From our very first glimpse of Castaway Paradise’s colorful island retreat, comparisons to Animal Crossing were inevitable. The casual life sim is openly inspired by Nintendo’s town-building juggernaut, aiming to offer a similar—yet more quest-focused—experience on iOS. The final result is exactly that, combining open-ended gameplay with a colorful cast of insatiable characters who never run out of errands or rewards for your hard-working migrant.
Unfortunately, an intrusive freemium model and lack of polish make it difficult to completely lose yourself within this otherwise promising island escape.
You begin Castaway Paradise as a kelp-covered shipwreckee that has washed ashore. The mayor of the island you’ve landed on invites you to stay and help rebuild their village: most of its bridges, buildings, and décor were destroyed in the storm that sunk your ship. From this moment on, your time on the island is mostly your own. As in Animal Crossing, there are a number of activities with which to fill your days, but when and what you do is up to you. You can fish, grow crops, catch bugs, shop for furniture or clothing, collect fruit, chop down trees, pull weeds, dig holes, and so on.
Without any real story or specific goal to reach, progress in Castaway Paradise mostly comes down to completing quests for villagers and fixing parts of the island. Bridges, buildings, and other broken landmarks can be repaired by spending “puzzle pieces” on them—nine pieces are required for each object. Fixing bridges allows you to explore new areas of the island and gain access to stranded characters or buildings, opening up more available activities.
The resident islanders will provide quest goals that often reward these puzzle pieces, among other types of payment. Some quests are painfully simple, like delivering a letter to another villager less than ten feet away. Others are more time-consuming, like growing a batch of crops or fishing up a specific creature from the briny depths. You can have three quests active at one time, but as soon as you finish one and have an open slot, you’ll be able to seek out a needy villager to take on another request.
One of the strongest features of Castaway Paradise is its never-ending quests: villagers will always have a quest for you, no matter how many you’ve already completed. So long as you have fewer than three active assignments, you can speak to any villager and select “Quest” to receive another task. Without a day-night cycle, villagers are also awake and available 24/7 for doling out demands. This provides a constant sense of purpose and progress, since you earn gems, experience points, and random gifts for every quest you complete.
The villagers themselves are a mixed bag, with personalities that vary from bizarrely endearing to easily forgettable. Angus, the Scottish carpenter baboon, is crotchety, impatient, and ungrateful, but we enjoy his loudmouthed honesty and random tales of mutant banana haggis. Sandy the postal dog claims to be a princess and seems two steps shy of a mental breakdown at her ever-present desk post, making the town hall a regularly entertaining stop. On the other hand, Amelia, the soft-spoken delivery duck, is sweet but dull, talking about little more than stale bread and, oddly enough, how charming Angus is. Since the characters are the same for all players, there’s no Animal Crossing-esque variation on villagers, but currently roped off house-sized areas may hint at new residents in the future.
The biggest change between Castaway Paradise and its premium Nintendo inspiration is, of course, the price. As a completely free-to-play experience, the barrier to entry for this island is little more than the install size. And developer Stolen Couch Games has actually created a surprisingly balanced model that doesn’t seem to demand a dime from players.
After our first three days of gameplay, we had already reached level 13, unlocked three areas of the island, and earned almost 30,000 gems without spending a cent. Our house has been upgraded once and is stuffed with furniture, while our closet is packed with a variety of shirts, sunglasses, and beards. Even the freemium timers assigned to things like crop growth and bridge-building are extremely manageable: most plants take between one to ten minutes to grow, while larger objects like bridges finish within an hour. We’ve only hit one 24-hour timer so far, but with so much else to do in the meanwhile, it didn’t prevent us from playing.
The problem with the chosen freemium model, then, is how invasive its premium advertisements are. Even if you never need to pay real money to enjoy the game, you will constantly be reminded of the fact that you could. The most egregious example of this is the “VIP” area of your house: an entire set of rooms that is visible but inaccessible, sectioned off by a VIP red rope that you’ll see every time you enter your home. Interstitial video ads appear randomly when entering or exiting buildings, sometimes only minutes apart, with a giant “Become a VIP to remove ads” banner along the bottom. “Speed up” timers are visible on every in-process item and clutter your island with distracting payment pop-ups. Real money “special offers” appear alongside your quest list, with no way to remove them. Even more disappointing is that the “VIP” subscription it keeps pushing does not completely unlock the game: you still have to use premium currency pearls on many items. VIPs simply receive bonuses (like the locked half of your house) and discounts.
If there were a way to play the game without these constant upsells, it would be a much more enjoyable experience. Castaway Paradise has done a lot of things right that even Animal Crossing does not: its zoom-out map view allows you to quickly find villagers, bugs, and fish without slogging across the entire island. The quest list tracks all your open assignments and the progress of each, making it easy to jump right back in after time away.
Contextual equipment and items create an extremely simple method of swapping out and completing activities without opening a menu every time: if you’re near the ocean, your fishing rod will pop up. If you’re near a tree that needs water, the watering can equip icon appears. Every piece of clothing is immediately available from your “catalogue” menu, with no need to keep stacks of clothes in storage just in case you want to swap outfits. And you can purchase items at any time from that same menu, saving a trip to the store.
These types of innovations keep the game flowing and entertaining, but there are other interruptions. Movement is finicky, featuring a tap-to-move-or-target system that often results in your character running away instead of acting. Fishing is strangely clumsy, forcing your line to be cast in a specific location with no way to control where it goes. Frequent bugs cause crashing, loss of music, or even random teleportation to the middle of the ocean. We occasionally encountered timers not working—crops with ten minutes left to grow would still have ten minutes left an hour later—as well as quests disappearing after completion with no reward given. None of these made the game unplayable, but the amount of issues we encountered were surprising for a game with almost a year’s worth of soft launch beta testing behind it.
We’ve had long-standing, high hopes for Castaway Paradise—and we still do. Bugs can be squashed, ads can be minimized, and controls can be adjusted. The bones that are in place here are sturdy, with an enormous amount of gameplay, charm, and innovations already implemented. Despite the present issues, Castaway Paradise in its current state is still more vacation than vexation. The island has suffered some damages, but we can rebuild.
Need some help settling into your new home? Be sure to bookmark our Castaway Paradise Tips, Cheats and Strategies.