The last few nights, I’ve devoted an hour or two to the beta for Drake Hollow, The Molasses Flood’s new survival game. As I mentioned on the podcast, it has a cartoony, almost early Fortnite-ish look to it, but there’s both a sweetness and a sadness to the vibe that’s kept me coming back, evening after evening.
The setup combines a base-building survival game with exploration and crafting mechanics, with an especially cute twist. At the beginning, you meet your first Drake — a sort of adorable plant creature that gives you buffs (say, added defense, or health regeneration outside of combat). You’ll keep finding them as you go, and host them at your little base camp. They are sweet, weirdly cuddly, and useful critters, which you use to build facilities for at camp — if you take care of their survival needs (food, water, safe places to sleep, protection from enemies), and their comfort, they’ll help you construct ever more sophisticated structures. You build and maintain your camp, and defend it during raids, with simple melee and gunplay options.
In between raids, though, you need to explore the various islands in your immediate vicinity, grabbing resources and constructing a network of waypoints (they manifest as something between telephone wires and rails that you ride on Sonic Adventure-style, from island to island). Surrounding the land, there’s a poisonous gas (a world-ending aether) that keeps traversal strictly controlled.
The islands are lonely, lonely places. There are plenty of signs that that aether has left the world barren and hastily expatriated — abandoned houses, overgrown gas stations, roads torn up with pieces of highway sticking haphazardly out of the ground. It’s a multiplayer experience at its heart, but I’m not really playing that way. Going solo, it’s just me and the Drakes (and the rare birds that have set up shop for trading). I’m just one chick, with her weird, adorable little pets, against the world.
This is what’s grabbing me the most — an interplay of a satisfying gameplay loop: explore, craft, defend, upgrade — and a lonely, bittersweet wanderlust. The music really sells the vibe — especially at night. There’s a softness and vulnerability to it, and some of the nighttime wandering reminded me of early moments in Outer Wilds, which, despite my issues with that game, remains a brilliant piece of design with an incredible, wistful feel.
In both, I’m running around, with some idea of where to go next, certainly, but also a prerogative to explore and uncover a few secrets. There’s an ability to get lost in this gently haunting world.
The Molasses Flood is good at this, so far — this is only their second game as a studio, but their first, The Flame in the Flood, was another survival game with a human protagonist and an animal companion in a harsh but beautiful world. In that game, you traversed a flooded world in a rickety boat, also visiting islands and scouring them for craftable items. The music and animation did a lot of heavy lifting there as well, but it’s very much the interplay that makes both experiences work so well.
I’m sure I will try Drake Hollow with others at some point, and I did get a small taste of that at PAX in February. But I like this as a solo excursion so much that I may not try it with friends for quite awhile. Maybe it’s the current circumstances or my own tastes, but it feels appropriately satisfying to wander — and defend my little buddies — all alone.
Disclosure: I’m friendly with a number of the developers on the team.