The Isle is an early access survival title featuring gameplay as various dinosaurs. In a fit of dinosaur nostalgia fueled by Jurassic Park marathons and ARK: Survival, I spent seven days acquainting myself with the game.
I’m excited. The Isle finished downloading, and I had two weeks of uninterrupted holiday time to spare. I’ve been watching the game for a while as well as seeing it in my recommended videos on YouTube. I do love dinosaurs, and I can get on board with the survival genre. The game is still in its alpha phase, but it seems fairly stable. More importantly, it finally grants my childhood wish of playing as a dinosaur. Not even the taming function of ARK: Survival Evolved satisfied this urge.
I am greeted by the immediate choice of which server to play on. Intimidated by various Let’s Plays, I chose a lesser populated server and joined it with high expectations.
Of course, I know roughly how the game works before I start. You choose herbivore or carnivore and have to survive in various ways (time-based for carnivores, food-based for herbivores) in order to move up a tier of dinosaur.
My favorite dinos ate meat, so I choose carnivore and promptly spawned in as a Velociraptor.
Not exactly the bane of The Isle but adorable nonetheless. Full of enthusiasm, I start running. There’s no immediate compass system, no map to bring up and no intentional UI. So I run blind, happily rejoicing every time I enter a new area. The map (V3 at this time) is pretty and entices me to go just a little further, to run a little deeper into the forest. It’s pure coincidence that I find the night vision when it gets pitch black after the sun goes down. I admire the landscape, and I take in the sights, trying to familiarize myself with landmarks. All the while, my stomach and waterdrop display empty steadily, and I grow increasingly agitated and less fascinated with the vegetation and beautiful render of my surroundings.
Somehow, I end up in a swamp, in a mountain range and on the beach, but I inevitably die of thirst. Frustrated, I start another Velociraptor adventure.
Four hours of confused dashing across the island later, I give up on my efforts to explore, close the game and browse the steam community for a map, advice for absolute beginners and a nagging hunger to repeat my experience.
It’s a sunny morning, the snacks are ready, the tea is hot and I am prepared. Map open for reference coordinates, keyboard bindings memorized, I am ready to start playing The Isle in earnest. Rather, I am determined to get somewhere today instead of starve or die of thirst.
The map is a lifesaver, quite literally; I know where the drinkable lakes are and hopefully will survive until I get there. Again, I am a Velociraptor, but this time with a purpose as I dash away from my spawn point. The swamp, my deathly enemy just last night, is now a welcome sight with drinkable water as far as you can wander. As I sprint through the underbrush, determining how best to get out of this maze, I see a large, suspiciously non-boulder shape rise up and walk.
It’s the first dinosaur I have seen beside myself! And it’s a predator easily four times my size. Caution dictates I circle and try out the friendly roar option; an adorable little trilling noise leaves my raptor’s muzzle, and the bigger carnivore, a Baryonyx, makes a soft reply. Friendly then. I sit down next to my new companion, and we gurgle gently at each other.
We cannot communicate otherwise, as inter-species chatting for carnivores was not possible (at the time). It’s a silent friendship, but we trundle through the swamp together until we finally reach the first open lake I’ve come across: Shore Lake. It’s lively, it’s dangerous, and my inner paleontologist is delighted at this aspect of realism. The fresh water is a hunting site for predators and a gathering place for herbivores, banded together for protection.
I see a Stegosaurus defending against an Allosaurus. There are three Shantungosaurus chasing off a lone Giganotosaurus. It delights my childhood dinosaur dreams to be playing spectator to these events, once only the stuff of book pages and my imagination. For this feeling alone, I commend The Isle. Even though it is still so far from finished, that feeling of awe does not wane no matter how many times I die as a tiny critter.
I’ve done it; I’ve scavenged, run like hell at the mere sight or sound of anything and anyone approaching, and I progressed from being a tiny vulture. Now I have several paths open to me. To become a top tier predator, you must start small. Austroraptor, Herrerasaurus, or Juvenile Trex. Well. The six year old wins again; without knowing anything about the progression tree, I become a baby Trex. Now larger than the Velo, with a loud roar, I feel great. Unfortunately, I realize I’m still too small to hunt, everyone can hear me (and consequently tells me to shut up) and I’m not particularly fast.
Running across the map once again to get to the lakes, I am struck with luck; I meet an adult Trex with a trail of two babies and an albino Allo adopted into the ranks. The adult rex invites me to join her group, and thus, I am offered protection in numbers and in the presence of an apex predator who is not looking to snack on me. Somehow, after several days of being eaten by everything, I’m incredibly grateful to this bored Trex who decided to make youth safety her priority; she shepherds us from lake to lake, bringing us to food and keeping everyone else at bay. I’ve never been so happy to be treated like a baby in my life.
We wander the forest, heading for a distant location to rest up and progress safely, when we hear the telltale roar of other Trexes. Now, in my cozy little state of mind, I think to myself that they might be moved by our train of six baby Trexes (we picked up more along the way) and a lone mama; we greet them. Loudly.
Mama seems worried; she puts herself between us and the strange Trexes, who are two adults and two subadults, which circle us wearily. Mama’s a veteran The Isle player; she doesn’t trust them. Quickly, the babies are herded onward, with the Allo circling back. After minutes, it’s obvious the other Trexes are following us. However, they’re not communally stomping next to us in obvious camaraderie; they’re stalking us like prey. Now, a baby Trex cannot outrun an adult or a subadult. It would take just one bite from the albino adult’s jaw and I would be extinct. With less than 40 progression points to go, I am nervous. Very nervous.
The albino continues to stalk us, until mama stops in a clearing and tells us to stay behind her. We babies huddle up. It’s the middle of the night and the trees looming around us could each contain more hungry Trexes; it’s realistic and terrifying. The albino takes the challenge and rushes our adoptive mother. The battle begins. There’s roaring, there’s blood, babies are running and mama is desperately trying to protect us. Two babies are bleeding and have to lie down to heal. The other Trexes circle. Mama is bleeding, tells us to run to the swamp and not look back.
I’ve never been more emotionally traumatized by a survival game as I ran away, only stopping once I was completely out of sight. I hear a triumphant roar, and a sinking feeling tells me the wondrous baby train has come to a bloody end. Another baby rex asks me in the privacy of the group chat, “Is mom dead?” I answer "yes." It’s every Trex for himself out there.
I stay in the swamp until I can quietly progress. At least mama’s sacrifice was not in vain.
Day Four started off on a bright notion, although last night’s brutal cannibalism was still somehow sitting deep in my bones. I’m a subadult Rex now, well on my way to becoming an apex predator on The Isle. I promise mama silently to pay her kindness forward and protect some babies when I am fully grown.
The spawn luck favors me, and I’m not far from fresh water and potential food. I feel pretty good, as a subadult. I almost look the part too without the small and slender frame of the juvenile Rex. I look like a miniature king lizard alright.
As I approach, I see the waving tail of something big. I friendly roar, not crouching or threatening, thinking that it was basic water-hole etiquette when one is not hungry.
The Shantungosaurus at the lake, however, did not agree. The thunder of heavy legs has me alert, sprinting in the other direction. The angry herbivore stays behind me, seeks to chase me away from the water entirely. The aggressive claim on the territory is new to me; I’ve never been big enough to be threatened by herbivores actively.
I try again, with the same results; the Shants have claimed the water. Frustrated by the long chase, I resolve to going elsewhere in my Trex journeys... just as the server kicks its members for maintenance.
With hope to get a full drink and then set off, I log back in. Sunning myself for a moment, I am angling the camera for a nice screenshot of my subadult; after last night’s ordeal, I’m looking to preserve memories. That’s when I hear it again. All hell breaks loose and the angry Shant from before bursts out of the trees; he’s on top of me before I finish the animation, and one stomp of his massive legs ends my life.
I have to admit, I was very close to cursing the game and throwing in the towel. I’d worked hard on getting to this level! And I wasn’t a threat to those herbivores! It’s not like he needed me for food, so he only killed me so that I could never become an adult Trex to challenge a big herbivore like him. Smart, really. Still super frustrating.
Several minutes had to pass of me ranting before I was ready to accept the bitter reality of survival games. Maybe being an adult Trex would simply take me too long. It does, after all, take 6 careful hours to become a tyrant lizard. Humbled by the truth, I am once again a Velo, this time deciding I would go for a Herrerasaurus: smaller, faster, more survivable with my lack of careful play-style.
Again, I am lucky. As soon as I arrive at Shore lake (called Marsh by most) there’s a whole pack of Herreras that actually group up and hunt together. It’s amazing that it works, and it's very nature-like for small predators to only be effective in a group. It’s not a guarantee in The Isle though; someone is always ready to betray their peers for food. The number one lesson of survival is clearly “trust no one.” I take it to heart, and my little legs are busier than ever, skittering me away from anyone and everyone who remotely approaches.
The Herrera pack, however, holds true to its loyalty and we spend most of our time together running away, scavenging until we find food, and sleeping at smaller lakes. And finally, I can progress to a less helpless predator: the Allosaur.
Equipped with pride and a beautiful skin variant, I went on the hunt and explored further now that I was bigger and faster. I even sought out central lake, which I had avoided. And I quickly learned that I should have trusted every instinct because just as I was greeting a fellow Allo across the lake, a Giganotosaurus came out of ambush and made dinner out of my beautiful dream dinosaur. Goodbye Allo. Hello Velo. But that's the law of The Isle. If you are foolhardy and loud, you are dinner. I'm beginning to think I'm learning a little more about survival than I like. Enough for today.
After four days of being eaten at every stage of my life, I decided to see what being a herbivore was all about. Must be nice with food everywhere, right?
Wrong. Herbivore progression, although not time-bound like predator, has its own tricks. Learning where the relevant plants for progression points grew took a while, though it was much less daunting than having to hope someone else had hunted anything along the way.
As a Psittacosaurus, affectionately dubbed Taco by every player, you live a life of fear; and not a very long life either because you only need 2 points to progress. Which is good because every time I spawned as a Psittaco, I didn't encounter a single predator. So far, so good. I have my two blue ferns. I hunker down lower than the grass, practically invisible. Time to progress.
A Dryosaurus is much faster and has more survivability but is still a snack to almost all predators. Locating blue flowers (not actually blue or flowers, but they look that way from afar) was my top priority. Luckily, herbivore progression is much faster. All you have to do is memorize where the blue ferns spawn. Deep in the forest and high in the mountains, all of the fields are remote and blissfully empty of predators.
At least that element of realism hasn’t slipped into The Isle just yet. Hunting is much more difficult when you have a whole island to search for prey. Now, I’ve played enough predator lives to know that the carnivores are, for lack of a better word, lazy. Rather than stalk herbivores to their stomping grounds, they wait like crocodiles at a watering hole. Eventually, every dinosaur has to drink fresh water. It’s an efficient way to hunt, but there are a lot of other, small bodies of water across the island, and keeping away from the hot spots doesn’t seem to be troubling at all.
Once or twice, I hear the distant roar of an apex. Between the trumpet of a Giganotosaurus, the deep bellow of a Rex and the haunting screech of a Spinosaur, I hunt for traces of blue, cowering deep in the foliage at even the hint of movement around me.
Elusively, I ate my way into being what I previously despised: a Shantungosaurus, looking for vengeance.
Herbivores are not limited to their own species for communication, and it wasn’t long before I joined a merry band of four Shants, a Stego and a Trike.
No predator pack would mess with this kind of crew. And immediately, we decided to take over the hotly contested Marsh Lake.
Of course, the predators don’t take this lying down. Or at least, quietly because they trumpet out threats and warnings as they ran away. The herbivores have won; no one wants to risk their life against an angry Shantungosaurus mob. Victoriously, we lay down at the water, snack on the plants and broadcast the safety of the lake. We have successfully white knighted the server’s herbivores, at least for now. Today’s dinosaur needs met, I safely log out.
Becoming the top tier herbivore on the Isle was just a matter of farming progression point ferns. As a Shantungosaurus, this wasn’t difficult at all. There was a certain peace to enacting a wandering cow’s life: just grazing here and there, chatting with my herd and moving together in case any carnivores decided to get frisky.
The Shantungosaurus is powerful, but there is one herbivore that is above even the feared Shant. It is currently the only herbivore in its tier; the Puertasaurus. Remniscient of its more famous cousins like the brachiosaurus, this behemoth is the apex of things that eat plants. In fact, a Puerta can eat every tree on the map. Nothing is big enough to challenge it’s slow procession.
It was fun for at least 30 minutes to simply walk around as if I was the king of all I beheld. It takes a lot to chew through the 15,000 health of a Puertasaurus, and not many would risk getting caught in the one-hit-ko under a Puerta’s legs. So I strolled (or slowly walked as Puertas cannot sprint) around, made the water sources safe (for herbivores) and ate trees. Eventually, that does sort of become dull. I imagine with a herd, you’d be much more entertained by this gargantuan creature. After the slowest chase in the world and taking over the carnivore-infested Triplets lakeside, I decided I would start over elsewhere. However, I’d be sure to revisit the Puerta, the very next time I rage quit after being eaten.
Now that I knew my way around the map and learned that important lesson of trust being the number one killer on the isle, I was well equipped and determined to progress as a predator. Being a big herbivore was a boost to my dwindled confidence in my own survival skills, but I wanted to succeed at carnivore and learn how the end tier felt there. It would be a time-consuming endeavor, but I was determined. So I switched servers to start over.
Along the way, The Isle has taught me its prejudices towards different carnivores; Run from everything your size or bigger than you. If it's smaller, eat it. Determination, however, does not make up for a lack of survival instinct. Every time I reached a second tier, I managed to be someone’s breakfast, lunch or dinner.
It is the day before Christmas, and I’m downtrodden as I log into The Isle. I have only a Velociraptor at my disposal, and I spawn across the map in the middle of nowhere. Great, I think I know how this day will go.
All of a sudden, an unfamiliar window flashed on my screen. Someone invited me to join their nest. Now, I vaguely knew about nesting mechanics. You become a baby version of any adult dino that has invited you. The catch is that you have no idea what kind of dino you’re about to be if you accept a random invitation. You don’t know where you spawn, and your survival is entirely dependent on your parent taking care of you, providing food and water in close proximity as well as safety.
But hey, I was only a Velo, what did I have to lose? I accept. My screen is black as night, I hear a lot of roaring around me. I’m excited and also slightly scared. Roaring was never a good sign. Maybe I had spawned into an attack on my parent?
Night vision reveals what I have become and I had to grin: a baby Giganotosaurus!
All around me was happy roaring and the shriek of proud dinosaur parents. It’s my first time as an apex predator, and I am tiny! My family protects me, feeds me, and patiently waits for me to grow up before we migrate to another spot. Luckily, this particular server offers AI Gallimimus to kill, so an overpopulation of apex predators can be sustained.
It’s a little daunting, being so small among these giants. I feel like they could simply step on me, or eat me if they run out of the Gallis, which often times glitch and disappear like the great Houdini.
Being a baby, although the models are exactly the same as the adults, is scary. You’re slow, tiny and your health is less than that of a Psittacosaurus! Anything and everything could kill you, even a well-meaning, protective adult trying to bite your attacker. It’s with a grain of salt that I trust my plentiful siblings, explore the surroundings carefully and snack on some meat and water now and then.
My worries were in vain; at the time of my playing, the Giganotosaurus is by far the most ferocious apex predator on the isle. Only a foolhardy Triceratops army or a Puertasaurus would bother trying to deal with a pack of our size. At least five adults make the ground shudder, the juveniles bustling between their feet. It is adorable mayhem.
One after another, the pack logs off or wanders away until I am one of the last two adults in charge. I now have to hunt for food to sustain the babies, and I have never felt so responsible for complete strangers.
It’s oddly satisfying to stomp around, and unlike the Puertasaurus, I need to hunt in order to stay alive. Finally, that map knowledge comes into use! The Giga-family migrates. However, luck is not on our side; there’s no food to be found and our brood is starving. With the Giga experience only vaguely explored, I do the heroic thing and sacrifice my body for the starving children to feast on. Merry Christmas!
However, I have come to regret sacrificing my Giganotosaurus to the brood because I have never again reached that stage of being a top tier dinosaur. But I do not regret the time invested. I've made a lot of strange friendships and lived through very dramatic, inspiring scenarios. I feel accomplished, and I know I am more than satisfied by my purchase of this game.
I've grown fond of The Isle, even for all the moments it made me pound my fist on the desk to complain when I died. The camaraderie, the unlikely alliances, everything is completely unpredictable. Sometimes, like with my Baryonyx friend, a weird sort of mutual silence is found and trust is vaguely established. It has become one of my favored pastimes while I grind my time away. On AI servers, people are inclined to be a little less likely to eat you, but I’ve seen the “Extinct” screen of death plenty of times while being an insignificant squirt next to a big juicy carcass.
Nevertheless, I came back every day, excited to see what would happen.
The Isle has amazing potential. There may be a few other games with similar ideas, but the simplicity in concept translates here in an incomparable experience. The system is unfinished, unpolished, and a bit punishing. There is no reward for extended periods of play. You still have to survive and one moment of inattentiveness will end hours of vigilance. I can imagine it’s lead to a lot of negative, if undeserved, feedback on the behalf of angry players.
There are a thousand things the development team still has to work on. However, for a game in its alpha phase, The Isle is commendably stable and a joy to explore.
It’s unforgiving progression system is a point to contest, but the experience of a dinosaur survival environment gives you adrenaline like nothing else. Every death as a tiny critter is motivation and frustration in one. You are angry some big guy killed you, and in an hour, or six, you are exactly that same guy.
There’s a thrill to knowing you can now face down with all the big bad dinosaurs that stomped you when you were small, but there’s also a very natural hesitation to risk what you’ve accomplished. That, and the wordless communication via roaring is interesting as heck to watch. Not so much from a gaming perspective, but perhaps from a sociological viewpoint.
What The Isle has taught me is trust no one, be vigilant and avoid the presence of too many teeth! I can’t wait until this game leaves the alpha stage. It’s already promising and the developers can be proud with what they are offering to their early access community. It is incredibly addictive, and anyone who pretended to be a dinosaur when they were a child (or any other part of their life) should absolutely try this game.