There's something magical about a game that lets you travel from one island to another by balloon. No, I'm not talking about a hot air balloon, but rather a single red balloon like a poor man's Up house. As you watch the blue skies below with its pixel-art white clouds, it just serves to accentuate the wholesome nature of Moonstone Island's choice of traversal methods.
It's a little bit magical, just like the game's overall vibe. Technically, you play as an Alchemist in training, with an opening sequence that reminded me of Kiki's Delivery Service as you speed away from your parents' home on a broom. But, your broom gets smashed pretty quickly, and suddenly you're trading witchy travel for ballooning, at least initially. Interestingly, the whole alchemy part hasn't been a big part of my experience with Moonstone Island. Or at least, not in the way that you'd expect.
Instead, I've been spending my time discovering that Moonstone Island is much more than another Stardew Valley alike. The game looks very much inspired visually by ConcernedApe's creation, but while there are elements of the farming sim with actual agribusiness and home cultivating, there are also Pokemon, Zelda, and Hearthstone comparisons to be made too.
The homebuilding part has got me particularly pumped, purely because I've seen on the Steam page that you can eventually build a house with chicken legs that you can move around with you. Honestly, the more Ghibli movie references you can find in a game, the better in my opinion, and if this is my way of getting a Howl's Moving Castle home, then I'm in.
The Pokemon elements are really where the game's take on alchemy comes in. Before you've even left home your dad will give you a choice of three starter spirits to take with you on your journey. There's an Earth-type dinosaur, a Fire-type sheep, and an Electric-Type bee, which isn't the usual fire, water, grass divide but close enough.
Spirits in the sky
From there, you'll discover other spirits as you explore - both on the sky islands that you'll traverse by balloon or broom - or in the depths of mines and other locales you'll get to be familiar with. There are 100 to collect in total, and definitely lean towards the cute rather than chaotic in terms of creature design. But, where Moonstone Island puts its own spin on the Pokemon formula is by making the traditional fighting tactics all card-based.
It's part Hearthstone, part Slay the Spire, but also very Ooblets - without as much dancing. You level up your spirits to unlock new cards, and you'll have a mix of cards to pick from. Some will attack an enemy's armor, allowing you to render them startled, and helpless, and thus cause more damage for a turn or two. I wasn't expecting to love this take on turn-based battles, but it works well, with plenty of nuance to lean into the kinds of combat you find yourself gravitating toward too.
Taming spirits can be done purely by feeding them treats, which is a nice touch. You might have to take a bit of damage, but there's an almost non-combative take here if you're willing to put some work into it. Plus, if you're a fellow Pokemon Yellow lover, being able to see your party follow you around while you explore is also a personal highlight for me.
The world itself is a joy to explore too - not just because of the balloons. When you leave your parents behind, the game takes a few minutes to build the world for you. While this might seem like just a loading screen, it's actually the game building out the 100 islands that surround the game's village. They're all completely procedurally generated so you get your own unique layout, which no doubt will help replayability later. The further you explore, the rarer the spirits and other items you'll encounter.
The islands themselves have themes of sorts, such as a lightning island where you'll need to get elemental resistance to be able to avoid stamina hits. It's fairly simple, but it's a nice touch to make exploration have some challenge to it. Plus, there are temples with boss battles to tackle, and dungeons will regularly have unique blueprints for crafting that are well worth discovering.
It also helps that the game channels Stardew in the way it handles its villagers. Not only will they give you side quests and other missions to give the game some focus, but there's companionship and romance to be had. There's a cute element to encourage you to talk to them each day, with the option to flirt, joke, or just chat each having a success chance percentage attached to it. It's a roll of the dice as to whether it'll go down well and adds a level of human-ness to proceedings without having to sit through reams of chat. It's simple, but very sweet.
And I think that's all part of Moonstone Island's charm. It's not a full-priced game and is coming to us from a small development team, but it's utterly brilliant. If you're looking for something that has elements of so many well-known games but without leaning too much into any of them, and with its own unique takes on so much, it's well worth investing in.
Moonstone Island is out now on PC and Nintendo Switch. You can catch up with all our selections for our indie series over on our Indie Spotlight page.