REVIEW: Minute of Islands hits hard with its haunting beauty
Updated: Feb 8, 2022
Playing through Minute of Islands was an incredibly cathartic experience. Journeying through a hollowed out landscape filled out with horrifying and beautiful things, emotions I thought I'd worked through bubbled up to the surface.
Much like the game's protagonist Mo, I tried to push them aside and focus on the task at hand, solving puzzles and fixing things in the game's world. It was successful, and pleasant for a time, but all things come due eventually.
And when they did, I was amazed with how affecting and enjoyable this narrative puzzle platformer was.
Just the Facts
Developer: Studio Fizbin
Platform(s): PC*, Mac, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch *platform reviewed on
Release Date: June 13, 2021
Key provided by Mixtvision.
Minute of Islands, developed and published by the German duo of Studio Fizbin and Mixtvision respectively, released for PC, Mac, PS4, Xbox One, and Switch on June 13, 2021. It was shadow-dropped during E3's Future Games Show, after a few years of development and anticipation.
In Minute of Islands, you play as Mo, the young caretaker for an archipelago of post-apocalyptic islands fighting off a mysterious batch of dangerous spores. She lives deep underneath the islands, in a world of strange biomechanical architecture, alongside the builders of the technology that keeps the archipelago safe. The Giants: Safan, Bergan, Ande, and Afla. These four brothers live deep in the bowels of these fleshy buildings to keep things powered the old-school way, using their giant forms to turn massive cranks.
One day, amidst an unsettling silence, Mo finds that something has gone wrong. The brothers have all stopped working and the spores have begun to fill the archipelago once more, slowly sapping the islands of life. Armed with a tool that interfaces with the Giants' technology, the Omni-Switch, Mo sets off to awaken ancient machines and keep alive what little is left.
While most of Mo's journey is solitary, her adventure is accompanied by a narrator. This almost fairytale-like voice tracks story details both known and unknown and gives voice to the few characters Mo encounters along the way. Troubles manifest both externally and internally as Mo navigates to each island, fixing air purifiers and waking Giants in hopes of reestablishing the status quo.
She stubbornly shouldered a burden that was far beyond her [. . .] And as things suddenly broke down, she pushed forward regardless.
To say much more would spoil many of the game's surprises, and the world created here is one to take in fresh, but what I can say is that the story is deeply relatable for a particular type of person.
I called Mo a caretaker at the start. It was a role essentially thrust upon her, but not one she rejected in any way. With this newfound purpose, she dives into her work, pushing anyone left away and losing herself in the process. The Mo that came out on the other side of that is the one we meet at the start of the story.
And it's a Mo that I found myself in within the first steps of the five to six-hour journey.
In 2011, I experienced one of the worst years of my life. In a whirlwind, my father lost his parents and got in a car accident, fracturing several spinal discs. I faced the worst breakup of my life. As the year went on, I found myself taking care of my dad, my uncle (who had suffered a major injury and had come to live with us), my mom in some capacity, and several dogs near the end of their lives.
I dropped out of school, because I felt a void that needed filling in my immediate family. A caretaker was needed and my lifetime of people-pleasing and self-sacrificing told me I was the one to do it.
In filling the role, I was able to keep my dad whole and support our family for as long as possible, even if I knew the cracks were forming and the whole thing was headed to an inevitable end. Or at least transforming into something different. Something forever changed.
In filling the role, I became a shell of a person, isolated from my friends, focused and narrowminded.
I was happy to do it, to assist my loved ones regardless of what it meant for me personally. I trudged forward, promising those around me that I was okay. I didn't realize the greater effects of this change until it was all too late. My mental health suffered and I found myself at the bottom of a deep pit that, when I finally woke up to it all, I had little help to climb out of.
While an opening content warning slide warned that her journey was not meant to be universal, Mo's story was mine. She stubbornly shouldered a burden that was far beyond her, assuring loved ones that everything would be fine. And as things suddenly broke down, she pushed forward regardless. Mo's story is one familiar to anyone who puts everyone else before themselves. Sure, there are giants and spore-modified wildlife and horrifyingly fleshy pieces of technology, but the core of the story is deeply relatable. It's a story of service, of duty.
It's beautiful. And it's only made better by the look and feel of the dense European comic-book style world found in Minute of Islands. The world reminds me of Adventure Time, where 10% of the time Finn and Jake could find themselves face to face with something grotesque and unnerving, while the other 90% would be filled with beautiful pastel-colored landscapes.
In Minute of Islands, those percentages are swapped. As you explore the archipelago, Mo encounters the bloated corpses of spore-infested whales, fleshy living machinery interwoven through the nooks and crannies of cliffsides, and visions of horrifying monsters carved into the natural landscape. The Giants themselves are hard to look at: lean machines with bulging veins and unnaturally long limbs.
There's a somber beauty to the art, a reminder of what once was and the nature that's taken over. The color palette is comforting as well, with shades of pastel blue, pink, and green coloring most landscapes.
The world and its inhabitants animate well, with fluid motions helping to sell both the natural environments and the strangely alive pieces of technology Mo works with. Tentacles unfurl from the haphazard boat she uses to travel from island to island, latching onto the docks for her to enter. Trees sway in the wind, with spores more often than not flitting in and out of their branches.
To accompany that motion, there is a near constant white noise approach to the sound design that both calms and unsettles. It makes you unsure of what might be waiting behind every new interaction. Creaking wood, squawking birds, and squelching noises accompany most of the game's events.
Music floats in and out as you progress, too — plucked strings and chimes slide in to comfort you but vanish just as quickly. Even Mo's narrator amplifies the sense of distrust. Her sing-songy disposition and lack of surprise at the world's more disturbing visuals keeps players off-balance.
Despite all this, Minute of Islands grounds players with its gameplay. Mo's travels through each island are made of routine actions. You start out by platforming through the decaying landscapes, following crusted white marks on cliffsides toward climbing points and finding your way toward the machines in need of repair. The platforming is simple and grounded, with an airy touch added by Mo's ability to kick her legs out and let her coat slow any long-distance falls.
There are a few tricky moments where Mo couldn't seem to pick the proper platform to land on that led to minor frustrations, but nothing too painful.
When you make it to the machines, you follow the same pattern of interactions to unlock their crucial components and bring them back to life with your trusty Omni-Switch. It's all very mechanical, calling on little more than a few button taps each time. But the accomplishment is satisfying each time.
Between the platforming and repairing, you'll run into the occasional puzzle. Whether you're moving blocks around or finding the right way to balance a pulley elevator system to navigate up a lighthouse, the puzzles are never overwhelming. Well... beyond one of the game's final puzzles that nearly had me pulling my hair out before finally realizing what was being asked of me.
The focus here is in experiencing the story, but there's a satisfaction in the looping routine that doesn't make the gameplay too dull throughout. Even collectible fans will be happy to know that there are over 44 secrets to collect in the form of Mo's memories on each island. Most are easy to find, but even by the end of my session, I still was missing around 10 of the sneaky buggers.
While I fully understand that this game's impact was made stronger by my own personal experiences, I think Minute of Islands is something special for all. The care put into the artistry at nearly every level shows mastery of the art form that few others are able to match. Studio Fizbin is an incredible collective of artists, both with the pen and with code, and I cannot wait to see what they make next.
Though, preferably their next game will feature a few less sea animal corpses and maybe instead feature a few sweet moments with like... a cute dog or something.
video games are good and Minute of Islands is... GREAT. (9/10)
+ an emotionally affecting experience with satisfying mechanical puzzles and a hauntingly beautiful art style
- a bit too easy to get through, has a few wonky platforming moments and a strangely difficult end-game puzzle
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