Raft is basically Tamagotchi.

Your titular raft starts as a tiny useless baby. But feed it well (in the form of fresh wood and plastic) and take care of it (by repelling and repairing the constant shark attacks) and your little boatchild will grow up into a multi-tier omni-capable vehicle to be proud of.

But it’s not only your kid and your vehicle. It’s your prison and your salvation. Your home and your workshop. While there’s scope for exploring entire islands and the wide ocean, you’ll always be coming back home and expanding your floating fiefdom.

“Cosy water-adjacent property available for immediate purchase”

Fingers crossed for rum, or a Playstation 4

Dropped into the deep end

That’s all far in the future though. First things first, the game spits you out on a four-by-four platform in the middle of an expansive ocean. There’s nothing in your inventory but a grappling hook, and nothing to see except floating trash. Jumping in the water to grab a promising bit of flotsam results in a savage shark attack. So you hook the trash… and you hook the trash… and you hook it again…

Your inventory starts to get clogged with rubbish. You start to wonder if this is the whole game. Then the shark clamps onto one tile of your raft, toothy maw wrapped around a full quarter of your world. You flail ineffectually at his smug sharky face with your hook, only to watch him slip below the waves with a mouthful of raft.

Panicking, you open your inventory and see if you have anything that can help. With all the junk you’ve collected you craft a weapon to fight the shark off, and a hammer to rebuild and repair your boat. And while you’re at it you make it a bit bigger for some breathing room, and while doing that you notice an island in the distance. You don’t want to swim! But, you remember seeing a sail in the crafting menu, but you’re going to need to hook more palm leaves…

Throw it back! THROW IT BACK!

And that’s how the game unfolds. It’s a constant fight for survival against a hostile world and the forces of entropy – represented in this case by your hunger and thirst meters. Because what’s a survival game without the ever-present spectre of starvation hanging over you. It feels like you’re only one careless step away from falling beneath the cold waters.

Co-op: best case, another spear. Worst case, meaty distraction…

And if this was the whole game – scavenging, building, exploring the odd small island – it wouldn’t be too bad. I’d pay a tenner for a punt. Especially for the multiplayer, where an extra set of hands just gets plonked onto your deck. Frankly we need more co-op games where it’s really hard for your partner to immeasurably cock things up for you.

Diving into the story

Go bit deeper though, and you’ll find the first breadcrumbs of a grander narrative. Opening your journal reveals a picture of you and your family, as well as a few tips. One of which, more than halfway down, is:

“Follow any radio frequencies. If it’s still broadcasting, it’s above water.”

At first this is completely useless information. You can’t make antennae out of coconuts and wood (no matter what Gilligan’s Island told you). But you will find blueprints for antennae and a receiver as you explore, which need materials you might not have found yet.

Building these things is a challenge requiring competence with the game’s exploration and crafting mechanics. It’s a nice filter and carrot, ensuring your comfortable with the game and driven to get better, if you’re interested in following the plot thread.

At least one spaghetti colander was involved in the creation…

To avoid spoilers, the story is… interesting. It leads you across the ocean, uncovering snippets and clues left behind by those who went before you. It also gives you access to new blueprints, and islands far larger than any you will have landed on before. It also adds some much-needed variety in the environment.

Who left these shelters around? Did you come from a larger colony? Why are you out exploring?

However, the story is not yet finished. And if I’m being honest, it didn’t really excite me. I was driven more by the desire to find new weapons and ship parts, which did mean that once I’d done the final island (so far) I didn’t really have a reason to continue playing. I’ll definitely return with the next patch though.

Moody atmosphere

Dipping quickly into the aesthetics of the game – they’re fantastic. The cartoony visuals mean everything really stands-out and avoids the danger of anything entering the Uncanny Valley. Obvious love and attention has been paid to the details, especially how the light interacts with the environment, with moonlight and lantern light having very different feels.

Sound-wise, there are a few ambient tracks which really set the mood without becoming overbearing. It’s also really easy to know if there’s a shark chomping on your boat or a seagull munching your potatoes without seeing them, which is a great help.

The water’s great for a dip

I enjoyed my time with Raft. The mechanics were simple yet engaging, there was always something to do or something to worry about, and while the story didn’t really excite me it did provide enough impetus to push on. I think they could improve it by adding better variety to the randomly spawning islands, and adding the option to build on land… but that’s what I would like from the game, not what it’s trying to be.

Getting close to nature…

In conclusion, if you’re a fan of the building part of survival games and aren’t terrified by deep water, I’d suggest picking Raft up. Doubly so if you have friends interested in playing with you or you see it on sale. If you demand a compelling narrative and immersive storytelling you could give it a miss… but it’s certainly something I’ll be circling back to.

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