The prospect of building a farm on a tropical island is a bit strange. After all, this is a setting that conjures up images of shipwrecks, pirates, bonfires, and foliage. But when you boot up Island Life for the first time, you’re standing on a grid of farmland just waiting to be plowed. And after you’ve played it for a few minutes, you’ll find yourself surrounded by beet and onion stalks, not thick jungle vegetation. Is this game really about being on an island–or is it just another farm in disguise?

Island Life makes a good first impression. The lighthearted music loop–sounding either like marimbas or steel drum–immediately sets this apart from Farmville‘s plucky jingle. LIkewise, the graphics have a texture and volume absent from many similar games, which instead go for a flat, cartoonish look. The grass looks soft, the water looks deep, and the dirt looks fertile.

However, the game quickly begins to feel very familiar. As usual, you plow the squares of fallow land so that they may be seeded with crops. Plowing and planting crops uses up coins, but harvesting crops once they are grown earns you more coins. (You also usually win a number of coins in a “daily raffle.”) Crops may take anywhere from a few minutes to several days to grow. You can also plant trees and animals (they don’t move unless you grab and pull them around, so they may as well be plants) around the island, which can also be harvested for coins. Unlike your crops, these don’t disappear after you harvest them; they simply go back to zero progress. Finally, you can buy decorations for your island such as a hut, beach bar, or pile of rocks; and you can eventually expand your island.

As you perform activities like plowing land and harvesting crops, you will earn XP which increases your level, which in turn opens up new items. Special items such as a maple tree, birds of paradise, or panda bear must be bought with “bux,” the game’s euphemism for cold hard cash. You don’t earn bux when you level up, which means you have to fork over some real money if you want to have these specialties.

Island Life is, of course, a social game, and that means you will want to invite friends. At nearly every opportunity, the game lets you post your latest developments (as well as several the game randomly invents, like a “baby seal” that “needs a home”) to Facebook. Friends who take notice can become your “neighbors” whose islands you can visit on a rickety raft. This is where the game shines. Once on a friend’s island, you can fertilize their plots and thus earn them more XP; and you can help them build structures like a hut–which requires eight different friends to help out before it can be built. You can also discover buried treasure on their island, which is a simple matter of finding the big red X and clicking on it to reveal some coins.

The best part about visiting a friend’s island is that you might run into your friend while they are tending their crops. It’s a small thrill to see both of your characters walking around the island in real time, and you also have the option to chat with each other. Words you type appear above your heads in talk bubbles. Where socializing in some social games amounts to seeing what gifts your friends have sent you remotely or the effect they have had on your crops while you were gone, your ability in Island Life to communicate with a friend adds an exciting dimension to the game. Add some other social interactions, like the ability to build things in tandem or even high-five your friend, and you’ve considerably expanded the social game.

But as of this writing, the game is still officially in beta, and thus has a number of kinks and design issues that could stand to be improved. It would be great to be able to see when your friends are actively playing the game–you currently have no way to tell whether they are on their islands. You also can’t read their chats when you are browsing your buyable items; the market takes up the whole screen. A chat history would be nice. There are some graphical glitches, such as trees and animals jumping around the screen when you harvest them. And the game currently doesn’t show you where exactly the item you are placing will fall. There is a good bit of trial and error, and repositioning, involved.

But the most egregious graphical issue is a design problem. The trees are enormous relative to the crops, and are likely to get in the way. You can’t interact with any items or land covered up by a tree, and so you’ll have to move them out of the way with the move tool to plant or harvest crops. (Perhaps being able to rotate your view of the island would be an easy and attractive fix.) Because you can only plow the grassy land that takes up most of your island, and not the sand around it, you’ll find your options for placement are rather limited. This of course is mitigated by expanding your island–which takes neighbors and time.

The game ought to do more to encourage early players. But since so much of it is about earning and placing items in the world, and the world is so constrained to begin with, it’s unclear how it can do so. And it definitely needs to give players a compelling reason to come back. Unlike games like Farmville or We Rule, your grown crops in Island Life don’t appear to whither if you neglect them. So it doesn’t really make a difference whether you come back in a day or in a month.

Island Life is a good-looking game, and the island is a low-pressure place where time doesn’t really matter. On the flip side, the only thing you really can do here is work–and that doesn’t quite feel like something you want to be doing by yourself out at sea. If you’re good at rallying your Facebook friends into playing games with you, then the beach calls out to you. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself calling out from a lonely patch far, far away.