I’m not sure what it is about cute little mice that inspires tales of heroism, but the videogame world has more than its share of them. From Ghost of a Tail to Moss, you can’t deny the appeal of an underdog story and you don’t get much more “underdog” than a four-inch-long rodent taking on the universe in general. Now you can add Islets, from solo dev Kyle Thompson, to the pile, a brand new MetroidVania with cutesy art style hiding a touch of Hollow Knight influence.
Islets is about a magical world in the sky comprised of five floating islands connected by huge electromagnets. After a calamity in the past, the islets drifted apart, plunging the world into an era of darkness perpetuated by the Grate Beasts. Now heroes of all shapes and sizes (mostly small and mouse-shaped) embark on heroic quests to unite the five islets. None are successful and few even return.
Your character, Iko, is different because reasons. He’s a brave little mouse with a magic quiver of arrows and a surprising repertoire of skills who dreams of being the hero his world needs. Setting off on his quest, he comes across nefarious sky pirates, mutated bosses, lethal traps, and a cast of NPCs with both good and bad intentions towards him.
Each of the five islets represents a different biome, with different rules, traps, enemies and secrets to find. Although it’s not a rogue-lite, you’ll only unlock upgrades if you find the little mouse tokens that bestow them. Once you have an upgrade unlocked it remains unlocked; it’s a weird hybrid progression system that tricks your brain into thinking you’ll lose everything on death. Don’t worry: you won’t.
Gameplay itself is an amalgamation of multiple MetroidVania mechanics. You begin with a basic jump, dodge roll, sword swipe, and arrow shot. As you move through the various levels and defeat bosses or reactivate the electromagnets, you’ll pick up new abilities. There’s a double jump, a boost move that uses Iko’s sword on specific points, a wall-climb ability, a ground slam… It’s standard stuff for the genre, but it’s all incorporated well.
Levels start off incredibly simple. Travel here, follow the map, kill enemies in your way to collect glowing blue currency, fight the boss. Unlocking the electromagnets causes the islets to slam together, at which point you can travel freely between levels via bridge points. It makes returning to previous areas with new abilities a little less painful.
As you explore more islets and grow stronger, the level of challenge creeps up almost imperceptibly. I had trouble with a few of the bosses, whose array of attacks come close to being bullet-hell. It’s not as intense or difficult as that, but it’s sometimes not far off. That said, none of the bosses held me up for long. If anything, the problem is that they have such huge health pools, and your little sword slices little off at a time.
There’s an incredibly satisfying flow to the levels, often allowing you to unlock shortcuts to bypass certain obstacles on repeat visits. Because there’s little guidance (you can buy a guide to your next objective from an NPC in the hub town) you will backtrack a lot. Teleporters open up around the levels allowing for fast travel, but you will spend a lot of time covering old ground.
Pretty much everything about Islets is adorable. Even enemies are cute by design, and each level is colourful, and bristling with personality. It’s a game with little to dislike, but which also doesn’t really do a lot with its genre or mechanics. There’s nothing new here, nothing to make you sit up and say “Wow, that’s cool!” It’s just really, really nice.
Fans of the genre will get a kick out of this. There’s a beautiful weight to the inch-perfect platforming and combat, which more than compensates for all the back and forth. Islets is a lovely video game developed by a tiny studio, which does more with a simple concept and small budget than many AAA developers manage. It’s definitely worth checking out if you’re a MetroidVania aficionado.