Coral Island, the new farming and dating sim by Stairway Games, is the latest example of a game in which pursuing a handsome lad is enough to drag me through something I’m otherwise lukewarm on. I’ve spent chunks of my playtime chopping trees trying to make a real farm out of my designated plot of land. But I do not wish to chop trees, I simply wish to climb Coral Island’s residents like trees.
Coral Island begins as most Stardew Valley-likes do: your custom character arrives at the titular tropical paradise, only to find that the farm they’re there to cultivate is in rough shape. As it turns out, most of Coral Island is in a bad way, and a predatory oil company has set up camp to strip it for parts and deem it a lost cause. But there are plenty of people still living here, and for some reason their livelihoods hinge on your labor to get the island back into sustainable shape.
Coral Island’s farming mechanics are simple and intuitive, so it’s a mostly frictionless experience in comparison to other games in this genre. But I’ve spent around 10 hours trimming weeds, cleaning up trash, and planting crops on the farm, and it’s always felt like chores I have to do before I get to explore the parts of Coral Island I enjoy. There’s a supernatural side plot I’m unraveling by making offerings to a local temple, its overtly anticapitalist narrative revitalizes the burnt-out part of my brain, and the feeling of growing a community warms my heart as the state of the world threatens to freeze it over.
Like most farming sims, Coral Island is a lot of “hurry up and wait,” as you plant your crops in an effort to progress pretty much every route in the game, then wait in-game days for the fruits of your labor to grow from the masochistically slow ground. This is how farming is in real-life, sure, but Coral Island feels so beholden to its regimented schedule that I have long stretches of killing time with busy work between the things I actually want to see and do.
To its credit, Coral Island is constantly drip-feeding me new stories to follow and activities to try. There are mini-game-driven festivals that have me take part in contests like sack races, and a potluck I can donate to that helps me feel more a part of the island’s community. I can go diving and find the sunken treasure I won’t find on land. As my relationships build with the locals, I make friends and maybe more. But even that is regimented by only allowing me to give potential suitors gifts twice in one week—as far as I’ve gotten, that’s the only way to progress your relationship. And with how good-looking all its island citizens are, waiting to woo them for as long as Coral Island requires is incredibly frustrating.
While I’m not thrilled with how romance works under the hood thus far, Coral Island’s hot singles in your area are the draw of Stairway Games’ take on the Stardew Valley formula. The studio went with a Disney-esque art style for all its characters, and if you’ve ever posted some shit about having a crush on an animated character from your childhood, this game is catering specifically to you.
Coral Island’s character design is its strongest aspect. Not only is its diverse cast easy on the eyes, but you can get a strong sense of their personalities just by looking at their portraits. Mark, the resident bear and adventurer, gives off an air of rugged stoicism. The only reason I know he likes me is because the heart meter on the relationship menu goes up every time I give him a Shiitake mushroom. Scott, the local archeologist trying to get the museum back on its feet, has Nathan Drake’s swagger, complete with the exposed chest but without all the grime and grit. Rafael, the soft-spoken blacksmith, always looks like he’s fresh off the anvil, but his kind eyes exude friendliness.
I want to marry them all, and that is a greater struggle than clearing all the garbage off my lawn or growing the perfect carrot. Coral Island, unfortunately, doesn’t include polyamory (not intentionally, at least), so while I handle all the busy work waiting for the next relationship cutscene to trigger, I’m constantly weighing the pros and cons of my potential paramours. Mark is a dog lover and could throw me over his shoulder with minimal effort, but he’s also distant and emotionally unavailable. Scott is a golden retriever who loves to unbutton his shirt, but he’s also a bit of a dweeb. Rafael, meanwile, seems almost scared of me and having any human contact.
But the truth is, a lot of my early hours is just me projecting onto these characters, because while they are certainly a bunch of pretty faces, Coral Island’s character writing feels stretched thin to the point of transparency. . There are 28 possible marriage candidates, and in between your designated relationship scenes, each character chirps the same three or so lines at you until you give them enough gifts to progress your bond further. I’m still waiting for the point where these relationships feel more substantial, as right now they’re pretty shallow. This lack of meat on the bone is primed for fans to fill in the gaps with fanfiction and art, but the character design feels like a carrot on a stick I’m following looking for depth.
Overall, Coral Island is a fine farming and relationship sim so far, and the draw is easily in its 28 datable hotties. But 10 hours in, I feel like I would rather have a straightforward dating sim than deal with a lot of the task-based filler and farming, which is fine, if unremarkable. The farming sim genre is pretty bloated these days as everyone chases Stardew Valley’s success. At the very least, Coral Island stands out because of its unique visual design, which makes the dating aspect of its gameplay all the more deliciously difficult.