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  • Writer's pictureNate Hermanson

Early Access Check-in: Save the ocean, tend to your farm, and fall in love in Coral Island

Updated: Oct 13, 2022

Farming sims give us a rush unlike any other. A plot of land, some crops, some virtual people to hang out with when our plans with real friends fall apart? It's aces.

But something's changed in recent years. As much as the genre has seen a renaissance, with new entries announced seemingly every week, each new game has failed to reach the highs that kept us up until 4 a.m. with a classic like Stardew Valley.

If you can relate, we've got some good news.

We think we've found it again with Stairway Games' Coral Island.

An in-game screenshot of Coral Island depicts one of the game's cutscenes, where a mystical giant stands before you as the island's four elements light up around the character.

Early Access Facts!

Developer: Stairway Games

Publisher: Humble Games

Platforms: PC at launch. Nintendo Switch, Xbox Series, and PS4/5 down the line.

Price: $24.99

Early Access Launch Date: Oct. 11, 2022

Preview key provided by Humble Games.

Disclaimer: Deputy Editor Julie backed this game on Kickstarter. The preview key provided was independent of that and this coverage reflects Nate's thoughts on the game.

Stairway Games started their Coral Island development journey on Feb. 1, 2021 with the launch of their crowdfunding campaign. Less than 36 hours later, they'd reach their initial goals. And by March 3, they'd raise over $1.6 million to make their Southeast Asian-inspired farming sim dreams a reality.

This small Indonesian team sought to bring their lived experiences and a focus on conservation to a genre that otherwise has been lacking in diversity and in more serious and/or actionable discussions about the impact we have on nature around us.

And so brings us to Coral Island's Early Access launch! After a year-plus in alpha, the team at Stairway Games is ready to bring its vision for the farming sim genre to the public. And we've got one thing to say as we kick things off here... prepare to fall in love. Coral Island's narrative setup is light in its Early Access launch but is nevertheless familiar. You're leaving the big city behind to return to a place you used to spend time in as a child, looking for a reprieve from the hustle and bustle. Coral Island's little hamlet, Starlet Town, has been struggling since the island was hit by an oil spill brought on by the game's closest thing to an antagonist, Pufferfish Drilling Corp.

With your help, the community is looking to rebuild its brand, its economy, and most importantly, the surrounding ecosystem. You'll meet tons of folks, butt heads with the Pufferfish execs who move into town, flirt with Coral Island residents, take part in their traditional festivals, and maybe even come to learn about the island's more magical aspects in turn.

What little story is there in the game's Early Access state is enjoyable, thanks in no small part to its diverse cast of characters and fairly unique approach to the tried-and-true formula. Within our 15 hours played (which brought us right up to the edge of the game's first season), we weren't able to witness any "relationship events" with any of the townsfolk, but we have no doubt they're handled well here.

An in-game screenshot of Coral Island depicts a grouping of the island's villagers doing yoga together in the town square. You can see the game's various UI elements, including health, stamina, tool bars, and date and time.

One of our favorite things about Coral Island is its constant advocacy for and education about conservation in all aspects. And it does so blatantly.

From the main story plot, pitting you and the island's residents against an oil drilling corporation that hopes to take advantage of the island's waning tourism and suffering economy in the wake of an oil spill, to the gameplay, as you clean up the ocean floor and your farm land filled with trash, Coral Island's DNA is built around conservation. It's also refreshing in the ways it depicts these complex issues, showing what some communities have to do to survive and how tourism can be just as helpful as it can be harmful.

Another highlight, especially for me as a Filipino-American, is the representation for Southeast Asian cultures. With the Indonesian Stairway Games behind the wheel, Coral Island brings some much-needed diversity to the farming sim space. Southeast Asian representation is rare in all media and to see something built from the ground up with that in mind is something I can't even begin to explain. The island's carpenter felt like an uncle of mine, the flora and fauna were more familiar than ever, and the foods and recipes were reminiscent of home.

Representation matters.

All farming sims attempt to sell the idea of a community, with all these characters coming together to uplift their community (and each other) by living in self-sustaining harmony. But few actually execute this in practice. Coral Island has some great little moments that showcase the bonding and mutual aid that other games may attempt to bring up but never really represent.

For example, when you first upgrade your house, a cutscene plays that shows your character helping with the work and taking time to bond with the carpenters of the town, who offered to patch up your decaying building for nothing more than the required materials. It's a tiny moment in the grand scale, but one that goes a long way in showcasing its values in practice. Coral Island does a lot of little things to sell you on its tight-knit community and worldbuilding, in fact.

— Like in many other farming sims, characters go about their daily routines independent of what your farmer is doing. But it's the little touches that impress, like one of the town cats making their way up onto a rooftop to sunbathe or townspeople organically coming and going from a town festival, rather than feeling forced into some artificial gathering.

— The TV has all your usual functions, like telling you the weather and giving tips about how to manage your farm. But it adds a huge world-building key that we can't wait to see more of: There are full-on TV shows! Every day, you can watch some silly parody of a real-life show that has no real impact on the rest of the game, but are so fun nonetheless. We hope these shows are going to update over time (we're already so invested), but across the first in-game season, we've only seen the same few episodes repeated.

This all makes Coral Island (and Starlet Town) a place worth inhabiting and contributes to its staying power. It's a brilliant foundation to build upon, but all of this is useless without some farmin'. So what does Stairway bring to the table there?

An in-game screenshot of Coral Island, showcasing one of the island's landmarks, the Coral Inn. One villager can be seen sweeping the deck outside the inn and another can be seen approaching from the path behind her. A cutesy illustrated octopus can be seen on a Diving sign.

Much like other farming sims, Coral Island is acutely aware of its inspirations (look no further than the game's fun easter egg featuring an iconic blue hat and a shopkeeper known simply as "Concerned Monkey"). It doesn't shy away from what's come before, with gameplay that's fairly reminiscent of its ancestors. When I say this game approaches the highs of a classic like Stardew Valley, it's because a lot of its systems almost feel like they're pulled straight from it, though obviously with their own twist. Coral Island, much like Stardew, draws upon and honors farming sims of old, but implements tons of modern quality-of-life fixes that bring the genre into the modern age.

You'll plant seeds, descend down mines, give gifts to townsfolk, sell your goods in town, contribute to a growing museum with artifacts and bugs and fish, and help build back the island's natural magic by collecting seasonal items for bundles. The Early Access period seems to have at least one layer to each of its core game mechanics intact, which is better than most Early Access launches can say. (Multiplayer will be coming post-launch, but you're better off considering this single player in the meantime.)

Some of the fun conservation-focused twists include the ability to recycle and reuse the trash you gather in crafting to build charming recycled fences, scarecrows, and more. There are theme-appropriate recycling machines, some special labs dedicated to ocean cleanup that give you the ability to upgrade your farm's crops, and more. Conservation rolls deep in Coral Island.

There are some features that are teased and left unimplemented at this time, including a pet system that we can't wait to see more from, but you've still got more than enough on your plate to have your fun around the island. As we said, 15 hours in and we're only through one season, with tons left to do.

Over the course of their projected roadmap, Stairway Games will be iterating on and strengthening the core systems, but a little bit of everything is available to sample.

Coral Island's biggest unique feature is its introduction of underwater exploration. As stated before, one of the main focuses in this game is in your character's attempts to help heal the coral reef, still hurting from the lingering oil spill. Your character can dive to the ocean floor and use a mix of technology and the island's natural magic to help push the oil back and restore the reef to its former glory.

This manifests as almost a secondary "mine" in that it's a place to gather new resources from — but the differentiation in landscape and intention makes cleaning the ocean floor feel incredibly unique and fulfilling. It also brings about a batch of new machines (along with the usuals like a furnace and composter) that help to make your farmland feel even more involved than in other games like it.

Everything handles just as you'd expect and the only difficulty you'll run into is in how to maximize efficiency on your farm, so I can't say it does anything too new in its gameplay to pull someone in who doesn't already love games like it.

An in-game screenshot of Coral Island, showcasing the underwater diving gameplay. The player character is in the middle of a bunch of trash in the coral reef, clearing the path with a scythe for a magical beam that seeks to clean the landscape.

Before I get into our very light negatives, can I just get something out of this way? Coral Island is very pretty. In all the ways.

Stairway Games is building off of the stunning work of Art Director David Ardinarya Lojaya, whose character illustrations were the first thing that caught our eyes a few years ago. With his art style serving as the foundation, Coral Island's tropical setting is realized beautifully. Soft 3D textures, vibrant colors, and a type of landscape not usually seen in these games? Stunning. And uh... if you're a sucker for romance in farming sims, Coral Island is set up to provide some satisfying options. I don't know how people take a pen, doodle some lines, and end up with attractive human beings, but they do it here. EVERYONE IS SO HOT. You're bound to fall in love with one... maybe two... or five... villagers in your time on Coral Island.

That all being said, there are things that can be fixed. Combat in the mines is a bit stiff and basic, and the timing of days and of your various machines' work cycles are both short AND long. The economy feels like it could use some tweaking, as it feels like money is incredibly tight in the early game, even tighter than usual in these sims.

These games in early access always feel like they're tuned specifically for the Early Access period, which only makes sense, as they hope you'll spend hours doing the menial work — making even the most basic items and quests harder to acquire or accomplish — to keep you from quickly running out of things to do. Eventually, the full release will get the pace settled perfectly, but it's something to point out for sure.

This release also lacks any controller support, which will be a major turn-off for some, but it is pretty high on their priority list to add in sooner rather than later. As you'd also expect, there are also some tiny glitches that are easy to overlook and some of the usual hurdles you might expect from playing a game in Early Access. It's admirable that the game's main errors so far are slight, but it may not stay that way for everybody.

It should also be noted that there may be some progression-halting updates down the line that will reset your farmer's story back to zero. Even in our brief preview, an update set us backward after making it halfway through the month. Luckily, they've got a creative solution here as even when you lose story progress, you'll keep your farm as it's laid out, your full inventory, all of your level-ups and skills, and your money. It'll be frustrating to power through the game's scripted story beats each time, and to build up your relationships, but it goes a long way that not everything is lost each time.

But still, it's a major thing to remember going into this early access release.

A sampler of the types of potential love- I MEAN... folks living on Coral Island.

Stairway Games has created something special. With a very detailed roadmap ahead of them (and a full alpha period behind them that saw a great track record of updates and consistent progress toward development goalposts), we have full confidence that the Stairway team will continue onward toward its long-term support and new content.

When it's all said and done, years down the line, when we're looking back at the indie farming sims we loved, we might just be holding Coral Island right up there with the likes of Stardew Valley.

I hope you know I don't say that lightly.

If you want to check out this game in Early Access, it's available starting today for just $24.99. They might be increasing the price at full launch, so consider checking it out sooner rather than later if this paradise is calling out to you!

The key art for Coral Island, which depicts the island's residents engaging in various island activities all throughout the background, a merfolk swimming underneath the water, and the two farmer player characters posing in the middle.


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