For the past few months, multiple developers have been releasing their own clones of Minecraft in an effort to provide Nintendo gamers with the closest approximation to that source material as possible. Though the concept may seem simple initially, most developers have failed to recreate it in any meaningful way, with performance issues and stripped-back features usually marring what would otherwise be a good start. Cube Life: Island Survival is not without some of these flaws, but it is certainly the best effort made so far, successfully managing to include most of the features of its inspiration while adding in a few new ones of its own, to varying degrees of success.
Right off the bat, Cube Life sets itself apart by actually introducing a light narrative. Most games in this genre typically start off with a silent protagonist with no backstory, but here we have one that's fully voice acted. The name of this character is never shared, but he quickly summarizes how he was a rich traveller who became shipwrecked on an island. The vocal protagonist is also used as a convenient vehicle to introduce a subtle tutorial system that organically informs the player of aspects of the game as they encounter them. Though the voice acting is pretty campy and sometimes the explanations of things can be a bit heavy-handed and patronizing, it nonetheless gives the overall experience more charm and also makes the avatar a bit more relatable and likeable.
Survival Mode is a surprisingly deep experience, with a robust crafting system, a handful of mobs that help to populate the world, and a spacious (yet segmented) map that offers plenty of room for exploration. One major thematic difference that sets Cube Life apart from its competitors is that the world is composed of a series of interconnected islands, rather than a large, central landmass. The decision to base the core game in a unique setting as opposed to yet another green valley or dry desert gives the overall atmosphere a pleasantly different flavour to its counterparts, and also serves as a clever way to lessen the obviousness of performance issues with draw distance and clipping, both of which are rather unfortunately present throughout the game. Graphics and sound are exactly what one would come to expect from a game like this, though the inclusion of more realistic effects like water surfaces and sunbeams clash with the simplistic nature of everything else.
The simple act of survival is perhaps more difficult and tense than ever before, though not necessarily in all the best ways. Cube Life has a very deep crafting system, though inventory management is hokey and archaic, making it a bit of a pain to fashion tools necessary to survive. And you'll be fashioning a lot of tools, too, as a tool breaks extremely quickly due to wear being measured by how long the strike button is held down, instead of by how many blocks are broken with it. Given that it takes some time to find the sturdier materials, it can be frustrating having to fashion new pickaxes after going through an entire inventory's worth every few minutes.
Balancing both hunger and thirst to keep health up is an interesting new mechanic, though it's made unnecessarily difficult by the time and save systems. Each night, creepy islanders emerge from the ocean and force you to either stand and fight endless waves of them all night or to retreat to a shelter. This is all well and good, but unless you spent the majority of the preceding day stocking up on food and fruit, you likely won't make it through the night without starving to death or dying of thirst, because the respective levels drop so quickly. This problem of nearly unavoidable death is compounded by the fact that the save mechanic takes a snapshot of the current game status when it saves, meaning that saving any time at night virtually locks that save file into a Sisyphean struggle to prevent the protagonist from dying before morning comes.
Creative Mode features all the amenities one would come to expect and ultimately stands as the better mode of the two. At the tap of a button, flight can be activated which allows the player to fly anywhere on the map, including through solid objects. This, coupled with just about any block being only a tap away, gives players full control over what they want to build and presents a hassle free experience. The one drawback is that there's no option to start on a flat map, so a bit of terraforming is required before one can really launch into building things.
Though certain concessions must be made considering the technical difficulty of map generation, it must be said that load times are particularly frustrating. Each time a map must be loaded players are kicked to a loading screen that takes roughly fifty seconds before the player sees any action. Loading screens show up every time the player dies and reloads a save, switches to another portion of the map in Survival, or opens a file in Creative or Survival. While there are some helpful crafting tips presented on each loading screen, they nonetheless rip the player out of the experience at an irritatingly high number of intervals.
Cube Life: Island Survival is the closest thing to Minecraft that any Indie has come to before on a Nintendo platform. Its imitation of the source material is admirable and it introduces a few new ideas that help differentiate it and make it a bit more than just another "me too" game. However, extremely long load times and a survival mode held back by some archaic design choices prevent this from being something truly great. At the end of the day, though, this is the best sandbox game on the Wii U yet, and fans looking to get their fix need to look no further.