Drake Hollow is a perfect lesson in “Don’t let the wrapper fool you, friend”. The latest offering from The Molasses Flood (the creators of the beloved The Flame and the Flood) has a surprisingly emotional underpinning and mechanical depth buried not too deep under the surface of a played-out genre.
It’s a multiplayer, horde-based, fort building open-world title overflowing with mechanics you’ve seen a thousand times before and yet it manages something unique within these trappings.
I’ve been playing around with the game in the first biome and after a few hours exploring the world, establishing a village and fending off the wilderness I find myself compelled to dive deeper. It’s not a genre I particularly care for, nor mechanics I would naturally gravitate toward but Drake Hollow‘s cutesy aesthetics and simple gameplay loops disguise an experience that has the potential to be something special.
Drake Hollow Preview
Your character sits alone at the edge of town in a park that is something between picturesque and mildly depressing. The small town with the white-painted church on the street corner and the factories churning smoke into the air form a suffocating Americana backdrop to your respite. You have your head bowed, phone in hand endlessly scrolling through a slew of notifications and messages – bills are overdue, mum just wants to talk and finally, your partner thinks you should see other people.
From here you’re kicked into a character creation menu that, while slightly limited, still offers a decent variety of options. Most notably it opts to not include a traditional gender setting, allowing you to simply customise your avatar with any combination of traits you see fit. Once you’ve decided on your hipster-chic getup, as if gifted from on high, a reason to not go back to your real-life emerges from the woods. A spectral crow wearing a golden clock and green glowing eyes greats you with a literal new path to take, a doorway to walk through in search of something else – some kind of purpose.
It’s difficult to tell with some games whether or not you’re reading too far into the imagery they often only toy with but Drake Hollow hums with awareness. Nothing in this introductory sequence felt casually deployed – this game wants you to understand exactly why this young person would so willingly abandon reality for a quest that we are told immediately may not offer a way home. I can’t know for sure whether or not the game will make good on the existential promises made by this section but there are hints in the gameplay that suggest it might and I’m more than willing to go along to find out.
Once through the doorway, your new avian friend, the Wise Crow, welcomes you to the world of The Hollow, a strange land that is under threat from malevolent magical forces. The Hollow is also home to a race of vegetable folks who would love nothing more than for you to do your Chosen One schtick and help them rebuild their home.
It’s not the most original set up but most fairytales have humble beginnings and Drake Hollow feels oddly familiar to those stories from your childhood. Only now you’re the hero and maybe the monsters aren’t just the scary beasts outside.
Fortunately, your reason for building up your village and defending the land is outright fucking adorable. The Drakes are somewhere between Pokemon and Pikmin, just individual enough for you to form attachments and consistently cute across a few visual variations. These little dudes will bring you building supplies, offer stat bonuses, heal your wounds and do a whole host of other useful things for you. They’re far from helpless but still need you to do the bulk of the work around the village, namely fending off attacks from The Feral.
These vicious creatures roam The Hollow and come in many shapes and sizes for you to deal with. From time to time they will even attempt a raid on your village, attacking your hard-earned work stations and Drake amenities if you don’t rush back home and put a stop to them. Combat is simple but weighty, each hit lands with a satisfying thud as you send a Feral flying. Jumping before swinging produces a ground pound while blocking and dodging can be used to maneuver around faster enemies. It’s all pretty standard but not without its charm. If I could pick on one thing it would be the lack of a lock-on mechanic to better keep track of enemies during horde attacks but even still, I never had a bad time engaging in these skirmishes.
Once The Feral has been dealt with it’s right back to gather resources to further build up your burgeoning village of Drakes. The game instantly drops you in and out of a build mode with the Y button, giving you access to your blueprints and construction placement. Again, much like the combat, it’s nothing you haven’t seen before but it is smoothly functional and the little moments of joy derived from building new things for your Drakes never got old for me. The Drakes in your village need a steady supply of food, shelter and entertainment to keep them satisfied and this needs management system provides a nice reminder of who you’re doing all this for.
It’s all tied together with a clean but slightly indistinct art direction that is more serviceable than wondrous. Though special exception needs to be made for the character design, both in speech bubble portraits and in-engine models. From the Drakes to the various bird NPCs around the map, Drake Hollow’s cast is impossibly charming and uplifts the rest of the game’s drabby visuals. Much like the character art, the game’s soundtrack is a total vibe complete with soft violins and rousing adventure themes.
I haven’t dabbled in the multiplayer yet but I can think of no better way to underline the game’s potential themes of isolation. Retreating from a cruel world in which you feel displaced to find comfort in both a new family of little critters that need your protection, as well as joining forces with others fleeing the same emotional turmoil could be an effective trick if Drake Hollow can pull it off. The wilds exist to be tamed, and reclaimed for the Drakes, and who better to tackle that with than found family?
So despite some minor gripes with style and combat, I came away from my time with Drake Hollow compelled to see more of it. I want to help my little plant-based buddies to rebuild their world. I want to swing guitars and other makeshift weapons at invading hordes. I want to know if my character finds their way back home.
I want more of Drake Hollow and can’t wait to see what it offers me next.
Drake Hollow was previewed on Xbox One using digital code provided by the publisher.