My first run at Isle of Spirits lasted a grand total of 10 seconds. Ship wrecked on an island that looks a whole lot like Minecraft, I started to explore. I jumped up a ledge then onto a rock which snagged me in the air, glitched me out and I fell in to the sea. GAME OVER. Apparently the player-character never bothered to learn to swim. When you do die in this game, you die for good. There’s no checkpoints or retries. Do not pass go. Do not collect £100. Your save game is kaput. That’s no big deal when you’ve lost 10 seconds of play time. But what about when you lose 2 hours of progress in a manner that’s cheaper than a closing down sale at Pound Land? Prepare for your patience to be tested…
Isle of Spirits offers an atrocious first impression and it’s something I think most players will experience. This game is a totally hands off survival and crafting experience. Apart from a label on screen that explains how to access the crafting menu and inventory, you’re left entirely to your own devices. There’s no introduction, no narrative, no description of any of the on-screen UI elements and no objectives beyond “Survive. Find a way to escape” shown on the loading screen. You have to figure out everything on your own. Experimenting is the only way to do that in a game this obtuse and with a handful of things that can kill you instantly, you’ll die and likely die quickly. It’s likely impossible to complete this game in one go. Or even 2. My second death came when I realised I had a water bucket in my inventory and decided to try and fill it. I’m going to need water to survive right (incidentally, you don’t)? I head down to the water’s edge and accidentally fall in. A whole 5 minuets of play – GAME OVER.
The unspoken aim of Isle of Spirits is to stay alive long enough on a small procedurally generated island to build a raft in order to escape. There’s 3 resources on the island that form the basis to all of the crafting – Stone, wood and fibres (basically grass). You begin the game with nothing but on the sandy beach area’s you can find enough wood and stones to craft an axe and pick-axe. Around the island there are trees to cut, stones to mine and tufts of grass to collect. Your tools degrade so you’ve always got to keep a small supply of stone and wood around to replace those that break. Grasses can be combined with rope to create a sail. Collect enough wood and you can craft a Log. Craft enough Log’s and you can create a mast and the base to your raft. You’ll need an anchor which requires a large amount of stone. It’s a simplistic objective, once you’ve explored the mechanics of it, but surviving long enough to complete it is a whole different ball game.
At the bottom of the screen are 4 dials – health, hunger, tiredness and temperature. Again, these are unexplained but the symbols that represent them are intuitive enough not to need one. Over time, the hunger and tiredness dial will reduce. In order to refill them, you’ll need to eat food which can be found dotted around the island on bushes or in the ground and sleep in a bed, respectively. Fail to do so and chunks of your health will fall away until you die. To help with the hunger, there’s a cooking mini-game which looks like many “stop the line when it’s in the right area” games you’ve played before but is far from it. It’s entirely unintuitive.
The temperature gauge works a little differently and it’s more closely linked to your environment. During the night time and particular events on the island (more on those in a second) the temperature dial will totally empty unless you’re standing close to a campfire (a craft-able object) or holding/wearing a torch. If this happens, your health will slowly seep away until you die. Staying on top of these requirements is relatively easy but pushes you to explore and plan ahead. Fruits don’t respawn on bushes every day but you can plant certain foods in boxes which will provide regular crops so long as you water them (that Water bucket does have a use!). As for sleep, so long as you can remember where you built your bed/building, you can head back there before it gets dark with enough wood to build a campfire and survive till the morning. Despite its simplicity, balancing these requirements can still be a constant threat. My third death came during the night. My tiredness level wasn’t quite empty so I thought I’d mine the stone which was a short way down from the stone hut I’d made on a hill. I over shot my jump and ended up falling into the darkness. My screen turned totally black and I couldn’t tell where my house and the safety of my campfire safety was. I didn’t have any wood on me to craft a torch or campfire as I’d just put it all in the chest in my house. Something unseen hiding in the dark sapped away my life. GAME OVER. Half an hour of game time lost.
There’s no other signs of life on the Isle of Spirits. Your curly haired player-character is the only man or beast you’ll meet in the game – but that doesn’t mean the island isn’t dangerous. Irregularly, the island throws up something perilous for you to navigate. When it begins to rain on the island, it floods. The insta-death water level rises covering any low level areas. If you’re out exploring, you might be cut off from your home base. On another day, it might snow. On this day, the temperature gauge will shoot to the bottom if you don’t wear a torch or stay near a campfire. There’s apparently a rock slide event in the game. While I’ve certainly heard this event taking place via a sound effect, I’ve not actually seen it or the impact it has. There’s also a tornado event that hasn’t triggered for me. During these events, survival usually takes precedence over crafting the raft as it’s so easy to perish. A little too easily and far too cheaply, I feel, which is what happened during my 4th play through. After 2 hours of play, I’d crafted most of what I needed to finish the raft. I’d got a load of planters set up to grant me food regularly. My house was in a central area with a chest full of resources. It was all set up. I was out further on the island that usual because I needed stone and i’d mined all of the spots closest to my house. This is when a mysterious fog rolled in. My whole screen went white. I couldn’t see the environment. I used the map in the inventory menu to try to navigate the landscape as best I could. It wasn’t enough. I fell into the sea. GAME OVER. I quit the game right there and then and couldn’t stomach going back until the next day.
Including perma-death in a survival crafting game like Isle of Spirits is a bold choice. The pessimist in me thinks this element of the game only exists to make 2 hours of content last for three times as long. On one hand, it makes each death feel like a real blow, especially those that come so close to victory. You play the game more cautiously because of it. This also makes your eventual successes feel earned. Your enjoyment of this game will be entirely reliant on your tolerance for trial and error, however. If you enjoy learning systems and mechanics through repetition rather than having it explained to you so you can see more of the game content quicker, you’ll find some joy in Isle of Spirits. Personally, by my 5th and final death, I was done with starting again. I impatiently tried to craft as much as possible paying little regard to my hunger. By the time I really needed to explore to find some food, it rained, the flood cut me off from the rest of the map and I died shortly after. GAME OVER.
Isle of Spirits is described by developer Silver Bullet Games as “a chill and casual survival game” and it certainly can be that. The visuals are comfortably familiar, soft and inoffensive. The soundtrack is light, melodic and would be right at home played in a lift in a furniture store. Once you’ve explored its particular foibles and died enough times to understand them, the game play loop becomes relaxed so that you’re only really dealing with the unexpected events. Play this game slowly and steadily without trying to rush your escape and it’s capable of feeling zen like at times. This is how I finally finished the game. At a leisurely pace while stockpiling a lot of resources and waiting for dangers to pass.
You’ve got to forgive a lot to get to position with Isle of Spirits though. The camera angle elevation is locked. While that’s far from deal breaking, not being able to change the angle felt awkward for most of my time with the game. There’s a filter on the camera which adds specks that shine in the light. I imagine this was to give a lens flare like effect but it’s just an annoyance in practice. The sound effect for many of the action’s in the game are almost comically bad. The SFX for chopping a tree sounds like someone’s whistling into a microphone just before it hits them in the face. The sound when a tool breaks would be right at home when the latest ACME gadget fails on Wile E. Coyote. As the world it made of blocks, it’s all too easy to get snagged on corners.
The moments of quiet crafting and contemplation in Isle of Spirits is what this game does well. The core loop of collecting a small pool of resources and putting what you can towards a unified goal encourages a chilled out, relaxed experience. Unfortunately that’s often at odds with the core of the game which is filled with cheap perma-death dangers and trial-and-error repetition. There are a myriad crafting and survival games that are better designed and more refined than this and most of them cost less. It’s simply far too many GAME OVER‘s for my tastes.
Isle of Spirits is available now on Xbox One (review platform) and PC via Steam.
Developer: Silver Bullet Games
Publisher: Silver Bullet Games
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
If you enjoyed this article or any more of our content, please consider our Patreon.