Xbox One, PS4, PC, Nintendo Switch
November 16, 2021
Grow: Song of the Evertree has a gorgeously colourful, storybook aesthetic that is instantly captivating. The magical land of Alaria is brought to life with sweeping landscapes and cheerfully comic characters, with moments that range from wholesome to genuinely funny. While the world is realised beautifully, the gameplay mash-up of sandbox crafting, adventure, social simulation, and light city-building is not quite so smooth.
This is a game with a lot of moving pieces, so it’s easiest to start with two constants; your friendly companions Book and Coppertop. These are the first NPCs you’ll be introduced to when you start the game and you’ll be spending a lot of time with them. Both are sentient, animated objects given magical life; Book as her name suggests is a large tome with a motherly attitude while Coppertop is a somewhat curmudgeonly piece of alchemical equipment, something like a giant alembic. These two pull double-duty as the game’s narrators, bantering with each other as your progress and explore, and as indispensable tools in your quest. Coppertop facilitates the game’s crafting mechanic of alchemy (more on that later) while Book keeps track of your tasks, progress, and achievements. In addition to these two colourful colleagues, you’ll meet a host of fun characters as you explore the world.
Coppertop and Book are also the ones to lay the foundations of the story through an expository dialogue at the start of the game. The quick version is that the land of Alaria is in peril as the magical song that once kept harmony and fed the ancient Evertree that holds your world together has faded. The Evertree is slowly dying as a result and a blight has spread across the land, leaving the world corrupted and desolate. Your mission is to use your skills as an alchemist and a can-do attitude to restore the Evertree to health, bringing the land back into harmony. It’s a big task, but in practice it’s broken down into what feels like a collection of a few separate games; an open-world adventure game with fish to catch and characters to meet, a small-scale city-building game with citizens to manage across their homes and occupations, and an odd gardening game to revitalise blighted plateaus of land across the Evertree. While the world and characters of Grow: Song of the Evertree are lovingly realised, its in these three seemingly separate gameplay elements that it becomes clear not every part of the game received that same level of polish.
The open world exploration of Grow: Song of the Evertree was the most instantly engaging aspect of the game to me, particularly early on with my first visit to the home village of the Everkin—a race of tiny goat-people with big personalities. Early on you’ll get a quest to follow one of these critters, which will lead through a portal to their town. This place is adorable, filled with tiny houses and giant mushrooms that lend themselves perfectly to the game’s storybook aesthetic. After speaking with the Everkin leader, Elderkin, you’ll learn that every Everkin has a name somehow related to their occupation. This part of the game was the most consistently entertaining for me, with everything in the Everkin village being just my cup of tea. The simple fact that you’re given a net and rod to catch bugs and fish immediately won me over as these are two features I’m increasingly convinced improve any game they’re added to.
The writing was also a high point due to the number of quirky characters tucked into this little village. Because humour is subjective I can see these guys being tedious to some players, but I was always charmed in my dealings with the Everkin. I appreciated the refreshing honesty of the little fellow who confided that he didn’t exactly have a quest for me but was happy for me to do his job for him since he couldn’t be bothered. I felt for Wateringkin as he looked up with his sad little eyes and admitted it’s hard being known as the moist Everkin. I think I genuinely laughed when I encountered the Everkin who needed my help to chop down some giant mushrooms but was distinctly uncomfortable with the fact I was just casually carrying an axe.
These sections exploring the truly gorgeous world of Alaria and meeting new characters are the most engrossing part of the game, and I’m a little sad that there was so much to do entirely unrelated to this as it felt like the other sections came between me and this part of the game that I loved the most. Grow: Song of the Evertree’s mix of differing gameplay elements is something I expect will be a point of contention amongst fans; it’s easy to see arguments in favour of the game doing more and offering different experiences, but I have to admit that personally I’d love to see what Grow would have been if it had embraced this exploration and adventure part fully and focused on making it the best it could be rather than working in other side gigs that all feel strangely isolated from each other. This was particularly the case when I got into the work of maintaining the Plentiful Retreat, the first little plateau of land suspended off the Evertree.
“The building mechanics are quite free-form, so it’s easy to give your town a unique touch…”
In service of returning life and magic to Alaria by revitalising the mystical Evertree, you’ll need to return balance to the land by cleaning corruption and tending to the plants and animals across plateaus of land up the Evertree. In practice, this is represented by pulling weeds, lifting rocks, clearing junk, and watering plants to slowly spread greenery. While these sections are nice and chill at first, they quickly became monotonous as repetitive busywork. It’s strange how divorced these sections are from the world and characters, and how swiftly they kill the mood and pacing those other areas had built up.
After running around in gorgeous fields and meeting interesting folk, maintaining the plateaus of the Evertree feels like a grind rather than a reward. Every time I saw the “finish all work on the tree” objective, it snapped off a fresh chunk of my enjoyment. I admit that I’m very sour on this one aspect of the game, and it’s largely because it feels so unnecessary and simplistic compared to the rest of what Grow has to offer. You leave a world of fun characters, writing, and world design to run around a mostly flat patch of dirt pulling weeds and demolishing debris. The entire job of maintaining these areas could have been cut from the game and it would be hard to miss it; in fact, I think the whole experience of playing Grow would be smoother if this one aspect had been trimmed out before launch.
The comparison I keep coming back to is if you were playing Zelda mixed with Animal Crossing and, as you’d expect, having a great time – but you got an objective to pick every weed, every day, and there were always more to pull. As I saw my little plateau looking almost fully green and happy after a few visits, I thought at first that I was making progress and it was the first time this particular piece of the game felt rewarding to me. I think that, failing cutting the sections entirely, these would ideally be quick little tasks to get an area nice and presentable. It could be worked in alongside the city-building as a little step of getting an area underway rather than its own full branch of the game. The fact that this mechanic is a separate section and there seems to always be more work to do really sucked the fun out of it. When I returned to find an entire new plateau had now appeared, larger than ever and with a full host of weeds to pluck and soil to be planted, it was difficult to bring myself to care about the tree any more.
When I first encountered the city-building gameplay in Grow: Song of the Evertree, it came as a complete surprise. I thought that my time exploring in the Everkin village would be the core gameplay of Grow, and managing a small village and its residents feels entirely disconnected from that. As I progressed further in the game, it became clear that entirely separate gameplay elements is something of a running theme for the game. While this was jarring at first, town management is well built, if simple, and still delivers the cute tone and beautiful scenery of the exploration sections. There’s enough going on in these parts that they could stand by themselves as a fleshed out game in their own right. Settlers will come to visit your town, and you can convince them to stay if you’ve built them somewhere to sleep. Once you’ve set up some accommodation, you can assign your villagers to occupations depending on what venues you’ve constructed for working in town.
Your villagers also track stats for their mood, which can be improved by managing their living and working conditions as well as by completing additional objectives like mini-quests to help them out. For example, one of my villagers had a dream-job of working in a bakery so I constructed one and made sure to assign her there. The next day she told me she’d lost her necklace and asked me to check the bakery, her house, and the local inn. I assume this mini objective would have boosted her mood if I’d found her necklace, but after scouring all three I never saw it turn up. This was a little strange as interactable items tend to sparkle in Grow so they stand out from background scenery. It’s possible that there was an issue that prevented the necklace from spawning or maybe the area needed to re-load, but it’s also possible I just failed to spot it while poking around those locations.
I could see this becoming an issue as you work on a town and expand the number of buildings as it might get tricky to keep track of where you’ve looked and which buildings are which once you’ve constructed duplicates. This is ultimately a minor concern though, and the town building stands out as a fantastic part of Grow: Song of the Evertree. Constructing buildings, assigning villagers, and helping them stay happy is a laid-back experience and easy to chill out with. More so than that though, I really appreciated being able to decorate my growing town with a collection of park benches and flower-covered archways to give everything a welcoming garden vibe. The building mechanics are quite free-form, letting you place items with a lot of control so long as they don’t overlap, so it’s easy to give your town a unique touch.
Grow’s crafting mechanic, alchemy, seems a little convoluted at first but falls into place pretty quickly. While playing and completing journal objectives you’ll pick up random cosmetic items such as ornaments for your town or clothing to style your character. The crafting system requires taking these items and, instead of using them as they are, melting them down at Coppertop into their base elements. This will produce a semi-randomised handful of essences, basic concepts like “warm” or “hard”. These are the crafting elements that can be spent to build throughout the game. For example, the buildings constructed in the city-building section require combinations of elements extracted in the alchemy process. In my experience, I rarely struggled to get enough of the elements I needed for my constructions or ever worried about running out.
If you’re building a lot of constructions that draw from the same pool of elements, however, it could be possible to run out and the semi-random results of melting items for alchemy could make it difficult to restock in your specific needs. Unfortunately this does leave the alchemy mechanic in a bit of an odd place; if you never need to worry about having the right resources then you can just periodically scrap a bunch of stuff at random and alchemy becomes a bit perfunctory. On the other hand, making the alchemy mechanic harder to manage could lead to it becoming a frustrating barrier that blockades your progress rather than being a rewarding part of the game. Personally, it seems to me like alchemy falls more into that first category, never feeling particularly difficult or cumbersome but not really adding much or feeling very compelling either.
- Gorgeously colourful story-book aesthetic
- Charming writing with some genuinely funny dialogue
- An excellent option when you just want a game to chill out with
- Reviving the refuge plateaus of the Evertree can feel like a chore
- Alchemy feels a little bland and unneccesary
Grow: Song of the Evertree is close to excellence with its gorgeous aesthetic and charming writing, but it struggles under the number of gameplay elements packed into it. There’s a lot here that might work together in theory, but the end result is less than the sum of its parts. When exploring Alaria and interacting with the characters, it’s easy to get swept up in this quirky and beautiful world. Unfortunately, the bits you enjoy will be intercut with stuff that might feel more like a chore. Grow is a game with too many irons in the fire, but its obvious heart and character still presents a lot to love.