Isles Of Sea & Sky


I’m taking a break from a puzzle. I’ve been staring at it for ages, making attempts that don’t quite work, trying new approaches, and I figured I should probably take this moment to stop playing and actually let you know you should be too. Isles Of Sea & Sky has been entertaining me for days, and I almost didn’t load it up in the first place.

I’m done with Sokoban puzzles. You know, block-pushing games where you have to try to make a path to reach the gem. I don’t like their fundamental design, where you reach dead end after dead end, and have to constantly restart. I mean, I say that, but then I keep saying it. I said it over a decade ago in 2013 while loving Ittle Dew, I probably said it in a magazine in the 1990s. At a certain point I’m going to have to acknowledge I like sokoban puzzles, BUT NOT TODAY. Except for this one. I think Isles Of Sea & Sky is absolutely bloody marvellous.

In fact, Ittle Dew is as good point of comparison here, given that both games take the puzzling format, but then apply it to something somewhere between RPG and Metroid-me-do. But IOSS‘s focus is much more on the puzzles, played on a series of sprawling island locations, each screen of each island containing at least one challenge, and often two or three that overlap in the same area. You, a thankfully immortal little chap, are trying to explore the area, gathering treasures that convince each island’s deity to transform certain blocks into… oh, we’ll get it to it more carefully.

Originally called Akurra, it’s been appearing as a demo in Next Fests for ages, but the final game is even more impressive than these suggested. As you explore an island, you’ll need to solve block-pushing puzzles to reach new exits, or access the game’s little sleepy stars that allow you through gateways and toward new islands once you’ve gathered enough. However, there are also little coloured gems on each island, and a screen somewhere in the north where a deity resides. Gather six of the gems, and this god will cause blocks all over the island to transform. On the first main island, this means all the yellow rocks that once blocked your path become these lovely little stone golems, who when pushed will roll until they can’t roll any further. On the second island, it’s blue blocks that become little sprites who will transform into any block type you push them toward.

This means that each network of puzzles transforms. Areas that were impossible before now become solvable, and more interestingly, puzzles you’ve previously solved one way can now be solved another. The one I’m taking a break from right now I’ve already solved twice – once to progress past, then again earlier today to get another gem, and now I’m puzzling the method to reach the sleepy star. I have to create streams of water that will allow me to pass over spike traps and pits, and I need the blue sprite to be the final water block I need, but I’m stuffed if I can work out how to manoeuvre it into exactly the right place. It involves a teleporter, that’s for sure.

But what’s so incredibly splendid here is I’m not stuck. I’ve actually got far more stars than I need right now, and as well as a bunch of other unsolved screens on this island, and some left on previous locations, I can open up a whole bunch of other areas to explore right now. It’s just, I’m really enjoying this current challenge, and want to persist with it.

So many of the super-tough sokoban games, like Stephen’s Sausage Roll, put me off because they’re not only whoppingly hard, but if you can’t do a level, then you’re done. Game over. But in IOSS, you just wander somewhere else, figure out something different, ride a turtle across the sea to find a new location to explore.

It’s all so tremendously clever, with enormous variety in its puzzles, and a very satisfying sense of progression. There are meta puzzles across islands, and entire networks of underground puzzles beneath them. It makes me feel smart when I solve something, but not stupid when I haven’t. It’s helped by being so bright, and fun, and happy.

I wish I could better communicate just how incredibly ingenius this game is, and without ever being all “LOOK AT ME I’M SO CLEVER!” coughjonathanblowcough. Instead it’s smart, modest and charming, like I’m not. The best thing is you just play it.

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  1. It’s really a month jam packed with great puzzle games. Animal Well, Lorelei and the laser eyes and now Isles of Sea and Sky might all be better than every game I played from last year.
    If I might have some nitpicks about Isles of Sea and Sky, it’s that the music sometimes get a bit annoying, that it’s often unclear if you can do a puzzle with the tools you have right now and I wished that the world was more interconnected (instead of islands) to make exploration a bit more interesting. Also, a bit more lore and story might have been interesting too. But aside from that, it’s really a great game.

  2. I’m going to take issue with your classification of Stephen’s Sausage Roll as a sokoban game. It’s not, it’s a Sausage-like. Both Sausage-likes and Sokobans are subgenres of Pushy Games, a term I’ve just invented.

    Hope that clarifies matters

  3. hey there! the rating of 88/100 is in white text, so it’s barely readable against the grey background

  4. Love the graphics on this one. I think one Sokoban-alike at a time is enough for me (Void Stranger is living up to its name by being very strange), but I’ll definitely be wishlisting it!

    Heads up that the Itch page you linked is to a demo. I don’t know if they’ve got the full game up on there as well or not.

  5. The defining characteristic of nearly all Sokoban fans is a stated hatred of Sokoban games. Come to think of it, good Sokoban games do regularly make me seethe in frustration, so in this respect I imagine most Sokoban lovers do actively hate the genre.

    I really hope Isles lands on Switch and has some of the end game kinks smoothed out by that time.

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