It doesn’t feel like it, but the last full Animal Crossing game came out in 2012. Since Animal Crossing: New Leaf, for six years we’ve been starved for a new town simulation adventure from the franchise that in 2001 was a social game before social gaming was a thing. Animal Crossing successfully blended its charming visual style with real time events and lifestyles to create a satisfying time-sink that I poured hundreds of hours into. This genre doesn’t see many entries, but Castaway Paradise seeks to fill a niche that Nintendo has not done a good job of keeping filled.
The visual design of Castaway Paradise is immediately recognizable as being inspired by Animal Crossing. The world has a very similar look on textures, colors, and a blocky, cel-shaded design. However, the models and items are distinct enough to come across as an homage, rather than a direct ripoff. Going for a blockier feel, it’s the breaks from inspiration that stand out. The 2-D art pieces have a real flair, and the stylized look is fun and well done. For a game that could have looked bad or forgettable, it finds a way to stand out.
However, the story feels weak, and there is little narrative to focus on. Your character is out in a small dingy, and gets swept away during a huge storm. You wake up on an island, where a community of castaways has created a functional society. You’re asked to help clean up and repair the town, as the storm destroyed nearly everything. However, I never asked to join this society, which caused an instant disconnect. Also, there never seems to be a need or want to leave the island, and this lack of thought never gets explained. There’s little build-up, and the slight world building tries to hook you and fails, feeling like a missed opportunity.
The game portion does grab you once it unleashes you onto the island with tasks to accomplish. Things like fishing, catching bugs, and farming are examples of some of the tasks you can do, and while fun, each event has its own special nitpick. However they’re never enough to dissuade you from tackling them. Catching bugs is fun as they scurry around, but you need to move slowly to catch them, something that can be a challenge at times. Farming has the biggest roadblock to overcome, as it takes real time to grow the crops. In a pay-to-wait style system you have to wait an amount based on the plant, and with farming only available in twenty four plots at a time it can make it a slog to wait for. Thankfully, on lesser crops the time isn’t too long, and upon leveling up everything in limbo is completed instantly.
On the subject of levels, this is a point where Castaway Paradise does something better than Animal Crossing. Part of the former’s build is relying on RNG to acquire objects, while the latter title unlocks access to things by levels. This works well when used with crops, flowers, and upgrades for tools. Earning them through hard works gives you a better feeling as a player. However, when it comes to the clothes and house decorations, this system backfires. The thrill of shopping for items is negated when you have full access to every available item or outfit instantly. The lotto system RNG makes finding that rare item for your home much more enjoyable than buying it once you hit the right level.
Another flaw that appears over time is the amount of content driving you to come back. Continuing to compare the titles, while Animal Crossing relies on getting lucky, it builds and thrives on the daily check in this creates. This allows a session of an hour to feel complete and satisfying enough, and even encourages spacing out playtime and delaying burnout. Castaway Paradise, however, gives full access to a lot of content fairly quickly. This makes fulfilling challenges a lot easier to do, and can cause you to run out of content fast. This appears not only with the house décor feature, but upgrading and rebuilding too. Something about waiting that full day for Tom Nook to remodel his store is more satisfying than waiting a mere minute or two for a destroyed building to pop to life perfectly restored.
Talking more on homes, this mechanic doesn’t feel fully polished in Castaway Paradise. You start off with a tent which is fun enough, but its placement is chosen by the game. Not only that, there’s little control over how your home grows, with only one real upgrade coming from doing non-home related tasks. I felt no investment in my house, and little drive to make it look nice. Animal Crossing does homemaking much better by making each payoff a struggle, but the choices and growth are steady and engaging. I had spent more time organizing my starter home in Animal Crossing than I did in total taking care of my Castaway Paradise house.
There’s a mountain of other features, but like a lot of the game, they feel unfinished. The bank and stocks are fun ways to make money, but are bare bones. The wait on the bank makes it almost not worth it, while the stock buying is minuscule and comes across nerfed. The museum is a fun place to eventually store your bugs, fish and shells, but the building lacks a charm. Animal Crossing made the building feel a bit more lively at times, and the curator, Blathers, had character and personality. Harold, Castaway Paradise’s museum man, is adequate, yet underwhelming.
I find my opinions on this game quite torn. I quite enjoyed my time in Castaway Village, reveling in its successful gameplay loops. The features are well implemented for the most part, and despite flaws, were twisted up just enough to not feel cheap. But when I thought about it, I realized that it lacks any semblance of staying power. The waiting was put into the wrong things, making it easy to burn out on the title overall. The lack of a narrative hook was another big miss, and created characters who I could never fully empathize with. For those looking to scratch the six year itch left by a lack of Animal Crossing games, I recommend giving it a try. But at the end of the day, its successes and unique twists aren’t enough to make it a title that’s going to stick around for a long time.