Review: Isle of Bxnes

By Sean Clancy 02 Dec 2013 0
Crabs. Normal-sized. They are enemies. Let's move on. Crabs. Normal-sized. They are enemies. Let's move on.

Isle of Bxnes is a game out of time. Quite literally, it's an action-RPG set in what appears to be prehistoric times (though maybe there's been some sort of world-shattering something or other, and this is actually posthistory?), with a couple neat variations on fightin' and levelin' to make it stand out.

More key, though, is the fact that it looks and feels like an under-the-radar early '90s title, the sort of quietly subversive, experimental thing you'd see semi-regularly back when folks still didn't have--or didn't think they had--this whole game development dive down to an over-precise science. So, Isle of Bxnes evokes the attempts of those twenty years ago to make intelligent, boundary-pushing, forward-thinking games. Maybe it just came out last month, but it's still all those things.

Confused? Great. Isle of Bxnes is something of a confusing game, not because it's particularly complicated, but just because it doesn't much care to explain itself. It speaks once and expects you to either listen carefully and understand or be creative enough to supply your own explanations. The opening cinematic has a tribe of other caveperson types atop a high temple, who activate a magical blue beacon and, apparently, are teleported and/or disintegrated away by it. Oh, and then some wannabe Morlocks come along and kill some other dudes. Ahem. That would be your motivation. I think.

Now, there is a tutorial, which gets the action RPG basics across well enough (you're a caveman, you walk around and hit things with clubs faux twin-sticks style, they die, you can do voodoo magic, there's a roll maneuver for dodging, etc.), but Isle of Bxnes is still a game that gets more out of mystery than anything else.

But which tribe is the most carefree and fun-loving, with the best daiquiris? But which tribe is the most carefree and fun-loving, with the best daiquiris?

The player's tribe, floating Castaway-style on a makeshift raft, go from island to island searching (again, one sort of assumes) for the same beacons seen in the opening. You can guide said raft across the water, dispelling the fog of war and choosing which islands to land on. This little mini-game of sorts doesn't really serve much purpose--there might be, oh, a couple of islands to land on, with nothing evidently strategic about landing on a grassy-looking one over a rockier outcropping--but it still consistently piques one's interest. The exploration of parts unknown, for reasons unknown--that's Isle of Bxnes.

Once you make landfall, things are a little more by the book. Each island is a different, usually fairly short, isometric ARPG run, dotted with enemies ranging from passive boars to slightly less passive crabs, mountain lions to the aforementioned flesh-eating Morlocs, and opposing cavepersons armed with both bow and bone (like, as clubs). Certain enemies can enter a blocking state, where your attacks have no effect, and as a result combat generally boils down to a careful trading of blows. On the regular it's attack attack attack, blocked blocked, roll away from the counterattack, close the distance and attack attack attack, again.

Slain foes will drop hearts and animal pelts which you can trade in for upgrades or healing back on the raft, and occasionally deposit sacks with loot, which can either hide a better, more damaging weapon, or a necklace or totem you can equip to one of two non-weapon slots to boost some (or, potentially, lower some) of your stats.

"Yeah, we're really digging the design aesthetic for the new apartment-barge guys, but, uh, the glowing laser-beacon? Maybe a touch on the tacky side." "Yeah, we're really digging the design aesthetic for the new apartment-barge guys, but, uh, the glowing laser-beacon? Maybe a touch on the tacky side."

That RPG side, by the way, is handled pretty well. At the start of the game, you're given a choice as to which tribe you'd like to belong to, with the tribes' specialities falling in line with your standard warrior-thief-mage trifecta and all points between. You've got six main statistics and three derived ones, which is simple, for sure. Thing is, each stat has an immediately tangible effect on how your little cavedude handles. You're never in a situation where you dump points into a single stat and not notice a change, and you're not doing serious maths because just a few points make all the difference.

Naturally, you put points into strength, and you'll hit harder. Stride will let you move quicker, focus will improve your voodoo skills' recharge, and brutality increases your chances for critical hits. It's an effective, instantly gratifying system, simple enough to grok immediately but with enough room for tough choices vis a vis builds. There are also skills available for purchase back at home base, which, delightfully, are largely active over passive. A thrusting attack with increased range, a dodge roll which pushes foes away, voodoo magic to terrify or immobilize foes, and so on. These skill-ups stay with your tribespeople across multiple generations, as do the stat points and perks you gain each time you discover one of those creepy beacons, and with each generation you get a chance to redistri-

Isle of Bxnes has a psuedo-generational system, with players being able to breed with a character on the home raft in exchange for furs collected from fallen enemies (Amirite fellas? Ladies? Anyone? sigh). I say "pseudo" because Isle of Bxnes doesn't really do much with this concept. Sure, you can have kids, who appear to have semi-random stats, but it's not like your prior actions really affect them in any meaningful way. They're essentially just another life, with the added benefit that, upon dying, you can redistribute your accumulated skill points however you like. It's refreshing, being able to completely flip your strategy in the face of a challenge that's proven deadly, but unlike Rogue Legacy on PC, with its catalog of ancestors, the system doesn't carry the sense of history that one might expect.

As witch doctors know, most trauma medicine boils down to jamming a bunch of blood and purloined gristle into the wound and hoping for the best. As witch doctors know, most trauma medicine boils down to jamming a bunch of blood and purloined gristle into the wound and hoping for the best.

And that, too, is Isle of Bxnes all over: great ideas with uneven execution. It wants to be a twitchy, active, hardcore action-RPG, and the design works, for sure--it's just not a design that works for touch controls. Combat is sloppy and imprecise, and made further so by the fact that damage is modeled on specific body parts, so a busted leg makes things even more unresponsive, somehow. What should work for the game--namely, its focus on impactful upgrades and active abilities--ends up working against it, because the controls aren't there. Honestly, I'd like to play this one on any platform other than iOS or Android.

Isle of Bxnes deserves something of a pass, just because the eerie tone is spot on and miles away from the countless pieces of cartoony pablum out there. But even this thematic strength is fumbled some. Bxnes' islands are imposing and appropriately savage, but they don't really differ enough, or differ regularly enough, to make your discovery of them meaningful. Strangely, the highlight in my time with Isle of Bxnes came during the otherwise inconsequential sailing segment. Another tribe's raft crashed into my own and, quickly, I was thrown into the defense of our floating lifeline, small though it was. Isle of Bxnes could use more moments such as that.

Game's short, too, though to be fair it's the sort where you're meant to play through a couple times with different approaches. Without delving too much into the story, what little there is, suffice it to say that Isle of Bxnes is a game where Something's Going On, and it ends with a Big Revelation so girthy and sudden it's absurd.

Or, my run did, at least. The game plays fast and loose enough with "plot" that you could get away with fitting multiple endings to it, though damned if I know if that's actually the case. Isle of Bxnes is a title that hints at much, and delivers on roughly half of that promise. Different enough to be of interest to most, but without the depth or the sure-handed delivery to match its ages-old charm.

Review: Isle of Bxnes

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