Nova Drift – Early Access Hands-on Preview

Many people look to the past for inspiration, and the same is certainly true for video games. From remakes of older titles to spiritual successors, Nova Drift is one such game, taking clear inspiration from the classic Asteroids and being Kickstarted back in 2017.

We were recently given entry to Nova Drift’s Early Access, specifically version 0.20.11. Despite the game’s release being over six months away, the game is already shaping up to be something special.

As mentioned, the core gameplay is heavily inspired by Asteroids. For those unfamiliar, you control a spaceship that “drifts” even after you stop thrusting. Combined with a simple laser, you blast asteroids and the occasional flying saucer to survive as long as possible. Flying off one side of the screen brings you back onto the other.

Nova Drift turns this concept up to eleven with some very curious additions. “Roguelite” and “action-RPG elements” sound like words you would rarely hear in a classic arcade game (arguably roguelike being closest but I digress), yet they fit in perfectly here.

Your ship can be customized in three ways; the ship itself, the shield, and its weapon. These in turn can be fitted with “mods” earned by killing enemies and leveling up. Seven random mods (based on what you have already unlocked) can be selected each time you level up, and your limited number of re-rolls can be spent to change the selection.

This is where the game’s real meat lies. Modifications can have very noticeable effects, and are far more than just extra damage or better health. You can increase the blast radius of weapons, shoot more projectiles at once, increase the effective radius of your shield, increase your resistance to crash damage, or unlock drones to perform various tasks.

Each type of mod has an associated tree with two 2nd tier upgrades and one final one. As long as you have one of the second-tier upgrades, you can jump straight to the all-mighty final tier mod. This allows you to quickly generate the “build” you want, even if some mods are only available once your ship hits a particular level during a run. Though focusing purely on offence can be risky.

The types of mods you select alter what sort of mods you see in the future. So if you keep selecting mods for weapons, you will eventually not see power-ups for shields or your ship. Of course this can be remedied with re-rolls, and helps introduce a risk-reward for getting your desired build up quickly, at the cost of missing out on other mods that can keep you alive.

The modifications only work so well because of the ships, weapons, and shields on offer; not to mention the insane possibility for synergy. While there are a few combinations that are not designed to be effective together (which is more than fine), here were some of my favorites.

You could take a ship designed for ramming, equipping it with a shield that burns nearby enemies and add a short range but powerful pulse weapon to devastate enemies you fly into. You can use mods that make crashing into enemies not hurt you as much, but also upgrade the shield to do more damage and deal a burst of additional damage when it breaks. You can even gain a mod that heals you while an enemy is burning.

Missile Volley slowly builds up missiles over time, then launches them all at once while fired. So, why not use a Stealth Ship that cannot be seen by enemies when its not moving or firing. Then you can use a few drones to pepper your foes while you lay in wait to fire everything. Maybe you even fancy sacrificing your own shield and giving shields to your drones, complete with all the effects that shield has.

You can also load yourself up with a rail-gun that fires a single high-powered shot, only to ramp it up with more projectiles in different directions, charging it up for more damage and unleashing three bursts on each shot. Or apply the same tactic to the grenade launcher with a few mods to increase the blast radius and scatter even more grenades when they detonate to turn the screen into a firework display.

My personal favorite was inspired by (rather, blatantly stolen from) the Steam Community- “The Vacuum Cleaner.” The Vortex fires a powerful singularity that sucks up foes for massive damage, but it can die out quickly once fired, and charging it for too long damages your own ship. That is, unless you focus on health, regeneration, and increase the vortex’ pull and damage. Then you can move towards foes like a controllable sun.

The various builds and the different discussions and ideas it can create is an absolute delight when combined with how quickly you can jump into another game on death. I hope the game’s development time continues to balance these mods and introduce new ones for different styles of play.

Some advanced strategies do involve rejecting initial choices of weapons/shield/ship outside of the default, granting an extra upgrade for mods. Several of these involve rejecting any of the unique shields in favor of better weapons. While it is a shame that rejecting part of the game is a viable tactic, there are also a few builds that reject focusing on weapons for turning the shield itself into a weapon of its own.

As you continue to play, you can unlock more mods to use for future runs. This can be sped up along with increasing your score with Challenge Mode. Technically these are also modifiers for the normal game, such as increasing how quickly enemies spawn, how strong they are, and starting at a later wave. These can be a real “trial by fire” and act as a great way to quickly learn the intricacies of enemies and bosses.

Super Mods also appear later on, only appearing once specific conditions have been met, such as having ten other weapon mods or a fully upgrade drone-based mod tree. These help synergize with your tactics even better, but they take a while to unlock with repeated playthroughs.

Waves of enemies and hazards are randomly generated, aside from a few select bosses at particular waves. Otherwise, difficulty escalation is steady and fair. Bosses can pour out bullet-hell style projectiles, but being able to leave one side of the screen and re-appear on the other helps, and is expected of you.

With all this chaos, you will be glad to know you have a health meter and a shield meter. As should be expected, shields take damage before your ship does. However, your shield slowly regenerates over time as long as you are not taking damage. Combined with mods, its a nice way to stop you from dying quickly, but careful play is needed on later levels to avoid fire and give time for your shields or even health to regenerate.

The only noticeable bug was that in the leader-boards. While they mark up what weapons, ship, shields, and mods you took- there were some entries I had that displayed the default weapon (when I assuredly used something far more effective). It is a simple enough fix however. While there is always passionate debate over the balancing of mods and gear, any time I felt something was “useless” or “overpowered,” I was promptly proven wrong when trying new builds and later waves respectively.

The gameplay alone is incredibly solid, even at a work in progress stage. Instead of being at the whim of RNG, you can eventually gain enough re-rolls to choose what build you want to try out on your next run. With more mods and challenges drip-fed to you, there is constant incentive to keep coming back, even ignoring scoreboards.

The graphics take an approach that is simple but incredibly effective. With the exception of the gradually moving space background, all elements are incredibly minimalist, including the UI. Ships are made of simple shapes, yet are readily identifiable from one another. Everything is also bathed in bright colors (including your own ship, changing color based on the shield power chosen), making everything pop.

There is a slight bloom applied to projectiles, and a very prominent bloom on explosions. Later waves can get hectic, and there were very rare circumstances in which I lost my own ship. The solid black asteroids and twinkling white EXP orbs can occasionally be hard to see on the space background, but this was a rare occurrence. The game is not beautiful despite being simple. It is its simplicity that makes it beautiful.

The electronic inspired soundtrack is also sufficiently sci-fi and space-y, changing every few waves, and to match specific bosses. Tracks can be eerie one moment, and pulse-pounding the next. The heavy concentration and satisfying “pew pews” and “kabooms” can mean you can fail to notice a very well crafted soundtrack, which had a few beats that were memorable.

Some are claiming Nova Drift is a spiritual successor to Asteroids. While understandable, I almost think the comparison undercuts what the developers have achieved. They have kept the very core of their ancestor, ‘survive’, and utilized modern ideas to add more layers to it, ‘survive well’.

They have evolved so far past their inspiration, its hard to argue it does not stand apart as something new. If development keeps going strong, I think Nova Drift is gonna be something out of this world.

Nova Drift will release in late 2019 to early 2020 on Windows PC and Mac (both via Itch.io and Steam).

Ryan Pearson

About

Taking his first steps onto Route 1 and never stopping, Ryan has had a love of RPGs since a young age. Now he's learning to appreciate a wider pallet of genres and challenges.