Like many fans of the genre, I’ve spent more time playing farming sims than I’d care to admit on public record.
Nearly all of them are built on the same premise: escape your busy city life for some time in the countryside, embracing the magic of nature and the charm of a small community. Farming sims have seen a surge in popularity in recent years, probably not at all related to the mounting stress caused by the current state of world affairs. Rather than experimenting with different setups, farming sims have doubled down on their roots. Escaping to a world where problems are straightforward and can be solved with diligence is not just an indulgence but a coping mechanism.
Now that the indie scene is more accessible than ever, a wide slew of farming sims have started to hit the market. Harvest Moon no longer has a hold over the genre as projects like Stardew Valley and My Time at Portia have managed to get their foot in the door. Yet still, these games all have their problems, falling into the typical pitfalls that other farming sims often do. From unintuitive user interfaces to clunky controls, these types of design fumbles can sap the charm out of an otherwise beautiful game and leave the player with a mixed bag of experiences to sort through.
All of that said: Coral Island is easily the most gorgeous farming sim I’ve ever played.
Not just the character art, but the items? The scenery? The menus? Outstanding. I didn’t even realize it’s only in early access for the first hour because it’s that polished. It handles well where it’s finished, though it’s certainly far from complete. When compared to the farming sims that have come before it, Coral Island is quickly shaping up to be one of the best.
Everything you’d expect, plus a little more
Coral Island does everything other farming sims do: farming, ranching, mining with a handful of combat on the side, and awkward, unfamiliar community festivals that you fumble your way through for the sake of getting cookie points with your neighbors. In short, it’s the whole package. They’re all welcome staples of the genre, but if you’re looking for a total revolution, you’re not going to find it. If you’re just looking for the classic farming sim experience, however, you’re in luck.
Not only does Coral Island deliver the standard, but it also brings quite a bit of extra polish to the table. I constantly found the game doing little things that I had wished Stardew Valley would do, like showing the exact area a scarecrow will protect from crows before it’s placed, showing if an item has been shipped before by hovering over it in the shipping bin, and showing when animals still need to be given affection for the day at a glance. They’re not revolutionary concepts, but they’re great quality of life improvements to the traditional farming experience that Coral Island is offering from the get-go.
There’s also a level system for skills, such as farming and scavenging, which provide perks to choose from when leveling up. For example, all of my crops now have a 20% chance of growing a little faster, and even though it annoys me to no end watching my crops grow at different rates, it’s also an objectively good bonus that I can’t justify not taking.
That said, there are a few unique things that Coral Island offers as well, with a special thematic focus on the diving mechanics. Players get to swim around the sea floor with an adorable robot companion, cleaning up trash and activating mysterious devices that magically heal the coral reefs. Just like in real life!
A warm, welcoming, and massive community
There’s also the addition of bug catching and fishing, both of which can help contribute to the island’s local museum. While this isn’t a new concept to video games, it’s still not exactly common in farming sims. Bug catching is as straightforward here as it is in Animal Crossing (see bug, chase bug, net bug), and while the fishing minigame isn’t the most exciting, it’s certainly less tedious and fickle than in Stardew Valley.
Again, there’s nothing too groundbreaking on the table here, but it’s all good stuff. The parts that are currently implemented work well thanks to thoughtful design choices that build on the successes (and shortcomings) of predecessors. Some parts are more polished than others, but nothing feels bad. I’ve played fully released farming sims from bigger studios that handled worse than Coral Island’s early access currently does, and hopefully, it’ll only get better as time goes on.
There’s no “right” number of characters to have in a farming sim. If there are too many, it’s easier for individuals to be forgotten in the sea of faces and harder for each character to get fully fleshed out. If there are too few–well, really, how am I supposed to believe that a town made up of 10 people and a dog somehow manages to stay afloat in a collapsing global economy?
With 40+ characters, Coral Island has one of the most ambitious casts I’ve seen in a farming sim. There are multigenerational families that have been living on the island their whole lives and people who’ve come to the island from all over the globe, making up an interesting mix of characters that all have their own personal stories to tell. (There are, of course, potential romantic interests as well, and none of the romances are gender locked.) Most characters haven’t received all of their content yet, but that’s to be expected from anything in early access and only makes me more excited for what’s to come.
This is also the most diverse cast I’ve ever seen in a farming sim. The lack of diversity in the genre would need its own essay to discuss at length, but Coral Island is a breath of fresh air, featuring characters of many shapes, sizes, colors, religions, sexualities, and genders. Even better, that diversity isn’t limited to just the NPCs. Players are given the option to customize their body type, as well the option to choose what honorifics they’d like to use (Mr., Ms., Mx., or filling in a custom honorific). The beauty of having a diverse cast means that no matter what the player chooses, they’re never going to be the odd one out on the island–there is, almost guaranteed, someone else who is like them that they can see and talk to, and who is a member of the community just as much as the player is.
I’m aware this doesn’t matter to everyone. There are plenty of people who don’t care about the color of the cast or what gender options they’re offered. As someone who is Filipino and nonbinary, I’ve had to accept that farming sims, as much as I love them, generally don’t have me in mind. But there’s an extra layer of emotional importance that comes with inclusivity in this genre more than any other: when the place you go to for comfort makes a deliberate effort to let you know that you’re welcome there, it becomes the place you’ll want to escape to over and over again.
My biggest complaint is that I honestly can’t keep track of everyone. It took me a solid few in-game weeks to realize that the two blacksmiths are brothers and even longer to figure out who their sister-in-law is, and I think they have a third brother, but I’m really not sure? Is the marine biologist related to the family that owns the vineyard, or does he just hang out with them as a close family friend? Are Antonio and Suki still married, or did they get a divorce, and that’s why Antonio is only on the island on weekends?
The complex web of friendships and relationships that have been so carefully woven would be much easier to appreciate if there were something to show which characters have connections with each other. My Time At Portia/Sandrock has a visual system that allows players to see each character’s relationship network with charts and little icons, but providing clarity doesn’t necessarily have to be that complex. If I could at least see everyone’s last names, that would help a lot.
It would also help to see more of the relationships in action. As promising as the cast is, at the moment, there doesn’t appear to be a ton of content between characters. My Time at Portia/Sandrock and Stardew Valley excel at portraying a tightly knit community by highlighting the relationships between characters—who is friends with whom, what they do together on the weekend, what kind of hijinks they get themselves into, and so on. The blacksmith brothers may mention each other, but do they hang out together? Have any shared hobbies? When they speak to one another, are they equals? Right now, Coral Island doesn’t seem to have much in the way of passing interactions to witness, but that kind of content will hopefully come with time.
Nuanced approaches to obvious problems
So, listen: climate change is bad and we shouldn’t put trash in the ocean.
You probably didn’t need me to tell you that, and you probably don’t need a video game telling you that. Especially not one that you pick up in order to escape the overwhelming dread of reality. Thankfully, Coral Island does not spend its time beating the player over the head with gloom and doom, despite its intentional approach to the challenges the island faces.
Rather than being told the ill effects of an environmental disaster–an oil spill that occurred before the events of the game–they are instead shown to the player from an intimate perspective. Every person on the island has had their lives touched by the spill, either being directly affected by the contamination or indirectly affected by the economic impact caused by the cost of cleaning up the spill. The characters don’t necessarily have to tell the player how hard things are for them because the player can see it at every turn, from empty store shelves to closed-down businesses to the parts of the environment that still haven’t recovered.
I’ll be honest with you: I’m not impressed by most environmental narratives. Many only go as far as “climate change is bad” without actually saying anything about how we got into this situation, what’s keeping us from making things better, how to potentially address any of the challenges we face. When I approached Coral Island, I wasn’t sure what to expect.
I wasn’t personally sold on the narrative until presented with the antagonist. A giant corporation called Pufferfish, the company presents itself as a green initiative that wants to boost the island’s economy, despite being the ones who caused the oil spill and their intentions to continue drilling. It’s one thing to have an evil company that blatantly doesn’t care about the environment, but tackling the issue of a company that pretends to care about the environment to exploit communities that are struggling under the guise of “helping” is a much more nuanced and relevant take that also addresses more complex underlying issues. The relationship between economy and environment, especially how communities with weaker economies are more immediately affected by changes in the environment, is something that deserves to be talked about from an earnest and sincere perspective, and Coral Island is more than equipped to handle that.
It’s worth mentioning that Coral Island’s development team, Stairway Games, is based in Indonesia. Island nations are the most qualified to discuss the effects of the rapidly deteriorating ocean conditions, but many of them are not presented with chances to do so nor given the opportunity to share their experiences on a global scale. Even if you’re not here for a lesson in environmentalism, Coral Island’s story is a unique one that deserves to be heard–especially since Stairway Games has put so much love and care into telling it.
The delicate balance between escapism and hope
I made a jab at Coral Island earlier for its use of magic to heal sick coral reefs, but that’s not necessarily fair. Magic has always been a staple of the genre, all the way back to the first Harvest Moon having harvest sprites to represent the spirit of nature. It’s hard to quantify everything that nature does for us or to describe how much life depends on the health and stability of the environment. Viewing the breadth of power that nature holds as magical is not only useful as a metaphor but also a significant part of spiritual beliefs in many cultures. Coral Island making a nod to that is very much in line with what it’s trying to accomplish and a nod to many of the classics in the genre.
At the same time, Coral Island aims for a more realistic and down-to-earth tone. The characters aren’t as whimsical and fantastical as in Rune Factory or Littlewood, and the problems that the island faces have 1:1 real-world parallels. There’s something frustrating about seeing a real problem being solved with a nonexistent solution, especially when the problem is one that constantly looms over us.
But the health of the coral reefs isn’t the only problem, and magic isn’t the only solution. There are several occasions when the community works together to plant trees, clean up the trash on the beach, and so on. When addressing the cost of production, since everything has to be imported from the mainland, the solution is for the player to help start growing produce locally. When people need help, they ask each other and work together. It isn’t always simple or easy, but there’s always communal support, and there’s always an effort to make things better.
The experience that Coral Island offers isn’t just an escapist fantasy to ignore the stresses of real life. It’s a reminder that even when things are dark, there is still acceptance from loving and compassionate people; that even when the challenges before us are difficult, so long as we keep working towards a better future, we will create one for ourselves. It’s not a place to forget problems but a place to renew belief in solutions.
That might seem like a dramatic response to a game where you chase bugs and plant turnips, but farming sims have never been about just running a farm. Even their earliest incarnations were about letting go of modern isolation and embracing the warmth of nature and community. Coral Island understands that and offers so much more.
The game is currently in early access, but judging by the beautiful experience that’s been delivered so far, Coral Island is well on its way to showing us a bright, bright future.