Raft looks like it has a promising future ahead of it, but that future hasn't quite docked yet. Should the game's serene atmosphere be here to stay and not just turn into a growing pain, then Redbeet Interactive are on the right track.
Survival games are in a bit of a rut, with battle royale titles pushing them out of their first class seat on the ever-puffing hype train. The genre went the same way any craze goes - a hit game breaks some sales records, everyone starts copying systems and mechanics with only superficial adjustments, the wave dies down, everyone moves on to the next big thing.
Redbeet Interactive's Raft seems to be paddling a vortex around this well established pattern. The indie undertaking aims to keep everything that is fun about survival games, rip away all of their annoying elements that were thrown in there to pad out play time, and hoist a banner made up of alternatives to everything you might hate about survival games.
Crafting, construction, hunger and thirst bars, resource gathering and healthy dose of what am I supposed to be doing are still there, with the final one hopefully being an Early Access type of stain.
What Raft does away with is the usual Sahara levels of deforestation that has become almost synonymous with the genre, bothersome timers on every other even remotely perishable item, stupidly grindtastic resource requirements for certain items and structures, and the stalest of all systems - "the dark is out to get you".
In place of the dark, Raft has a shark that will be chewing on your ankles in no time if you decide to take a dip in the ocean. Instead of having to run around aimlessly hoping to stumble upon the resources you need, Raft's tides deliver them right to your boat, and rarer materials are conveniently clustered around small islands, which you can sail to with little difficulty.
Raft puts you in the middle of saltwatery nowhere, with little more than a few pieces of driftwood tied together to call home. Armed with nothing but a fishing hook to drag resources closer to your floating real estate, the game requires you to secure some basic water food and shelter first. Pretty much standard survival fare, but the way Raft does this is quite unique.
A great deal of Raft's experience is reminiscent of a day's worth of fishing at your local pond, minus the sharks of course. After the initial scramble for bare necessities, Raft puts little to no pressure on the player to make actual progress. No waves of zombies from the deep clamouring at your boat, barely any degradation on items or structures that would force you to keep up via grind, no wasting my damn time with things I don't want to be doing. Same as analogue fishing, minus the nastiness of the great real life outdoors.
Pretty much everything in the game supports this core concept. There is little that can startle you save for that shark. It's just you and your boat somewhere on the vast nothingness of the ocean. The visuals are soft in tone and colour palette, in spite of blue/teal being a bit of a creative shortcut, but in Raft's case it feels natural. What you will hear are seagulls, the water stroking you vessel, and a very gentle soundscape altogether.
Storms and the like are of course an exception to this pattern, but they are nowhere near frequent enough or severe in their consequences to be called central to the game itself.
With all that indie goodness on display, there are bound to be some blunders as well. Things that break immersion, like the question of where all the seagulls are coming from with no shore in sight, or the aforementioned islands that make zero sense with the way they simply stick out of the ocean floor and sprout vegetation all around, but these things can be dismissed with relative ease as a concession made for practical purposes.
Ironically enough, another point that might put some players off is the relative simplicity of the fishing mechanic. The main reason we are bringing this up is because Raft is such a perfect fit for a good fishing system that having it in there as an afterthought seems like a blunder. Something a tad more complex than the basic few button prompts currently in place would probably alleviate this concern, but it is unclear whether we'll see changes here since most core gameplay loops seem to already be in place.
They are good loops, the best of loops. The kind reminiscent of the Civilization series, where players find themselves staying on board for just one more turn. Raft translates this to just one more item to craft or bit of construction to place.
Collision has its hiccups as well, and can become a tad immersion breaking if you are thinking of becoming overly creative with your fishing hook. The hook in particular will retract to the player regardless of whether there is a player made object in the way or not. But that might easily be discarded as early access growing pains.
I'm usually reluctant to give early alpha premium whatever founder type of game releases a free pass just because the developers and publishers say "it's not done yet." Well, I can pay money for it right? So the question is what sort of value in both time and money do I get in return? Thankfully, Raft proves to be a bit of an exception to the rule.
An early vertical slice of Raft is still up for free on itch.io. So anyone looking to give the game a try before they commit any serious time can do so for no money at all.
Raft isn't a spectacular, world changing, game of a lifetime kind of experience, but at this point in development, it's not trying to be. Very much like the serene fishing trip experience the company aims to translate into gaming, Raft is just - there, every bit as soothing and pleasant or progression oriented as you want it to be.