Coral Island early access review: a pretty Stardew-like that makes farming a little easier
Coral Island self-describes as a “reimagining of farming games”, but if we’re being real it doesn’t reimagine the Stardew Valley template totally differently. The titular island, and your overgrown plot of farmland on it, has almost the same layout as Stardew Valley, and the tasks you do – growing stuff, keeping animals, making friends with locals, exploring a mine five levels at a time, and appeasing local spirits by giving them bundles of different crops – will also be very familiar to any DewHeads (that’s what we call ourselves).
That’s not to say Coral Island isn’t good. It’s all in very beautiful bouncy 3D, for one thing, and I found the island setting (which impacts the flora, fauna, and architecture in general) made everything feel less like work. Combined with a thread of environmentalism weaving through the game, and the fact that Coral Island is slightly easier than Stardew Valley, and you feel like you’re doing more progress in less time. If you loved the vibe of ConcernedApe’s smash hit, but found the need to hand-write your own almanac a bit intimidating, this is the game for you.
You turn up, bedungaree’d and raring to go, to take on an unused farm plot. Each day you can roam about working on your to-do list, which starts with basic concepts (meet 20 people! Plant five seeds!) but can eventually be as varied as you see fit. Maybe you need to catch more bugs. Maybe you want to go fishing. Maybe you want to fight blobs down the mines. Your schedule may include stuff like getting seasonal seeds from the local store, ore from the blacksmith, and feed from the rancher. You’re restrained from becoming an unstoppable Terminator-esque turnip-growing machine by, firstly, most things you do costing some of your finite energy bar, and secondly by spontaneously fainting if you stay up past midnight.
I’m not sure I ever managed to get a farm I was proud of in Stardew Valley; I never got my regular income high enough; I never had enough energy to do properly useful dungeon runs; I never had enough resources to make the things I needed; and so on. In Coral Island I already feel competent. I’ve invested heavily in growing hot peppers. I’m regularly making more than I spend. Every day I feel like I’ve achieved something, rather than just keeping the farm going. That’s not to say you can’t drill into the complexities of seed growth cycles, optimise where and what time you go fishing, and set up production lines of picking seaweed. But you don’t have to do any of that to make progress. Coral Island has changes that tip things a little in your favour.
They’re not massive weights on the scales, but they make a difference. You fairly quickly gain levels in the activities you do, Skyrim style, and can unlock percentage chance abilities like your crops growing faster, that soil will stay watered overnight, or that you’ll get double resources from harvesting. Coral Island has a magical fast travel system that expands as you do more, creating a feedback loop where you can make more progress every day. And when you’re exploring in the mine dungeons, fending off spiders and blobs with sword swings doesn’t consume energy, so you can go deeper and mine more ore.
It’s possible that last one is a bug, though. Despite feeling pretty content heavy, Coral Island is launching into early access, and there are some tells ranging from “eh” to “that’s annoying”. Sometimes your character won’t be able to turn unless you stop walking and sort of reset. Special chests that I’ve found have, so far, been empty, and some item drops have a placeholder image. My four hens have never laid an egg, so are basically just pets that add to the farm vibe. The keys to hotswitch between rows of your inventory in the HUD sometimes just don’t work, so you have to go into the menus and manually move them around. I’ve also been unable to move the anchor point when I go diving, which means I have to trek across a vast swathe of seabed every time.
I buried the lede a little bit, because one brand new thing is clearing up the seabed. A toxic oil spill has left it in a state, and you’re encouraged to go down there and sort it out. Practically, it’s a bit of an aquatic reskin of dungeoning in the mines: you reach different areas by destroying units of rubbish until you find a special golden machine key that destroys big sections of oil, giving you access to the next area. But the way it’s folded into the larger ecosystem of the game is really clever, because Coral Island makes you crave trash. Trash is one of the most useful resources in the game.
Recycling trash is one of the quickest ways to get fertiliser, for example. It’s also a quick way to get scrap, which is used to make a lot of useful stuff. You will find yourself rifling through bins in town to get more. The explicitly ecological angle on Coral Island, where the more you provide local produce, and the cleaner you make the seabed, the higher the town’s rating goes, will be motivation enough for some people. But Coral Island integrates it into how you play, so you’ll sort of end up caring about the environment by proxy if not by altruism. Your farmer might as well be a curmudgeon voiced by J.K. Simmons, who spends hours at the recycling plant and donates every interesting thing he finds to the museum, but then mutters that he only did it because it’s the most practical thing to do [he stomps back to his farm as the hopeful music swells; the local vet cries as he watches him go].
I give Coral Island a lot of credit for making that work, as well as the details that change between seasons, how I got to know different characters, and how gorgeous everything looks when it rains. You’ll run into missing pieces here and there, and there are bugs enough to squash, but it feels pretty mature on the vine for an early access game. I have other annoyances about e.g. how difficult it is to get glass, but if you’re burned out on Stardew Valley, or never even really got that fire going, Coral Island could be exactly the trash covered paradise you need.
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