Beasts of Maravilla Island

Developer: Banana Bird Studios
Publisher: Whitehorn Games
Steam / Epic Games / Switch / Xbox

Reviewed on Xbox Series S

The Bottom Line: Despite solid mechanics and attractive visuals, this photography adventure is too limited and linear to convey true feelings of exploration and discovery.

Over two decades ago, the original Pokémon Snap invited us to record the lives of wild pocket monsters on film. Since then, many other games have employed photography as a central or peripheral mechanic, often with uneven results. Beasts of Maravilla Island is one of the latest of these photography games. It borrows a handful of pages from the Pokémon Snap playbook, but does it capture the same sense of fun?

My feelings are mixed. It’s legitimately hard to say bad things about a game that’s overflowing with cute critters. As I played, I often couldn’t help but sit back and simply watch as the beetles, butterflies and monkeys skittered around the lush jungle environments. On the other hand, Beasts of Maravilla Island is not without issues. In fact, sometimes, late at night when I should be suffering through nightmares about zombies and moldy pizza, I instead lay in bed and mumble to myself, “Beasts of Maravilla Island: Clearly not great. But good or bad? Good or bad? Decide I must.”

Into the Wild

At the game’s outset, you’re introduced to the young photographer Marina, who, having been inspired by her grandfather’s journal, has come to the mysterious Maravilla Island. After waving goodbye to the boat that drops her off, she immediately ventures into the jungle, eager to rediscover the forgotten secrets of the magical isle.

Beasts of Maravilla Island makes a strong first impression, pulling the player into a world overflowing with life. The art design takes cues from Breath of the Wild, and the soundtrack is upbeat, featuring jungle-ready jingles that wouldn’t feel out of place in Donkey Kong Country. Even the settings menus are thoughtfully implemented, with the controller inversion options accompanied by icons, one with arrows pointing up and down and another with arrows pointing side to side. Usually when I see the words “horizontal” and “vertical” it takes my brain a few seconds to recall which is which. As a former mech pilot who still insists upon inverting the y-axis, I greatly appreciated this language-free representation.

Selfie time!

In the game’s first area, the Singing Jungle, the player guides Marina as she climbs spiraling vines, runs along massive tree branches, and charms flying monkeys with her whistling. It’s here that we get the first taste of photography, the game’s central mechanic. As she surveys the jungle canopy, Marina snaps photos of everything in sight. Insects, plants, and animals are all fair game; each time you capture a new species on film, a new listing appears in your journal. Marina can even insert herself into the photos, taking selfies with a number of different facial expressions.

Who Tamed the Jungle?

While I had fun wandering around and playing anthropologist, I couldn’t help but notice the dissonance between the concept of discovering creatures in an unexplored jungle and the execution of said concept. Simply put, finding all the animals was far too easy. Part of this comes down to level design, which is almost entirely linear – more on that a bit later. Another factor is the way the game handles photo-taking, which sucks the excitement out of tracking down creatures.

How so? Well, when you peek through the camera’s viewfinder, an indicator will tell you if you’re pointing at an animal you haven’t yet cataloged. In practice, this means that if you keep your camera out at all times, you will stumble upon most species without even looking for them. Does playing this way optimize the fun out of the game? Perhaps it does. Then again, perhaps the developers should have tweaked the level designs and the camera indicator to create a more balanced experience.

Cute, functional menus

In the second area, the Glimmering Jungle, Marina springs between giant lily pads and plays fetch with otterdiles. Visually speaking this was my favorite area, dark, mysterious, and enchanting. It seems like the natural home of the Island Spirit, a glowing moose-like creature that looks like it jumped straight out of Princess Mononoke. This haunting beast appears several times throughout the game, subtly guiding Marina on her quest.

Just as I Was Getting Started

Although I’m hardly an achievement hunter, as I ventured through the first two areas I couldn’t help but notice that the game’s achievements were popping at a rapid pace. So by the time I reached the game’s third area, the Painted Plateau, I knew the end was near. The least inspiring of the game’s three areas, the Painted Plateau is a dusty, drab locale, topped by an ancient temple. While it does present beautiful scenic vistas, the lack of tree cover in this area also draws more attention to the game’s excessive linearity.

Let me be clear. Linearity isn’t always a negative. Whether it works in a particular game or not depends in no small part on the developer’s aptitude for setting and following through on expectations. For instance, as a player, I find it easy to accept the linear design of Pokémon Snap because the game is literally on rails. The expectation is that I’ll enjoy rolling through the scenery while snapping a few photos. Additionally, the game’s levels are quite short and it’s fun to replay them and uncover more secrets.

Painted Plateau looking a little washed out

Beasts of Maravilla Island, in contrast, thrusts a camera into your hands and tells you to explore a mysterious, undisturbed island. But playing the game mostly involves traveling well-groomed, clearly marked paths. There’s also little incentive to replay or comb through the levels to find secrets. To wit, I was able to fill 95% of the journal entries on my first playthrough without consulting any hints or guides. While the game’s premise seemingly encourages exploration, ultimately the game offers no rewards – neither extrinsic nor intrinsic – to those who wish to delve deeper.

Despite all these complaints, I still have trouble calling Beasts of Maravilla Island a bad game. I suspect I’m just not the target audience, and I wouldn’t be surprised if kids appreciate it more than I did. For adults, I recommend passing on this one and checking out the zany aesthetics, non-linear environments, and goal-oriented gameplay of Umurangi Generation instead.

Rating: 72 of 100 Pixels

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