Game: Islanders: Console Edition
Publisher: Coatsink Software Inc.
Platform: Switch (Reviewed), PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S
Release Date: August 11th, 2021 (Switch); August 26th, 2021 (all others)
In 2019, Grizzly Games released the hit city building puzzler Islanders on Windows, MacOS, and Linux. As with so many other popular PC games, the jump to home consoles seemed destined sooner or later, and gamers finally got their wish last month when a console edition was surprisingly announced during the Nintendo Indie World Showcase. The game landed on the Switch on August 11, with the PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S versions coming on August 26th. After spending a good deal of time with the Switch version, here’s my review.
Islanders tasks players with building the best possible settlement on tiny islands with limited space and resources. Some buildings can only be constructed on certain types of land, and most structures receive bonuses or negatives when built in close proximity to another. It’s in this way that gamers must strategically plan how to make the absolute most of the little isle that they have been dealt.
Players can choose between two modes: high score mode and sandbox. In sandbox mode, players can freely experiment with placing their buildings without fear of losing the game. This is an excellent way of getting used to the game’s fundamentals, learning how buildings interact with one another, and simply relaxing with the title in the most casual of ways.
The core of the game though is in high score mode, in which the player must capitalize on their situation and strive to accumulate enough points to reach each threshold to keep playing. Failing to reach a point threshold will result in a game over, so you’ll need to rack up those points to reach the top of the leaderboard.
Starting a new game, players are presented with a procedurally generated island that is filled with various resources. Then, gamers will need to choose between one of two random packs, each of which will contain a certain group of objects to build. Perhaps you’ll get the lumber pack, which has the lumberjack lodge that gets bonuses off trees, and sawmills that gain bonuses from the lumberjacks. You may also get the farming pack, which includes fields that thrive in grassy plains, and mills that need to be close to your fields. Whichever you choose first, you will frequently be given more of this same type of building every new turn, so you want to strategically plan ahead. For example, you don’t want to select the lumber pack if you only have a few trees, or the farming pack if you’re limited in grasslands.
I love that the game forces me to think several turns ahead in order to achieve a high score. For instance, when building my residential area, I know that the circus building can gain extraordinary bonuses when placed near standard homes, so I don’t want to overcrowd the area too early to the point where when I eventually unlock the circus I have nowhere to put it. It’s a great way of combining elements of both classic city building titles and puzzle games.
Precision is key with building placement, and frequently arranging your buildings to make the most out of the space given feels an awful lot like a game of Tetris. You will be flipping and turning and repositioning your buildings to ensure that they fit snuggly on your little plot of land, and also to reap the most rewards from the objects placed nearby. Often, a building placed just a pixel away can mean the difference in a dozen points or such, so you want to squeeze out the maximum potential of all your buildings.
You are allowed to make a mistake, but the game will only allow you to adjust the last object that you placed. Thus, if you want to move several buildings, or even remove them to make room for something else, well, you’re out of luck. It’s harshly fair, which makes it superb as a puzzler.
On the Switch, using the right thumbstick allows you to slowly move objects a pixel at a time, so there’s little frustration in getting objects exactly where you want them. If you are playing handheld, there is always the chance of joycon drift on the left stick, which can lead to some problems for more impatient players.
Using the pro controller alleviates this frustration, but the tiny white text does not display well when you’re viewing it from a TV far away.
I also dislike that, when selecting between the packs between each turn, you aren’t given a clear notification of what exactly is in it. You may select the farming pack only to get a few windmills, which accrue negative points when placed in close proximity to one another, when what you really wanted were more farming fields. You also aren’t told what shape certain buildings will be in before you’ve already selected them, which can be crucial in your city planning. Residential buildings often come in different shapes a sizes, much like Tetris blocks, but imagine playing Tetris without knowing which brick is coming up next and you can understand the frustration.
Sometimes it can be difficult to tell exactly where you can place one of your buildings. Several times I could have sworn that I had plenty of space to plop a building down, only the game refused to let me. This often messed up a strategy I had constructed, as I had reserved what I considered enough space for a future project, only for it to not be enough at all. In a small way, I wish there was a huge grid to indicate how much space a building would take up, but I also recognize part of the game’s charm is its minimalist design and forcing you to judge for yourself how much space is needed.
Lastly, unless you have played the game before, you won’t know the pros and cons of the buildings until after you’ve chosen them. When I was first offered the circus pack, I had no idea what the benefits of the included buildings would be, and so I had to blindly accept it, risking the chance of failing my run. As you get further and further into the development of your island, new packs become available, and choosing one that you’re not familiar with can really spell your doom.
Once you’ve met the threshold for an island, you will unlock the opportunity to move to another island and start anew while carrying over all the points that you’ve accumulated. This can be both a blessing and a curse, as you’ll have a fresh new canvas for your city building needs, but the amount of points needed to progress becomes much larger as well. You must strategically plan when it is the best time to move on, or else you’ll be painting yourself into a corner.
The soundtrack is peaceful and calm, perfect for this kind of game. While you are competing for a high score, this is not a game designed to be rushed or played intensely. Playing Islanders is one of those games that’s best when treated like a casual read, enjoyed out on the sand, listening to the rush of the waves, sipping on a drink in between turns.
The console version of Islanders has a few improvements from its 2019 counterpart. For starters, there are six whole new types of islands to build upon. Then, you have a host of new color schemes, a brand new resource, and more. It’s just enough content to coax players of its computer counterparts to dive into it once again on home consoles.
Verdict: 4/5 Stars
For $4.99 USD, Islanders: Console Edition is a steal. It’s not perfect, but you are almost guaranteed to get many times your money’s worth with this title. You may not play it in long sessions, but it’s a title that you’ll likely be coming back to time-and-time again when you need something to unwind to. This makes it an ideal title to add to your Nintendo Switch library.
Josh Cornett is a lifelong gamer who enjoys games across all platforms and genres. He has gone by the alias of “Block” ever since college, when he was nicknamed “Blockbuster” for his extensive video game and movie collection. Currently, he reviews a wide variety of games on his Youtube channel, and talks about all things gaming related on his Twitter and Facebook pages.