SGF 2024: Aloft is a cozy Ghibli-inspired PvE-centric survival sandbox in the sky


When I first heard about Aloft while planning for Summer Games Fest 2024, I figured it would just be a cute multiplayer survival game; with a cap of eight players, it was no MMO, but it’d certainly a online multiplayer game some readers would be interested in. The trailers are fine, don’t get me wrong, but between the lack of comments and simple-looking previews, my expectations weren’t high.

My hands-off demo of the game at SGF last week, however, changed my mind. As even the devs note, floating island-inspired games have become more popular lately, but Aloft is more than that. It’s more than just a non-post apocalyptic, peaceful survival game. Just looking at it may make you think of a few other games and maybe a movie, but as a whole, Aloft is going where few other games seem to go – especially in the online games scene.

A safe space in a survival game

As odd as it sounds, Aloft is a cozy, safe-as-you-like survival game, according to the Astrolabe devs. Founder, CEO, and creative director Manuel Bergeron repeatedly mentioned the game being a safe space and keeping that vibe. Not only does that mean no PvP, but it also means combat in general is optional.

The mechanic supporting this philosophy is focused on sketchings built from “runes”: If you see an object and have a sketch book, you can copy the plans for it and make it yourself. This means if you’re behind your friends in progress, or you simply don’t want to hurt the corrupted (but edible) mushroom people who could attack you on some islands, you don’t have to – but you can still play the game to decorate and explore using your sketchings based on other players’ constructions and discoveries. There is even a narrative about traveling to the hurricane at the center of the world – but you don’t actually need to complete it personally to build your own home in the skies.

Of course, that isn’t to say the game is lacking combat; it’s certainly there for those who want it. You have combo attacks with each tool/weapon, you can learn new moves, and you can even deal more damage based on your momentum.

Inspirations and islands

While there are several games the developers were inspired by, they say they were primarily inspired by Ghibli movies, where people often have to work together to overcome and live peacefully with their environment. The floating island in Castle in the Sky immediately comes to mind, and while I didn’t see any robots, a lot of the themes and energy certainly harken back to that film.

This team also knows Aloft prompts immediate comparisons to Worlds Adrift and other titles. I myself liked WA as a concept but not in execution, and its untimely demise makes me think it’s safe to assume many players were the same way. And as in WA, exploring floating islands is the big thing in Aloft.

But your ship is also an island. That’s not entirely a metaphor, as you could create a floating island shaped like a ship and turn it into one, but this isn’t necessarily vehicle game. Your island – which you can safely transport from your game to other peoples’ games/servers – is a ship, housing, garden, and potentially leveling area all combined into one.

The last bit about being able to move your island from server to server is huge to me, especially as this isn’t a traditional MMO with dedicated servers. One of my most hated parts of survival games is playing one on someone’s server – someone who then disappears along with all my progress. It’s maddening and has been a reason I have left many, many survival games. But a PvE survivalbox where I can keep all my progress when I join friends in their worlds? Yes please!

So yes, you’ve got housing, with cozy tea sets and beds, but also rudders, sails, and a captain’s wheel to haul your island across the skies, if you want. It reminds me a bit of ECO when it comes to its theme of living in harmony with nature. The team doesn’t have a background in ecology, and there’s no science research group or government funding backing the game, but the devs did clearly their homework and came up with convincing ways to get people to care about their virtual world without getting too heavy. I’m thinking of themes like showing all mushrooms aren’t bad and are even ecologically necessary, regrowing forests as you chop down the grown ones, clearing diseased trees, that kind of thing.

I also must note that some of the explorable islands have been corrupted. That means you can fight mushroom people and the corruption that spawns to bring some peace to an island; until you do that, you can’t harvest any resources there. However, fighting the obvious corruption doesn’t mean it’s ready to be your new home/ship. In fact, you still can’t even grab berries from the island at that point. You’ll perform a survey with the Field Guide and see why that piece of land can’t be farmed yet; reasons can include needing more wildlife, more trees, or even decomposers, like “good” mushrooms, and other ways to repair the environment.

Once everything on the island is balanced, you can take a bunch of natural resources for yourself. Again, though, losing balance in nature means losing access to it. Even a good island can become corrupt if you over-harvest anything. So yes, there’s an environmental message here, but it’s not the whole game.

While there are no vehicles in-game (“for now”), you do have a glider you pick up during your starter experience; it guides you through ruins of a ship you wake up in, through the setting, and past a fresco that teaches you glider making. These frescos and other similar art left behind by the previous inhabitants of the world will teach you new things to make, including “ship” parts for your island.

The islands may naturally float, but sails (which are dyeable) can make it easier to move your ship up and down if you want. You can use sails not only to move your ship but to position it for better wind energy to help you produce more crafting goods to work with, as windmills can be used with a series of gears and pullies to power a stations, such as a saw mill.

Crafting looks unique too in that the UI reacts to what you have. For example, if you go to the crafting station with a new crafting item, and it can be combined with your other crafting mats to make something right now, the game hints at that with a yellow light that means “toss stuff together and pray it becomes a new thing.” It’s not scientific, but as with the production of baby sheep, you don’t always need to see the graphic details to appreciate the final result.

New world experience

Don’t let the above image fool you into thinking you’ll start off so well off with an epic ship at the ready. As in most survival games, you wake up in a new area not entirely sure how you got there with little more than the clothes on your back. There are bread crumb trails that lead you to the gathering tutorial, crafting tutorial, in-game lore about whoever was in this world before you, and yes, your glider. The base-game islands are all made by the devs, but you can eventually design your own islands or get designs from others to spice up your world.

Once you feel satisfied with what you’ve done on your starter island, you can glide on over to other nearby islands. The “momentum” I noted earlier with combat is not just for fighting but for flight, allowing you to move both faster and higher. Finding updrafts seems to be the easiest way to do this. Nicolas, the Astrolabe game designer leading my press tour, made glider control seem easy, but I’ve yet to try it for myself.

Unless you’re joining another player’s world that’s been developed, exploration is how you’ll unlock tech, not just through the frescos I mentioned above but also through knowledge stones and “anchors” you’ll find on other islands.

While you can do a lot of exploring with your glider, at some point, you’ll probably want to move your island to shorten your travel times. Currently, the devs say it will take “tens of hours” to move around, so leaving your island too far away may not be the best idea. For the moment, the game is pretty forgiving in terms of navigation, but eventually bumping into other islands will cause damage to your sails/platforms/etc., so maybe don’t use your island as a battering ram just yet.

You’ll also have to contend with eating. Yes, you can grow a garden, and yes, you can cook and eat, plus food gives bonuses, like doubling your health. But you also dream, partially based on what activities you’ve done before sleeping and partially on teas you can make and drink to help guide your dreams. Dreams are fun, but they also lead to perks. On the other hand, you may sometimes have nightmares, but that’s OK! Nightmares lead to quests to “overcome your fear” and have their own perks too.

Since you don’t have to worry about fellow players ganking you, one neat addition is a camera mode. This isn’t your typical screenshot option, though, as you can adjust the lighting, color, and even weather with other players present. It has no effect on gameplay, and no one can see those adjustments unless you show them the picture you end up taking.

The game is coming to Steam Early Access, so you can wishlist it or download the demo and try it for yourself. The plan is for it to be a buy-to-play title and maybe release some DLC later, depending on how things pan out. With so few games that are both whimsical and promoting environmentalism in a peaceful, world-building online game, it would be refreshing if Aloft did well.

MOP’s Andrew Ross is on the ground at Summer Game Fest 2024 – catch up on all our coverage!
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