There’s something that’s very therapeutic about slotting bricks together to form a new shape. Be it in Tetris or Animal Crossing, the feeling of maximizing the use of space and having something to show for the work is fantastic. Either obtaining a high score or showing off a visually stunning island, the warm fuzzy feeling of accomplishment (on your own terms) is what playing these games is all about. Islanders is a surreal blend of puzzler and roguelike city builder. The store page has Islanders described as a minimalist city builder and that really is the minimalist way of looking at it. You’ll be fitting buildings together on a limited space to maximize your score and possibly place higher on the leader-board while also enjoying an incredibly chill experience.
You start Islanders with a procedurally generated island. It’ll have 3 types of terrain, a few buildings to place and that’s it. Every time you place a structure you’ll gain points but you can’t delete or move a structure once it’s built, your goal is to earn enough points to unlock the next set of structures and eventually move onto the next island. There’s not a huge tutorial for this and it’s up to you to work out the nuances of the systems. What structures gain a bonus from being next to and how you’re best to plan ahead all comes from experience. Playing Islanders for the first time starts off as trial and error but quickly develops and starts rewarding players who plan ahead. When you first start out you’ll be placing any city structures together but as you get to grips with later islands you’ll be making sure mansions and houses are on different sides. Everything having its best place possible so that more difficult to build structures don’t lose points and cost you the run. When everything works out and the points fly in it’s incredibly satisfying and it’s a big appeal to the core gameplay loop.
Islanders is a roguelike game with each playthrough you’ll get a different run of islands and sets of structures to place but the only thing that improves between each run is you. Your memory of what works and how it works best together will get better with experience. Each time the circle pings to notify you that you’ve unlocked more structures you have a choice of 2 types that tend to be generated on what’s already going on with the island. You won’t find a random Farming Pack option when you’re 5 circles into an island and planting mega structures, Buildings that start with a negative points cost but have incredibly high bonuses but you might find a single farm field structure in your high tier market place choice. It’s these wild cards that keep you on your toes throughout and it’s a reminder to the player that every island is finite and your goal isn’t to perfect it but to the make the best of it and move on.
What’s most surprising is just how superbly relaxing a game Islanders is. This isn’t to say it’s a walk in the park, there maybe no time limit but you’ll still find little pockets of tension. Finding yourself keeping a high risk, high reward structure until your city is a lot bigger and then popping it down only to find your a little short of the next island. It can be frustrating but you’ll just chalk that up to experience and start a new run. Islanders relaxed pace keeps everything calm, it doesn’t push you to simply pop down structures constantly. You don’t have to use a new structure option when it appears, you can save them up and use them when necessary. Essentially starting off the island using whatever you can, gaining a lot of points from a few and storing the spare options for when the later game gets complicated. The aim of Islanders is to get the highest score you can overall so it pays to cram as many circles worth of structures until you’re finally forced to move on. Take a good long look at your nice colours and start all over again.
Starting each new island is a surprisingly enjoyable experience. The only benefit from the buildings is gained when placing them down, there’s no extra management to worry about. You can zoom around your little city and ignore the fact doors point out to impossible cliffs or walls, safe in the knowledge it doesn’t really matter. Everything is there to plop colourful blocks down and then move on. Zooming in and out, pitching around and rotating buildings to just squeeze that last little bit of points out of every inch, Islanders is so visually brilliant that you will likely find yourself panning around cities this often. The colours and minimalist models all come together to create this playground of blocks that feels different with each island. A simplistic interface and UI that doesn’t really explain a lot but explains what you need to know.
Sounds of buildings being placed is as satisfying as clicking Lego structures together and the points flying into the circle feels like a Game Dev Tycoon loop of rewarding the players progress with pleasant sounds. Islanders does have a soft and calming background soundtrack of music that can loop a little but is so inoffensive, it’s hard to notice or worry about. Everything in Islanders feels like it was designed to just make playing it an enjoyable experience from start to finish. The settings for controls are worth tinkering with when you first start out until you feel comfortable but this isn’t a huge headache, more personal preference on camera movement.
When you want a game to relax, you can’t go wrong with Islanders. Everything feels deep and complex but the gameplay is so simple to pick up and addictive to play. There’s a lot of fun to be had. Each playthrough starts on a quick easy island for a few minutes and then as the difficulty and scope ramps up you’ll be balancing between industry or city spaces in not time. Before you know it you’ll be done, only to start a run all over again with more knowledge of how everything works. Islanders isn’t perfect and can find that early on. It may feel a little unfair when the random structures drawn are just useless for your plan but when this happens with a better understand you can work out a solution. You can always load up the Sandbox mode and see how everything works beforehand. The addition of enjoyable achievements just adds some additional goals to achieve along the way and mix up the runs. Failure isn’t such a big deal and planning ahead to make sure the next run works out better is an enjoyable experience.
What more could you want from a relaxing city builder?
8/10 – That’s why people play Islanders
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