item, the umbrella just ejects from their hand, hanging in front of them in a way that would be entirely unhelpful.
There’s this romance mechanic to the game, but I’m not sure why. You can technically build relationships with any characters, but there were a couple that came up as frequent quests until they admitted their attraction to my fabulous self. It might be cute, but it’s a bit undercooked. It just kind of happens outside of your control, and it doesn’t really lead to much aside from a rather mundane subplot.
For that matter, the only characters with any real depth are Copperpot and Book, your two alchemy companions and tools. Dialogue is often rather enjoyable, even with random villagers, but I never got the urge to get to know any of them. That’s maybe out of scope, and the overall plot is an optimistic environmental message, but I think I’d feel more drawn into the world if there were people living in it to connect with.
I feel Grow: Song of the Evertree is the sort of game that’s great to pick up in small amounts. Sort of like Animal Crossing but without the time-gating. Every time I did, I’d be sucked in for a couple hours, then would put it aside, but I enjoyed it throughout.
There are some rough edges to be found, and one person’s relaxation will be another’s repetition. However, Grow: Song of the Evertree succeeds in its attempts at presenting a wholesome, laid-back experience. Its successes are admirable, and its missteps are negligible. It lives up to its philosophy and presents something that has all the satisfying progression of a typical game experience, but without all the violence. There’s still room to grow, but the roots are firmly planted.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]