Islanders Review

Multiple times during playing Islanders by Grizzly Games, I stopped to go on a private chat and upload an image of the cities I had built. The game evoked a sort of glowing pride in what I had generated. ‘Look at my city’ I wrote, as if I was showing off pictures of my baby’s first steps. I spent hours carefully placing houses next to city centres, slowly expanding out into sprawling megalopolises. Several nights ended with me realising it was 2AM and I had to go to bed or else I’d be in no state to work the next day.

There are now only two things I will defend with ferocious earnestness – Nicolas Cage and Islanders.

The premise is deceptively simple; the player is presented with a land mass divided up into islands and they are then expected to build on them. Each edifice has different preferences – Lumber Jacks like to be near trees but not next to each other, Temples love to be near Mansions and parks, and it is down to the player to try and maximise this. Each building has a radius, and it regards everything in its radius as a number, either plus or minus. Placing a Shaman building in range of nature elements (trees, rocks, etc.) will give a bonus for each one caught in its radius, however, if it is too near a City Centre when placed its value will go down. Making the values go up helps hit milestones that allow access to new buildings, hitting enough milestones means skipping to a new procedurally generated island to start again.

The game drip feeds each building template with the player having to choose between different playsets – be it a Seaweed Factory, or a simple Hut collection. How the player gets to these progressions is entirely obfuscated to make things as digestible as possible. As the player, you are only worried about making sure that numbers go up.  

At least I was, until I realised how to stack bonuses on certain buildings. A pivotal moment was seeing that I could put Fields down near one Mill, but instead of putting another Mill down straight away, it was worth waiting for multiple milestones and accruing more fields in that area before placing the second one. Planning ahead was going to result in bigger gains. Islanders made me feel like my city planning was organic but also organised.

Adding to the complexity – I noticed that once a building is placed, the numbers won’t go down. So, it is possible to place something down and take the bonuses with what is there in that moment, but immediately “mess it up” from an ethical perspective. Like placing a sawmill that takes advantage of all the surrounding trees and then evolving those areas into a suburb once all the trees are gone, because the houses don’t require trees for the numbers to go up.

I’ve gone into a lot of detail and made this game seem way more complicated than it is to get into; it really isn’t. The player puts down buildings according to where it makes most sense. Quickly the game evolves, through mistakes and successes you will end up with something beautiful. All of it is rendered in this gorgeous, sparse, art style that made me spend too long admiring my work and not doing anything.

I also liked the subtle politics of the game. Mansions want to be near City Centres and Fountains and despise anything that might be considered working class (Circuses? Pffft). As soon as they are away from things that give them bonuses, they are pretty worthless. Houses seem pretty low-level assets, but due to their larger radius and resilience to negative effects they are a better long-term investment, they care about their surrounding community without judging.

Did you read that last sentence? This is what Islanders does to me, I am injecting personality into lifeless shapes.

Now, as much as I love this game like a first-born child, I will say that it has some stability issues. Like a toddler taking its first, tentative, bipedal movements, Islanders is prone to falling on its face. The most common issue was trying to upload my highscore to the leaderboards, the game would hang and remain unresponsive. My constant use of the guide button to try and get a good picture of my lovely little towns did not sit well and the game hard crashed for me at those points.

But, like my vociferous defence of Nicolas Cage, I am willing to look past those incredibly minor inconveniences. Islanders is a steal at its low price, more a puzzle game than a city management and constantly relaxing in a way that only a few games are.

Conclusion

Islanders is effortlessly sublime. A city builder that is easy to understand and continues to grow with each playthrough.

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This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox Series X/S. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version. Game provided by publisher.
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Good
  • Simple inputs
  • Relaxed play that does not compromise the complexity
  • Endless delight in seeing city growth
  • Enchanting soundtrack
Bad
  • Real problems with stability
  • This game may have ruined me for all games going forward
  • My Fiance is upset by my fixation on this game
9.7
Excellent
Gameplay - 8.7
Graphics - 10
Audio - 10
Longevity - 10
Written by
AJ Small is a games industry veteran, starting in QA back in 2004. He currently walks the earth in search of the tastiest/seediest drinking holes as part of his attempt to tell every single person on the planet that Speedball 2 and The Chaos Engine are the greatest games ever made. He can be found on twitter (@badgercommander), where he welcomes screenshots of Dreamcast games and talk about Mindjack, just don’t mention that one time he was in Canada.

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