Rather than being an Apple branded moon lander, Islanders invites you to puzzle your way through city building on islands.
I’m not really the biggest player of city-builder games, but I am partial to the odd one here and there. Cities: Skylines is the gold standard these days, offering so much content to play through at your own pace that very few can stand up to it. Whilst Islanders describes itself as a city-builder, it’s far more of a puzzle/card game in which you’re constantly chasing a high score with very little in the way of pressure. Originally released on PC and Mac last year, the Nintendo Switch version has recently been released with PlayStation and Xbox releases to follow close behind.
Starting out with a small island, you’re given the choice of two sets of buildings to place on the land however you want. Placing buildings in certain ways will earn you points, and should you reach a given point threshold you’ll be able to select from another pair of building sets. Each time you do this, the threshold increases, meaning you have to think more and more carefully about how to place your buildings. Earn enough points on a given island and you can fly off to a new island to start again, keeping your current points, meaning you can in theory never run out of space.
I say in theory because, whilst there is no way to win in Islanders, there is a failure condition. If you fail to reach a point threshold to get another set of buildings, you have nothing left to build with, and you haven’t unlocked a new island yet, the game ends and your score is submitted to the leaderboards. You’re then free to start again, with greater knowledge of the buildings on offer and how they interact.
Building interactions are key to high scores and a long game. Each building has a base score that can be modified by placing it near certain other buildings. Mansions like to be near city centres, whilst a shaman hut wants to be near flowers and away from industrial buildings. A circus gains points when it’s near houses, but loses them when there are nearby mansions. Once a building is placed, its score is set and won’t change with subsequent building placement. This means the order in which you place your structures is as important as where you place them.
Learning which buildings work well together is important to doing well, as is careful land management. You working on islands means that space is often limited resulting in you occasionally having to sacrifice good placement to allow yourself more room later on. There are certain options to give you more room, such as sea plateaus that can be built on, but there’s no guarantee you’ll get these as a choice. This random element can be a bit of a downfall for Islanders, as losing later in the game due to having an island too small to reasonably build on is a bit galling, or not getting any buildings that would really help.
With that said, this isn’t really a frustrating game. In fact, this is probably the most chilled out game I’ve played in quite some time, especially in Sandbox mode which removes the threat of failure. The relaxed music, simplistic art style, and low stakes gameplay mean that Islanders is a game to be enjoyed at whatever pace you want, for as long as you want thanks to you being able to save your progress. Even in a long game, there’s plenty of reason to keep going. Leaderboards are great, yes, but the longer you work on a given island, the greater the range of buildings offered to you, meaning you have the potential to generate a really high score or interestingly laid out landform.
This being the console edition of Islanders means that certain concessions have been made to move from mouse and keyboard to controller. The controls work well enough but do come across as a little odd. The left stick pans the camera as you might expect, but rotating is based on ZL and ZR rather than the right stick, which moves a cursor around the screen. It took a bit of getting used to, but it does work for the most part. Positioning a building correctly with a controller was a bit fiddly, and I can see that a mouse would be easier to work with.
The odd thing about the Switch version is the lack of touch screen controls. I realise that making that alteration for a single console release might be a bit much, but the interface seems almost tailor made for touch screen, so I’m surprised this wasn’t added. It’s not a huge loss though. In this regard, the console release is pretty much identical to the PC launch, although it does include a few different types of islands and colour schemes, so at least there is a little differentiation present.
I really enjoyed Islanders. It’s somewhat unique and feels almost like a board game as you try to strategically plan for what buildings you’re going to want as the game goes on. The visuals and sounds are minimalist but for the chilled out theme really well. This is the sort of game I can drop into for ten minutes here and there and have a good time playing it, although I expect that ten minutes will turn into over an hour as I get hooked into another round of building.