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Minute Of Islands review: a grim world drawn in a wonderful, elegant way

We used to be giants

Puzzle-platformer Minute Of Islands sort of feels like a fairytale. Like a lot of stories for kids, the narration is simple, almost sing-song and poetic in tone. It tells the story of Mo, a self-taught engineer who lives mostly underground, tending to the bio-mechanical engines operated by four giants - brothers, in fact. The brothers hand-crank the machines to filter and purify the air, which would otherwise become filled with poisonous fungal spores.

When the engines break down one day, Mo must brave the surface, checking on her family and growing increasingly paranoid and bitter at her unappreciated sacrifice as she breathes in the spores. But the actual events, and the things you see as you jump and climb around the archipelago Mo lives on, present a jarring contrast to the narration. The narrator points out a dead whale. She does not describe the way the whales intenstines are spilling onto the beach, the bones of its spine are exposed, or how its eyes have been eaten by mangy, one-legged seagulls.

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It makes Minute Of Islands feel like you are simultaneously witnessing the real events inspiring a fairytale, and listening to the story as sanitised by parents and told to children years later. The whale actually marks the point where you realise that Minute Of Islands is going to be pretty grim. The opening describing the four brothers and introducing you to Mo is classic fairytale stuff, the animated kids-cartoon-adventure style of the art gets you thinking this is going to be a nice fun time, and even your first view of a giant (while weird) isn't, you know, awful.

Mo has a metaphor/tool called the Omni Switch, a totem that marks her out as special and allows her to interact with the switches and mechanisms of the big machines. You use it to recharge the air purifiers on the surface and reroute power. It also doubles as an objective marker when you need one, showing you the direction of your next goal.

Then you get to the surface, and see a fishing hut full of dead fish. And then the beached whale corpse. And if you don't know by then that Minute Of Islands is going to be a lot about death and loss and such, then I don't know what to tell you.

The physical act of clambering around to restart four giant machines is surprisingly effortless. The islands are on a 2D plane, so all you need to do is press to run left or right and Mo will move closer to or further from edges and ledges, so you quickly get a feel for where you can explore further. Mo can climb up and drop down most ledges (all of which are handily marked with white outlines), has a decent jump, and can shimmy along handholds as well.

The puzzles are mostly about getting from A to B, although there are giant logic gates in the underground machines that are more complicated. They're made to feel like giant bodies themselves, the power lines like sticky veins, and you have to push connecting blocks back into place and then find your way back out again. It's not challenging, but it is satisfying, and Minute Of Islands rewards exploration by hiding memory collectibles off the beaten track that reveal a bit more of Mo's past or character.

The history of the archipelago itself is unclear. It is implied that the engines are ancient, but they have grown around and through buildings that belong to Mo's still-living friends and family. The exodus that left the islands depopulated is fairly recent, but their society seems to have a funeral custom involving the fungus that is much older. It is deliberately vague and timeless. As Mo's quest continues it is punctuated by spore-induced hallucinations, and she starts to respond poorly to her family's concern for her - first with annoyance, then hostility.

Seriously this whale is grim and there's a whole lot offscreen to the left here.

As you progress through Minute Of Islands, the narration becomes more hostile, too, first to external characters and then turning on Mo herself. At the same time, it is painfully clear that the more you destroy the fungus, furthering your goal, the less beautiful the world becomes. And Minute Of Islands is a very good looking game.

Each island is a little different in terms of its environment - one I enjoyed in particular is full of dark pine trees, and basalt rock columns like the Giant's Causeway - but are all in varying states of decay, rendered in loving detail in an art style that resembles an after-school morality cartoon. It's clear that Mo's family are only still on the archipelago because she is. The fungus, meanwhile, floats through the air in golden motes like blossom on the wind. It grows into vibrant mushroomy colonies in elegant shapes, blooming into every colour of the rainbow.

Minute Of Islands' story - which includes a character saying the title of the game, as well as the narrator at one pont saying "no one is an island" - isn't necessarily subtle. Absent people are represented by scarecrows wearing homemade protective hazmat suits. Mo has visions of the machine attacking her, and she also hallucinates about standing on top of her own, giant, dead body. But for all its narrative bluntness, Minute Of Islands is an incredibly elegant game. Much more so than the most other indie games that are about death and grief and sadness and responsibility. In a strange way, Minute Of Islands is comforting as well. Just, you know. Don't actually tell it to your kids.

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