The Drifter is gorgeous, unsettling, and wonderfully Aussie – Preview

Powerhoof's upcoming point-and-click adventure game was a highlight of the SXSW Sydney 2023 Games Festival.
the drifter powerhoof

The Drifter opens on a startling scene – one that proved to be wildly memorable, amongst the hustle and bustle of the SXSW Sydney 2023 Games Showcase. As this pixel art, point-and-click adventure from Melbourne-based studio Powerhoof begins you’re introduced to Mick Carter, a drifter aboard a mysterious train carriage, bound to return to a life he’s left behind.

But the trip proves surprisingly, shockingly dangerous when Carter’s train carriage is stopped, and armed men shoot his fellow drifting companion to death. Who they are, what their purpose is, and exactly what Carter’s been caught up in are unknown.

Likewise are the circumstances of his journey, and the encroachment of what appears to be a time loop – in later scenes, Carter is killed – only to be resurrected, just seconds before his death. It’s the fascinating start of what promises to be an ambitious, creepy, and gorgeous thriller.

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It’s not only the premise that immediately demands your attention – the game’s artwork and animation is equally compelling. The Drifter is brought to life in neon shades that illuminate darker spaces, with the interplay between light and colour painting gorgeous, gothic scenery to life.

the drifter preview gameplay
Image: Powerhoof

Perhaps most notably, black is used sparingly in the game’s colour palette, with shadows instead suggested by deep blues and greens, and purple sunsets. Street lights aren’t quite yellow, but shades of vivid green-brown. It makes for a complex aesthetic, with layers of detail worked into pixelated corners, and tiny character models.

In using chiaroscuro lighting – a common technique deployed in film – The Drifter also enables a dramatic emphasis on its action, with scenes playing out in focussed vignette style. On the train, the carriage is small and cloistered. Outside, streets filled with shadows loom. Each landscape is painted almost as a standalone artwork, with its personality shining through in minor details – an abandoned car with a door hanging off its hinges, an alley lit by the pink glow of a burning trash fire.

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In motion, The Drifter is strikingly rhythmic, with an animation that brings to mind the smoothness and style of Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective. Characters whip around the screen in sharp movements, with a lovely dynamism that keeps the action feeling sharp and fast-paced.

There’s a moment in the opening scene when Carter’s carriage companion stands up, and is immediately framed by the halo glow of the train’s open doorway. He pulls himself up slowly, then transforms into a bright shadow – before a hail of bullets hit his body, pulling it sideways, upwards, and across, in squeamish, gooey fashion. It’s a standout piece of animation, and what immediately drew me into the world of the game (you can spot the snippet in the game’s trailer, below).

It’s in the combination of its moving parts where The Drifter shines brightest. The complimentary nature of the game’s artwork, and its sleek animation. But also in its approach to writing. As developer Dave Lloyd told GamesHub during SXSW Sydney 2023, the game is largely inspired by classic horror literature and films, from writers including Stephen King and Michael Crichton, and directors like John Carpenter.

The game aims for unsettling and creepy, with supernatural undertones, and in its preview, proved to contain an effective balance of these elements. The Drifter takes a minimalist approach in its writing, through the characterisation of Carter himself (supported by very effective, Australian-accented voice acting), and restrained exposition.

Carter is a rough traveller, and a self-proclaimed drifter. Not unfriendly, but wary of the world. Tired. Looking for safe port. His inner and outer dialogue reflects this, with most of his conversations delivered in short, sharp sentences. With a game containing so many elements, and particularly such a striking art style, the writing naturally needs to take a back seat – and it appears Powerhoof understands this well.

The Drifter powerhoof
Image: Powerhoof

Later, at the SXSW Sydney Demo-lition Derby (hosted by GamesHub), Lloyd showed off an additional scene of The Drifter that typified this effective approach to minimalist storytelling.

In the scene, Carter awakens half-drowning, tied to the ocean floor by a heavy block. His inner dialogue in this scene is short and punchy – “Oh god. Oh no. Shit.” – and elevates the tension, with most of the scene playing out in a dialogue-less mad scrabble to find the right items within Carter’s inventory, to escape.

Read: How to deliver a potent game narrative quickly, according to Powerhoof

The scenery – the shimmying, semi-magical underwater world, illuminated by light dancing in from above – feels like the most important character in this moment, with the game’s artwork and animation given ample scope to shine, all while reflecting Carter’s unique predicament. Too much exposition, and the impact of the scene is lost. But with only brief snippets of panic, Powerhoof effectively conveys Carter’s dilemma, and allows the horror of his situation to rise to the surface. It’s a short, sharp, and very impactful interlude.

While our time with The Drifter at SXSW Sydney 2023 was only brief, it delivered in spades of personality, style, and panache, promising a gritty, horror-lite adventure packed with grim questions, and unsettling answers. We look forward to seeing more from this upcoming game in future.

You can now wishlist The Drifter on Steam. It does not currently have a firm release date.

Leah J. Williams is a gaming and entertainment journalist who's spent years writing about the games industry, her love for The Sims 2 on Nintendo DS and every piece of weird history she knows. You can find her tweeting @legenette most days.