Kyle Thompson, the creator of sheeppois back with another weird yet wonderful addition to the Metroidvania genre. islets is a gorgeously hand-painted story of connection and adventure through a world quite literally torn apart. Taking on the role of a self-doubting mouse whose dream is to reconnect to the world and return life to normal, this enchanting title will have you scouring every nook and cranny of its incredibly expansive map.
The story of Isles follows Iko, one of the one hundred adventurers whose goal is to reconnect the islands. However, the inhabitants of Sky City are quick to share their disappointment with how many actually return. Iko has a charming and hopeful attitude despite saying nothing for most of the story; instead, our hero speaks only through written letters with fellow adventurers, or directly to Mika, who patiently waits for him to return home.
Despite being filled with enemies and unsettling god-like figures, Islets is a surprisingly wholesome adventure. Rather than focusing solely on the game’s combat or the exploration of these forgotten islands, the story is more inclined to guide the player towards connecting with the people they meet along the journey, even though these characters may occasionally have a bit of a suspicious nature. Although there is a sense of free reign in Sky City, Isles has a subtle way of directing the player to follow the relatively linear storyline.
However, even though the story is relatively straightforward, Islets provides little to no guidance on exactly where to go. Of course, this encourages the player to explore until their heart’s content, but it makes knowing that you’re on the right track feel impossible. Luckily there is a way for direction markers to be placed on the map, but they come at a price. Not to mention you’ll have to travel to the merchant in Sky City and purchase each marker individually once the previous has been found.
To connect the islands, Iko is challenged to explore every corner of each map to discover the electromagnetic core. Initially, this seems simple enough, but it will require you to hike through every twist and turn offered by Isles’ beautiful hand-painted landscapes. As you advance, Iko gains various skills applicable in previous areas, so there’s a lot of traversing back and forth between islands to find hidden collectibles and occasionally access the next area on the map. Despite being an integral part of gameplay, this repetition becomes slightly tedious. And with the portals used to fast travel so sporadically placed, it feels like a lot of time is spent traveling rather than fighting or even enjoying the scenery.
Save points also feel few and far between, especially when desperately needed. Most boss battles will leave Iko with next to no health, but after beating one, it’ll probably be a few rooms before another save spot crops up. So, just like traveling between areas, healing and saving also becomes a bit of a back and forth. When the game begins, players can select their difficulty, but even on the easiest difficulty setting, a handful of boss battles still show little mercy and will have you revisiting the save statue repeatedly.
When traveling between islands, you take to the skies in a somewhat rickety plane which a particular companion won’t shy from judging. Though these instances are short, they are indeed sweet. Initially, the only control over the plane is the direction it travels, though as you collect gears and equip upgrades, the aircraft becomes an integral weapon to the adventure. Armed with turrets and a satisfying teleportation ability, what was once a method of travel will become a tool to help save Iko’s world.
In between flights, airborne boss battles will prevent certain areas from being unlocked. These often challenge you to use the aircraft’s newest upgrades and are great practice for the battles that await in the following area. While some encounters require Iko to exclusively dodge the opponents’ attacks, others will rely heavily on teleportation and well-timed retaliation — and how well the fight goes depends on how well the map has been explored, considering how many potential upgrade parts are scattered across each island.
Similarly, each island hosts at least two boss battles. They start soft, and the difficulty slowly creeps up to mirror the story progression. However, these encounters never feel stagnant, and repeating mechanics isn’t as frustrating as expected. Each unique attack pattern is relatively easy to memorise, and frankly, dodging, using cloud arrows to create platforms, and tactically placing blows has a tremendous amount of replayability. Although you can’t encounter a boss more than once in a single playthrough, we certainly wish you could!
Even though insects and demonic mages inhabit Sky City and its accompanying islands, Islets is an undeniably gorgeous game. Adopting an almost Studio Ghibli-like art style, each area Iko explores is filled with detail. From the enchanting hanging gardens of Eastwright Island to the Rainy Plains of Wolfpine, each area demands you to devote your full attention to exploring. Ranging in contents, color palettes, and enemies, these islands are a joy to investigate and make repeating your previous footsteps slightly less infuriating.
The sheer amount of detail feeds into the immersive nature of Islets and, paired with the soundtrack, will consume any player for hours. The game’s accompanying music matches the haunting progression of the story, the soundtrack begins to create an eerie atmosphere the further you go. Boss battles are tense and highly strung while hosting a charming, Cuphead-like upbeat nature, and each area’s theme isn’t invasive enough to distract from gameplay. Instead, it is gentle enough to go unnoticed but still helps create a true sense of immersion in the beautiful land of Islets.
Isles promises a surprisingly wholesome story while featuring a lot of classic Metroidvania mechanics, and it certainly delivers. The beautiful landscapes and island inhabitants create an unforgettable journey. Filled with monstrous rivals, tense, timing-based platforming, and some well-hidden puzzles, this title is much more than a run-of-the-mill Metroidvania. Outside the eight-ish-hour campaign, there are enough collectibles scattered across each island to keep players coming back, and to be honest; it’s hard to leave the charming cast of creatures behind.