Date: November 26, 2021
As someone who generally can’t be bothered to meticulously craft a beautiful home in a video game, I’m only the target audience for half of what Len’s Island has to offer. So when I found myself putting off my next dungeon crawl to figure out the best place to put the garden trellis for my grapes, I knew developer Flow Studio was doing something right.
Releasing into Early Access today, Len’s Island started life as a solo weekend project for creator Julian Ball. He later brought on Martin Tapia-Vergara to rebuild the game’s code; despite getting a bit more help with sound (Lars Erik Fjøsne) and some additional graphical/systems work (Ivan Luiz), Flow Studio is still at its core a two-person development team, which makes what they’ve accomplished in 4 years all the more impressive.
Len’s Island is a game that attempts to offer a wide variety of engaging activities in a single package, and it looks like it’s going to succeed. You can happily spend most of your time carefully planning your dream estate — I didn’t mess with building too much, but it feels easy to use, and upgrading/editing your creations is accomplished with a robust construction system — or you can venture into the darkness beneath the island to fight monsters and discover hidden treasures. There’s also a handful of other islands, some of which contain NPCs you can interact and trade with (though quests and deeper NPC interactions are still in development).
The first thing you’ll notice when you start a new game in Len’s Island is the simple beauty of the island itself. The art style is straightforward; it includes just enough detail to be interesting, and no more. Trees gently sway in the wind, butterflies lazily drift by, and water slowly laps at the edges of the shore.
It’s a very peaceful setting, and when combined with the fact that there are no enemies above-ground, makes collecting resources a relaxing experience. The harvesting sounds and animations are well done: trees creak nicely as they fall over, stone deposits explode in a simple but pleasing manner, and hacking down bushes with a sword is silly but fun.
Speaking of resources, Len’s Island does something a little differently with respawns compared to most crafting games I’ve played. Both trees and ore deposits reappear quite quickly, removing the need to head further and further afield for wood and stone. This is also the case in caves where the rarer resources, that you have to fight to access, spawn. This serves to make combat less of a necessity than it might otherwise be, and allows players who’d rather not swing their sword too much still access all the crafting materials they’d want.
There’s also a neat mini-game with harvesting: while you can just hold down the button if you want, a little circle appears on your tool’s tip at the end of each swing: tapping the button when the circle appears increases both the speed and damage of your tool’s next swing, and sometimes nets you bonus resources as well. It really makes chopping wood a zen experience, where you can sort of zone out while getting into the rhythm of timing your clicks for maximum effectiveness.
Since this timing mechanic is used with swords as well as picks and axes, practicing it will also help you out when you finally venture into the island’s caves, which hide resources and secrets aplenty. You’ll have to fight a few monsters if you want to collect the treasures the darkness holds, but the dangers of combat are easily mitigated by intensively farming — this fight club uses Skyrim rules, and stuffing your face is a legitimate way to get all of your HP back. Weapons each have a special move or two, and you’ve got an industry-standard dodge roll to work with. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but it works.
The combat goes hand in hand with the exploration, which is well-crafted and pretty dang addictive. The balance of enemies and quiet bits feels just right, and there’s a decent amount of environmental storytelling and little notes to discover. Venturing deeper into the cave system also rewards you with special items as well as a better understanding of the island’s history. Exploration is also sometimes gated by resources; you can repair bridges to open up shortcuts or new paths forward, which I found to be a great motivator to take a break from the darkness and go chop more trees.
While it isn’t strictly necessary, you can choose to light up lanterns throughout the cave. It’s a neat feature, serving both to mark your progress and making it easier to see nearby loot. You can also spend coal to light braziers throughout the cave, which will heal you when you stand near them (and damage any enemies that get too close). Heading back into the cave and following the trail of lanterns you’ve lit might not be the most efficient way to play, but it sure feels cool.
I think that’s the real success of Len’s Island: all the systems just feel good. The of smoothness its controls and animations, the simple charm of its art, the fact that you don’t have to grind materials for 5 hours to build your next crafting table — it all serves to make Len’s Island a game that’s incredibly easy to sit down and play for 10 minutes or 10 hours. I’m usually a true min-maxer no matter the game I’m playing, but in Len’s Island, I was happy to grow some flowers not because I needed them to sell but because they looked nice next to my blueberry bushes.
While some of the game’s features are very much a work in progress, the bones of a fantastic game are here, and there’s still plenty to do (and discover) even in its current state. Quite honestly, I can’t wait to finish this review and see what secrets still await me in the cave beneath my garden.
Len’s Island releases today, November 25th, into Early Access. It is available on Steam for both PC and Mac. If you’ve tried it, let us know what you thought in the comments!