If you told someone that you were a huge fan of gourmet homecooked meals, you’d be well within your rights to boot them off the nearest cliff if they came to your next party with a lasagne dish full of wet cat food. Likewise, if a game bills itself with the actual tagline “It’s Like Animal Crossing!” and then attempts to meet your lofty expectations with a Facebook game from 2014 retooled as a $20 eShop purchase that combines the joys of ‘Doing Chores’ with the excitement of ‘Doing More Chores’, we wouldn’t blame you for throwing it so deeply into the bin that it re-emerges somewhere on the other side of the planet.
Castaway Paradise is that game. Once an in-app-purchase-riddled browser game, it migrated over to smartphones in 2015, consoles in 2018, and now (presumably because it’s performed well enough on other platforms) it’s on Switch, too.
The island upon which Castaway Paradise takes place is far from the paradise it claims to be. Littered with trash, broken-down buildings, and gigantic-headed villagers that seem to do little in life other than waving at you every single time you break their eyeline, the island is in desperate need of a facelift. It’s up to you to restore it to its former glory, although the villagers seem pretty content to live in this trashpile, continuing to assert that it is, in fact, a utopia, even as broken umbrellas keep washing up on the shores.
On the island, you’ll find a museum, a bank, a shop, and a house that belongs to you, all of which need a fix-up. There’s a distinct lack of narrative reasoning given for these buildings existing but not being in use — to use Castaway Paradise’s own comparison, Animal Crossing: New Horizons at least explains that the island was deserted before you got there, and you have to install a museum and shops yourself. In Castaway Paradise, apparently the villagers are fine with an empty museum, and a bank that they never use.
It may seem like low-hanging fruit to criticise the narrative flimsiness of a gentle life simulator, but Castaway Paradise is full of design decisions that beg the question “but why?”. An early example is the house that your character can build for themselves, and decorate if they see fit. In Animal Crossing, your tiny starter house can be added to, with new rooms, a basement, and a second story. In Castaway Paradise, your house is huge from the start, but most of the rooms have been literally roped off, and you have to earn access to the rooms that you already own.
Likewise, the island itself is partitioned by gateways that have been placed very deliberately in the way, and you have to remove the obstacles before you can gain access into new areas. It feels less like progress, and more like someone snatching away new content for you so you don’t eat it too quickly and realise how little substance there is to the game. Indeed, when the entire island is unlocked, you’ll notice that it’s very, very small, and you’ll hardly earn anything new for your efforts beyond a couple of new characters and buildings, which don’t do much anyway.
Speaking of characters, Castaway Paradise is full of wide-eyed anthropomorphic townsfolk who dole out chores and fetch quests with the gusto of a parent trying to make their hyper toddler leave them alone for a few hours. They have little to say, but they’ll take five minutes to say it all the same, and they’ll wave at you every time you walk past, even if you literally just spoke to them. There’s an unnerving feeling that you’re living in a simulation, accompanied by robots who’ve accidentally had their Perkiness Meter turned all the way up to eleven.
Outside of decorating your house and avoiding the cheery villagers, you can tend to plants in Castaway Paradise, which is one of the areas where its freemium origins are still poking out like leg hair through tights. Every plant, from trees to flowers, is on a timer — sometimes an hour, sometimes longer — which limits your play significantly. You’ll have to water the plants (even the trees) to ensure that they keep growing, and although it rains roughly every 15 minutes, the rain apparently doesn’t water the plants for you. What’s more, there’s not much to do with the plants beyond selling them, and using the money to buy outfits for your cube-headed character, who lumbers around the world like a drunken teen wearing treacle-filled trousers.
The other freemium hangover is the shop system, which is disorganised in the way a bomb site is disorganised. Categories for furniture and clothing range from “Equipment” and “Seats” to “Stripy Stuff” and “Your Style?”, which is just a load of fruits, for some reason. The category “VIP Only!” implies that there’s some kind of ranking system in this single-player game, but it’s clearly just been left in from a version of the game that has real currency, which you would use to buy these items. There is both a ‘physical’ shop with daily items, and a full in-menu shop of all the items in the game, the latter of which almost completely defeats the point of the former.
There’s also a daily reward system, which will give you a special type of currency that you can only spend on badges — which are a nearly-useless item that can be displayed in another part of the museum, showing off your ability to, erm… buy badges.
And that’s… sort of it. You spend your days talking to villagers, watering plants, and catching fish and bugs. While that sounds a lot like Animal Crossing, it’s like if you described a painting to someone and then they tried to recreate it with a bunch of chunky, dried-out felt-tips. There’s just not a lot of joy to be had in Castaway Paradise’s budget version of a classic.
If all of that wasn’t damning enough, then perhaps the fact that we spent around five hours playing this game, and in that time, unlocked the entire island and almost all of the in-game achievements should be enough to tell you that you’d be better off spending your cash on a printed-off screenshot of Animal Crossing, because at least then it would look nice.
Castaway Paradise is hardly the first game to take inspiration from Animal Crossing, and it certainly won’t be the last — but its unoriginal adherence to the Animal Crossing formula is bad enough, without the added veneer of in-app purchases, hastily reskinned and demonetised for a full-price release. It began life as a Facebook game back in 2014, and it still feels like one seven years later.