You might have the impression that Island Farmer will have you doing some farming. Alas, that’s not quite the case. ‘LEGO Island’ would have been more appropriate: you’re building islands out of some scattered building blocks. Except of course, there’s a LEGO Island already, so that would have ended badly.
Island Farmer is one of a number of ‘minimalist island and farm’ games put out by Mens Sana Interactive. So far, those games have been restricted to PC, but Island Farmer represents the first to drift onto Xbox. If it’s successful, we may well see games like Instant Farmer, Floating Farmer and Island Cities arriving too.
The idea behind these games couldn’t be simpler. You are shown a lovingly managed island farm, with fenced enclosures for animals, winding paths to farm buildings, and windmills among trees and flowers. It’s all lovely and serene – until someone etch-a-sketches it. They shake it all up, and the blocks that make up the farm are scattered to the four winds.
Now it’s your job to pick up individual blocks and place them in their rightful place. This isn’t via a sliding puzzle or anything like that: you’re just choosing one block to swap with another and off they go. It’s through the simple interaction of moving a highlighted square, pressing A to lift up a given block, and then pressing A on a corresponding block to swap it, that you can recreate the farm you originally saw.
This isn’t a game about memory, either. You can press Y to view the completed island, overlaid onto your one, so that you can quickly see what’s out of place. You don’t need to remember that minecart tracks were built in a particular direction: you can just tap Y, without any punishment for looking at all. If you’re like me, you will try to make a memory game out of it, tapping Y only as a last resort.
Island Farmer does a lovely job of grouping subsets together, so they become more memorable and easier to reconstruct. A patch of mushrooms will gather together in a kind of fairy ring, rather than be spotted around in isolated clumps which would be more fiddly to remember and recreate. Island Farmer also has a lovely flourish to it: complete one of these subsets, and it will grow and suddenly come alive. A farm will bustle with piglets, or a rock outcrop will suddenly become a full-blown cliff face.
Usability-wise, there are some neat touches too. You suspect that Mens Sana Interactive have honed their approach over the many games in the series. If a piece is in the correct place, it will twinkle with fairy dust. It’s also locked in place, so you can’t accidentally swap it somewhere unwanted. And you can shift perspective with the tap of a shoulder button.
What could do with some work is the adaptation to a controller. The use of the d-pad is pretty inexplicable. We wanted to use the d-pad to have some additional control over our little square cursor, since the game is built on a large grid. But pressing left made the cursor go up, and pressing up made the cursor go up too. We wondered if there was some drift or quirk to our pad, so we plugged in another and had the same problems. Our guess is that the d-pad can’t adapt to the shifting viewpoints when LB or RB are triggered.
And everything is slower than it needs to be. An animation plays with the switch of each block – something that can’t be turned off, and feels like it takes an age. When there are dozens of moves to make, it gets arduous. Plus the cursor moves at a slow wheelbarrow-like amble, and no amount of jamming the analogue sticks in one direction will speed it up. It can also be hard to yank it to isolated one-square islands, as Island Farmer demands that you only travel in rows or columns.
Some control and usability quirks aside, Island Farmer became a bit of a pressure valve for us. Whenever things in life got tense or salty, we could turn to Island Farmer and wile away some time with its twenty levels. It’s not stupendously long, as twenty levels will pass by in about two hours, but each level is roughly fifteen minutes, so you can pick up and play a single island and inject some cathartic bliss before moving on.
Mens Sana Interactive gave us My Little Prince: A Jigsaw Puzzle Tale, and Alice in Wonderland: A Jigsaw Puzzle Tale, and in our reviews for those games, we questioned whether console was the right place for a jigsaw puzzle. They’re too tactile; too fiddly. Well, in Island Farmer, Mens Sana Interactive might have their answer. In its LEGO-like approach to construction, they seem to have found a jigsaw that fits snugly onto console, and for only £2.49. Now we just need a few usability improvements before the rest of their minimalist island series comes out, and the job will be a good ’un.
If constructing your own farm in Stardew Valley feels like too much work, yet you want something laid-back with a pastoral backdrop, then look no further than Island Farmer. It’s a little rough around the edges, but it’s the gaming equivalent of putting your feet up on a rocking chair and having a nap.
You can buy Island Farmer from the Xbox Store