Developer: Prideful Sloth
Publisher: 505 Games
Genre: World-Crafting Sandbox
Reviewed on PlayStation 4
Also Available for: Nintendo Switch, PC (Steam), XBox One
As I started Grow: Song of The Evertree, I couldn’t help but notice how strikingly similar it is to Prideful Sloth’s previous title, Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles. Both games are non-violent open-world adventure titles with an emphasis on cultivation rather than conflict, and both have basically the same plot of “the responsibility of purifying the land of this nasty purple corruption by caring for the world around you falls on your shoulders”. The similarity of the premise is such that I can’t help but wonder if Song of The Evertree isn’t another attempt at making the game Prideful Sloth wanted to make all along, trying to more fully realize that initial vision with more experience in game development. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, to be clear; when I played Cloud Catcher Chronicles I thought it was okay but a little underwhelming, and it’s nice to see this team making more games. However, the question remains: is Song of The Evertree a step up or a letdown?
The Basics: Grow: Song of The Evertree puts you in the shoes of the last of the Everheart Alchemists, a once great guild dedicated to caring for the titular Evertree which is the font of all life in the game’s setting. When the protagonist was a child, the majority of the population’s lack of respect for nature and propensity for overconsumption shattered their connection with something called the song of creation, which in turn made everything to go pear-shaped and prompted the growth of The Withering, which is the aforementioned nasty purple stuff. Long story short, the player is the only person left in their homeland, which aside from a small grove around their house is covered in enormous, gross vines, at least first.
As an Everheart Alchemist, the player’s primary responsibility is the creation of “world seeds” through alchemy, which when planted in the branches of the Evertree create miniature worlds that must be carefully tended to until they reach maturity. Caring for these worlds means pulling weeds, planting and watering healthy plants, breaking down rocks and looking after wildlife, and doing all that rewards the player with elemental materials that can then be used to create more world seeds. The worlds created are generated somewhat randomly, in that you don’t know exactly what you’re going to get but you can have a general idea based on what you use. When alchemizing, the player picks a mixture of between three and five different essences from a table of twenty-four, and the breadth of possibilities that allows for makes it extremely fun and satisfying to experiment. That said, the slow rate at which the worlds grow means it will be at least three in-game days before you actually start to really see the fruits of your labors. In fact, the game is generally very slowly paced, especially at the start, and it took me a while to get to where I felt like I had any freedom in making the worlds I wanted to make. Once I did it really sucked me in and I was addicted to the cycle of making worlds, growing them, and using their byproducts to make more, but this is not a game for the impatient.
Alchemy and literal world-building is only half the game, roughly speaking. The other half is a town management and social life simulator, where the player is in charge of overseeing reconstruction of various buildings that will attract residents back to their homeland after so many years of it being mostly uninhabited. Each time the player pushes The Withering back it opens up a new district which can be built upon with various buildings ranging from libraries and community gardens to diners, cafes, and hair dressers. Every district has a happiness rating which can be improved by providing a variety of buildings, assigning residents to their “dream jobs”, and even just decorating the town, and once a district hits 100% happiness the next one can be opened up. Ironically, I found decorating to be the most satisfying part of this, despite that I’m fairly certain it has the least actual quantifiable impact on things. As with the gardening part of the game, this can be slow at times, with new residents trickling in at a rate of only one or two a day, but when paired with the gardening it makes for a decent addition to the time management gameplay.
Now, one of the biggest things I found underwhelming in Prideful Sloth’s previous game, The Cloud Catcher Chronicles, was how shallow the social aspects of it were. While Song of The Evertree has a bit more depth to it in that respect it’s still very simplistic and not really a big draw for the game. With a few key exceptions of characters who are in one way or another plot relevant, NPCs are randomly generated and have no real defining traits or personality. To put it uncharitably, they feel like little more than rank and file meant to fill out the communities the player creates, which feels extremely at odds with the game’s overall message. The “fixed” characters don’t have much going for them either, with only a few very limited interactions before they start only giving you the same generic dialogue lines as anyone else. Even the romance routes consist of only one or two extra scenes that don’t lead to any unique interactions with the NPC in question after that, which makes me question why they’re there at all; the absence of any sort of romance mechanic wouldn’t have been as conspicuous as the inclusion of an extremely bare-bones one. It’s not a huge detractor from the game, as the mechanical juiciness of the town and tree world management are enough to draw and keep players on their own, but it’s still somewhat disappointing.
Despite how lackluster the social sim side of things is, the writing is generally very clever, with lots of great puns and wordplay to be discovered by examining different parts of the environment, which is something you should absolutely be doing anyway. Song of The Evertree is the sort of game that encourages players to stop and smell the roses, as one might expect, and the attention to detail in the environments and creature designs is beautiful. The soundtrack too is very charming, full of relaxing songs that really help to get the player in the headspace of caring for the world around them, in spite of occasional audio glitches which would cause brief but loud sound artifacting when too much was going on at once.
Ultimately, Grow: Song of The Evertree is unlike other games in the broad genre of wholesome and relaxing titles about farming-adjacent tasks, for better and worse. Though it lacks the social appeal of games like My Time at Portia or Stardew Valley, it makes up for it by having a strong mechanical core that rewards players for taking the time to dig into it and play around with its base components. Despite that shallowness of its NPCs, I can still see myself coming back to it again and again for a long time to come, just as I do with those other titles, and that more than anything else makes it a success in my eyes.
Crunchy yet accessible gameplay systems more than make up for the mediocre social aspects of Prideful Sloth's second game.