A good metroidvania always hits the spot. It doesn’t need to be groundbreaking, or to reinvent the wheel; just the right balance of mobility, intertwining level design, and upgrades that change how you move around and interact with the game space. Get those fundamentals just right—easier said than done, admittedly—and you’ve got the foundation for something enjoyable. Enter Islets, a game that doesn’t exactly push boundaries, despite a couple of fresh ideas, but one that is built on a clear understanding of what makes a good metroidvania tick.
Fast, fluid movement and precise controls set Islets off on the right foot: even before you get your first upgrade, moving around this labyrinth feels good and natural. That kicks up a notch when your very first upgrade is a double jump, exemplifying a focus on mobility. Subsequent upgrades follow suit, as you learn to scale walls, teleport short distances, and walk on the cloudy contrails of an arrow, among other things. Many of these will be familiar to genre veterans, but that’s not a bad thing, and the consistent stream of new ways to move about—and the access to new areas that come with—is as satisfying here as ever.
The other half of that puzzle is level design that is enjoyable to move about in. Islets‘ labyrinth, though not massive, is intricately designed, with secrets aplenty, cleverly-placed breadcrumbs, and enticing puzzles to encourage exploration. In true metroidvania fashion, it’s common to find yourself revisiting areas with the aid of new tools, but there’s refreshingly little need for literal backtracking as such.
Instead, smart use of shortcuts, one-way doors, and the paths that new upgrades make accessible mean the maze tends to circle back on itself: you’ll revisit places often, but usually from a new direction, without feeling like you’re simply retreading your footsteps. This is all stuff that metroidvanias have been doing since Metroid and the Symphony of the Night themselves, but the nuance of such design can be tricky to pin down. Islets may not be as expansive as its inspirations, or feature as many mechanical wrinkles, but it nails the feeling.
And while it mostly sticks to genre convention, Islets isn’t without its unique ideas. Chief among those: the way the map pieces together—quite literally. A group of islands floating in the sky, once held together by magnets, now drift apart; your task, as the unlikely hero, is to reconnect them. Fight your way through the monsters that infest each island, find and reactivate the magnet at its core, and boom—it’ll reconnect with the “main” island, thus turning what were dead ends into new pathways between zones.
It’s a nifty concept: each island is its own little maze, explored in isolation first, before it rejoins the others and becomes a piece of something bigger. Those new pathways aren’t simply shortcuts between places you’ve already visited, but new areas to explore, and new ways to progress. It’s another way of recontextualizing maps you’ve already partially explored, and while Islets doesn’t quite push that idea to the fullest—the early game teases a degree of labyrinthine complexity in those reconnected maps that the later areas struggle to match—it’s nonetheless an intriguing extra layer of exploration.
Fun little shoot-’em-up interludes also help bring something a little different into the mix. An airship lets you fly between disconnected islands, but safe travel to new areas requires first dealing with sky pirates in heated airship battles. These bullet hell-style feuds put heavy emphasis on dodging enemies’ dense attack patterns and using the full expanse of the “arena” to keep up with the foe’s movements; thankfully, automatic aiming means you can focus squarely on avoiding getting hit. They’re fun breaks from the usual platforming, even if their potential is a little untapped: a handful of isolated boss fights is the full extent of airship combat, and there’s a missed opportunity to incorporate this into the exploration side of the game.
Islets also leaves its mark through its setting and the characters that populate it. Despite some high stakes and fierce monsters, this archipelago of floating isles is bright and colourful, gorgeously rendered in a hand-drawn cartoon style, and filled with an assortment of loveable oddballs—like a suspicious toad in a trenchcoat who definitely isn’t trying to lure unsuspecting tourists to sacrifice to some ancient demon. The unlikely hero, Iko, is as quietly determined as every silent protagonist, but his adventure is given texture and personality through those closest to him, including a comically obnoxious rival. It’s a familiar tale, all told, but one with a lot of heart and frequent moments of genuine hilarity—aa boss fight involving that absolutely trustworthy toad is a particular delight.
For anyone on the hunt for a new metroidvania to chew on, Islets hits the right notes. It’s built on a clear understanding of what makes the genre tick, with a couple of fresh ideas thrown into the mix—even if the potential in those ideas is left underexplored. It’s a relatively concise affair, for better or worse, but with humour and personality laced over a strong exploration-platformer foundation, it’s not a bad way to spend a few hours.
Developer: Kyle Thompson
Publisher: Armor Games Studios
Genre: Metroidvania, platformer, action
Platforms: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PC, Xbox
Release date: 24 August 2022
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.