One of the best things going for ISLANDERS (Among many good things) is that it really is a ‘what you see is what you get’. In an age of embellished marketing and undelivered promises, developer GrizzlyGames’ minimalist approach to the city-builder genre is simple, sleek, and honest.
The city-building genre is full of entries that give control to the player above and beyond aesthetic, allowing the means to accommodate its residents wants and needs, often with overall goals expressly tied to these demands. But what if we deconstruct the city strategy down to its bare bones and put the emphasis solely on the puzzle of planning? ISLANDERS asks and answers that question with a game that doesn’t impose with the minutia, but instead encourages players to solve the conundrum of city planning through casual charm and simple gameplay mechanics.
Procedural generation is the name of the game here, as each island (or level) will be created on the fly. Once presented with your island, you are offered up a set of buildings and left to your own devices. It sounds simple enough, each building or feature will score points when placed, but also affect further build tiles when placed within their vicinity. Here is where the trickery lies, as scoring a certain amount of points with a certain set of buildings will unlock the choice of the next set. As in real life however, some tiles will affect the points of other tiles negatively, so ensuring your mansions are close to your parks but away from your sawmills are the kind of challenges you should expect to navigate around.
Simply put if you use all your available building tiles without scoring enough points to select a new set, your run on the current island will have to end. As you progress through the stages more and more tiles are introduced, each with their own modifiers, meaning certain relationships will need to be learned as you progress in order to squeeze the most points out of them. Unfortunately, this means certain strategies will eventually become desirable/required, and once learned much of the difficulty will lie in the generating of tiles and the lay of the land, both of which are largely outside the player’s influence.
Fortunately, much of the enjoyment of ISLANDERS derives from how beautifully presented the game is. Both the minimalist graphics and UI ensured I never tired of placing and rotating tiles, and the game intuitively snaps tiles into place giving it a delightful ‘Tetris’ feel as tiles slide snugly next to their neighbors.
As you score points and the island grows in industry it becomes more and more visually pleasing, making it difficult to leave once an island’s progress bar has filled to the amount required for the next stage. Even the stages with vast amounts of ocean between landmass can be built upon and bridged via wooden platforms, meaning certain levels can quickly become off-shore settlements and extend a stage’s potential life.
Thankfully without the stress of a timer, or the defaulting of stage progression, ISLANDERS leaves the player to decide when they want to progress onto the next island and will continue providing tiles until they do so. I often found myself unlocking the next island but choosing to stay and build out the island I was currently on, as seeing the tiles unfold outwards and towards each other is extremely satisfying.
Gameplay aside, ISLANDERS does, unfortunately, lack steady progression in the form of stages being optional or parameters being user-defined. You will start back on a small island each run, which can honestly feel a little sad once you have come from a big island with ample space and the tiles to really flex your inner architect. The option to sandbox or generate certain sized islands for free play would remove some of the monotony in these early levels once the game has spoiled you with its full tile range.
As mentioned earlier the challenge (or lack of here) is still supplemented by pleasant presentation, so this never became frustrating but did surprise me the first time around. This game asks questions, but it never feels like something to be ‘completed’. Those wanting the challenge will be happy knowing there are leaderboards, and competing against yourself may sound cliche, but squeezing points out of placement is difficult enough at the top end. Returning to islands becomes an exercise in efficiency once you have been around the block a few times.
ISLANDERS is a friendly, accessible puzzle game dressed in city-building attire that welcomes both crowds in ways that satisfy. The game is sincere in its presentation, with a single screenshot offering the soul of the game in earnest. If you enjoy city-builders for their looks, and are happy teasing solutions to points-based objectives through object placement, then this is a title you wont want to miss.