REVIEW: Enjoy a carefree visit with the Beasts of Maravilla Island
Updated: Feb 8, 2022
Sometimes, when I take VGG mascot Phyllis The Dog on her daily walks, I let my eyes wander. I take in the sights of my block, the nature and the creatures that call it home.
Sometimes, I find little surprises, things that have always been there that I usually ignore. Flowers that have bloomed between the leaves of a bush, a neighborhood cat following along behind us as we walk, a neighbor's new potted plant adding a splash of color and variety sorely needed in the same-y complex.
These moments of bliss on my calming walks are what I'm reminded of when playing Beasts of Maravilla Island. While the overall setting is much more spectacular than any stretch of land I could ever walk in my life, it's the serenity of walking through nature and appreciating its little surprises that stuck with me when I was through.
Just the Facts
Developer: Banana Bird Studios
Publisher: Whitethorn Games
Platform(s): PC* and Nintendo Switch *platform reviewed on
Release Date: June 12, 2021
Key provided by The Indie Bros.
Beasts of Maravilla Island, developed by Banana Bird Studios and published by Whitethorn Games, released on June 12, 2021 for the PC and Switch. It was one of a few surprise releases from E3 week, debuting its release date and shadow-dropping during the 2021 Wholesome Direct.
This photography exploration game has you adventuring through the mystical Maravilla Island as eager wildlife photographer Marina Montez. After receiving her grandfather's old journal and camera, she sets off on an expedition to the uncharted island of Maravilla. Papa Vasco's journal chronicles the time he spent there after being shipwrecked. His request for Marina is simple: return to Maravilla, document its hidden beauty and magic, and share it with the world.
"Maravilla Island immediately stands out as one of my favorite game environments of the year."
Your viewfinder will capture plentiful flora and fauna as you learn more about grandpa's time on the island and discover why he's so dedicated to protecting it.
Beasts of Maravilla Island, whether purposeful or not, is about preservation. It's a game that shows you over and over how nature left untouched thrives. It promotes a fairly hands-off enjoyment of your natural environment, asking you to just take a moment, step back, and witness the magic of the world around you.
The moment-to-moment story content is pretty common fairytale fare, complete with guardian island spirits and ancient gemstones, but it serves its purpose well. Marina's internal dialogue is the only thing you spend any real time with and she's a charming enough character.
And while it feels obvious (and cliché) to mention, the real star is the island itself.
Maravilla Island immediately stands out as one of my favorite game environments of the year. Landscape and animals alike are vibrant and colorful, captured wonderfully by the game's subtly cel-shaded art style. It's a constant marvel to explore and find yourself among wonders both hidden and in plain sight.
Beings hide in a lush jungle, along the banks of a glowy mushroom-lined river, and high above a rocky valley in each of the game's three biomes. Everything feels both foreign to the eye and simultaneously familiar, as if a hidden little island like this could exist unseen somewhere in the world today.
While the animations aren't always the highest quality, there's something to be said for the liveliness found in each biome. In the first area, butterflies rest along a tree's bark while monkey-bird hybrids soar overhead. Adorably round melon birds hide underneath the wide leaves of a plant, observing you with interest, while a banana bird rests with its brethren in upside down "bunches" in a tree nearby.
Your adventure through the stunning vignettes of each biome is accompanied by a sweeping soundtrack reminiscent of some of my favorite children's nature shows. Tracks are playful, tropical, and varied, much like the beasts you'll encounter. Percussive island instruments and woodwinds perfectly capture the mystical nature of your adventure.
With such overall artistry, it's a shame then that the gameplay fails to match the same level of quality.
Your main goal is to photograph and log each unique species of animal and plant life. With over 32 specific photos to take in each region, completionists are in for a fun time.
Unlike that OTHER monster photography game, Maravilla Island lets you explore the world freely. Marina runs around large, but extremely linear, environments in each biome, climbing up vines and jumping across rivers to make it to each zone's exit.
Your camera is equipped with only a basic zoom, height adjustment, and selfie capability. No major frills here, it's all about getting your shots. Get an animal or plant into frame, shift around your angle for artistry's sake, and snap away. No tossing apples or focusing on the size and alignment of each shot. Just exploring, observing, and capturing.
As you wander around, you'll find that pointing the camera in almost any direction will inevitably find something you need to photograph. The quality of the shot doesn't matter — so snapping arbitrarily in a particularly dense portion of forest will probably net you four or five of the creatures on your checklists.
This kind of kills the general sense of exploration, but Banana Bird Studios does smartly pace the presence of each new breed so there's a constant sense of progression and some level of consistent mystery inherent in each biome.
And although the game's unique beasts are a big draw, there are almost no opportunities to interact with them, even in the smallest of ways. A few animals will respond to your whistling ability, mainly used in the game's few puzzles, but it is disappointing — and probably unrealistic — that most of the beasts on this tucked-away island disregard you as you walk up close and shove cameras in their faces.
Beyond the general wildlife, each region has one special beast with four unique behaviors you need to capture on film. These specific beasts hold all the key interactions, as Marina is invited to engage with them to prompt their unordinary behaviors.
These behaviors offer a few charming moments and a little more thought than the game's few camera-based environmental puzzles, but they still feel lacking on the whole.
I found it easy to fall into a zone in this game. To be immersed in Marina's mission. As I wandered through each biome, I felt a strong desire to photograph these beasts in the best light, to be able to showcase them well when I returned to the normal world and told tales of my time on the island. I was ticking boxes, sure, but I was also honoring an island of beautiful critters and enjoying the relaxing, conflict-free gameplay.
But photo modes and appealing atmospheres aren't enough to capture every gamer. Beyond a few simple environmental puzzles, there's nothing too engaging for someone who's not already a fan of the photo game genre.
Beasts of Maravilla Island is a bit of a hard one for me to nail down. For every point I make in my head against it, I find another reason to love it. You say the game lacks interactivity, I say that's a brilliant way to reconcile its theme of leaving nature as-is. You counter with criticisms of a "short" three-hour campaign and one-note gameplay styles, I shoot back with compliments of an easily consumable and accessible game for folks of all ages.
I can understand why someone could come away supremely disappointed with Beasts of Maravilla Island, but I don't think I'm one of those people. Games like these are rare and should be supported, so if you found any interest to latch onto in this review, get your tickets to Maravilla Island and experience the wonder of this brief mythical photography tour.
video games are good and Beasts of Maravilla Island is... GOOD. (7/10)
+ a stunningly beautiful island to explore with creative creatures to meet, all wrapped up with gameplay that represents its themes perfectly
- if you aren't ready to spend a couple hours just taking photos, this isn't the game for you; lacking interactivity and simple puzzles hold it back
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