Cube Life: Island Survival
Published & Developed by –Cypronia
System: Wii U
Released June 04, 2015
Let’s get one thing straight right out of the gate: this game wants to be Minecraft. That’s understandable given that only the most ardent technophobe can possibly be unaware of Minecraft, a game with ‘100 million registered users’ as of 2014. It’s not one for me, I prefer a little more structure to my survival games something along the lines of Don’t Starve or Project Zomboid – but I get the appeal. It’s like having an infinite supply of completely malleable Lego to sculpt manipulate, whilst being accompanied by a thriving online community which continues to push the product forward in delightfully unpredictable ways; a Splatoon inspired, fully functional, Turf Wars map being amongst the community’s latest concoctions. Although such a dedicated user base isn’t ever going to grace Cube Life: Island Survival, there is a foundation in place for a competent Wii U imitation of Minecraft. However, a sluggish game engine, poor controls and a lack of multiplayer at launch ensures that it is presently not up to that level.
The aptly named survival mode is largely similar to the standards of its genre but with a few notable deviations. The most prominent of these is the island setting itself. The world map is segmented into several large islands, which can be reached either by a dangerous swim or via the construction of a raft. Creating a vessel soon becomes necessary as the initial spawning point quickly becomes exhausted of resources by virtue of an avatar thirstier than a tank with heartburn and hungrier than a hippo. His ravenous appetite pales in comparison only to the miserable resilience of tools made in the early game. Axes and bows rapidly deteriorate making the early excavation of caves tedious until stronger equipment can be produced. Still, the limited landmass and relentless consumption of materials instills a some direction, a need to press onward and explore distant locations.
As far as pixel art goes, Cube Life at times looks great. There are issues: the draw distance is equivalent to that of a short sighted mole, cubes remain aloft due to physics synonymous with Tetris, and from some angles the reflection on the sea is so prominent that it makes it difficult to determine what exactly lies ahead. Still, that scenario aside, it is easy to distinguish one type of block from another, and at sunset and sunrise the lighting effects are attractive enough to provoke a brief refrain from scavenging to admire the setting.
The lighting effects and reflections look top notch at times
Narration marks another diversion from other pixel-survive em-ups norms. Survival mode opens with our protagonists talking about how he had it all before the ship wreck occurred in an unintentionally amusing voice which would not sound amiss in a satnav. The developer’s intent was to have him provide tips with respect to crafting, ‘if I can find nine leaves I can make a map’ he’ll robotically announce once a leaf finds its way into the inventory for the first time. Such tips are generally useful although the accent never ceased to amuse me, as it gelled poorly with the surrounding aesthetic.
In order to craft resources must be individually placed within the craft menu’s 4X4, or 6X6 if you’ve a crafting table, grid. From the gamepad, I initially dragged planks from the inventory slot into one of the squares on the grid. However, this puts every single plank into that one grid, and to make things you generally need to complete a specific pattern. It turns out, the desired item has to be highlighted from the inventory, after which the relevant grid slot is tapped to drop a single item in. It would have been useful if this was explained, but there is nowhere in the controls menu, nor in game’s narration, to point this out, so I spent a good while being unable to make anything useful.
As for what can be crafted, everything is shown within the crafting menu which can be accessed by pausing the game. While it is nice to know what resources need to be retrieved in order to make future items, Cube Life gives a little too much away. Whilst Don’t Starve cleverly forced players to create and upgrade a science machine to unlock information about future equipment, Cube Life reveals everything needed from the start which diminishes the sense of discovery. What’s worse is that right now most of the items are just linear upgrades of ones that can be constructed early on, and as a result only enemy and landscape variety serves to evolve the experience in any meaningful way. Equally problematic is that accessing the crafting menu is needlessly fiddly. For no good reason all menus are driven solely by the touchpad. Whilst a drag-drop mechanic is acceptable for maneuvering items from inventory to craft grid, something that can be done fairly accurately without a stylus, the pause menu bars are so narrow that it is tough to hit them accurately by hand. For a game that requires the gamepad to be held with both hands, having such a painful menu is infuriating when the simple ability to scroll though it with the d-pad is foregone.
No Minecraft clone would be complete without a bunch of night time nastiness. Here, cannibals come out of nowhere as soon as the sun sets, relentlessly plodding towards the player on land. Meanwhile shark-like creatures inhabit the night’s seas, and make short work of anyone foolish enough to have forgotten a raft. Weapons can be crafted to fight such enemies off, but simply carrying around a bunch of emergency sand works just as well. Provided one doesn’t mind waiting out the night cycle, throwing down enough sand cubes to entomb the protagonist is or alternatively putting enough sand under foot to reach a high level is enough to ward off at least the early game foes. To the game’s credit, later game enemies such as giant eagles put an end to such strategies, but in early stages enemies are easily exploited. Even if played as the developer intended, fights are either overwhelming or dull. Weapon variety is essentially a choice between axe or bow with varying degrees of under the hood stat buffs dependent upon what they are made of. Meanwhile ropey hit detection makes melee combat cumbersome and not particularly pleasant; judging a foe’s range is next to impossible when they lack clear attack animations. As a result the best course of action is generally to retreat underground, and to channel enemies into corridors for easy kills rather than risk a prolonged excursion.
If played alongside a friend the experience would have been much better – from being able to team up and craft more things, to perhaps being able to take more night time risks, there isn’t an aspect of the game that wouldn’t benefit from a buddy. A multiplayer mode is planned as a free update, but until then the only sense of community the game has is through Internet rankings (who cares?) and Miiverse. Admittedly, there are some pretty cool things on the Miiverse with a plethora of Pokemon and other game references made via the SDK Paint app and in game assets within Create mode. For now though, there isn’t a way to incorporate the best user created content into one’s own play through, so those of us who cannot make interesting things (me) are left on the outside looking in.
Create mode itself works well enough, with the player granted flight and the ability to mold the landscape to their desire, but it does highlight some technical flaws within the game engine. Getting a bird’s eye view by flying exemplifies the game’s puny draw distance, while rapidly mining sand for only a short amount of time drags the frame rate below 30. Modifying the landscape is also time intensive, and again without a thriving community to share things with, perhaps not worth the effort.
If you’ve the skill and time, some really clever stuff can be achieved
For all its current faults, Cube Life: Island Survival is certainly the Wii U’s current top dog when it comes to Pixel-Survival, and provided the developer can make good on their promise to deliver a multiplayer experience, it is one which is only going to get stronger over time. Sadly, the current product is mired by some technical and design faults in addition to a lacking online presence. There is no doubt that fans of the genre will have fun with this game should they play it, just not as much fun as those playing its equivalent on other platforms.