‘Raft’ is a quietly brilliant survival game

Except for when you're eaten by a shark

Unfinished Business is NME’s column about the weird and wonderful world of Early Access Games. This week, Rick Lane sails the oceans of an apocalyptic world in Raft.

After feeling deflated by the deeply uninspired Icarus last week, I was compelled to seek out a survival sim that makes a proper effort to do something different with the genre. I’ve been a fan of survival games ever since first punching a tree in Minecraft, but there are only so many trees you can punch before your knuckles start to fall off. I want survival games to bring me new experiences and challenges, not regurgitate the same Speedtree-powered forests where I wander around naked for a bit before being eaten by wolves.

Eventually, I drifted across Raft, which has been floating in Steam Early Access for several years now, but remains more popular than a cup of fresh water in a lifeboat. It turns out there’s good reason for that. While it may not be as big or flashy as Icarus, Raft has got ideas by the bucketful.

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As the title suggests, Raft puts you in the middle of an ocean with only a few planks of wood separating you from the briny deep. The world of Raft is actually post-apocalyptic, although you wouldn’t know it from the crystalline waters and occasional tropical islands that hove into view.

Like Subnautica, putting players in a non-terrestrial survival situation forces developer Redbeet Interactive to approach the mechanics of survival from a new angle. But Raft‘s take on aquatic survival is completely different from Subnautica. Whereas swimming is life in Subnautica, taking a dip into one of Raft‘s oceans will see you mauled to death by a massive shark quicker than you can say “We’re going to need a bigger raft.”

Raft. Credit: Redbeet Interactive.
Raft. Credit: Redbeet Interactive.

Hence, you need to find ways to stay alive without leaving your raft. Fortunately, Raft‘s virtual oceans are littered with the detritus of humanity, from planks of wood to bits of plastic to floating crates and barrels. In an additional stroke of luck, you have a hook and a rope with which you can harvest all this flotsam and jetsam. It’s an intriguing reversal of the base survivalist loop. Instead of seeking out resources, the resources come to you, and all you have to do is fish them out of the water.

It’s also really fun. When you judge your throw just right and snatch a barrel full of goodies out of the water, it feels amazing. Similarly, you’ll kick yourself when a misjudged throw means a resource-filled crate drifts beyond your reach. It’s a bit like playing hook-a-duck at a county fair, back before the pandemic obliterated the concept of fun. Only instead of winning a bag of sweets or a giant stuffed toy, your prize is that you get to avoid death.

Collected resources can be combined to craft a wide array of useful items. Initially, your concerns will be expanding your raft enough to build basic survival equipment, such as grill for cooking fish and a water purifier so you don’t turn into a big meat raisin. Once you craft the slightly out-of-place research desk (which looks like it should be nestled in the corner of a wizard’s study rather than lilting from side-to-side on your raft), you’ll gain access to a wider range of equipment, from nets you can hang from the side of your raft to catch passing detritus, to more advanced tools like axes and binoculars, and even totally unfeasible projects like a piano.

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Raft
Raft. Credit: Redbeet Interactive.

Elaborate musical instruments aside, the raft-building mechanic is also neatly thought out. Once you’ve sufficiently expanded the size of your raft, you can start to add additional floors, roof-coverings to protect you from the rain, hammocks to sleep in, and all manner of colourful decorations. The three most important additions, however, are sails, anchors, and a radio antenna. The first two enable you to direct and stop your raft, which means you can safely dock at islands to explore. Here, you’ll find wild plants like melons and pineapples to eat, as well as caches of resources left by other survivors. The radio transmitter, meanwhile, lets you begin to unpeel the layers of Raft‘s story, leading you to larger, more complex islands and slowly unveiling the causes of Raft‘s damp Armageddon.

There’s a whole lot to like about Raft. Not only is it mechanically innovative, Raft balances the challenge just right. There’s always something to do, but it never feels overwhelming, while the shark adds just enough threat to keep you on your toes without dominating the experience. My only real gripe is that Raft doesn’t feel as good as some other survival games. There’s a floatiness to movement and a sponginess to interaction that isn’t very satisfying, which makes the act of building and crafting feel a little flat.

Considering how well Raft has sold, I hope Redbeet Games takes some time to tighten up the audio/visual feedback, and provide movement and actions with a greater sense of weight and tactility. Beyond that, though, Raft is undoubtedly one of the better Early Access survival games out there, and when complete could well rival the likes of Subnautica and The Forest as one of the most fun and imaginative survival sims around.

Raft is currently available in Early Access on Steam

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