I know everyone is busy blasting each other in Halo Infinite and Battlefield 2042, but I'm a little tied up right now catching fish, singing to plants, building libraries, and giving belly rubs to adorable bugs.
That's exactly the kind of escapism I need right now, and I've found it in the surprisingly beautiful and stress-free sandbox Grow: Song of the Evertree. It's a healthy dose of Animal Crossing and My Time at Portia, with a tiny sprinkle of Zelda thrown in. There's village building and decorating, goofy people to meet and make happy, loads of little quests and activities, plus lots of gardening, fishing, dress-up, and even some light dungeon platforming and puzzle solving. You even get to mix a bunch of ingredients in a talking cauldron and make your own little worlds.
I'll make the short story shorter: A bunch of nice people lived in a giant magical peaceful world-tree. Then the tree got sick and a bunch of thorny vines squeezed all the life out of it, and everyone left. But you're here now, a helpful apprentice tree-tender, and you need to rebuild the town, dispel the thorns, and slowly bring life back to the world, which will encourage people to move back.
I began by doing a bunch of gardening. The branches of the world tree need to be tended, which means ripping out weeds, clearing up rubble, planting seeds, and watering them so they'll grow. Some plants respond to music and I can unleash a magical blast of song to make them sprout. Along the way I collect things like fruit, rocks, insects, and other items that can be transformed into magical elements in my cauldron, which I can use to form seeds that will grow into entire new branches to tend. It's all handled very simply, just by holding the correct tool for the job (and each plant, weed, and rock will indicate which tool is needed) and click or hold down the mouse button, depending on what task you're doing.
The moment I began cleaning up this infected world people began returning to it, which kicked off the town management half of the game. If you like someone you can build them a house and they'll move into it. Construct a bakery, library, or community garden and you can give them a job there. These folks will have quests for you occasionally, too, like one citizen who wanted me to find them a pair of pants, and another who wanted a shirt. I haven't found either of those things yet, so I took off my own shirt and pants and gave them away. Now I'm running around in my underwear. That's how desperate I am to make these people happy (or maybe just to tick off their quests in my journal).
Every step of the way you're given rewards. Showered in them. If you enjoy doing something simple like meeting a pixie or finding a book or changing the color of a wall from green to pink or just walking through a particular door, brace your endorphins for a marathon. Open your journal, click the completed goal, and get a little prize like a monocle or heart-shaped glasses or a new hairstyle or bonus to your plant-watering speed. Yes. Yes. Feed me rewards for doing simple things all day. I am ravenous for them.
My town is already almost full of houses, shops, and other little buildings, which means it's time to expand. Luckily, the pixies have a construction company (don't ask why) and have bulldozed boulders and ruins so I'll have more room to build. I'm up to almost 10 citizens, most of whom I like and one I am wary of because he gave me a quest to find his missing underwear, which he lost after visiting a bunch of people's houses. He's a bit creepy. Everyone else, they're fine.
And Grow is a ridiculously gorgeous game. The world is bathed in a soft glow, the plants are lovely to gaze at, especially when they sprout, the creatures are all adorable—even the bugs. And the game is so gentle. Jump off a rock that's a little too high and you'll float peacefully to the ground thanks to a giant umbrella. You have a winged mount you can fly between game zones and you're welcome to give it hugs whenever you want.
The only thing approaching violence is smashing gloopy grubs with a hammer, and all that does is remove their gloop, after which you can catch them in a net (which you're told does not hurt the bugs you catch with it). Grow is wholesome af.
About the only thing I'm not happy with is some of the repetitive world tasks, which require a lot of weed-pulling, seed-planting, watercan-tipping, and rubble-smashing. Before you can cycle to the next day, you'll need to knock out a bunch of these chores. It's not that they take all that long, just that they're a bit grindy. On the plus side, it is pretty magical to see the ruined, desolate world slowly transform into a lush and leafy paradise after a few days.
And if any one series of tasks gets too boring, you can just ignore them for a bit. Do some fishing, catch insects, delve into a cave to look for treasure chests, decorate a house, or just run around and give the happy creatures of the world as many belly rubs as they can stand.
I'm not sure how long it takes to complete Grow (which, by the way, is in full release and not Early Access, which itself feels novel). I've played for about five hours so far and the majority of the map is still covered with thorny vines that will need to be excised, I'm only on my second branch of the world tree, and I haven't even found replacement pants for the pair I gave away. I see a number of Steam reviews written by people who have 20-30 hours played (and one with over 100) so this could keep diligent tree-tenders occupied for quite a while.