Surprise-dropped during E3, Minute of Islands is a gorgeous gift. Just look at those screenshots: it’s like Cartoon Network decided to adapt Annihilation or Last of Us, and they’ve roped in Marceline from Adventure Time to star in it. It’s bright but grotesque, pretty but disgusting. We practically doubled our play-time by standing and staring at the game-world, marvelling at the fungal corpse of a beached whale.
We can’t understate this enough: purely in terms of the world that’s been crafted here, and the sheer panache it’s been done with, Minute of Islands is worth playing. It’s across the presentational board, too: hulking creatures creak and moan with lumbering animations. The ambient soundtrack makes each island lonely and ramshackle, bursting into occasional life. The remarkable detail in the environment means you pick out a new rotten corpse or fungal explosion each time you pass by. It’s a cartoon Goya painting.
Enough gushing. In Minute of Islands you play Mo (pronounced ‘Maw’), a young girl who is the custodian of the ‘Omni-device’, a staff-like thing that can activate alien machinery on an archipelago of islands. You’re the only one who has this device, and you’re clearly relied on. It’s your job to maintain the purifiers on the islands, removing fungal spores from the air. These spores trigger madness and then Clicker-like mushroom protrusions on the body, before a horrible death. You’re also responsible for four giants who sit below the surface of the islands, turning pistons that keep the islands and the purifiers powered.
Minute of Islands isn’t one for scene-setting, or even starting at the beginning. You’ll be loaded with questions like ‘where is everyone?’, ‘who are these giants?’ and ‘why is a young girl responsible for this community?’, but they won’t be satisfactorily answered until the last act. The best you can do is take it at face value, as you grapple with the core structure of the whole game: the four giants have stopped, and by stopping they have allowed the purifiers to falter and the spores to return. People are dying, and you must travel from island to island, using the Omni-device to re-power the purifiers, and get the giants back to their colossal pistons.
Minute of Islands breaks virtually every narrative design rule that you can imagine. It does the Bastion thing of having very little dialogue, but slathering narration over the top whenever it can. It’s never truly clear if this is an omniscient narrator, a long-dead character or a kind of detached inner monologue, but it definitely aims a raspberry at the whole ‘show don’t tell’ wisdom. Character interactions are extremely thin on the ground, and everything gets filtered through the narration, rather than hearing them talk. Exposition is only given in the last act, in a colossal information dump, long after you stopped asking questions. The ending – which we definitely won’t give away – takes a huge left-turn from what is accepted or correct about satisfying endings.
What’s great about Minute of Islands, and what makes it so audacious (especially when you consider that Studio Fizbin are mostly only known for The Inner World point and click series) is that it mostly works, when it really shouldn’t. The detached narration and the lack of character voices means that you never quite get to know Mo, what it feels like to have her burden, and it makes her actions in the last act more surprising and heartrending. It’s also an incredibly lonely game, and dives into themes of duty, carrying other people, and being the hero when no one wants you to be one. The quiet, the lack of information, the few characters in the game: they all emphasise Mo’s loneliness, and you feel the weight of the world on your back. It may be slightly too on-the-nose, but the adage of every person being an island is never more true than in Minute of Islands.
The story’s not completely successful, however. Its storytelling is perhaps a little too sparse, and the pace of information and interactions with characters is a little off. Exposition comes at the end, and meaningful interactions are mostly at the start. It leaves a saggy middle where the repetition of the game’s core structure – travel to an island, activate the purifier, find the giant, activate the giant – becomes exposed, and you’re really only left with the beauty of the islands. They don’t lose their lustre, to be fair, but they can’t sustain a game.
The game – what you actually do in Minute of Islands – also can’t sustain the four hours of play. We’ve got nothing against a lack of interaction – we’re huge fans of walking simulators and visual novels – and we believe that games don’t always have to be a Call of Duty or Forza. The problem is that Minute of Islands keeps skirting on the edges of more intensive, involved gameplay, but chickens out at the last minute.
In the giants’ lairs, effectively the dungeons of Minute of Islands, they occasionally threaten to offer puzzles. You have to push an energy block into a socket to power up the giant, for example. But it’s rarely more than navigating round the block to make sure you’re the right side of it, or – in a couple of instances – dodging two or three obstacles to get to the block. But it’s all extremely lightweight and exceptionally easy, yet has the trimmings of other, better puzzles in similar games.
The same goes for the fever-dream sequences, which are initially fabulous in their deep-sea surrealism, but then they get repeated and lose their freshness. You need to collect three memories in a certain order, and collecting them in the wrong order resets the sequence. It sounds fine, but the levels are extremely limited, with barely any strategy in which path to take, and the greatest challenge comes from remembering the memories’ order rather than dodging the wrong one.
The core gameplay of Minute of Islands is navigating the environment, like Mirror’s Edge in 2D, but at roughly three kilometres-per-hour. You move on a single 2D plane, and look for places that you might be able to drop down or climb up, usually painted with a white edge. There might be a few branching paths on any given island, so most of the time you’re playing that old chestnut of ‘find the non-critical path’. You’re guessing which path will lead you to the game’s collectibles – Mo’s memories that appear as floating deep-sea creatures – rather than a cutscene.
It’s gentle and enjoyable, as you’re scanning the area for a nook you haven’t explored, a white-painted ledge that you haven’t been up, and landmarks to visit for memories. It’s very much into Oxenfree-style territory, on the fringes of a walking simulator, and there’s certainly no combat, death or challenge, and only a couple of things you might classify as puzzles. The problem is it’s let down by the repetitive objectives and the lack of anyone to talk to. The memories you come across are short and not altogether revealing, mostly focusing on what Mo and her sister Miri used to do, which doesn’t clarify much about their current state of mind or what will happen in the future. It serves to make the archipelago a mausoleum of past lives and memories, but – if we’re being honest – the past is the most normal and uninteresting part of Minute of Island’s world.
Luckily, when Minute of Islands comes to its big story beats, it hits them hard. The moment where the title is explained is wonderful – a fantastic, standout moment. A third act centrepiece, where you explore Graba, the ‘Island of the Dead’, is slightly disappointing in its lack of things to do, but it’s so artfully presented and atmospheric that you probably won’t care. And then there’s the ending. We suspect that people will be divided on it, but it does something so outrageously bold – effectively shining a light on the toxic underbelly of heroes in games – that it simultaneously makes complete sense, while also taking a turn that we’ve never seen before. It’s audacious, and you’d expect it from a confident outfit who’s had several narrative hits like Naughty Dog, rather than the makers of The Inner World, say.
We could complain that Minute of Islands creates such a blisteringly beautiful world, hinting at further stories, but then gives you so little opportunity to enjoy it. You’re just clambering over detritus, without much of a narrative thread to make it worthwhile. It even tempts you with what – at a distance – looks like actual gameplay, but turns out to be some metal scrap in the silhouette of a puzzle or action sequence when you get up close.
We could complain about the flimsy gameplay, but we’d rather focus on what Minute of Islands does so well. It’s in those moments where you stumble on a whale graveyard, or colossal moray eels swaying in the currents. It’s how the climactic moments hit you like a tidal wave. It’s in the delicately constructed backdrops, which often look like a Where’s Wally re-sketched by David Cronenberg. There’s slightly too much shonky scaffolding around Minute of Islands best bits, but when it’s the best bits that stay with you, then, well – Minute of Islands is absolutely worth your time.
You can buy Minute of Islands from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S