There’s been a mixed bag of success when it comes to kick-starter funded indie games, but Coral Island might be one of the rare few to actually live up to everything that was promised, despite it still being in Early Access. There’s been a seemingly endless slew of farming & social simulators over the past few years, so newer titles trying to make a name for themselves really need to offer a unique experience.
Coral Island achieves this in two distinct ways, by; introducing entirely new mechanics to fit their aesthetic theme, and also by building upon existing staples in the genre that offer more depth to gameplay elements that they know players already love.
I really hate falling into the trope of comparing new games to similar titles that have been released because it some-what minimizes the entirety of the game, but if you don’t see the direct inspiration from Animal Crossing, Stardew Valley, and therefore Harvest Moon, you’d be kidding yourself. All the familiar farming simulation tropes that have become a mainstay in the genre are present throughout the onset of the game, as you’ll obtain your own farmstead, grow an abundance of crops, care for a variety of animals and construct various buildings to assist in the productivity on your farm.
Narratively, we follow what’s quickly becoming the trope of modern social simulator games, by leaving behind our big-city life in search of something new, which leads us to the remote and tropical ‘Coral Island’. The unique element of this back-story, resides on the heavy (and emotional) emphasis put towards environmental preservation, as you’ll spend a large portion of the game trying to maintain the health of the local coral reef. It’s a really nice change to have an actual motive/purpose behind your actions in-game , especially coming from a coming Australian who is all-too-familiar with the reality of our dying coral reefs.
I already know what you’re wanting to know – what makes Coral Island ‘different’ in terms of gameplay? Why should you pick this up instead of one of your beloved current social simulators?
First and foremost, the biggest change of formula lies with the ability to deep-sea-dive and clear up the seabed of the ocean. It’s essentially a reskin of going dungeon-crawling in the mines of Stardew, as you’ll progress through areas, unlocking further areas as you clean. I know on paper, cleaning trash doesn’t sound all that exciting, but the way it’s folded into the larger ecosystem of the game is really clever, because trash is a valuable in-game commodity.
There’s also a really in-depth skill tree available, which is divided into three distinct categories: social, mastery and proficiency. Specific skills can vary from increasing the number of plants you can harvest at any given time or make it easier to befriend and socialize with villagers. You have a lot of freedom to customize these skills to suit your overall playstyle and preferences, which was an welcome unexpected addition.
Without a doubt, one of my favourite quality of life improvements (that I NEED to see used in other games in the genre) implemented into the game is the ability to adjust how quickly time progresses in-game.
This gives players the option to dictate the pace they wish to play at without having to feel like a clock is controlling their entire playthrough.
One of the most crucial aspects to any social simulation is the NPCs. If you have a cast of largely forgettable or interchangeable faceless-zombies, there’s nothing for players to fixate over and argue constantly about on every social media platform.
Luckily, Coral Island hit the nail on the head with the gameplay element, bolstering a rich and diverse cast of over 70 residents that are all vastly unique in appearance and personality.
Each and every character feels instantly recognizable and unique, (I’m already mentally juggling who fans are going to fixate over the most), which is something I honestly wasn’t expecting when I discovered the sheer amount of people there were to interact with.
There’s a ‘familiar’ friendship system implemented throughout the social aspect of the game which allows you to gift (or ignore) whoever you want to progress your friendship/relationship with.
At the time of reviewing there’s currently over 20 residents on the island you can romance (if that’s your cup of tea) and as a welcome change – your in-game children can actually age!
Unfortunately I had a fair few bug experiences specifically when it came to the social aspects of the game, like dialogue text not appearing, villagers disappearing and the occasional game-crash, but I knew coming in that this was to be expected from an early-access game.
If you don’t already know this about me – I absolutely adore cozy games. There’s nothing more that I enjoy after a long day of work then settling into something that’s nice and relaxing, which has some simple game mechanics , mundane activities to complete and is topped off with a strong soundtrack. Work can be stressful, frustrating or difficult (or sometimes all of the above), which is why I typically seek the exact opposite of this in my gaming preference. Coral Island is epitomised, but as it’s still in Early Access, it’s still a bit rough around the edges.
Aesthetically, the team at Stairway Games have gone down the route of presenting their game in a top-down 3D perspective, with 2D character portraits for social interactions. I don’t really really know how I feel towards its’ visual art style. It altogether looks fine, but just doesn’t really scream ‘unique’ in any specific way.
The theme of the game is a lot more unique than the actual 3D models used, and nothing really hooked me from a visual point of view (which was surprising, as this is typically one of the most crucial aspects to the games I enjoy). The animals are cute, the player models are unique and the world is distinct – it just didn’t ‘grab’ me at all. A lot of the time I found myself enjoying the 2D portrait art over the some-what ‘vanilla’ 3D visuals, but this might just be me.
I was drawn right back into the world when it came to the score/soundtracks used throughout Coral Island. From the unique seasonal music and overture presented in the menus, everything felt very ‘on-brand’ with the theme of the game, and has already been added to my gaming Spotify playlist. The scores of cozy games are arguably the most pivotal part of making the game endlessly playable for me, as I know there’s a large chance I’ll be spending the next 100+ hours listening to these same tunes on repeat (ideally without driving me completely insane).
One of the most enjoyable aspects of my time with Coral Island was in the simple fact, that it didn’t take an abundance of time to actually feel like I was accomplishing something. Games like Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing take a fair bit of time before you really getting into the full swing of things, whereas Coral Island took me a matter of in-game days.
Yes, there’s some early-access bugs that need ironing out, and yes it feels similar to other farming simulators out there, but this didn’t retract at all from the joy I had with my time within Coral Island.
Coral Island is currently out now in Early Access on both Steam and the Xbox Game Review program.