Enchanting visuals. Two playable characters with a diverse range of abilities. A fantasy world with a rich lore to support it. Islands of Wakfu has all of these elements, elements that could contribute to a magical gameplay experience. But alas, it fails to bring these components together effectively, and dull combat and the lack of a clear sense of purpose or direction dampen this journey further. The result is a quest that initially seems tantalizingly full of potential, but quickly becomes drab and ordinary.
Islands of Wakfu takes place in the same universe as the massively multiplayer online role-playing game Dofus and the forthcoming MMO game Wakfu, but despite this connection, Islands is a strictly offline adventure. You play as a girl named Nora and as her brother Efrim, a water dragon. Like so many other video game heroes who are called upon to save the world, your characters never speak, which can be effective when you feel invested in what a hero is fighting for. But that crucial element of investment is sorely lacking here. You're given a great deal of spiritual texture for this world; characters often say things like, "The Wakfu is a Forever Moment, a knot, a thread suspended in a web. The Locks of the Goddess form our reality. Curls and tresses, intertwined." This creates a sense that this world has a rich lore, but you never get a clear idea of what this world is actually like, nor are you given characters to care about. You meet beings who seem like they have the potential to be fascinating, like the wizened dragon Baltazar, but you never get to know any of them.
As you progress on your quest, it's clear that invaders are threatening the existence of your world, but it's often much less clear why you're doing what you're doing, how your actions will benefit the world, and why you should care. The tale is just too opaque to be engaging. It's a shame, too, because the visuals make this an enticing world, one you want to discover and understand. Islands isn't impressive from a technical standpoint, but the striking use of color makes its environments captivating. Your journey takes you across meadows in which vibrant green grass provides a strong contrast for the deep orange leaves falling off trees, into ancient, crumbling temples hewn of rock, and through many other lovely locales. The rich colors of its diverse environments and the graceful animations of your characters make this game a pleasure to behold, at least initially.
It soon becomes clear, though, that the gameplay offers little to support that sense of wonder. Nora employs the martial art of Wakfu to fight enemies, while Efrim can slam the ground to stun foes and can spit water at them from a distance to attack, and you can switch between the two characters instantly at any time. As you progress, you collect honey pots that can be spent to acquire and improve techniques, like a spinning kick for Nora and a triple shot for Efrim. But being able to control two characters with a range of different skills fails to translate into deep or engaging combat; Nora's ability to instantly teleport behind a nearby enemy and safely get in some attacks and Efrim's ability to attack from a safe range make it easy and effective to fall into using the same simple tricks to vanquish your enemies.
The difficulty ramps up in the later stages when the game makes a habit of throwing more waves of enemies at you, but this only makes your progress more tedious. Additionally, most bosses typically have repetitive, easily recognized patterns, paired with health bars that stretch on forever, dragging these fights out long after you feel like you're just going through the motions. However, in addition to her teleport that automatically places her behind an enemy, Nora has a teleport that you guide by moving a cursor to the desired destination with the right thumbstick, and this occasionally results in some thrills. There are a few instances in which attacks come at you from all directions, and you need to evade them by teleporting quickly to safety. The frantic feel these moments bring as you search for safe spots on the fly amid the onscreen chaos can quicken your pulse.
But such moments are few and far between. There are only a few types of enemies, whom you can almost always deal with in the same way. For instance, each time you see a certain type of projectile-firing enemy, you learn to activate a shield ability, at which point you can simply run up to him and punch him until he falls. Adding to the tedium, some checkpoints are poorly spaced out; if you fall in battle, you may find yourself having to repeat several minutes' worth of easy progress to get back to the tricky bit again. You do have the option of resorting to an easy difficulty setting in which you simply can't die, but this removes any chance for excitement.
Traversing this fantasy realm should carry with it a sense of discovery, but instead, it becomes a chore. You're often given no clear indication of where to go to progress, leaving you to wander all over the place until you finally find the path forward. You can press down on the D pad at any time for a quest reminder, but these reminders, like "Find Wakanu" and "Get the Scale," are invariably useless at giving you any sense of where to go or what to do. Nora's ability to teleport and Efrim's ability to fly and to control a cute little platypus who can carry things often need to be used to advance. But rather than making you feel empowered, the way you're frequently forced to switch back and forth and back again between the two characters to move forward makes using these abilities feel like jumping through hoops.
Taking a partner with you on this journey makes it more enjoyable. Each player controls one half of the duo, and to solve the issue of how to move forward when only one character has the ability to advance, a button press lets you instantly teleport to your partner's location. The characters share a health pool, and the need to cooperate can make for some light but fun strategizing in battle; you may decide to have Efrim go on the offensive, for instance, while Nora teleports around to pick up the health items dropped by defeated enemies. Unfortunately, Efrim's steady spitting is less enjoyable to use in battle than Nora's quick, close-quarters martial arts, so one player gets the short end of the stick. And you also can't team up with a friend online; this is purely a local affair.
When you reach Islands of Wakfu's conclusion and see its somewhat baffling ending, you're left with a sense of wasted potential. There are memorable moments here and there, like the sight of a star-sailing pirate ship and the overheard plight of sentient bamboo sticks who demand better working conditions, but these isolated moments aren't supported by an engaging story or exciting gameplay. Its good ideas, like Nora's teleportation ability, aren't capitalized on enough, and it spends most of its time in an uninspired and often aimless rut. There may be exciting adventures to be had in this world, but you won't encounter them on this quest.