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Amber Isle is exactly the Animal Crossing-like you think it is, and that's not a bad thing

Cute dinos and a cozy village are exactly what we're getting.

Some dino characters in Amber Isle.
Image credit: Ambertail Games

One of the current Next Fest's most pleasant and colorful games - out of the many that are offering a neat little demo - is Amber Isle, which looks like Animal Crossing, except with dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals as villagers instead. It behaves and is designed exactly like you'd expect.

The anticipated end result of Stardew Valley's success over the last eight years and Animal Crossing's rising popularity was always going to be a new wave of cartoony farming and shop sims that took us to small country villages. Such predictions weren't wrong, and we've enjoyed more riffs on the formula than we can count in the last few years, some good and some bland.

Amber Isle comes into the picture during what feels like the tail-end of this current era of cozy life sims, as players are slowly but steadily rejecting new titles which don't bring much new to the table. In the case of this specific game, cute chonky dinos and other prehistoric animals living the peaceful town life might be enough to entice most fans of the genre, but its (seemingly) more focused approach to the gameplay loop might also help differentiate it from the competition.

The game comes from Northern Irish studio Ambertail Games, a group of devs focusing on games that are "fun, happy and inclusive." Judging from the Next Fest demo alone, the game's already on its way to being a fairly polished (and good-looking) indie release with plenty of charm and fun for the whole family. In fact, it even plays really well on the Steam Deck despite not being verified by Valve - which is to be expected given its pre-launch state.

Amber Isle - town
Image credit: Team17

The demo is set right at the start of the game, character creation process included (with many limitations in place). Shortly after our 'Paleofolk' embarks on an adventure, an accident sends them crashing down to the titular Amber Isle, where a nearly abandoned village is looking for the perfect shopkeeper.

The player's Paleofolk excels at crafting (done through simple collection of resources and the usual menus) and is willing to learn from the villagers despite the clearly unplanned situation, so they're soon assigned to return the decaying shop to a decent state. This includes making it look nice, collecting and crafting items to sell, haggling for good prices, and even buying cool stuff from surprising visitors.

Amber Isle - shop
Image credit: Team17

The early beats of the story are bit wordy, as a handful of characters come and go and walk you through the basic steps of setting up shop and making the most out of your soon-to-be-blooming business. I personally would have liked a more freeform and experimentation-heavy approach to the first hour or so of the game, especially given how simple and familiar most mechanics are, but Ambertail Games is clearly welcoming all sorts of players and not just those who've already spent hundreds of hours in other digital villages.

For the most part, you'll be spending the (short) days slowly exploring new areas of the island, collecting resources, tidying things up, restoring the town itself to its former glory, and preparing your shop for the shopping hours, which feel like the culmination of the daily activities. Soon, however, you discover than making a profit and actually expanding your business takes more than simply having the right items and setting prices, as the shop gets dirty, some customers are looking for specific objects or prices, and certain external opportunities are too good to pass up.

Amber Isle - journal
Image credit: Team17

Overall, I finished my time with the rather generous demo thinking Amber Isle sacrificed some of the more sandbox-y bits found in similar games in order to squarely focus on the shopkeeping experience, or at least those are the vibes I'm getting at the moment. There's a bigger emphasis on establishing bonds with each villager and learning from them over the freestyle approach seen in Animal Crossing, which reminded me of small fresh takes on the formula such as Cozy Grove.

Mind you, Amber Isle still seems to offer plenty of freedom when it comes to running and decorating your own shop. I'm counting on more playable content opening up as the village becomes livelier and more routes and hidden zones are opened up in the wilds, but Ambertail Games' approach to making gamers care about yet another cozy life sim might pay off thanks to a noticeably more restrained structure and, of course, the incredibly cute Paleofolks with distinct names and personalities.

Amber Isle was previewed on PC and Steam Deck via its publicly available Next Fest demo. It's currently set to launch on PC and Nintendo Switch. No release date or window has been provided yet.

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