June 20, 2022
Redbeet Interactive’s high seas survival game Raft has released as a final product after a healthy sail through Steam’s Early Access program. A traditional crafting/survival experience in a fresh and challenging setting, Raft surprises and delights as you progress through a novel string of narrative locations, culminating in a much larger experience than the game’s humble beginnings would lead you to believe.
Over 4 years of Early Access clearly does a game good, and Raft has seen its fair share of popularity throughout that time. With up to 8 players able to check out the game and play together, Raft was and still is beloved as an irreverent cooperative experience. What I wasn’t expecting quite so much is the depth of content found whilst travelling through the game’s various narrative locations. But more on this later.
Played from the first-person perspective, players will find themselves atop a tiny wooden raft in the vast open ocean. Thanks to disgusting human habits, debris consisting of wood, plastic, and more is plentifully bobbing along the top of the water. A consistent directional wind pushes your raft through the debris, allowing you to scoop up the resources and begin your crafting adventure. Basics like a hook will allow you to nab debris from further away, and a wooden spear will let you stab an always looming shark when it tries to attack your raft. Yes, the shark is horrifying. Yes, it’s relentless and always present. No, this game won’t be playable by somebody with a genuine shark phobia.
“Raft surprises and delights as you progress through a novel string of narrative locations…”
Catching fish off the side of your raft and purifying seawater will keep you alive as you continually amass floating junk, allowing you to move through a series of slowly advancing technologies and continuing to improve your raft. Sailing towards islands will allow you to explore the land by foot, finding new resources, making trades with trading posts, and occasionally finding notes that give context to the world you find yourself in. This gameplay loop of gathering, building, advancing, and surviving is the basis of Raft’s design. It’s functionally sound and a great foundation with which the developers have expanded via worldbuilding and a string of story islands.
Whilst more freedom could be given to the building mechanics, what’s on offer is more than enough to allow you to go from a crumby raft to a rather impressive ship, complete with sails, anchor, steering, engine, and plenty of decorative touches. Raft has that base-building aspect that certain gamers will absolutely adore. The benefit here is that your base is also your mode of transport and accompanies you everywhere. It cleverly or incidentally solves the issue of exploration in survival games, where movement is encouraged, but returning to a base of operations is also mandatory.
It’s true that a great deal of what you see is boring open ocean, though sailing from one destination to the next often has you fully occupied with crafting, navigating, cooking, or gathering materials. There’s a tranquillity to that repetition. Explore an island to find all the secrets it may hold, then make sail for the next island whilst utilising the benefits of those found secrets, before arriving at your next destination to start the loop again. It can also be a special moment when marine creatures, other than the pesky shark that follows you, appear around your raft. Some lovely art and animations have been incorporated into the game that brings a sense of life and wonder organically to the experience.
The shark itself brings the opposite of tranquillity. It can be a genuinely anxious experience when you need to dip into the water to quickly harvest a resource or swim to a destination. It can be even more harrowing when you accidentally fall off the raft and desperately attempt to jump back on. That looming threat is always there—like an omnipresent and particularly toothy recurring villain.
“That looming threat is always there—like an omnipresent and particularly toothy recurring villain.”
If I were to criticise the basis of Raft’s design, I’d point to some of the more traditional survival mechanics that at no point ever felt particularly fun. Needing to maintain hunger and thirst metres is probably the least engaging element of the Raft gameplay experience. It’s not egregious, and turning down the game’s difficulty made this less of a constant hassle, which is nice. Though, I do also wonder what these mechanics add other than creating busywork. The inclusion of more characters or a character creation tool at the start of the game would have also been nice. You can unlock more characters as you play, though in the initial stages of the game, you only get to select one of two options. Jump in with a bunch of other players and fully expect everybody to look identical outside of a slightly different coloured shirt.
Raft’s negatives are far outweighed by its positives, with the most impressive aspect being its story content. Initially, the options for islands available to you are somewhat limited, and you’ll definitely begin to see repeated islands with everything in the exact same position. This can be a bit of a shame, though once you start progressing through the game’s story content, you’ll start unlocking more and more destinations that widen the pool of islands available to you. Triangulating specific islands via coordinates takes you to some pretty fantastic destinations. I won’t spoil any of them with detail here, but the size and scope keep increasing with each new one you find, and suddenly you realise just how expansive and imaginative this world is. These destinations often contain their own puzzles and plenty of voice-acted dialogue. Whilst the dialogue may not in itself be astonishing, the exploration and puzzle-solving is really fun and just surprising. Not many survival games go the extra mile with this kind of progression of story content.
A great deal of content is available in the 1.0 Raft experience, though it’s true the title’s end-game is a little lacking. The final mission is satisfying to play and adds closure to the game’s story, but then you’re kind of left scratching your head as to what to do next. Survival games don’t typically have traditional endings, yet this one kind of does. The strangest part is that you’ll unlock the next and final tier of upgradable tools but have no reason to craft and use them because you’ve already finished the game. It’s true that you can choose to continue building up your boat and sailing to new islands, but there’s no driving goal or end-game content to keep the motivation going. Ultimately it’s a rather small gripe for a largely good game, especially as the depth of content on offer prior to that ending is still quite impressive.
- A unique and captivating survival experience
- 8 player co-op makes this a hugely enjoyable online experience
- Surprising depth of content
- Some really impressive narrative locations that help mix up the gameplay
- Hunger and thirst mechanics not that enjoyable
- A lack of end-game content
Though Raft may lack content once you’ve reached its closing moments, the lead-up to that point is a surprisingly delightful and novel experience. The basic gameplay loop of collecting and crafting keeps you busy, whilst a set of on-foot areas to explore keeps the gameplay ever-evolving and gleefully varied. An absolute solid co-operative choice, there’s an ocean of content to be found on this humble raft.