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Minute of Islands review: desert island risks

By Jon Bailes. Posted

Minute of Islands feels like gaming’s interpretation of the old aphorism that music is the silence between the notes. It’s more quiet than noise, a walking sim disguised as a platform-puzzler which rarely wrangles its pieces into anything taxing. But it makes something from the long gawping pauses required to fully drink in its scenery, its gentle narration, and the satisfaction of stoic routine. In between inputs, it unfurls an experience of isolation, misguided obligation, and stubborn attachment to parts of a life that’s already gone.

The bedrock of these meditations is Minute of Islands’ visual magnetism. Each of its isles is a giant ligne claire comic panel – a little Moebius, a little Hergé – zoomed in tight to let us gorge on its detail and colour, centred on a protagonist who might have arrived from a children’s book. Mo is a girl with blue flowing hair, yellow wellies, and a matching cape wrapped up to her chin like she’s hiding in a bath towel. Her arms aren’t there until they unravel to pull her up to a ledge, before neatly folding back in. The way she ambles, hops, and floats groundward, you wouldn’t guess at her troubles.

Yet this is the grimmest of fairy tales, set on an archipelago that springs from a network of biomechanical caves with cardiac valve doors, inhabited by four pale, hairless giants. A disorienting concept in itself, but the cause for concern is above, in infectious fungal spores that ride the breeze, laying waste to humans and wildlife. The giants have submitted to a kind of enslavement, ceaselessly winding cranks on machines that cleanse the air, with Mo in charge of maintenance to ensure the system keeps running. But things are getting worse.

The game begins with Mo’s discovery that the giants have stopped cranking, apparently collapsed into a deep sleep. Now she has to manually reactivate the purifiers on every island then visit each giant to revive them. It’s a job that exposes you to both this world’s enduring hardship and its ingenuity, above and below. Mo’s boat is a patchwork of timber, alien metal, and rubbery tentacles that uncoil into a boarding ramp. On islands where people once lived, and a few still do, you find ramshackle sheds and farm huts, work gear and containers left from before, creaky lifts and monorails, reinforced with shipwreck driftwood, cemented by outcrops of rainbow mushrooms. It’s hard not to stop and snap screenshots of the surroundings, like someone trying to enjoy an accidental holiday in a nuclear wasteland.

The tone of narration changes at times to reflect Mo’s subconscious complexes and doubts.

Mo herself acts without fuss, however, supported by a soothing yet matter-of-fact narrator. A few of the islands house the remnants of her estranged family, including sister, Miri, who also seem staunchly accepting of their predicament. Details of the past are calmly revealed through collectable floating memories, scenic tooltips, and conversations. “Miri taught herself the cello after the fungus ate her arm,” explains the narrator as you poke around Miri’s home.
Making-do-and-soldiering-on is at the core of how you interact with the world, too. Mo isn’t on an adventure; she’s doing what’s needed, unfazed by her festering environs.

Platforming involves climbing over and dropping down behind chunks of scenery, a little switch-pulling at most. A means to an end as you pick through nature’s revenge on a fragile civilisation. ‘Puzzles’ in the caves have you pushing fleshy blocks to reconnect arteries. It’s like checking all your connections before rebooting your system. And as for that, Mo follows instruction manual prompts with her staff-like ‘omni-tool’ – insert the stick, crank it round, then plug it into a power source, link the power to a destination point and pump in energy – a manual chore turned satisfyingly ritual through tactile repetition.

The tricky part of platforming can be figuring out exactly how the steps and paths link together.

Minute of Islands wouldn’t add up if all this evolved into proper puzzles and jumping challenges. It wouldn’t be a tale of Mo’s sacrifice, fuelled by a sense of self-worth that she only finds in martyrdom, of solemn duties that she won’t permit anyone to help her fulfil. It wouldn’t explore so fluently the need to find community in people rather than places, as Mo chugs between islands, inhaling clouds of mustard spores that alter her mind and intensify her loathing. In fact, it’s only in the hallucinogenic intervals where Minute of Islands does feel unreasonably shallow. These introduce neat visual tricks, from backdrops of bizarre sealife to platforms that only appear in watery reflections, as Mo hunts down an ordered sequence of memories. But they only ever amount to a bit more walking and the mildest tests of recollection. It feels like they should be more surreal, mazy, and difficult to escape, to contrast against the logical processes outside.

It’s a misstep, and so is some heavy-handed messaging in the final act. But much of the game dwells elsewhere, in the pull between subterranean machinic flesh where Mo finds solitary refuge, and the colourful surface decay where life and relationships want to go on. It’s in the spaces between layers and landmasses that Minute of Islands asks whether toil and alienation are worthwhile sacrifices to hold on to something that’s falling apart, and provides the silence for us to think that through.

The giants aren’t as intimidating as they first appear.

Highlight

None of the game’s sights capture its blend of beauty and horror better than the early discovery of a beached, disembowelled whale near Mo’s house. Each time you return home, it’s further degraded from the ravages of carrion birds and dazzling growths of fungus, becoming an evolving monument to the state of the islands.

Verdict

A thought-provoking experience that mostly does well to let its visuals do the talking.

75%

Genre: Platformer/walking sim | Format: PS4 (tested) / PC / Switch / XBO | Developer: Studio Fizbin | Publisher: Mixtvision Games | Price: £19.99 | Release: Out now

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