After seeing Greta Gerwig’s Barbie movie and playing Hello Kitty Island Adventure last weekend, I have to wonder: Is it cool to be a girl again? But actually. We’ve gotten glittering pop tracks featuring Power Puff Girl-inspired visuals from NewJeans and Gerwig’s movie has been released to theaters to seemingly universal fanfare and pink. Now, fans of mobile games get a little cherry on top: a social sim featuring Sanrio’s cast of characters. The summer of 2023 has been a great season for media aimed at women and girls.
Hello Kitty Island Adventure – not to be confused with the fictional game from South Park – is a social sim from developer Sunblink (Heroish). One part A Short Hike and another part Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Island Adventure focuses on the usual sim-game attractions of collecting items, crafting, and baking, but also goes hard on exploration by allowing me to climb and glide anywhere. It’s being published by Apple Arcade, where it will remain locked behind Apple’s subscription for the time being. While it’s compatible with a controller, I reviewed the game on a fifth-generation iPad Air and stuck to the regular touch controls.
Hello Kitty Island Adventure kicks off with a fever dream in which a veritable who’s who of Sanrio characters jump out of an airplane mid-flight after an onboard cake-baking catastrophe. I, and others like Hello Kitty, Kuromi, Badtz-maru, and Keroppi, all leap from the emergency exit, and soon the sky above the island is peppered with big-eyed puppies, bunnies, and more floating down as they hold onto bundles of party balloons. We land, and the real challenge begins: It’s up to me — an unnamed cutesy cat character I designed myself — to find everyone scattered across the island.
From here on out, Sunblink tries to do a lot: I can fish; I can cook; I can solve block puzzles in micro dungeons; I can restore cabins and decorate them with themed furniture sets for visitors, a la Animal Crossing: Happy Home Paradise; all the while, I’m collecting items with which to bolster my relationships with the rest of the cast. Despite the sheer variety of different activities, however, exploration forms the backbone of the game. The island feels sprawling and filled to the brim with simple timer challenges, items to forage, and critters to catch. It’s not overwhelmingly big, but it contains a variety of regions, including a spooky swamp and a blistering volcanic expanse.
Although Sunblink mostly leaves me free to roam from the start, there are certain parameters that direct where I can go. To unlock certain items or quests that open up other areas, for instance, I need to level up certain relationships. To do this, I need to give characters gifts tailored to their personality. Characters communicate the preferences of others through dialogue, but Sunblink’s UI also comes in handy, displaying varying numbers of hearts to show how much each character will appreciate disparate gifts. Whereas a character like Hello Kitty will prefer a cake, Kuromi prefers Jack-o’-lanterns.
Apart from the exploration required to find new characters, it’s the fostering and maintenance of friendships that steers me throughout my time on the island. I can only give each character three gifts per real-time day, and key crafting resources are similarly restricted since they respawn daily in limited quantities. I found myself zooming through the early game where discrete quest scenarios helped me level up friendships, but I hit lulls after unlocking the first region where I found myself grinding for gifts that my unlocked cast would love.
By wholeheartedly leaning into the “adventure” in Island Adventure, Sunblink’s new title represents a very ambitious and earnest attempt to expand — even evolve — the sim games that have captivated so many of us since Animal Crossing: New Horizons by combining their conceits with the sweeping exploration of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. (During a recent preview, a developer told me that their intention was to combine Breath of the Wild with a sim game).
Because it reaches for so much, Island Adventure doesn’t always live up to its own ambitions. Dungeon-like areas, like a haunted mansion I explored with Kuromi, employ simple and tedious puzzles using trapdoors and levers. While there is a surprising amount to explore, spending enough time in each region will eventually make the locales feel familiar rather than expansive. What’s more, Island Adventure has some rough edges: During climbing sequences, the game simply fades to black and resets the climb if you get stuck. And perhaps this was just because I was playing on a larger screen, but I did wish I could zoom the fixed, oblique camera angle out ever so slightly.
Hello Kitty Island Adventure isn’t the be-all and end-all for a franchise aimed at girls, nor is it the crowning achievement in the sim game genre. It’s something smaller and sweeter. It’s another flashpoint in a summer that has already felt like a celebration of all things girly. Sure, Sanrio isn’t just for the girls, but that’s sort of the point. This game, along with Barbie, is here to say “Hey — all this girly stuff? Well, it’s cool as hell.”
Hello Kitty Adventure Island was released on July 28 on iOS via Apple Arcade. The game was reviewed using a pre-release download code provided by Apple. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.