VGamingNews

Isles of Sea and Sky

22 May, 2024 - 3:00 pm by
About 12 mins to read
Reviewed on: PC

Every once in a while, a game comes across your desk that just snatches your attention and won’t let go. In 2023 for me, that was a little indie title that was still in development called Akurra. I stumbled upon it while scrolling the #indiedev community on X (formerly Twitter) and was immediately enamoured by its throwback art style and intricate puzzling. Solo developer, Jason Newman, kindly provided me with a demo at that time and from minute one I was absolutely enthralled by it. 

Sadly, a bout of illness kept me from ever writing up my preview (much to my chagrin). But I recently heard that Newman had rebranded the game as Isles of Sea and Sky and that it was slated for a release in May 2024, so I jumped at the opportunity to dive in and right that wrong with a full review!

As we start the game, our nameless hero washes up on the shore of an unknown island. You’re met with the simple challenge of pushing a few boxes around to open up a path to a bell, which once rung, retracts a blockade and allows access to a valuable key. As you wander your way through those first few screens, you’re introduced to various simple pitfalls and obstacles, including holes, punji pits, crates, crystalline barriers that grow when you step on them, and heavy-duty boxes that you can use to destroy them again. The gameplay premise is remarkably simple: each screen acts as a self-contained puzzle, or collection of puzzles, with your aim to push items around, avoid traps and unblock paths so that you can pick up collectables that are scattered around in hard-to-reach places.


At A Glance

ISLES OF SEA AND SKY

Positives

+ Addictive pick-up-and-play puzzling
+ Impressive sense of mystery throughout
+ Excellently paced with a perfect difficulty curve

Negatives  

– Wordless story is tricky to fully appreciate
– No hint system could lead to frustration for some
– Throwback visuals might put off small-minded FPS bros

Overall

9 /10

Played On

PC

Also Available On

Find out about our scoring policy here.


From that opening 60-seconds you’re given a tremendous look at what Newman has done so well with Isles of Sea and Sky – he thoroughly teaches you each and every mechanic in the game without a single word of dialogue or instruction. There aren’t any formal tutorials, but instead carefully crafted puzzles that force you to interact with new elements in ways that leave you in absolutely no doubt about what you’re expected to do going forward. It may sound simple, but I can assure you it’s absolutely not, and it’s an area that even big developers continue to get wrong even in 2024. It’s a credit to a talented solo developer how successfully players are given confidence in the game’s new mechanics and methods through well curated puzzle design alone.

This well thought out puzzle design is the calling card of Isles of Sea and Sky. You’ll sometimes enter a screen, confident that you know exactly what to do, thinking it will be a piece of cake, when in fact, one well-placed hole undoes your entire plan! You quickly realise that understanding your goal and achieving it are very different, and things can get remarkably tricky! Thankfully, Isles of Sea and Sky takes a very non-linear approach to puzzle solving, and there’s often more than one way to reach a conclusion, given enough time and patience. Additionally, there’s an undo function that lets you to quickly step back every action you take, allowing you to unpick a misstep or try out multiple options when you’re not sure what to do. If you’ve made a mess of the screen altogether, by perhaps destroying a vital crate or painting yourself into a corner, there’s a handy reset button too, which will wipe the whole slate clean and let you start afresh.

It isn’t long in your quest before you reach a pair of almighty doors that are shut tight and etched with great runes, and it becomes your quest to unlock those doors and look upon the mysteries that lie within. Doing so will take our hero on a journey across a group of mystical islands that make up a great archipelago, and you’ll navigate between them on the back of a great sea turtle. As you travel from island to island, you’ll encounter the patron gods of each region, who each command the power of one of the four elements: earth, water, fire, and air. To earn the favour of these gods you must gather their favoured precious stone from around their island and offer them up as a gift; once satisfied, each god offers our hero help in his quest by releasing their elemental creatures into the world, helping you overcome what was previously impossible.

You’re able to interact with these elemental creatures in the same way as other obstacles; each one has their own unique properties and behaviours and unleashing them completely changes the game. For example, the Stone Elementals will continue to roll in one direction once you push them, and can even hop over any single holes they run into – not stopping until they crash into something. Not to mention that they weigh a tonne, so you can use them to stand on buttons for you, retracting barriers and opening walkways. With some clever thinking and taking the right approach, areas that were previously impassable can now be traversed, teasing you into backtracking through previous areas to see what new options you might have in puzzles that had previously left you scratching your head.

This approach means that you’re steadily introduced to additional mechanics that begin to stack on top of one another. Individually, each change brings a change in mindset and approach, but as you begin to reach the latter stages and you’re working with all four elementals (as well as a few other upgrades which offer new mechanics), the level of complexity really ramps up! To me, the difficulty curve is absolutely perfect, and I felt well-equipped to solve the puzzles ahead of me right until I ran into a new mechanic and I had to do some relearning. That said, for anyone who does get stuck, Isles of Sea and Sky offers no hint system, so you could be left waiting dutifully for a well-made YouTube walkthrough to help you if you do run into a roadblock. I’ve personally been left in this predicament with the optional fifth island, which has me completely utterly stumped!

What is hard to put into words is just how engaging this game is to play, especially as you begin to run into some of the games many secrets. Stumbling upon hidden things (which I won’t even vaguely spoil here) saturates the whole game with a sense of mystery that I found genuinely exciting. One accidental button-press can lead you to a revelation that makes you look at the whole game differently, giving me a sense of childlike wonder that made me want to scour every inch of the game. There’s a carefully crafted mysticism to the story that merges with the in-game secrets so incredibly well, and I don’t remember the last time I felt so willing to search for every secret in order to unlock everything a game had to offer.

Exploring the islands of the great archipelago is a real joy, heightened by the lovely NES-styled graphics that gives Isles of Sea and Sky a nostalgic, throwback look. From our hero to the patron gods and all of the environments, the sprites are cheery and characterful, yet understated, in line with the game’s simple mechanics. The soundtrack really helps set the scene for each area, and composer, Craig Collver, has done a fantastic job in giving every island a unique feel using a variety of pipe, string, bongo, and vocal effects. There are beautiful island-life motifs tying the visuals, soundtrack, and story together, and (like everything else in the game) you can feel how heavily each aspect has been considered to create such strong, consistent themes.

Speaking of the story, this might be only place where Isles of Sea and Sky doesn’t entirely knock it out of the park. The tale of our hero unpiecing the mysteries of the archipelago are told wordlessly, with the story told in the form of short flashbacks, styled as ancient wall carvings come to life. Thematically, this is absolutely spot on and you get the feeling of a world steeped in rich history and countless tales, but as a player, I didn’t entirely understand what was going on. I happen to be a fan of interpretive storytelling and enjoyed trying to make sense of what I was seeing, but I know this won’t appeal to everyone. Whilst a minor issue, I think there will be some players who find the plot harder to understand than the puzzles.

I gladly put about 30 hours into Isles of Sea and Sky, though I’m sure there will be players with bigger brains who can get through it in half that time. Currently only available on PC, this is a title I’d like to see published on every platform – not least Nintendo Switch, where I think the ‘let me have another quick go’ mentality will really take over. With each screen standing on its own, this is a game you can pick up and put down at a moments notice and would be a huge hit on the Japanese handheld, despite being in the final stages of its life cycle.

Isles of Sea and Sky is a tremendously fun puzzle game that weaves a grand fabric of mystery from the humble strands of gaming fundamentals harkening back 30-years. I’m amazed how well a collection of incredibly simple mechanics have been carefully layered on top of one another to eke out an ever-increasing difficulty in such a steady and measured fashion. With a polished NES-style look, engrossing score and a boatload of secrets, it’s a game that’s as addictive as it is enjoyable, suffering only mildly from some murky storytelling. Make no mistake, this is a victory for indie gaming and solo developers the world over. 

In the interest of full disclosure, VGamingNews was provided with a copy of the game in order to conduct this review.


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Our Rating
9