Who broke Laputa? This is like the fourth time this week, we can’t keep doing this
There is, admittedly, no shortage of metroidvanias being produced by the indie scene on a daily basis. Some say that one day we will reach a metroidvania singularity and thus the end of all things will occur. For this reason it becomes a lot harder for your standard game in the genre to really stand out amongst its peers, and one that I’m glad stood out to me is Islets. Islets is a game developed by solo developer Kyle Thompson that features cute character design, snappy movement and combat, and competent map design all in one convenient package. What makes this one worth a look when a wealth of other options already fill your plate?
In the world of Islets there was once an island floating in the sky which was actually made up of five smaller islands, all attached through the use of powerful magnets located on each one. Over the years these magnets began to fail, and for unknown reasons one day they stopped working, causing the islands to drift apart. Over the years warriors from each island have journeyed using their flying airships to try and reactivate these magnets, but all have failed. You take control of Iko, a young mouse warrior who has set out on his own magnet activating adventure armed with only a sword and a bow. Not only will Iko have to find the magnets to turn them back on, but will also have to contend with the savage beasts that have overrun the islands as a result of their separation.
Gameplay in Islets is overall pretty standard, Iko can jump, perform a dodge roll, swing his sword forward or upwards, as well as fire arrows forward or up. When firing arrows, if an enemy is close enough Iko will automatically aim for it, and holding down the fire button will continue firing until you run out of ammo (displayed as a meter below your health), and you can regain ammo by hitting or killing enemies. Combat feels responsive and snappy, and only gets more satisfying as you collect upgrade tokens from around the map. These tokens are usually connected to a platforming or combat challenge, and upon collecting one you are given three seemingly randomized options for a permanent upgrade to apply, ranging from upping your maximum health to increasing the fire rate of your arrows. The drawback of these choices being randomized is that by the time you have found a good amount of them, they seem to run out of options to offer you, with its replacement reward just being some of the game’s currency. The currency can be used to buy strength, health, and arrow upgrades in the game’s hub but even then, if the challenge to get that token was especially difficult, a handful of money doesn’t exactly feel like a worthwhile reward for your effort.
My favorite aspect of Islets is the namesake of the game, being that each separate island is its own small metroidvania in itself. I would compare it to something like Shantae & the Pirate’s Curse, a comparison I don’t make lightly, but the main difference here is that when you’ve activated an island’s magnet it will join the rest of the islands, and those five small maps will eventually become one big one. This makes sure that you have a good amount of time to get familiar with each zone on its own before it becomes part of the bigger picture, and also helps the player keep focused on a singular goal at a time. Joining the islands also allows the player to reach new areas that would previously have been inaccessible without the connecting corridors. Maps are very well designed, with shortcuts placed after almost every major platforming challenge that cut down on having to do them over and over again when backtracking.
Boss fights are also a major focus of Islets, with each island having two to three to fight through, usually resulting in new abilities like a double jump or wall climb, or being the last obstacle before reaching the island’s magnet. Bosses in this game are all fun to learn, all attacks that any of them use are dodgeable in some way with none of them feeling cheap or unfair, but this does not mean they are easy. Each boss is challenging in its own way, with some even turning parts of the fight into something resembling a bullet hell game. If you want an actual bullet hell fight, Islets has you covered on this front too. A few boss fights take place off the islands while in your airship, and these are actually something akin to a toned down session of a Touhou game, complete with a circle to show where your actual hitbox is. These fights become less about learning patterns and playing skillfully and more about surviving long enough for the boss to eventually go down.
Overall, Islets may not be doing anything especially new in its genre, but it does all the usual things incredibly well. Movement and combat feel good, the abilities you get are fun to use, maps are well designed and satisfying to explore, and bosses are challenging in a way that makes them memorable. Outside of some qualms with how upgrade tokens sometimes make rewards not as worthwhile as they should be, I have very little negative to say about my time with Islets. If you find yourself hankering for another metroidvania that does what it says on the tin, and does it competently, this is definitely a game to have your eye on. Those islands aren’t going to reconnect themselves.