Spirit Island Digital is out on Steam's Early Access!
Spirit Island Digital was announced by Handelabra Games about two years ago (!) and went through a successful fundraising campaign last year. Given the company’s history with bringing solo/co-op games to digital platforms, expectations for Spirit Island were off the charts. It is both the highest rated and heaviest BGG game Handelabra has worked on. A company with an impeccable record meets a scorching hot game that is exactly in their wheelhouse? This is the easiest slam dunk in the history of slam dunks, right?
To be clear, this is NOT our full review of the game. The game has been released in Early Access today. As it is Early Access, there's a good chance there are lurking issues that will be ironed out before full release, along with other improvements on the developer's TODO list. I’ve been playing for a little while now and wanted to provide some early impressions of my experience learning the game and playing through a handful of times. I will play this Steam-exclusive title from now through the launch and provide a full review at that time, but for now, I wanted to do a more informal post about how my initial time with Spirit Island Digital has gone.
Spirit Island is a beast of a game. I believe only Through the Ages rivals it in terms of BGG weight for games that have made the conversion to the digital world. Through the Ages, if you recall, has a roughly 45 minute long tutorial.
Spirit Island features a “How to Play” option which takes you through a lengthy text-based rules section. Was the information there? Yes. Did my eyes glaze over a dozen times while reading through everything. Also yes.
Before diving in, the menus in the game confirm that an interactive tutorial will be added in a future update. This will help tremendously if it focuses on potential strategies along with the typical hand-holding on how to play the game.
The game has an “intro game” option which launches a game with the simplest setup possible. No blight cards, adversaries, or scenarios and using a single low-complexity spirit. If you are truly new to this game, as I was, this first game will be over very quickly. It isn’t an extension of the tutorial with helpful “maybe you should do _____” type of handholding. It is simply a setup with the easiest scenario the game allows. The digital version does a great job of making sure players don’t get lost as to what they are supposed to be doing. All actions are called out and when playing powers the game is very clear about the options that power could target, be it a spot on the map or a spirit.
The best way I learned the details of the game was through the extensive undo button. I would select a power, play it, see what happened, realize it was a dumb move, undo back to my decision, do something different, and see how that plays out. It isn’t uncovering hidden information, it is just a great way to learn what actually happens when you do certain things.
I could go on for a while about what it takes to learn this game, and I might do that in the final review, but for all of our sakes, I’ll move on now...
If you’ve played other Handelabra ports you should have pretty familiar expectations on the visuals for Spirit Island: true to the source game, highly effective, nothing flashy. The cities are a perfect example of Handelabra’s stance on visuals. Other companies might have spent a lot of time coming up with fantastic 3D models for the cities. They probably would have looked amazing, a big wow factor. Handelabra didn’t. They used fairly bland looking 3D models that, quite honestly, don’t look great. They are, however, 100% functional and get the job done. I’ll always take performance over visual appeal.
I should point out that these limited graphical assets are strictly for the 3D portion of the game. The 2D stuff, including menus, cards, and everything in between all look really great. It isn’t that Handelabra isn’t capable of visual flash, it’s just that they pick their spots. I personally think they choose their spots well, but that is up to personal interpretation. Additionally, the game does offer a strictly 2D mode with simplified graphics for those would-be 3D pieces. I personally prefer this look, but that will be another personal preference.
On the more functional side of things, Spirit Island has a lot going on. The game makes ample use of large PC screens to show you everything you want to know from the top level gameplay screen. Most of the status stuff is spread across the bottom with spirit-specific details taking up the sides. This could be a case of “I don’t know what I’m looking for”, but as a newbie to the game, I feel like everything I want to know is laid out nicely for me at all times.
Controls are, not surprisingly, really well handled. When dragging your mouse, hovering over a card will give you any additional details you might want. Clicking on most things will bring up a view of the full card it is representing. Click on an option to choose it and the game will typically automatically advance to the next stage of the round, when applicable. The aforementioned undo button has been a lifesaver while learning and seems to have a history going back to the start of the turn. When playing a power, you can drag it onto its target. Any available targets, spirit or island, will be highlighted for you when dragging.
All of this adds up to make a really complex game really simple to play. Not simple to understand on a strategic level, just so we’re clear, but the game is a breeze to control from a mouse and I never had a moment of “what am I supposed to do now?” thanks to the really slick interface.
The options in this game are fairly straightforward: Quick Play, Resume Game, New Game, How to Play, and Options.
Options are where you toggle resolution, volumes, 3D/2D board, “story-based game setup,” experience level, and automatic board zooming. Most of those are straightforward. Experience level can be beginner, intermediate, or expert. This will control what the possibilities are for when you click “Quick Play.” Speaking of which…
Quick Play launches you into a new game with random settings based on your experience level. Beginner, for example, will only select 1 or 2 low complexity Spirits, no Blight card, no Adversary, and no Scenario. Intermediate expands the Spirit pool and may choose an Adversary or Scenario. Expert level gets you everything.
New Game allows you to create a custom game with exactly the setup you want. This includes all of the options mentioned above that were included/excluded based on experience level, along with Spirit selection and island layout.
In the Early Access version, only your most recent game is saved so “Resume Game” simply takes you to your most recent incomplete game.
I love what Handelabra has done here. They have used the “Quick Play” in their other titles, but I’m not sure I remember it having been explained as thoroughly as it has here. If you know what general level of difficulty/complexity you want, all you have to do is hit “Quick Play” and you will get a randomly setup game within your comfort level. This is a fantastic small detail that will save players a lot of time. It would be poor if they didn’t allow you to fully customize games, but that is still there as well. Simply giving you a shortcut from launching the game to playing is a great feature.
The game will initially only be released on Steam and will not feature online multiplayer. This is par for the Handelabra course, although with their past titles the iOS/Android tablet versions have had concrete release dates which is not the case with Spirit Island. Given that all of their past titles have hit mobile, it is likely a safe bet that Spirit Island will follow suit, but we're not sure when. Any firm plans for expansions have also not been announced. This is a huge title and one that I hope sells incredibly well to ensure that Handelabra is able to make all of these extras come to life down the line.
I’ve typed mostly about the digital implementation with little in regards to the actual game. I’ll save most of that for the full review, but I will say that Spirit Island was pretty much exactly what I expected. A very tight, tense push-pull, constantly fighting fires type of co-op. The game is relentless even on the lowest levels in making you balance the invaders with the blight with the ravaging. The Spirits that I have used have been fun. Learning to best use their powers is the crux of the game. The amount of variety here is staggering. All of the spirits and enemy tuning you can do is great, but you can also set up the island in a variety of different ways. All told, Spirit Island lives up to its reputation as an “incredibly tough co-op with a steep learning curve and massive amount of replayability.” All of these things make it a fantastic fit for a digital implementation.
Spirit Island Digital, in Early Access, is exactly what I had hoped and expected from Handelabra. It is a polished app by many company’s release standards and gets so many small details right. The way they streamline the turns to make them simple enough that I was fully comfortable with what I was doing a few turns into the game is a real accomplishment.
The thing I’m most looking forward to in the final release is the tutorial. I think this is a key part of the digital experience. They made the app incredibly user friendly, but I’m hoping the tutorial does some work to bridge the gap between “this is how I play” and “this is a good way to play to give yourself a chance to win.” The latter has been tough to come by for me in my handful of games. This is expected in such a heavy game, and I’m enjoying my incremental progress with each play, but I feel like the tutorial is a chance to shorten the learning curve for new players.
Spirit Island Digital is available now in Steam Early Access. Follow us on Twitter to keep up with news about the final release and to see our full review of the final product.