Review copy provided by developer
All cities are like puzzles, if you think about it. They’re composed of different pieces that fit together in many different ways, and present solutions to problems like traffic and accessibility depending on how they’re arranged. More than a few games have taken this as inspiration for their theme, and ISLANDERS is the most recent to do just that. Playing out over an infinite string of placid, picturesque islands, your task is not to build the biggest or fanciest city, but the one with the best synergy. It’s far more puzzle than city builder when you get into it, but that doesn’t detract from the compelling challenges or adorable settlements they produce in the least.
There’s no story whatsoever here, and I’ve already half-explained the setup for this clever little title. Right from the start, the game sticks you with a small island to colonize. Islands are completely random, and may feature rolling hills, craggy cliffs, sandy beaches, dusty mesas, or even overgrown ruins. You’re given a choice between two packs of buildings, themed sets like woodcutting, brickmaking, farming, and city life. Using the buildings from your chosen pack, you have to arrange them in a way to score as many points as possible. If you reach the next point goal before you run out of buildings, you earn another choice of packs. This cycle of placement, points, and packs continues until you run out of buildings or score enough points to move on to the next island.
It’s an incredibly simple premise, which is good because the execution has a lot of detail to master. Every building you place has an area of effect, within which other buildings and landscape features can add or subtract points from their value. Something like a field might only be worth 3 points, but it gets another 2 points for each field near it, and an extra 5 if near a mill. However, those mills lose points for being within each others’ areas so they must be arranged carefully around fields. Most of the buildings you’ll be working with have long lists of neighbors they like and neighbors they don’t, and a few even have negative base values that must be overcome by placing them near valuable bonuses.
Just starting out, you’re bound to build yourself into corners as you learn what likes being near what. There are buildings like temples and taverns that don’t show up until late into an island but must be planned for the whole time, and that’s sure to be an unpleasant surprise the first time. You’ll also have some unexpected structures to work with, like plateaus which take up lots of space but can support additional buildings on top of them. The random islands can also confound your runs as they are very much randomized, and can stick you with some unfavorable packs to place. Farm buildings can’t be placed on ice or desert, for example, but there’s nothing stopping the game from throwing you farm packs on islands that are completely dry or frozen. On the bright side, if you get an island with barely any habitable land the game will give you these neat pier puzzle pieces that allow you to build your very own Venice.
As much fun as it is to contend with the strategies of optimal placement, it’s honestly the look and feel of ISLANDERS that makes it such a joy to come back to. The smooth, simple graphics pop with bright primary colors and bold palettes for the different islands. Features like grassy ruins and towering mesas give the game a creative, fanciful richness that more grounded builders like Banished or Cities: Skylines lack. This is by no means a simulator like those titles, but you can certainly build cities that rival those in uniqueness and aesthetics. I can’t get enough of the gentle soundtrack and pleasant pops of the interface, and the clean UI makes it a breeze to see what your buildings are touching and what they’re going to score you points with.
After a few hours you might master the placement of the game’s 30-odd buildings, and have only the randomness of the islands to challenge you. But it’s sure to be a soothing, engrossing journey to get there, and it’s not like the appeal of building tiny, vibrant cities ever fades away. ISLANDERS is entirely up-front about what a simple experience it is, and it bears repeating that this is much more of a puzzle game than a city simulator. Really it’s a city playset at best, and it’s among the best at it. Fans of puzzles, points, and picturesque places should not hesitate to snap this one up, and enjoy hours of arranging charming settlements.