Developer: Instant Kingdom
In an age when games are often slapped together to make a quick buck on the strength of a licence, designed by committee or pushed out of the door in an unforgivable state, there's nothing like playing something that has been crafted with tender loving care. A game that's clearly been lavished with attention by its doting developers, who listened to every suggestion and piece of feedback they received throughout seven years of painstaking work. A game that injects real personality into its campaign, and feels like a labour of love.
A game, dare I say, like Driftmoon.
Husband and wife team Ville and Anne Mönkkönen have finally released their indie RPG following the best part of a decade's development. While Driftmoon might not be the most visceral eye candy nor thought-provoking interactive yarn you'll ever experience, it's a charming and wholesome little package that prioritises fun over flash.
Summoned back home by a mysterious letter from your father, you'll barely have time to take in the sights before being unceremoniously kicked into a well by your dear old mum. Something is badly wrong in the world of Driftmoon, and after making your way through the dismal oubliette, you'll emerge into a diverse range of colourful locales and fantastical environments in an attempt to save creation from a force of monolithic evil. It's a relatively traditional setup (barring the whole being kicked into a well thing), but you'll soon discover that the familiar selection of quests, sub-missions and are held together by some solid gameplay systems and real personality.
As a top-down RPG, there's certainly no shortage of combat. Driftmoon starts out simple with some click-heavy commands and easy encounters against chunky colourful foes, but as you progress, branching skill trees unlock a range of active abilities, while different weapons grant new tactical opportunities. When the difficulty mounts up, you'll stop playing it like a Diablo-style action-RPG and come to appreciate its more strategic nuances; pausing the action at any time to survey your options and deploy the right skill at the right time. Surprising depth underpins what appears to be a relatively primitive combat system at face value, though ultimately, you'll come to realise that Driftmoon isn't really about the hacking and slashing.
Instead, Driftmoon takes most of its cues from classic point & click adventure games. Notably of the Schafer and Gilbert variety. Numerous puzzles will test your brainpower and timing, while the main meat of the game comes from interacting with a plethora of bizarre and well-realised characters.
Within minutes of emerging from the well, you'll encounter a crab who's convinced that he's a pirate captain. Further in, you'll join forces with a cheerful firefly, an pompously egotistical panther and a poor chap who's managed to misplace his skin and organs, all of whom help in combat while providing some genuinely hilarious conversations. Witty gentle humour and a blend of deadpan delivery with downright silliness underpins swathes of hilarious written dialogue, and though there are a few cringe-worthy moments (perhaps due to the Finnish language barrier?), they're offset by plenty of smirks, clever pop culture references and the occasional belly laugh. Since choosing the correct dialogue options is almost a puzzle in and of itself, Driftmoon ends up feeling like a world populated with memorable characters, not just a vehicle for experience and loot. You'll never look at undead warriors in quite the same way again...
This sense of fun and personality funnels into the gameplay. You'll strive to collect a legendary weapon, which turns out to be a garden implement. You'll uncover the reason why 'Evil Berries' deserve their worrying moniker. Powering up your character and beating down enemies may be all well and good, but you'll keep playing to discover what silly situation you'll end up in next. Driftmoon feels like a blast from the past in many ways, a product of a time when studios threw the constraints of grit and realism out of the window in order to focus on fun.
Speaking of 'Evil Berries,' Driftmoon reveals hidden depths when it comes to its crafting mechanics. You need to eat in order to survive, and you'll constantly collect a range of components and foodstuffs that can be assembled and consumed to confer different effects. This deep and surprisingly hard-edged mechanic adds a new dimension to the experience, while giving players scope to experiment beyond the combat and dialogue.
In visual terms, Driftmoon is certainly no looker. Though environments tend to be pleasingly detailed, boxy level geometry and primitive character models betray Instant Kingdom's limited budget on a regular basis. Thankfully much of this is offset by goofy, chunky low-poly models and colourful art direction, not to mention the fact that the competent writing allows you to use your imagination to fill in the gaps. Substance, not style, is the order of the day - and I'd suggest that you try out the demo before making any snap judgements.
It's also worth noting that Driftmoon's original top-down perspective can be changed to an isometric camera angle by hitting Page Down, which was added in response to player feedback over the past few months. And what a difference it makes. The somewhat sterile tableau suddenly becomes a world, while characters become people (or animals, or skeletons, or insects... 'people' is a relative term here) rather than silhouettes. I personally switched between the two viewpoints as the situation demanded, using the original perspective to make certain combat encounters or puzzles easier to assess at a glance.
Driftmoon doesn't feature a New Game Plus mode.. but its abrupt ending is really just the beginning. [UPDATE: I have been informed that a character power bug made my endgame experience too easy. This has been fixed in the latest build, and the environment has been fleshed out. - Jonathan] In what can only be described as the coup de grace, the Mönkkönens have provided players with a full set of mod tools and an editing suite, which can be accessed directly from the splash screen. Free to create total conversions, entirely new games, expansion packs or just mess about with some of the models, fans will doubtlessly deliver a slew of aftermarket content over the coming months. Plenty of mods are already available to download from the main menu (there's no faffing about with complex installation procedures or .ini files, since user-generated content can be shared and deployed with a single click), even including adorably cute new spider skins for arachnophobes. If you're scared of spiders, Ville and Anne have you covered.
Driftmoon proves that cutting-edge shaders, multi-million dollar hype campaigns and reams of paid DLC aren't the be all and end all of game development. They never were. It's about making big ideas come to life, about respecting players and giving them something new, something fun, to enjoy. The last seven years has been time well spent.
- Memorable characters brought to life with witty and humorous dialogue
- Deceptively deep combat, crafting and puzzles
- Comprehensive mod tools, editing suite and effortless content sharing
- Primitive visuals and boxy level geometry
- Some clumsy and cliched conversation moments
- Can feel dated at times (but often in a good way)
The Short Version: Driftmoon is a seven-year labour of love, and it shows. Irrepressible personality, hilarious dialogue, clever puzzles and deceptively deep gameplay overshadow the basic visuals, while comprehensive mod tools will allow players to support this charming indie adventure for months to come.
With so many big titles promising the world and failing to deliver, this breezy yet comprehensive package puts any number of AAA games to shame for a fraction of the price. Why not download the demo and try it out for yourself?