I like simple puzzles that give my brain something to chew on. They act as a great way to escape from the real world or daily challenges. That’s the kind of game ISLANDERS is.
Developer: Grizzly Games
Publisher: Grizzly Games
Release Date: April 4th, 2019
Reviewed on: PC
Available on: PC, Switch
Simplicity is a core tenant of ISLANDERS’ design philosophy. It is self described as a minimalist city builder, one which is not host to many of the complex systems found in other games within this genre. You don’t need to think about roadwork, public transit, utilities, or zoning. No, the only challenge with ISLANDERS comes from deciding how best to place each structure in relation to one other. In this way the game feels more akin to a puzzle you slowly unravel than a city builder.
How it works is simple. You’re given two different packages which contain buildings and select which you’d like to incorporate into your city. These packages have self describing names such as farming or lumber pack, which helps to inform players about the contents. You’ll then be presented with a handful of buildings. You’re tasked with placing them such that they yield the highest volume of points. Surpassing a set point threshold unlocks your next package of buildings. You lose when you have no buildings left to place.
The formula creates a focused gameplay loop that will see players meticulously trying to maximize the value of each building. After conquering a few islands you’ll become accustomed to which packs provide what types of buildings allowing for forethought instead of reactionary responses. In turn, you’ll be able to pursue even higher scores and ascend up the game’s leaderboard.
Unfortunately, this reliance on simplicity leads to the two problems within ISLANDERS.
Firstly, with how rudimentary the game is there isn’t much depth. After playing my second game I had already seen all of the building types and had a rough idea of how each worked. There isn’t much to sink your teeth into here. What you see is what you get, which is unfortunate as that doesn’t provide players with much incentive to keep playing beyond the first few hours.
Secondly is repetition. Seeking a greater score is ostensibly the only goal ISLANDERS presents, so players are likely to become very familiar with all of the available content. It only takes playing a few islands for it to feel as though you’re repeating what you’ve already done. This is especially bad as there isn’t depth to uncover whilst you retread worn ground.
There is also issues with the sandbox mode. While not originally launched with one, ISLANDERS now has a sandbox mode. It appears like a tacked on addition however. To access it you need to first lose your current game and start a new one in the sandbox. Strangely there is no option for this when selecting to start a new game from the main menu. This feels like a massive oversight and makes it unnecessarily fiddly to access this alternative game mode.
Things aren’t all bad however. There is a single, calming track that plays over the entire game. While this has the potential to become annoying I found it almost trance-like, which sucked me further into ISLANDERS. It’s not unlike the passive soundtracks that sometimes disappear into the background of other management or puzzle games.
ISLANDERS visuals are another plus. All of the different structures are visually distinct, while also being pleasing to behold. There is a nice use of colour to make buildings stand out for clarity, so it is easy to take in your entire island at a glance. This is especially useful after you’ve placed several clustered buildings, which would be chaos without the stellar art direction.
I know it sounds like I am down on ISLANDERS, but I enjoyed it for what it is. It’s a focused experience, which strips out all of the complexity of city builders leaving a puzzle where players arrange and place buildings. The great visuals, trance-like soundtrack, and puzzle-like design of the game pulled me in for an enjoyable bite-sized experience. The repetition and lack of depth won’t keep players hooked for long, but for what it is ISLANDERS is an alright game.