Review: Nova Drift

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Review copy provided by publisher via Curator Connect

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You’ve played Asteroids, right? ‘course you have, even if you don’t remember doing it. The combination of drifting through space with thrusters and a gun against waves of foes (or rocks) is timeless for a reason, because it provides that classic escalating challenge in a way you can never fully predict. Nova Drift understands this and ups the ante; in fact, it goes all in on its roguelike elements and cashes out big with them. Layering an incredibly deep and complex upgrade system over this classic gameplay and polishing it to a mirror shine is a recipe for chaos, and possibly the most fun I’ve ever had with this style of game.

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I hope you didn’t come looking for a story, because this is arcade score attack action all the way. You’ve got a tiny ship, drifting along in a gorgeous starscape, and stuff is gonna try to smash it. Blowing up asteroids or enemies with your pea-shooter releases XP stars that level you up, and at every level you pick an upgrade. Your first three are special and define your ship, allowing you to pick your gun, your hull, and your shield from a random selection of three (out of a lot). After that, you get seven upgrades to pick from every time you level, and they can enhance any of those elements or add new ones, such as drones or new thruster controls or even interact with the upgrade system itself. Picking solid upgrades for your build is key to keeping up with the waves of foes that will be assaulting your little craft.

I need you to understand how wild this upgrade system gets, because it’s 100% what elevates Nova Drift beyond a simple Asteroids clone. We’ll take weapon upgrades as an example, because those have effects that are easy to understand. Early on, you’ll have upgrades available that increase your rate of fire, or add extra projectiles to your attack, or make your shots explode. But each of those has three additional upgrades attached to them which you can take after taking the first, which build on the theme. The exploding shots one can be further enhanced to make the blast radius bigger or then make enemies explode in turn, for example. These mini-trees are arranged like a diamond, so after taking the first you can take either of the next two (or both) to unlock the last, which is usually a dramatic upgrade.

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These mini-trees exist for every skill except the basic ones that interact directly with game systems. That means your shield upgrades, hull upgrades, thruster upgrades, everything has trees you can go deeper into to enhance or change your capabilities. And you can add entirely new systems like the drones I mentioned, which let you generate turrets or tiny fighters or mines which then have multiple mini-trees of their own. And, AND, all of these upgrades have different effects depending on the initial choices you made regarding your ship! Imagine blast radius upgrades with cluster missiles, or spread-fire effects with a railgun, or shield recharge boosts on exploding shields, and you start to see the kinds of insane builds you can get going here. It’s all the fun of breaking something like The Binding of Isaac but in a much purer, more deterministic system.

Beyond the XP and upgrades you can also score rerolls to get a new set of upgrades to choose from, as well as boost items that give you a temporary supercharge to your systems. You also have the option of switching your base gun, hull, and shield at upgrade time from another random set of three, in case your new upgrades don’t gel with your initial decisions. Performing well in a run unlocks new upgrades and options that get thrown into the pool on later runs, as well as new difficulty modifiers that let you start on later waves or bump up enemy density. Even just unlocking everything will last you plenty of hours, to say nothing of the fun you can extract from mashing them into wild new builds and shooting for ever-higher scores.

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I will briefly assure you that the enemies you fight are varied and interesting, that the presentation is excellent, and that the sharp, stylized graphics and chill soundtrack make for a wonderful experience. But really it’s the builds I keep coming back for, the ability to make screen-filling cluster bombs or homing incendiary railgun salvos or shield auras that burn like the surface of the sun. Nova Drift is designed to let you get as crazy with your builds as possible, and reap the rewards of the chaos you unleash. And it’s still in Early Access if you can believe that, still adding new upgrades and tweaks and sculpting this great experience into a singular one. Really if you’re down for more Asteroids, for better Asteroids, or really just wanted to ruin a game of Asteroids with infinite splintering lasers, this is the title for you.

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