In the seminal film Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, a keen young warrior approaches a mystical cave. When he asks his mentor what is inside, the wise old Yoda simply responds “Only what you take with you”. I could not shake this line from my head while playing through the award-winning RPG Maker darling Cope Island: Adrift.
The game was developed by one man during a time of great personal turbulence and occupies a space just to the left of normal RPGs. The titular Cope Island offers players a uniquely self-aware journey into the soul, a chance to take up arms against your worst self.
Cope Island: Adrift offers up a clever blend of turn-based combat and rogue-lite mechanics to aid you on your personal quest. For some, this is the most they will get out of the game and will be undoubtedly content. For others though, the ones who take something personal to the island, Cope Island: Adrift will be so much more.
Cope Island: Adrift Review
Cope Island: Adrift finds players assuming the role of a robed figure who awakens on the shore of an island. The opening is specifically devoid of set up, with no player customisation outside of your name and leaving you with no set goal.
The island begs to be explored, of course, and its linear nature means that finding your next task is never difficult.
Venturing deeper into the island you’ll encounter the kind of mysterious NPCs one might expect from an RPG but everything on Cope Island is tilted toward a different kind of experience. Only a handful of the island’s inhabitants will give you game critical information.
The rest exist to prompt pondering the nature of life’s ultimate quest – how does one go about truly improving oneself?
It’s all very meta-textual and existentially minded design, sidestepping traditional narrative pacing for something fresh. The NPCs themselves are even keenly aware of the island’s true nature and how they play crucial support roles in your quest. This self-awareness never feels gimmicky thanks to the sincerity of the writing and the unashamed spiritual ambitions of the game.
How Many Roads Must A Man Walk Down…
Developer zDS is apparently no stranger to the philosophical and psychological musings that kept Seneca or Jung up at night centuries ago. Unfortunately for those pioneers, they didn’t have the benefit of a charming RPG to help them explore their concepts.
These heady ideas of our subconscious relationship to our own shadow are quite a lot for such a small game to tackle. Cope Island: Adrift only requires a couple of hours of gameplay to best your demons (the first time) but it uses this short time smartly.
This isn’t to say that you’ll find answers to life’s big question on the island. No matter how insightful, or personal, zDS’ writing is, Cope Island: Adrift only delves so far into the murky, existential waters of philosophy. For an RPG though, the shallows serve their purpose and the game strikes a uniquely charming tone regardless.
Turn Based Therapy
Cope Island: Adrift’s turn-based combat is its most traditional element but even then zDS infuses personality into it. During combat scenarios, you’ll get a choice between three attack types and a passive buff move. The basic attack has the ability to restore some of your own health, or you can attack with one of your weapons and the special magic attached to it.
There are myriad ways Cope Island: Adrift will help you out along your quest but none so eagerly as the Standby combat option. Using this mechanic during a battle will net you a massive heal buff which loses potency over subsequent uses. Paired with the full heal after each battle and an extremely generous levelling up system, Cope Island: Adrift does everything it can to lift you up.
The game’s eagerness to help the player does directly impact the difficulty but the nuances of the combat keep the experience engaging. As the island opens up more to the player these battles can become quite intense but in a rhythmic way. There is an optimal flow state to much of Cope Island: Adrift’s combat encounters and finding yours is one of the game’s truest pleasures.
The Sunken Peninsula
Cope Island: Adrift can afford to give players these allowances because of the kind of experience it wants you to have. Despite ominous warnings from some of the island folks of the great darkness that dwells below, the island maintains an idyllic air.
Time moves differently there as you are freed from the rush of day to day life and the kind of world-ending expectations placed on you by most RPGs. No task is insurmountable on Cope Island, including going toe to toe with your own shadow.
Cope Island: Adrift gives Jung’s concept of the psychological shadow (the repressed, negative elements of our own psyche) a gaming makeover. In order to access the dungeon where you Shadow resides (because of course, it’s a dungeon) you’ll need to best three island guardians. These are essentially boss battles with elements of the human condition in name only but it is a fun twist on the formula.
As the game presents it, the task is daunting no doubt but you’re never truly alone on the island. You will always be surrounded by NPCs who will remind you that you’ve got this, you’re gonna be okay. A journey into the soul wouldn’t be complete without the darkness of course and the island has its fair share of melancholic tales to tell.
But ultimately this game wants more than anything for you to vanquish the dark and it will be by your side every step of the way.
Cope Island: Adrift craftily hides its depths behind the game’s relatively basic pixel art. The overworld and sprites are all serviceable with the occasional exceptions popping up like a particularly eerie cliff face or ancient structure. However, inside the combat sequences zDS shows off his best artistic work with a large variety of visually arresting enemies and harrowing bosses.
Your time on the island is set to perhaps the best video game soundtrack I’ve heard this year. Like everything else about Cope Island: Adrift the soundtrack was the work of zDS who delivers a sound which is miraculously both nostalgic and contemporary.
It’s the call to adventure of The Legend of Zelda’s score synced with the somewhat morbid comforts of Twin Peaks. I would often find myself leaving the game running in a window just to sit with the score a little longer and I can’t think of higher praise for a game’s sound than that.
Cope Island: Adrift‘s sincerity comes from zDS’ deeply personal relationship to the game’s subject matter. The developer has been open about his personal journey through emotional turmoil on the RPG Maker site and his story is equal measures saddening and inspiring.
By investing so much of himself in the game while also cleverly tweaking RPG tropes to suit his vision, zDS has crafted a fascinating world on the island. It may not go as deep as I would have liked and the limited scope of the island may bother some, but Cope Island: Adrift earns its reputation and then some.
Take something personal into the experience, hold it in your mind while you explore the island, and you may find yourself able to cope in surprising ways.
Cope Island: Adrift was reviewed using a code provided by the developer.
Game Title: Cope Island: Adrift
Game Description: On Cope Island you have only one quest - get strong enough to face down your own personal demon.