Welcome to Isle of Bxnes, an isometric action role-playing game. No, that is not a typo. The “x” probably represents where your face will get smashed in. Yes, your face will get smashed in. Or pierced by a rainbow-colored maggot of death. Or eaten by a cannibal. Please forget about silly things such as “reviving” or “winning.” Death is death in Isle of Bxnes. There are no continues, no save points. Yes, you’ll definitely lose. But you’ll have fun. Oh, yes, you will definitely have fun losing.
This game is no Diablo clone. Isle of Bxnes has a story and game play that is a breath of fresh air. Instead of a sword-wielding warrior or a spell-slinging sorcerer, you play as a caveman in a long-forgotten tribe whose home was ruined. You’re sailing east in a flimsy raft to search for a light-emitting artifact that could save your tribe. Tagging along are four of your people: a witch doctor, who will heal your wounds; a lady guard, who will mate with you and give you sons; an oracle, who will train you; and the oarsman, who controls the raft. While in the raft, you can heal up, learn skills, or mate. While this aspect of the game does not seem unique–the witch doctor is your standard RPG healer NPC, and the oracle is just a glorified skill tree–the way it is dressed up and integrated seamlessly into the game’s prehistoric setting creates a good sense of immersion.
Choose to head east, and you switch to an overhead map. You gain control of the raft in search of islands that potentially hold a piece of the artifact. Make contact with an island, and you’ll go into isometric mode. On each island, you’ll encounter rival tribes, cannibals, giant turtles, and all sorts of monsters that make up caveman nightmares. Make sure you admire the pixel art as you trudge along. For an indie title, Isle of Bxnes’ graphics are incredible, breathtaking even. The landscapes are meticulously rendered via pixel graphics, each sprite of every rock, root, and ruin are carefully detailed.
On the island, you gain full control of your hunter. You can perform a smash, a dodge-roll, or a voodoo spell. Each of these has their own command button and corresponding skill tree. Movements are controlled via a D-pad. The controls are quite well-designed and laid out. They do not get in the way, even when playing on a small Android phone. The D-pad, however, can be quite unresponsive at times. This is often a big problem. After all, this is an Action RPG–and the crux of the gameplay is not only about casting spells or bashing heads, but also about maneuvering, about moving to a strategic location to launch an attack (or avoid one). When these genre-defining aspects of gameplay are compromised, then so is the game.
This is especially true in Isle of Bxnes, where death is not the only punishment. The health system forces a player to be extra careful. Get hit, and your hunter becomes less effective: get wounded on the leg, and you move slower; get injured on the arm, and your attack becomes weaker. As you defeat your enemies, you’ll pick up better weapons and equipment. They might also drop fur and (literal) hearts, which you can exchange for services back on the raft. If you’re able to get back on the raft, that is. Get hit enough times, and you die.
Your credit card has no power here. It will not buy you a bundle of health-restoring herbs, or a bag of hearts and furs. And no, that spiked club wrapped in live venomous snakes is not for sale, thank you. Isle of Bxnes rewards experience, perseverance, and cunning. You want to survive? You need to play smarter and better.
Isle of Bxnes has all the foundations of a true hardcore game. And as a hardcore game, it’s almost perfect. Almost.
For a game that prides itself on being hard, easy should not be a word that exists in its vocabulary. However, after you get past the initial learning curve, Isle of Bxnes becomes just that. While the average player won’t mind, those seeking a true hardcore challenge may be disappointed in the long run. And when there’s no way of altering the game parameters or increasing the difficulty, the game’s replayability is badly compromised.
Take perma-death, for example. Yes, death is death, but you “reincarnate” in the form of your offspring. Yes, you lose the game once you run out of hunters, and you can’t continue from a last save. However, it’s quite easy to acquire the four pieces of fur required to get it on with the lady guard. When a hunter dies, he takes his base stats with him, and nothing else. Your new character is still fully equipped, he still has his skills, and you can reallocate those additional stat points. An extra hunter is essentially an extra life, and you can have a maximum of three. Isle of Bxnes has “perma-death” only in the same way that Mario has one (and at least with Mario you continue from scratch, tiny and with no fire power). Still, the inclusion of perma-death, no matter how soft, is a unique and bold feature for an Action RPG, and no will no doubt be an engaging aspect, at least for those who are playing the game for the first few times. The more hardcore amongst us might benefit from an ironman mode, where death really means death.
Predictability is another issue. Unlike other roguelikes where levels are randomly generated, Isle of Bxnes randomly selects pre-made levels. After several playthroughs, it becomes less tricky to navigate a dark cavern and remember where the enemies are. To make matters worse, the enemy AI itself is also very predictable, and ultimately somewhat flawed. Regardless if it’s a maggot, a Face Eater, or one of your rival tribes, they all react to being hit by a player’s attack in the same pattern: they freeze, and go directly into attack animation. The critter won’t even care if it’s in range to hit you back or not. Some enemies, like the numerous Village Champions, have shields; yet they still attempt to counter-hit immediately when hit by a player’s attack instead of shielding up. Spamming attack while at a distance means you can safely defeat any creature in the game.
The most nagging aspect when it comes to Isle of Bxnes isn’t simply that it’s too easy. It’s that it’s not committed enough to be what it claims to be. It has perma-death, but extra lives are easy to acquire. Its levels are random, but only in order and not in layout. It looks like an open-world game, but it does not allow true exploration and discovery. It wants to be a hardcore roguelike, but it lowers the bar.
But then again, as an introduction to hardcore games, a Roguelike 101, Isle of Bxnes succeeds. It is the casual player’s gateway app to more potent games and to a more awesome perspective of gaming. It’s the kind of game that could convert the credit-card-wielding, pay-to-win crowd into gamers who finally–finally–get that playing is about overcoming challenges, not paying to make them go away. Isle of Bxnes shows us that winning isn’t really the point of playing a game, it’s how you get there.
Despite its flaws, Isle of Bxnes is a unique and challenging indie ARPG, with beautiful homespun graphics and a hardcore sensibility. If the devs just tweaked the AI a bit and made the title more replayable by including difficulty settings, then Isle of Bxnes would set a new standard for indie RPGs. It would be the indie RPG to beat rather what Isle of Bxnes is: an imperfect but ultimately fun and unique RPG that it is well worth your time.