Raft first caught our attention back when it was still a free demo. We took note at the time and considered taking a closer look, but upon hearing that it was heading to Steam Early Access with a whole host of improvements inbound, we resolved to wait until it had launched. That ship has now sailed, pardon the pun, and so we've dived in for a closer look at this soggy little survival title.
First up: the setting. Raft has a refreshingly simple yet surprisingly impactful premise. Survival games are seemingly ten a penny these days, but we've not seen one that stands out as defiantly as this one does. Most of the time these kinds of games throw the player into a dangerous world with nothing to protect them, but in Raft you've at least got something solid underneath your feet to keep you afloat and alive. You thus begin the game adrift on a tiny little wooden raft, floating through the debris of what we can only assume was the ship you were on before whatever happened happened.
And so there we are, drifting through planks of wood and broken plastic bottles. However, not everything in sight is floating, and there's an ominous looking fin cutting through the water as it circles the boat. It quickly becomes clear that surviving this particular disaster isn't going to be smooth sailing. Jaws is sniffing around the wreckage, presumably still peckish after feeding on our former crewmates, whoever they were. From here on in the shark remains a constant thorn in our side, regularly jumping up and chewing off sections of the boat as it looks for lunch.
You can defend yourself, however. Using the pieces of debris that you can snatch from the water - either by hand or by using the oh so helpful hook-on-a-rope - you can build all manner of useful items to help you on your way, including new panels that extend the size of your raft. In order to fend off our sharp-toothed adversary, we opted for the spear that we could use to jab its forehead with every time it tries to take a chomp out of our raft. It doesn't kill him, but it does send him into a temporary retreat.
Getting rid of the shark gives you the time to focus on your still dire situation. You're constantly on the lookout for new materials to craft with, aiming your hook at barrels containing multiple items as well individual planks and scraps of plastic as and when you can. Occasionally you'll find the odd island and you can stop to pick some plants before moving on, but for the most part, you'll be drifting through Raft on the scrounge for whatever materials you can lay your hands on. You constantly need materials, though, as your equipment degrades with use.
Given that there's a focus on survival, you'll have to make sure you're fed and thirst-free, which is easier said than done because you're unusually hungry and thirsty. This is easier said than done, but you're resourceful enough to conjure up a stove and a filter. If you keep on top of things, you'll be able to boil yourself water and cook up any food you find - which means no more raw potatoes! Raft is a constant flow of activity and as you work to take more ownership of the scenario you'll have to push hard to build up the momentum needed to survive and, eventually, thrive.
There's a surprising range of things just waiting to be crafted, once you've built up a large enough raft to survive whatever the game throws at you. It's there that you can start to express yourself and explore the game in more detail. You can either graft for a luxurious home on the waves in survival mode, or you can have a bit more fun in the creative mode. The relentlessness of the campaign means that younger players may well drift over to this less pressured variant of the game, and in it, you can build and paint your raft as you see fit.
It's the main survival mode that's the meat of the experience, however, and most people are going to head there straight away (either alone or with friends online). Raft offers an admittedly limited scenario, but it does it rather well. There are a few quirks here and there to look past; the rope mechanics could be a touch more nuanced and the water around you could be more dynamic (although we're fully aware that we've been totally spoilt by Sea of Thieves when it comes to in-game oceans), but the distinctive challenge it presents means that Raft is a fitting companion piece to the more grim-faced boots-on-the-ground survival games out there, rather than outright competition to them. There's certainly potential in Raft, even if it could be more reactive and nuanced. Let's see what Redbeet Entertainment can do as it continues to drift through Early Access...