Drake Hollow

Drake Hollow is a survival-explore-y kind of game where you are some kind of YA protagonist. It’s really not clear how old you are, the overall proportions are cartoon for a teenager and your talking raven mentor calls you “kid,” but the “your mundane life is not going so well” scroll through the protagonist’s texts mention bills being due, which suggests someone who’s at least in their early twenties, and who knows how old the talking raven is. The basic plot setup is that you follow a talking raven through a portal to another dimension because you just might be the chosen one destined to save them from evil, and upon arrival you get your chosen one-ness confirmed after about twenty minutes. I don’t read a whole lot of YA anymore – does this still happen a lot in YA books? Or is this the work of someone who grew up on 2000s YA books and is now unironically recreating them long after their moment has passed?

Regardless of how up to date with current trends the plot is, it’s a functional vehicle for the gameplay, and the gameplay is okay. The combat is a barely competent (but still competent) Dark Souls-y blocks-and-dodge-rolls kind of thing, but the resource pressure for building the camp is surprisingly intense. Early structures fall apart almost instantly so you have to sprint for level 2 of the tech tree to get permanent shelter and steady access to water supplies, and you do not have a whole lot of time to muck about before your home base starts running out of food or water, constantly pushed to explore and harvest, especially with the additional time pressure provided by the raids.

The world you’ve been isekai’d into is Drake Hollow, inhabited by little plant people called drakes (no particularly draconic feature, so I have no idea why they went with that name) who are being terrorized by an off-brand Heartless shadow plague called aether under the command of something called the Terminer, who is a 17th century witch hunter twisted by dark powers and carrying on an endless hunt for the witch what used to keep this place running properly until she died and it all went to pot. Her familiars have called you in to finish her ritual to kill the Terminer.

You explore new islands to rescue new drakes, clear the islands of aether to free up supply chains, harvest resources to build buildings and keep your drakes taken care of, and save more drakes, putting additional supply pressure on your camp, requiring more buildings (and that you continuously feed in resources that your buildings can’t produce on their own, most notably, food – you can have farms, but they don’t produce seeds, so you must constantly go out and find more seeds). The off-brand Heartless show up to raid you periodically, so you have to defend your camp from being beaten up. So long as you keep your inventory of weapons up to par with the current strength of the Heartless, there’s no need to upgrade your camp defenses, as the Heartless will never attack in such numbers that they will deal significant damage to your resource buildings before you can run around and smack them all. If you have no defensive buildings whatsoever, the Heartless usually manage to smack two or three buildings down each raid, but replacing them is a minor hassle, not a major setback. It is, however, very satisfying to build a bunch of drake bunkers surrounded by walls and just hang out while the drakes pincushion all the Heartless with blowdarts.

There are four maps in the game, one for each season, starting with spring and going through to winter. Winter is the only one with distinct mechanics, though, as you need to manage warmth in addition to food, water, shelter (well, “shelter,” because it’s really just beds), and entertainment. The other three have different color palettes from one another, but the only change in gameplay is that the maximum amount of aether lying around on different islands for you to clear steadily rises. This can make assaulting some of the islands noticeably more difficult (high-aether islands spawn little plant-tentacle things that provide passive buffs to all the Heartless knock-offs on the island until they’re destroyed, which significantly complicates clearing the island), but the base building is the same no matter what season you’re in, and ultimately only a handful of islands are affected by the high aether counts, so you could completely ignore what little difference the seasons have if you want.

The progression in general is mediocre. Your main progression is through equipment, specifically, weapons. In the spring map, you mostly find “crud” weapons, you mostly find normal ones in summer, “nice” weapons in fall, and “serious” weapons in winter. I only saw one “epic” weapon drop in the winter map, and I didn’t end up using it because it was a balloon launcher and I was playing on a console controller, so the only ranged weapon that was usable in combat was the wide-cone blunderbuss. The quality tiers are the only differences introduced between maps, though. You start out scavenging improvised weapons like skis, pick axes, and hockey sticks, and you end up with the same stuff but now its name is purple in the UI and it deals an order of magnitude more damage. The only proper weapon in the game is a blunderbuss, presumably brought in from the 17th century with the Terminer, and the rest seem not only improvised but like things children might improvise for play – using skis from the garage and pretending they’re spears, that kind of thing. The (customizable, non-distinct) protagonists of the game are very probably underage (despite being responsible for at least some of their own bills, I guess?), with loading screens depicting the regular mortal world with missing persons posters and news articles about “missing kids,” but they seem like teenagers, not children, so it’s not really in theme that you never end up hammering nails through a baseball bat or using some of the more immediately lethal power tools you can find in suburban homes.

There’s a leveling system, but it was added as an afterthought and it shows. The levels take forever to accumulate and provide only very minor buffs, and the buffs are split between one- and two-handed weapons. I decided to spec into two-handed weapons, and any time my two-handed weapon broke, I lost what little benefit I was getting from my levels. The leveling system was apparently added post-release because people didn’t like that they couldn’t get any progression when playing multiplayer. Tacking on a number that goes up while affecting gameplay relatively little is a reasonably good solution to that problem, but it means the leveling can’t save the game from its poor equipment progression.

You can probably tell from the description of the equipment against the description of the plot that the theme is all over the place. The islands of the game have locations from the mortal world – specifically, it looks like a modern town-but-not-city and surrounding suburbs – pulled in and ruined, and you scavenge for supplies from those. The predecessor whose magic ritual you’re completing is a 17th century witch, and the main villain is the witch hunter who chased her into the invisible world somehow and then turned himself into a Heartless through unclear means (I didn’t bother finding all the lore and the internet has not recorded it, so maybe there’s an explanation in a note I missed). The two themes, then, are post-apocalyptic and witch-y, and while those aren’t contradictory and could’ve been made to work together, they are each fully separate themes that need fully separate systems to work together, and this game evidently didn’t have the time and budget for that.

You can gather herbs to make a healing salve and your bottom-tier camp structure is a giant cauldron into which you pour wild berries and juiceboxes to keep your drake friends fed and watered in the short term while you build up more sustainable gardens. The drakes are upgraded from infant to adolescent to adult to, the internet tells me, “mature” and “elder” and ultimately “retired” (I beat the game without advancing anyone past adult, but I also took it upon myself to rescue as many drakes as possible no matter how thin that stretched my resources) by the energy stored in various crystals. This is not a bad start to a witch theme, but it needs higher tiers of herbalism and crystal magic if it’s really going to deliver on that premise. As it is, you run out of new crafting recipes by the end of the first map. You keep unlocking camp buildings throughout, but your witch tricks pretty much cap out at the crystals tied to shoelaces and basic yarrow-and-skullcap healing salve that you start with. If the game had removed the weapon tiers and instead had you gathering herbs to make brews for combat buffs or hexes to slap on enemies (or blessings that weaken the corrupt auras of the Heartless, if you want a less hex-y and more blessed-be vibe) or whatever, the game would’ve felt more like it delivered on the witch theme.

On the other hand, if it’s going to carry the post-apocalyptic theme, the weapons you scavenge up should at some point include some really serious weapons. The game doesn’t need blood and gore or anything, it’s got a fairly kid-friendly presentation and that’s fine, but give us machetes made from lawnmower blades and tactical shotguns pulled from a police station and let the lack of viscera come from the fact that your enemies are all weird Heartless shadow monsters who don’t necessarily have any anatomy besides corrupt ooze. Make the maps distinct in that you start in the suburbs with relatively few dangerous things lying around, and end in industrial areas where you can find sawblades and sledgehammers. Also, let weapons be repaired. Weapon repairs are necessary if you’re keeping destructible weapons at all, really (destructible weapons are just a nuisance if they don’t come with some kind of resource pressure), but doubly so if you want this game to feel like post-apocalyptic scavenging.

There’s also those loading screens making it clear that you’re spending the better part of a full year in this weird islands-full-of-the-apocalypse witch world. You go missing, and there’s posters put up around town and a little vigil shrine thing with candles, and by the winter phase there’s snow everywhere and other posters for, like, missing bikes and band performances and stuff have covered up your missing persons posters as the town gives up the search and moves on. Presumably less so the immediate friends and family of the missing, although even that isn’t super clear. The customizable nature of the protagonist leaves the details of what’s going on very vague, and the ambiguous number of protagonists doesn’t help. This is the most compelling the plot ever was for me, and it doesn’t really get any resolution. You go home at the end, but it’s not specified what happens when you do. It really can’t be, since all your relationships are implied and the game would require an entirely new set of mechanics for it to be any other way.

Given that, it probably wasn’t great to draw attention to the fact that you are 1) missing from the real world and 2) remain so for about a full year (you are in a weird magic place and transition from one season to another by having your entire camp dragged through the earth by drake magic, so there’s no reason the passage of seasons couldn’t have been similarly magical). The loading screens are carrying a third theme, one of being missing from your own world, and unlike the witch-y and post-apocalyptic themes, this one just needs to be cut, because the game mechanics don’t have anything to do with it.

Bottom line, while all of Drake Hollow’s three premises could’ve worked together, the developers clearly didn’t have the time and resources to deliver on two of them, let alone all three. It would’ve been better off picking one to focus on.

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