There and back again (and again)
If you’re coming into Time on Frog Island expecting something along the lines of A Short Hike, know that it actually shares a lot more DNA with The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening than that indie darling. Set on the titular Frog Island, you take up the role of a pipe-biting sea captain who finds himself shipwrecked after a particularly violent storm. With his vessel in shambles, the captain will have to rebuild his ship with the help of the island’s residents. But they’re not here to do anything for free. If you want their assistance, you’re going to need to give them something in return.
Time on Frog Island (PC, PS4, Stadia, Switch [reviewed], Xbox One)
Developer: Half Past Yellow
Publisher: Merge Games
Released: July 11, 2022
That’s how you’re going to spend your time on Frog Island: fulfilling requests by completing a variety of short trade sequences with some light puzzle solving scrunched in-between. Most of the uniquely designed residents you meet are looking for something that only you can provide. There’s a farmer in a losing fight with crows, a meditating frog who can’t find Zen with that dang bell ringing all the time, and a few others each dealing with an issue or two of their own. In a mostly dialogue-free experience, the frogs will communicate their needs through a series of icons and pictures you’ll have to decipher. Some are straightforward, others you probably won’t understand until you explore more of the island.
Admittedly, I went through a lot of trial and error trying to figure out what it was I needed to do to slake these frogs and get the heck off this island. When prompted for a coin or what looked like a pearl, I was at a complete loss on how to help them. There was nothing in my journey thus far that had pointed me toward those items. Other times I stumbled on a piece of a trading puzzle too early. There is a brewery on this island where you can experiment with ingredients suggested by the barkeep. Yet, when I gathered said ingredients and threw them into the machine, it didn’t do anything to further my journey. I would have to come back after completing some other trades first before those brews became of any use to me.
Did anything in the game tell me that was the case? Heck no. You’re given very little assistance here, so little in fact that I thought maybe the game was glitched as my initial tests at the brewery did coincide with one or two actual bugs in the game. Turns out I just needed to divert my attention elsewhere until the trading line looped me back there. Once I realized that was the case, that going from point A to point B wasn’t as straight of a line as it might appear to be, I really started to appreciate the open-ended nature of this game and the options at the player’s disposal.
Usually, games with trading activities are pretty rigid in how you go about things. But here, there is occasionally more than one object you can use to complete a task. One of the early requests you’ll undertake is helping a farmer replace his scarecrow heads. These heads are scattered about the island waiting to be found or traded for. You could take that long, winding path toward completion, scouring the lengths of the island trying to find the “correct” items needed to solve the farmer’s issue. Or you can just look for whatever is in your immediate vicinity that’ll get the job done just the same. Honestly, I didn’t even realize those scarecrow heads were a thing when I completed the puzzle. I gave in to my curiosity right away and was rewarded for it.
This sailor needs to learn to use both his hands
Following that, I took the quick and easy route on more than one occasion. Did it feel like I was cheating the game somewhat? Sure, but when playing through the trading sequence as I imagine it is intended to be played, I did find myself getting a bit agitated with Time on Frog Island‘s structure and the overabundance of backtracking. The captain doesn’t have any pockets on him, so each item you find has to be carried. Because he can only carry one item at a time, I had to strategize a way to best remember where every object I found could be easily recovered again. I used my initial campfire as a basecamp of sorts – given it’s where you respawn if you jump off the map or wade out into the ocean – which made it easy to keep track of those items but also resulted in a lot of back and forth when some items would respawn at their original location overnight.
Couple that with the lack of a request guide for the island residents, needless waiting periods, and some finicky interactive objects, and it can be easy to get frustrated with the whole experience. When I was trying to get everything done in one sitting, that’s exactly how I felt with the game. But when I took a breath and spread my time with it out over a couple of days, I found it a lot more amicable. Sure, there are some design choices I wish Half Past Yellow could have given a second look and the core gameplay could have a bit more depth than what’s on display here, but once I stopped trying to meet the review embargo for this game, I started to enjoy myself.
Time on Frog Island probably isn’t going to set the indie scene on fire, but it is a pretty worthwhile jaunt with charming characters, a beautifully rendered world, and a level of freedom designed to reward the curious among us. Just keep in mind that, despite its approachable appearance, its minimalist design may result in a lot of wasted time spent scouring this island trying to figure out what the heck you’re supposed to do next.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]