Drake Hollow (Xbox One) Review – Work/Life Balance

Drake Hollow is outrageously compelling, even when frustrating. It has been a hot minute since I’ve walked away from a game out of annoyance only to come back to it immediately. It’s not always fair but it is consistently engaging, offering up a buffet of mechanics and systems that interlock in fun ways but desperately needs some balancing.

The Molasses Flood has packed a lot into Drake Hollow and it begs to be explored and understood. It’s a strangely sad take on an adventure title, one that quietly hides tales of isolation and loss behind adorable plant friends and frontier living.

There are problems but look past them and you’ll find a unique game with some lovely little secrets.

Drake Hollow Review

As I extensively noted in my preview of the game, Drake Hollow dances with ideas much bigger than its britches would imply. The game shirks off the typical trappings of ‘chosen one’ stories and instead opts for a much more subdued narrative, most prominently seen in the opening. You play as a young adult lost in a storm of failing relationships, financial hardships and the overwhelming existential dread that accompanies both. It’s a shockingly melancholic way to begin a grand adventure, conveyed beautifully through storybook-style animated sequences that pop up throughout the game to progress the story.

For lack of a better term, it has an unmistakable vibe to it – your town is polluted by factories, its landmark is a white painted church on the street corner, you sit endlessly scrolling through notifications in what looks like the place you come to get away from it all. Your small, Americana town life feels entirely on the verge of collapsing when an other-worldly crow appears from the woods with the ultimate offer of escape – travel to a far off land and become a bonafide hero. 

After the requisite character customisation, which is largely unremarkable except for its hugely welcomed decision to ditch binary gender options and instead allow you to just build the character you want to and run with it, you’ll be whisked away to The Hollow. An ethereal realm contorted by malevolent magical forces, The Hollow is home to a race of adorable plant creatures named the Drakes who need your assistance.

Drake Hollow ambitiously interlocks several systems, each alone normally would be fleshed out to an entire title. You’ve got your settlement building sim, with its resource management, build limits and resident needs bars. Combat encounters that require a combination of melee and ranged attacks using weapons with degradation bars and individual stats. Collectathon monster-catching of the Drakes, caring for their needs and evolving them into stronger versions with dozens of crystal types. Then you still need to navigate and explore The Hollow itself. 

I imagine The Molasses Flood slapping the roof of Drake Hollow proclaiming how much gameplay you can fit into this bad boy. Remarkably it does, mostly, fit; the game struggles under the weight of the systems in the backend but hums along with engrossing energy until then. Progression is measured in seasons in The Hollow; you’ll start in idyllic Springtime and will cycle through Summer, Autumn and eventually, Winter as the narrative progresses alongside. Each season brings something new to the systems, with varying degrees of success. 

Spring is a relatively chill time and serves as a fantastic introduction to Drake Hollow. Upon arriving in The Hollow, the Wise Crow will give you a basic list of things to get done, culminating in climbing a local lighthouse to scout out the surrounding islands for Drakes and supplies. During this time you’ll get a handle on the camp building and Drake needs management, a deceptively simple premise that can quickly get away from you. Each Drake needs a certain amount of food, water and entertainment, along with a place to sleep. The older the Drake, the higher the needs. 

Meeting these requirements is your number one priority and, potentially, your number one headache. The camp building is akin to Fallout 4’s somewhat awkward placement system, slapping down prebuilt structures as you control the camera and your character in the same space. It’s a fine way of handling it but missing some key features, such as the ability to move something once it has been built or snap together fences and walls. Much like the other issues in the game, these gripes only really rear their head in Winter but more on that in a bit. 

Construction use resources and also take up some of your strangely limited build allowances. The bigger the structure, the bigger the cost to your build limit. It’s a system you’ve seen before but I’d be lying if I said its welcome here. As the seasons roll on and your Drakes age up, their needs will grow, requiring larger and more advanced contraptions in the camp. On top of this, you’ll also need to budget for defences against a constant cycle of raids. These constructions chew up your budget, and resources, at a profound rate in the late game and I found myself frustrated when trying to balance it all.

The game’s antagonistic threat, the Ferals, will attack your camp once every half hour or so and as the game progresses the attacks do too. The first few seasons are easy to fend off by yourself; just plop down some fences and run the perimeter with your trusty thwacking stick. But later seasons become a nightmare for players going it alone as raids will quickly demolish your hard-earned structures. By the time you gather up resources and rebuild to balance out your plummeting needs meters, the raid alarm will sound again and the cycle begins anew. 

It’s a disheartening loop to get trapped in, especially in the last season of the game. Up until winter, things are progressively more challenging and it makes the thrill of defending your little home all the better. But without co-op buddies to help, the last leg of the game feels wildly unbalanced and unfairly punishing. Fortunately, there is a sandbox mode on the way if you just want to enjoy these systems without the story pressures.

Nabbing more resources, and finding new Drakes to join your family, means venturing out into The Hollow. These procedurally generated islands are surrounded by a toxic miasma and typically occupied by roaming bands of Ferals, supply trucks and general little story notes to find. The supply trucks will send a steady stream of building materials back to camp provided you hook them up to your waypoint system. These form beams of magic light that you can ride to and from your camp in a system that reminded me just slightly of Death Stranding. The highest of praise, coming from me. 

Taking out packs of Ferals will net you more crystals to feed to your Drakes to make them grow. Along with the resources for building, the crystals make the laundry list of items you’ll need to collect quite lengthy. This does add some welcome depth to the systems but the crystals are difficult to discern from one another and a clearer UI or menu to indicate which Drake needs what would have been nice. Still, once you adapt to what Drake Hollow does here it becomes an addictive loop of exploration, hunting and gathering, and then domestic bliss with the little dudes. 

The Hollow itself is strangely beautiful but often recycles assets and begins to feel less distinct a location as the seasons wear on. The procedurally generated map is great for replay value but, of course, it also sacrifices some degree of balance in island locations which can cause some issues. Some maps will cluster the islands close by, allowing you to form a proper network of waypoints, while others will leave far too much of the miasma between them. The waypoints can only connect to one another within a certain distance and if the toxic ocean is too wide then you’re out of luck.

It is, at the very least, visually quite interesting. It lifts elements from your small town, like the church on the corner or quaint homesteads, and warps them with surreal vines and sickly glows. The art direction is clean and full of little quirks that pair nicely with its almost toy like plastic sheen. Backing this up is a score that uses melancholic strings and low, earthy tones to embue the game with a sense of danger and rural realness.

Those map issues are not a deal-breaker, and ultimately a small price to pay for a fresh map every playthrough, but Drake Hollow’s frustrations are all of that same ilk. Minor things here and there that culminated in a less than stellar final leg of the game. Which is really only as frustrating as it is because the run-up to that final portion is genuinely a blast to play. Combat is pretty straightforward, your standard assortment of light and heavy attacks, blocks, jumps etc, but it has a satisfying whack when you smack a Feral. It also serves its purpose well enough in those early seasons because the raids aren’t yet overwhelming you with odds that require more precise combat mechanics. 

There is also a minimalist narrative you can explore through various notes you’ll find around the islands. It is, thankfully, in lockstep with the game’s overall melancholic tone and weaves an interesting, if light, little story. The Wise Crow also has different talking animal buddies that you’ll get to know across the seasons and while they are all visually super fun, none of them gets anywhere near as much time to shine as their avian leader. Fortunately, the Drakes themselves are more than enough company for your wayward soul and you’ll quickly form attachments to them. 

They are often visually distinct, with plumes of feathers or flowers growing larger and larger from their weird little faces. They chitter-chatter with indistinct sounds and play with the toys you provide. Beyond gathering crystals for you to use in construction you can also accept buffs from them, ranging from combat benefits to camp boosts. I had my favourite little trio who gave me lightning powers, HP regeneration and the chance for materials to not be consumed during item crafting. I do wish I could have named them myself but again, small gripe with a largely wonderful system.

It all leaves me with the impression that Drake Hollow deserves to be played with friends, or at least strangers on the internet. Which is a mixed feeling to sit with because so much of the game’s tone and aesthetic lends itself well to a solo experience. You feel lonely out in The Hollow, you feel overwhelmed, but you fight to protect you little family and the rewards are, in turn, that much sweeter. Coordination with other players would easily fix some of the balancing issues but it’s a shame that a game with such a strong sense of isolation would require that as much as this does.

And yet, I can’t deny how much fun I had with Drake Hollow. It’s not perfect but it is earnestly trying and I’d applaud that for effort alone, nevermind that most of it truly works for me. Ideally a more balanced single player mode will eventually manifest, because it deserves it, but for now I can think of worse places to widdle away the year than in Drake Hollow.


Drake Hollow was reviewed on Xbox One using digital code provided by the publisher.

Drake Hollow
Reader Rating2 Votes
8.8
Pros
Compelling world
Fun interlocking systems
Adorable art direction
Lengthy campaign
Cons
Single player needs balancing
Overly simple combat
7.5
Overall

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James Wood
James literally cannot recall a time in which video games weren’t a part of his life. A childhood hobby turned adult fascination, gaming has been one of the few constants.

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