ISLANDERS: Console Edition is one of my greatest gaming surprises so far this year. It caught my eye briefly in the recent Indie World Showcase, but was quickly overshadowed by the many other games placed alongside it. I imagine that this little city builder got lost in the shuffle among fellow reveals like Tetris Effect: Connected, and fellow stealth-releases like Axiom Verge 2. However, Islanders deserves better than that as it’s a beautifully simple puzzler that makes perfect sense on Nintendo Switch.
Remember those riddles about trying to cross a river with a chicken, a fox, and some seeds? The underlying logic there of figuring out the relationship between the animals to complete the travels safely is rather similar to the underlying logic of Islanders. The name of the game is building out your little archipelago from nothing into something grand. To do that, you’ll place various structures to earn points.
puzzling over placing a windmill
However, like that classic riddle, not all the structures play nice together, but some get along swimmingly. So if you place a field next to a windmill, you’ll gain extra points, for example. But, if you were to place a city center next to a shaman, you’d lose points. It’s a simple system, but one that informs the entire gameplay loop. Reason being, if you are unable to hit certain point benchmarks, then you’re unable to continue placing new structures and thus your run ends. Islanders is all about the pursuit of that score, and so you have to be rather deliberate about how you position each fixture to maximize the points that it earns.
This is all there is to Islanders. You establish everything from houses to breweries to towers and seaweed farms, continually parsing out where each belongs in order to maximize the points gained from those structures around it. As such, I’d argue that this is far more of a puzzle game than a true city builder. This certainly is not SimCity. There is no management of townsfolk or consideration for the genuine utility of where anything is placed. However, that doesn’t really affect the quality of Islanders. It simply illustrates the game’s different intentions than other genre entries.
Islanders’ mechanical simplicity and puzzle focus enable an intentionally laid-back gameplay experience. Like Mini Metro, another iconic puzzler in a similar vein, Islanders is designed in a way that cares more about evoking a sort of Zen state than it does about really capturing the sim elements of its source genre. Also like Mini Metro, Islanders succeeds at this beautifully, in part by being so beautiful aesthetically.
zen and the art of city building
Almost immediately, Islanders became my go-to game to play before bed, because it’s such a serene experience. The worlds are bathed in this gorgeous minimalistic art style which makes even haphazard cities look immaculate. Paired with the ambient, relaxing soundtrack, Islanders is just a peaceful game. It has become the absolute best way for me to wind down, as I carefully build my next civilization, swept up in the sights and sounds but not pressured by demanding mechanics. There isn’t even a time limit or any other consideration besides score. Considering that my favorite games this year, The Ascent and Cyber Shadow, are incredibly action-oriented and difficult, this is a wonderfully tranquil counterpoint.
Islanders is the sort of game that just feels inviting to play. While my first few runs ended quickly, I developed an eye for design alongside a consistent strategy that saw my creations growing larger and larger. I have a fairly modest high score of 4848 at the moment, but at the rate that I’m playing the game, I’m sure to have surpassed that by the time your eyes are on this review. Because, not only is Islanders a relaxing game, it’s a rewarding one too.
Putting together an island that you’re proud of isn’t time consuming, and always results in something worth taking a screenshot of through the photo mode. I’m not often compelled by photo modes in games, but I found myself consistently and methodically photographing my islands upon the end of a run, so that I had a little memory of it, since previous islands are erased upon beginning the next one. While I would’ve like a few more options in said photo mode, it’s still a great way to commemorate a well-constructed island before moving on.
Beyond the high score and photo modes, there is a sandbox mode for those who want to build freely. But otherwise, it’s all about the relaxed hunt for a new personal best. Some may chafe at that simplicity, but I find elegance in the ability to execute on an idea that’s small in scope but nearly flawless in execution. Besides from the controls being a bit clunky – I’m sure it plays more fluidly on PC, where it first released – and the photo mode being a bit limited, it’s hard to identify flaws here.
Grizzly Games took a simple concept and turned it into a lovely little puzzle game that feels right at home on Switch. It’s the perfect antidote to a stressful day and an excellent minimalistic experience. I have no plans to stop dabbling in Islanders each night before bed so that I can be lulled to sleep by the wonderful ambiance of my newest little creation. At a mere $5 on the eShop, you owe it to yourself to give Islanders a shot.