An adventure that follows in the footsteps of Undertale but also dances to its own beat.
Sometimes reviewers refer to playing a video game as an experience, perhaps because they are trying to avoid using words like “game” and “gameplay” over and over again. In some rare situations, a game genuinely lives up to the potency and strength of a word like “experience,” especially when it transcends genre boundaries and becomes an entirely new expression within the medium. Where 2015’s Undertale took conventions of the RPG and subverted them to craft a groundbreaking experience, Everhood’s unforgettable rhythm-based combat is among the freshest elements I’ve ever seen. Humor, imagination, and the unexpected around every turn make Everhood an instant classic: a title absolutely deserving of being called an “experience.”
Themes of life, death, and truth pop up throughout the story, but the plot revolves around a character named Red, a wooden doll who has had an arm stolen by a nefarious villain known as Golden Pig. The quest to retrieve Red’s appendage takes you through a series of doors to sparsely populated areas that contain all manner of creatures in need of assistance or else wanting to halt your progress. The top-down 2D perspective lends itself well to the rudimentary exploration of each area and places the focus squarely on the characters you find. Exchanges with each fill in the backstory of the world and Red’s place in it, with many of the conversations tending more to the humorous side. Even though grammar and writing errors are frequent and obvious, they’re more of an annoyance than an impediment to understanding the text.
The adventure aspects of moving from place to place, solving basic puzzles, and conversing with the denizens of Red’s world are quirky and enjoyable in their own right, but the rhythm battles that occur with regularity are the clear standout of Everhood. Typically, talking to a hostile character or one that has an item you need leads to a battle where the perspective shifts to an over-the-shoulder view with Red in the foreground and the opponent in the background. Like the neck of a guitar with its frets and fret wires, the ground below Red’s feet is divided into five columns with five spaces that Red can move between. The objective, at least initially, is to jump over or move away from colored beams that travel down the columns in time with the battle music, which is incredible (but more on that later). Small beams can be avoided with a well-timed jump, while others are taller or longer and require that you sidestep them. Collision with a beam causes Red to take damage, but your health will regenerate after a few seconds if you can avoid taking additional damage.
The default difficulty setting is Hard, which is the second most challenging out of the five available, and even early in the game it can be tricky to succeed in these rhythm challenges until you get the timing down. Fortunately, the difficulty can be dropped down at any time, and doing so makes your health regenerate faster and beams do less damage. Finishing the game unlocks a sixth difficulty option, Insane, which makes it so a single mistake will result in failure during combat. Later, a mechanic is added where you need to deflect the beams back at your opponent, a change that makes the combat even better since it combines defense and offense.
The second greatest strength of Everhood is in its style and aesthetics, particularly during combat. The heavy use of black and darkness in nearly every area of the game really accentuates the brightness and almost flamboyance of many of the rhythm sections. At times the perspective shifts in major ways, with images being stretched and manipulated to the point of near obscurity. Every single battle feels different, and it’s a genuine thrill to see a battle turn from the normal guitar neck view to something wildly different by the time you reach the end. Some of these are nigh indescribable, and that’s what makes them so memorable. The visual spectacle of the combat sections deftly combines with the consistently banging beats, so much so that it’s hard not to start bopping along and really feeling totally absorbed by the rhythm and sound. We’re talking about the peanut butter and jelly of gameplay and music here.
There’s more to the story and events of Everhood that is better left unsaid. About halfway through the 6-hour runtime, a somewhat foreshadowed fate comes to pass and a dramatic shift in Red’s objective takes place. Thorough exploration in the first half of the game can be rewarded in the second half; it’s worth paying attention to your surroundings as a mini fetch quest naturally evolves out of the basic item retrieval and exchange that happens throughout. I apologize for the cryptic language, but it’s important to avoid spoilers. Know that Everhood deals in the absurd: a seemingly never-ending hallway, talking save point lamps, and even a menu cursor fed up with its master’s behavior. The unexpected is almost bound to happen.
Even though the message of Everhood may not entirely land, the aural, visual, and gameplay experience, as a whole, is among the best on Switch. The rhythm combat is nothing short of perfection, and that it can be made more accessible by changing the difficulty at any time is sublime. Fair warning, some of the lighting effects can put a strain on the eyes, especially during a longer play session. Another proofreading of the script would have helped, too, but the ways in which Everhood builds on and calls back to past titles like Undertale and Earthbound help it rise above its niggling flaws. It’s a game of few answers and many questions, chief among them being “What did I just play?” and “What is even happening right now?” Of course, I mean these as compliments, not strictly statements of bafflement but more of wonder and amazement. The meaning of its title didn’t strike me until some time after reaching the end of the story; what struck with regularity, however, is the relentless delight of Everhood.