This isn’t your run-of-the-mill tower defence with tons of levels to breeze through. No sirree. Ancient Islands is tower defence meets village development, combining tower combat with resource production, and it’s surprisingly painstakingly fun. I warn you it’s not for the faint-hearted who give up when the going gets tough, as it has a crazy steep learning curve that’s unforgiving. With impressive deep mechanics that add an extra layer of challenges and complications to consider, it manages to be as rewarding as it is frustrating, marred by clunky playability, frame rate hiccups and punishing difficulty, whether by intent or not.
If you’re up to the challenge, Ancient Islands is a tough-love experience that can have you hooked on its strategic and progression elements but won’t be for everyone who’s unwilling to play things through. This is a decent strategy that’s rough around the edges on the Nintendo Switch.
TITLE ANCIENT ISLANDS STUDIO AVERNUS SOFTWARE PUBLISHER ART GAMES STUDIO RELEASE DATE MARCH, 2022 GENRE STRATEGY PLAYTIME 20+ HOURS COMPLETIONIST 40+ HOURS PLATFORMS NINTENDO SWITCH SYSTEM REVIEWED NINTENDO SWITCH
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more to this tower defence
What I like about Ancient Islands is how surprisingly deep this is compared to typical tower defence games. You have your levels and multiple waves of enemies that progressively get harder, with various spots to place different types of towers. From archer to magic towers and infantry, you can upgrade towers that improve attributes and open up more powerful attacks. Towers are either neutral, more or less effective depending on the enemy type.
Where it differs is the settlement development. You build facilities and add workers to gather resources including gold, wood and stone within your village. Placing a facility to gather stones close to the mines will give you an additional resource bonus while upgrading facilities to another level increases output or opens up new options to work with. The village is where you upgrade to accelerate resource production and add buffs to your towers, while the towers consume resources to build towers to clear enemies before they break down the village gate.
The map is pretty bland and uninspiring but we traverse across the islands with enough levels and replayability to satisfy the avid players and tower defence enthusiasts wanting a challenge. A little more animation or life could spruce up the overall experience.
skill grid, tactics and mana
Ancient Islands goes a few steps further, adding in customisable tactics for each tower, freedom to set infantry formation and placement within a radius, mage power to inflict magic on the field and skill points acquired over the levels. Mastering these will no doubt give you a big edge on clearing levels, especially when you’re back is against the wall and enemies are coming in droves.
A really cool part is the quite comprehensive skill grid, where you can allocate points to give you enhancements across resources, magic, support, damage and soldiers and more. The skill grid is a great addition and the fact skill points can be reallocated at any time, gives you the flexibility to adjust these per level if you’d like.
Stuck at a level that starves your production of wood? Allocate points to increase gathering output or reduce the market price to trade resources for it. Stuck at a level that reduces your archer attack speed? Compensate through the skill tree or enhance other towers to overcome the difference. Ancient Islands feels much deeper than it looks and when everything comes together, it’s actually enjoyable to complete. It forces you to constantly adapt your tower strategy and really understand the waves of enemies passing by.
You’ve got to be quick-witted to react to changes in enemy personnel and routes, so you can never really rest. And if you need time to catch your breath, the fast-forward and pause feature really helps to stack commands and upgrades.
steep learning curve but satisfying
For a fairly uncomplicated game, I was taken aback by how long loading times were. It can sometimes take 10 seconds or more to load up menu items like the encyclopedia or skill tree from the map view, and even more when starting up a level. Things get a little better once levels are loaded as for the most part, gameplay runs smooth, although I have come across stuttering or slow response that need a few moments to process. This happened more often when the Switch is docked to the TV, but these hiccups do happen when the map gets crowded. For the most part, It isn’t jarring but when it happens, it can disrupt the flow.
I’ll give the benefit of the doubt that Ancient Islands is intended as a challenging game within tower defence – a game that’s meant to be hard, make you think, and get better at being decisive on the fly. In that sense, the game certainly tests your wits. Expect to replay levels continuously until you strike a win, testing your patience and persistence. The level designs are fresh and challenging, with a variety of situations. I’d normally scout the map and figure out which tower should go into which spot and identify potential pitfalls and how I can plug to strengthen the gaps between the waves. The strategic and deployment aspects can be very satisfying and addictive, especially If you reel a win. On the other hand, I won’t be surprised if a few hairs go missing, or some groans and moans start filling the air, thanks to its punishing and unforgiving difficulty.
That steep learning curve extends into the levels themselves – it’s hard. The first four levels as it introduces game mechanics gave me a hard time, even on ‘easy’ mode. It’s punishingly different with not enough of an introduction or guide and I’m someone who likes a challenge and has the patience to explore my options. Ancient Island feels stifling towards the beginning and it can be off-putting. It certainly adds longer hours to complete the game, which can be a plus, but the high difficulty barrier may not be forgiving for players with less tolerance and patience. It’s a double-edged sword that Ancient Island is playing and depending on which side of the blade you fall on, that can be a good or bad thing.
The levels are quite varied, offering several paths enemies are released towards the gate, different landscapes and a raft of tower spots to refine your strategy over time. And certainly, with all features considered, the gameplay can be satisfying. From wolves that run fast to monsters that heal and bats that fly over soldiers, it pays to understand your enemy and for that, the payoff in doing so is satisfying.
The vintage, retro look of Ancient Islands reminds me of older Age of Empires type visuals and has a certain acquired look to put it nicely. The ability to zoom in and out of the map gives a finer tune of play working the joystick and d-pad. No matter how zoomed in or out you are, the graphics are a little to be desired. Bland and passable compensated thanks to its deeper gameplay mechanics.
I’m not picky about the way it looks when it comes to these kinds of games and have an appreciation for pixel bit, cartoony and unpolished aesthetics. Ancient Islands just looks… basic and uninspiring. It has potential if any kind of sequel comes out of it but currently, lacks an identity of presence. The level map view feels like shortcuts were made and make traversing the islands more of a chore than an act of progression or achievement. It’s fine… and that’s all it is.
Ancient Islands is one of those games that if you’re invested and persistent enough, it will reward you with a great challenge. It goes beyond a typical tower defence game and layers extra features to deliver a deeper tower defence experience. Sadly, the lack of touchscreen or motion control is quite substantial as controls with the joystick feel unintuitive and at times, very clunky. It’s a game at face value you think is better suited to playing on the go, but the deeper layers make Ancient Island more enjoyable to play on the big screen docked. It’s just a shame the steep learning curve and lack of a proper tutorial, paired with brutal difficulty straight from the get-go can put most besides avid tower defence players off.
Fun at times, but for the most part disproportionately unforgiving, the clunky playability and drop into the deep end can often end up frustrating to play.