Sometimes a game comes along that just makes you go “YES, MAN!”
You pump your fist and grin, and shift about in your seat a little bit. Your head fills with flowers. You set aside all your disappointments at the human race, because hey you know what — humans did this. Humans made this. And then they sold it for about a fiver.
Islanders is a city-building game, like so many others on your PC. But it’s actually a wee puzzle game, a score attack game built on our concept of what city-building games are. Yes, you’ll be placing bits of farmland, and mills to produce that grain. And you’ll be housing lumberjacks in the forest and putting a sawmill nearby for them to finish their work. You’ll be placing a city centre and stacking houses around it, and flinging up big fancy mansions that love to have some parkland nearby. And every single thing you place will score you points, or lose you points.
See, there aren’t any resources in this game. You don’t need 10 wood to build a house. You’ll just be given some buildings and let loose to lay them down. If you score enough points with those buildings, you’ll be given some more - in fact, you’ll be given the choice of which pack to unlock. And as your points stack up, you work towards unlocking the next virgin island - ready for you to colonise.
Man, what a beautiful game! It’s a delight to see the city-building concept stripped down like this, turned into a total pleasure-box of Tetris-style shape-sorting, with the kind of point-scoring that brings to mind that good good feeling you used to get when all the 2 pence pieces came crashing down from a Penny Falls machine. Watching a computer game city being built is a joy in itself, we all know this. Entire franchises have been established on that fact. But Islanders keeps a laser-focus on the beauty of how that city comes together. Every building that lands is accompanied by the pop of new points as one of your little placement strategies comes good, and it makes you feel like a master of urban planning instead of just a guy at his PC in his boxer shorts.
It’s not all happy times, though. There’s the frustration of finding yourself with a giant market in your hands and nowhere to place it, because you’ve built out too far with your housing. In one of my plays, just before unlocking the next island, I foolishly pulled a temple into play and found that I couldn’t place it anywhere on my depraved, carny-folk sex island without being hit with a huge penalty. There’s pleasure, here, yes. But it’s still a game - and a great one, so there’s tension too. The potential for a huge score teases you into leaving spaces for buildings that might not come out as soon you’d like. A poorly placed building early in the game can hammer you with regret later. This is a game that will reward the player’s experience as they return again and again — and again — for another run. I want to play it again just now, actually. Why am I writing this review when I could be building a gorgeous white marble city up on top of a mountain?
I don’t think I’ve ever played a score-attack game that is so relaxing. The islands are beautiful. Every one you unlock is new. And the cities you build are glorious little things, so charming that you really don’t want to leave them behind when you move on elsewhere to continue building your score. If this game left me wanting anything it might just be some way of saving an island you’ve built — some way of looking at it later. But then, maybe that would take away from some of the magic of the game. There’s something about the way these gorgeous islands are whipped away into the mists that is really affecting. Yeah. No, ignore me about that “saving the islands” nonsense. I’m an idiot. You can tell I’m an idiot by how bad I am at building gold mines.
This game is pretty much perfect. For less than five quid you’ll find a game that you’ll probably play for hours on your first go, and will constantly revisit to improve your score. It’s one of those games that should, by all rights, appear on every system. It’s completely accessible, completely charming, and as brilliant a city-building or puzzle game as you’ve ever played.
We bought Islanders with our own money to review it. We’d have happily bought it ten times, to be honest.
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