Game review: Islets for EGS

Metroidvanias are a hard sell for me, existing well outside of my preferred styles of game. The problem is mine, as I have little patience for hitting a literal wall and having to backtrack to find the new tool I need to make progress. Once I do have the needed upgrade, I struggle to remember where I was supposed to backtrack in order to use it.

Islets won me over with its whimsical animation style and combination of side scrolling platforming mixed with bullet hell aerial boss battles. But what kept me playing until the credits was its willingness to cater to my needs at every step of the journey. For instance, when I got lost, I could go to an NPC and pay a small fee to have my current goal marked on the map. Be it a new upgrade, a boss, or whatever I was struggling to find, having a little question mark on the map made it possible to avoid getting lost. There were other accessibility features, and I’ll cover those later.

Let’s get into the story first, which is about a floating island made up of several smaller islets that drifted together and created a perfect biome. A group of industrious critters decided to keep them held together with huge electromagnets, as the combined island was perfect for promoting biodiversity. Some unsavory varmints conspired to shut down the magnets, and the islets drifted apart, making each biome more barren and hostile as a result.

Now many years later, creatures from the surface world have all taken to airships to unite the islets once again, and the main character Iko is a new arrival who is just learning how to become a warrior. His ship is mocked by another fighter, Snoot, and then is torn apart by the jet stream behind Snoot’s ship. Crashing on the first Islet, Iko must find a way to survive and get another ship.

Right away, I noticed paths I couldn’t reach, but I also saw what I would need to make progress. I’d say, “Okay, I should come back after I get my double jump,” which ended up being the first acquired ability. After I got it, I bumped into another obstacle and said, “That will be after getting wall jumps, I guess.” Which is to say, I’ve played enough games like this to grasp what I need even if I don’t yet know when or where I’ll unlock those new abilities.

Shortly after beating the first boss, the double jump and a new ship (and friend) guide Iko to a sky camp offering a place to upgrade damage on his sword and bow or add a hit point to his health bar, a clinic to heal up at, a shipyard to upgrade his airship, a postbox to receive letters from friends and rivals, the aforementioned map marking service, and an open space to chat with other NPCs found throughout the story.

From this base, Iko can fly to the other Islets, and each of them guarded by flying bosses. The first aerial fight is harder than the others because Iko’s ship doesn’t have any weapons. It’s all about dodging until the boss throws a boomerang attack that damages themself. (Iko’s ship has a helpfully small hit circle, but the boss is a true bullet hell bastard, so I ended up winning with a microscopic amount of health left over.) Later fights allow for payback with a cannon that fires faster when closer to the boss, and later with a teleportation ability that allows for dodging ringed energy attacks that would otherwise be unavoidable.

For fans of the genre, all this sign-posting and helping hands might ruin the experience, but I would point out that folks who want it harder can turn up the difficulty and just ignore the map marker NPC. I mean, the game will still direct players where to go, kinda like how running the wrong way in Dark Souls educates newbies that they’re better off going the other way until they get stronger. (Or smarter. Hello, master key!)

It is a very linear game with a well-defined path, but I don’t consider that a bad thing. I do wonder just how much leeway I might have in sequence breaking the islets, since in a lot of places, progress would be impossible without having the right abilities. I’m sure speed runners would find a way to do it, but to me, it seems quite difficult.

Beyond double jumping, Iko will unlock the ability to swing his sword down while jumping for a plunge attack, climb walls and wall jump, fire arrows that teleport him a short distance between gaps, fire another arrow that makes a cloud-like platform to run on or block traps with, and a charged beam attack to break metal boxes blocking off areas of unexplored territory.

Along with these abilities are new gimmicks in the environment, all of which are unique to the biome they’re in. For instance, there are gravestones that give Iko a higher jump one time, but the charge has to be held until the right moment, making the rest of the gaps and traps before the jump a set of mini-puzzles. What makes these nice is that nothing is overused. Each one is a fun idea that changes the way I look at a level, giving me a way around Iko’s limitations until he picks up a new ability that negates the need to rely on the gimmicks.

As I got to the latter half of the game, though, I really started to struggle with all the traps leading up to the bosses. I might run from a shrine or teleport doorway, having my health whittled down until I died, sometimes without knowing the next save point was just one screen away. (Tip: do invest the funds to add icon markers to the map. Oh, and use the zoom on the map. I frequently got lost before realizing the zoomed map could show me where I was getting turned around.)

The problem, at least for me, was the way upgrades are doled out randomly. It’s possible to not see any health upgrades for several levels, and the potion to increase health only give one point despite being quite pricey. Even on the Easy difficulty setting, Iko ends up being quite fragile by the mid-game.

But…it is also possible to turn on invincibility, which I ended up doing several times after struggling to complete sections full of traps. I also quite gratefully took advantage of the offer for unlimited arrows rather than waiting to regenerate them with melee attacks.

This might horrify purists, but what I noticed after having the invincibility feature on for a while is that it gave me more confidence in dealing with the environment, but it also helped me to learn how to move with the same confidence of a better gamer. I started taking less and less damage, moved through traps at a breezy pace, and spotted patterns at a glance rather than hanging back at the opening of each screen, too worried about my limited health to take a leap of faith.

It’s also interesting because I find that I wanted to play again on a higher setting with the training wheels pulled off. I wanted to see if having some idea of where the goals are, I can find them without talking to the map marker, and if I can get there without relying on assistance. Those accessibility features gave me the confidence and the desire to try.

I have to mention this other detail about myself: I’m getting older, and I don’t have the hand coordination that I used to. My writing process used to be typing hour-long flurries up to sixty words a minute with few typos. Now I struggle to hit the keys I’m aiming for, and I spend a lot of time rewriting what I wrote because almost every other word has wrong letters. Similarly, I struggle to get precise inputs on a controller. Using this game as an example, instead of turning to attack an enemy behind my character, I frequently ended up doing a plunging attack, or swinging the sword up over my character.

These kinds of age-imposed handicaps only get worse with time, and yeah, it cuts me out of a lot of tightly controlled platforming games that I might otherwise want to play. For instance, even with all the assistance options turned on, I can’t play Celeste. Forget the bonus strawberries or B-side tapes, I can’t even play the regular levels with a video guide showing me exactly what to do. Yes, I know I need to wall jump over the saw and then double jump to land on a moving platform. But thirty minutes later, I’m still no closer to landing on it, and I’m just ready to cry and call it a day.

I can’t play Super Meat Boy, or The End is Nigh, or I Want to Be the Boshy. I like watching other people play them, but I’m forever locked out of that area of the gamer clubhouse. So imagine how it feels when a game comes along that recognizes me and says, “Is this part too hard on you? Relax, there’s a setting to help you make it.” It’s such a wonderful feeling, being catered to instead of being punished for not being young and fast and accurate anymore.

Those training wheels aiding parts of my first run got me thinking, “Okay, I can do this for real.” So once I finished the game, I started a new file on Normal difficulty and set out to see how far I could get. Which it turned out was the mid-game. All the bosses have added phases after getting down to half health, but those were mostly manageable. Around the mid-game, it feels like the bosses also start moving faster, so the small window for doing damage shrinks even further. I went from eking out wins with a little health left over to getting pancaked before the bosses even got to their second phase. I might try again later, but for now, it’s just too hard to get on in normal mode. But there’s still the chance of trying again in easy mode with the accessibility stuff turned off.

Regardless of difficulty setting, there is one reason I will never get full completion on the game: star rooms. Certain screens have a set of stars linked by a line, and touching the first sets off a timer to hit every star in seconds. I think I managed to solve two, I’m still too far from the last star on most of them when the timer goes off. It wasn’t for lack of trying, but it got to the point in the latter half of the game when I would enter a room and see those stars and loudly declare, “Nope, fuck it.”

I do have one other gripe about collecting the tokens for upgrades: it needed the ability to reroll options. Frequently I’d get three cards, two for a faster fire rate on arrows, and a third for more currency. What I wanted was more arrows and more health. It’s up to RNGesus how Iko progresses through upgrades, and it frequently felt like he’d forsaken me.

Even with these minor complaints, I really enjoyed Islets, and as I said, I’m ready to go back into it sometime soon. It’s a lovely game with great graphics, fantastic music, a cute story, and a satisfying conclusion. Plus, it’s one of the few Metroidvanias that I actually want to play again, which is a huge accomplishment.

I give Islets 4 stars and recommend it to fans of the genre as well as folks curious to try it, but reluctant to get locked out of the finale. This is a game that wants you to see the ending, and it’s willing to help you get there. So if the other games in the genre felt too difficult, maybe try this one out and then see if you are willing to try the others once you have more confidence.