Minute of Islands review – intriguing puzzler hampered by simplistic gameplay

Thinking about Minute of Islands, I’m at a crossroads with myself. This is the kind of game I’d usually enjoy, but when it comes down to it, I’m not sure I did. Instead, I find that a mere day after playing, it’s already starting to slip my mind.

Minute of Island’s first impression certainly is striking, because it’s altogether more gloomy than what you’d expect based on its art style. As the narrator tells it, as a young woman named Mo, you wake up one morning to silence where there really should be noise – the noise of machines humming underground, powering the fans that keep the islands free of lethally toxic spores.

The first view you get of what’s powering the fan is a special moment, as you come face to face with a hulking giant, living underground, his only purpose seemingly that of running a crank like a hamster in a wheel. But the giant, one of a group of brothers, has tired, causing a toxic chain reaction of machine failures. Mo’s task as bearer of the omni switch, a sort of part mechanical, part magical admin master key, is to reroute emergency power to a number of different fans across her small archipelago and thus restore order.

The gameplay revolves around getting to these fans in the first place. Minute of Islands is probably closest to a platformer, in that you sometimes actually jump from platform to platform, but mostly just try to find your way around in the 2D side-scrolling environments. These environments are beautiful, heaving with small details like the clutter of a thoroughly lived-in house or the dilapidated remains of a theme park.

Looking at them through Mo’s eyes tells the story of places long abandoned, places that she for some reason still feels responsible for. And so you climb up hills and platforms until you reach the mechanical fans, all at quite a leisurely tempo considering there are deadly spores in the air and plenty of corpses nearby from the lives it already claimed. Despite the fact that most climbable surfaces are marked with some white gunk and the odd movable item gets a little effect to signify that, too, it can be hard to tell where you can climb up and get down whenever it isn’t deliberately made obvious thanks to the seamlessness of the art.

Mo’s actions and thoughts are always given voice by an omnipresent narrator – though I hasten to say the narration feels very different from the one in Biomutant, the other narrated game of the hour. This is well-acted, atmospheric stuff, which doesn’t get overly obtrusive. Once you reach a fan, you go through a sequence of button presses to get it running again: turn a crank, connect the omni switch to a power outlet, connect a glowing line of energy to the fan, pump some energy over.

It looks like rote, simple work when Mo does it, one of the few times you see her arms emerge from between the folds of her yellow coat. Unfortunately, it feels just as unexciting to play. On her way from one island to the other on her boat, Mo crosses into large clouds of yellow spores, breathing in so much of the stuff it causes her to get lost in hallucinations. To escape the mirages the fungus makes her mind see, you have to collect a few glowing, flying sea creatures in order, mostly by walking from one end of the screen to the other and until you come across them, then climbing a platform to get close enough to reach them. To get the sequence right, you sometimes have to avoid one of these creatures until you come across the right one, but overall these sequences are so simple and so short that there isn’t anything remotely rousing to the exercise. These parts seem designed to offer a slightly different form of gameplay, but they really don’t, and stand largely unmoored in a narrative context, too.

When I started playing Minute of Islands, I was excited to find out more about its world – how it got to the point of ruin, why a young woman would live below the earth to keep things going despite the strong suggestion she could just leave just like everyone else did, who else was there with her. The game does a great job of evoking the feeling of a once-lively world with great personal significance to its protagonist, but that’s all it is – a collection of assorted memories and vague references, many of them even optional to collect.

I’m not typically someone who puts gameplay over storytelling – if I have a great story waiting for me, I’m generally unbothered by simple gameplay if there’s something else that hooks me, like the central mystery or the characters I get to meet. I’m never looking for a downright challenge, I’m looking for that sweet spot where becoming active still matters, still changes something to the state of the world I visit. Otherwise, why make an interactive experience?

But Minute of Islands can’t commit to one or the other – it’s a game of roughly 6 hours that neither has a real story nor any significant gameplay idea. For a game that comes with a trigger warning, it closes out without having said much of anything, uncomfortable or otherwise. When I’m done, all these questions that I was excited to find the answer to are barely touched upon, like the prologue to what feels like it should be a much bigger story. This is unfortunate, because I think the components are all there – a strong atmosphere aided by a fittingly spare soundtrack, beautiful visuals and a heroine who can’t just keep spending her life stuck in one place indefinitely, but her journey is short, often feels like a bad day at an undesirable job, and when I leave , I don’t feel very attached to anything I’ve just experienced, even though Minute of Islands promised me the shock and catharsis of unearthing deep, dark secrets.