Drake Hollow (Xbox One) Review – Earmuffs On!
With an aesthetic graphical world straight out of Fortnite, even down to smashing trees and cars to get resources, Drake Hollow is another in a long line of recent crafting survival sims, this time with the added twist that you’re not only responsible for your own survival. You must create and maintain a little village full of little plant people, and defend it against constant threat. You must find resources to feed them rather than yourself and keep them happy and content. Drake Hollow combines a management game not unlike the Sims, with the strangely popular crafting/survival/resource-collecting genre – think games like Don’t Starve, Grounded, or Sub Nautica.
When your not caring for your village, you must venture out into the Hollow and gather the resources to make it run. Procedurally generated and different for each player, this area must be tamed to serve the needs of your village. And then because it couldn’t possibly be a peaceful game with a little plant village, you are attacked every fifteen minutes or so by a group of feral beasties. You must level up your village, and your Drakes, create power, automate resource management, and eventually start to really defend them with electric fences and mounted crossbows.
It’s a gameplay loop (gather, craft, feed, defend, repeat) that could easily hook anyone looking for a survival crafter game, with a bit of challenge, and it seems well suited to kids. But let’s take a look in a little more detail.
I chose a female lead, so I will refer to ‘her’ but feel free to pick any generic nameless lead character you like, male or female. And any hairdo too. So, life ain’t going too well for our lead, she’s been dumped (probably because she has no personality or character whatsoever) has got bills piling up and has lost her job. She’s upset and thinking what’s the point of it all. Perfect timing then for a magical wise crow to invite you to take a step through a portal in the woods into another realm. You’ve got nothing holding you back, and perhaps the possibility of finding meaning in life once again.
Enter Drake Hollow, a magical island archipelago, separated and choked by gaseous corruption and thorns. It used to be populated by Drakes (more on them in a second) but they have been driven away, or underground into hibernation to escape the corruption of the Ferals, and a sinister overarching evil referred to as Terminer. After waking a few Drakes and starting a village from scratch, it’s your job to gather resources, build the village, and defend it periodically from attack. There’s not much more than that to the story, which felt like a missed opportunity. The game concerns itself with the minutia of resources, food, water, and bedding, and has decided it has no place for plot, which is in keeping with much of the survival crafting subgenre. It relies instead on its gameplay loop to keep you entertained and coming back hour after hour.
Drakes are lovable little plant people, cute Pixar eyes bundled up in ferns and with little leaves for hair. Just look at that little guy! I’m guessing the name comes from mandrake root, the strange root that looks like a person – you may remember it’s screams kill people in Harry Potter, hence the earmuffs – rather than any rapper who sings about how much God favours him (you may still need the earmuffs) or any relation to Naughty Dog’s famous explorer. Drakes are relentlessly cute, and by far my favourite part of the design of Drake Hollow. Yes, they are cute enough to name the game after.
Drakes are your workers, capable of building everything you need to care for them first and foremost, and to defend their new home from the Feral, the corrupt Heartless-looking enemies. Each Drake has a name, and every one of them sounds like R2D2’s musings on life. They also have little personalities, and their own stats, although it’s not as complex as that begins to sound. Think of them as somewhere between Pokemon and Sims.
The objective is to maintain and manage a little village/hollow full of Drakes, and to defend it against the Feral. You need to manage their food, water and entertainment meters, and in return they will help you to build buildings and repair your defences. They can literally die of boredom, so entertainment is just as important as food and water. I mean I get it, if I didn’t have my Netflix and Game Pass subscriptions, I’d die too.
They can also evolve like Pokemon. Each has three stages of life, and the more you grow them the more they are worth in the village, the more charms they will make and the more buildings you gain access to. The game hits the sweet spot of giving you stuff to do and build on a pretty constant basis, rarely if ever leaving you with idle time or without something to gather.
Drakes also give out buffs for melee combat, but the menu option there is strangely confusing. If you want the buff from the Drake, you click ‘remove buff’. This means every time you want a buff, you have to click something that says remove it. Its confusing. What’s actually happening it that you are removing the previous buff you already had, but it’s an odd word choice.
So you want to build your Drake village? You’re going to need resources. Lots of resources. The main gameplay of Drake Hollow is running about the islands of the Hollow, fighting off feral as you go, and smashing every tree, collecting every plant, and hitting everything in sight to get building materials and food and drink for your Drakes. Return to base and you dump all the food into a pot for the Drakes to sort out for themselves, while you build, at first, things like beds, and yoga balls, and crafting tables. The game starts with a number of single-use items which I really found annoying, ie the drakes sleep in the bed once and then they need another bed. This mechanic eases you in, but for what? I could be eased into the build system with a real bed. I’m not a cretin.
Your village can level up with the number of Drakes and buildings you have, giving access to more options to build. But then it adds another unnecessary layer to this by demanding you collect generic schematic items on your travels to unlock each of whatever that rung of the village build options are. Your little crow friend tries to guide you, but his advice is not very useful and you will end up working most things out for yourself.
It’s nice that every time you’ve got to build something, there’s no grid. You can just place it anywhere. It’s like your base is Powerpoint, rather than Word. I utilized this, building things clustered together when I could, and why not? It’s pretty novel.
Gathering resources is by far the most onerous and boring part of Drake Hollow, probably true to life. Each island requires a crystal to traverse the gaseous corruption, or you can set up cumbersome waypoints to zipline over the morass. The travel isn’t cumbersome but setting them up is. They are costly, and you have to place each one individually, and then connect it manually with another waypoint to establish the zipline. You will not have the resources to connect your actual village to these waypoints for a while, only over rivers of corruption. And by the time I’d set these up, I’d lost half the time I had until the next invasion. And for what?
Resources apart from natural ones like trees and bushes, don’t generally restock, so you are forced to roam further and further afield, away from your village. Come back without much to show for your trip, and you will find your drakes have eaten everything, and its going to be famine season shortly. This type of gameplay loop might appeal to some, but I generally found myself more stressed by it than not.
You’d be forgiven for thinking the best thing to do is to find as many hibernating Drakes as possible and set them all up in your new village, but a word of warning. Each Drake is a flipping insane resource drain. They eat and drink constantly and you have little hope of keeping your cauldron filled with food and juice-boxes if you are also trying to find your way around the islands. I spent a long time trying to work out how to get any stone resource, to build a self-replenishing well that would have kept them watered at least, but alas while I was looking for it, in vain for a remarkbly long time, more than one Drake died of thirst. They are also ravenous for the entertainment, and I don’t think I ever built enough weird dolls for them to actually be satisfied.
I don’t want to see my Drakes die, and this imbalance breeds contempt. In order to avoid this sad pitfall, I took to leaving the little cuties in the ground when I found them. I kept just one solitary Drake in my village, who on its own could build what I needed, but at the same time did not require more than I could procure in terms of resources. His solitary food and water needs were manageable, and though he likely needed other types of entertainment on his own, the Netflix subscription was enough. I was free to roam, without constantly needing to tend to him. This only changes when you’ve exhausted the area and can wake them all up.
But therein lies a broken design choice. The game wants you to build up a village, populate it and care for it, but it does not give you the resources to do so. The tutorial does not give useful information, and barely the third level of your village demands a number of stone items, while never giving you the ability to naturally procure stone. I know trees equal wood etc, but a glossary or notes of some kind would have been useful, telling you what things to smash to find what resources.
Let’s also cover combat. Without a lock on, and with pretty basic controls, combat in Drake Hollow is not fun. This simplicity makes the enemy feral difficult to deal with, especially in the early game. The little ones bounce into you forcing a block before you can attack, but generally bounce off your block just out of range of a quick counter. The larger feral are slow enough to be dodged, and killed with relative ease, but the slinking dog/tiger looking ones will drive you nuts. They not only howl and spawn two of the little feral every chance they get, encouraging you to kill them fast, but when you approach, they throw out three grenades that will take somewhere close to half your health almost immediately. You are forced to play a frankly annoying game of cat and mouse with them, trying to catch them out of range of their grenades, but before they spawn more feral. My kingdom for a lock on.
You will probably die a fair bit in Drake Hollow because of the way combat works, rather you’re your own skill. But there’s not much consequence when you die. You are given the choice to either respawn back at the village, with resources intact, or ‘spiritwalk’ from base, back to where you died and pickup where you left off. The first option you can abuse to get back to base quickly, and the second is a mindless timewasting mechanic in a game full of them.
Drake Hollow is also quite a melancholy experience a lot of the time. Things are pretty quiet, and then you’ll get some sad and poignant strings to add to the atmosphere. There is one particular piece of music which is beautifully done, but its so sad and morose I didn’t want to hear it very often. Your Drakes will probably die, at least on your first attempt, and the world is empty of anything except feral and drakes. There are no people, no quests, no plot, and the player avatar is left to hold up what’s left, like sand through their fingers.
Drake Hollow on looks alone will appeal to kids, and with good reason. It looks like a map straight off Fortnite, and those little Drakes are the cutest plant creatures I’ve ever seen. Though it starts badly with unnecessary tutorials and builds, and a lack of explanation of key items you’ll need, as you get further and more skilled, you will find the base-building aspects more and more interesting. Building electric fences and crossbow turrets for the Drakes to man was good fun.
The trouble is that getting to that point is an arduous and unrewarding slog through a game mired in mediocre crafting and resource gathering, tied to nothing more complicated than smashing at trees. Waypoints and traversal are time-consuming and do not offer the kind of reward for effort necessary to bother with them. And when all is said and done the only reason you are building all this is to stop a bunch of enemies tearing it all down every fifteen minutes. I fail to see the reason to keep playing.
Odd design choices and an unsatisfying yet incredibly demanding gameplay loop mar a game that boasts the cutest plant people in video games. A crafting and survival sim with added base-building, Drake Hollow is not compelling enough to justify the demands it makes on the player or the lack of reward even when you manage to do what it asks.
Drake Hollow is launching on Xbox One (review platform) and PC via Steam on August 27th, 2020.
Developer: The Molasses Flood
Publisher: The Molasses Flood
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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