Impressions: Driftmoon

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Wait, you’re not trying to kill me? – it’s momentarily tricky to seperate my own internal monologue from the main character’s dialogue choices in the early stages of Driftmoon. There’s all the trappings here of your regular, garden-variety action RPG, but it’s not exactly standard form when a generic skeletal guard-minion stops you for a friendly chat. After all, just because they’re cursed to protect this tomb for an eternity of undeath doesn’t mean that they’re bad people. Some of them have even taken up hobbies to pass the time, like subterranean gardening, notably requiring significant patience. Perfect for an immortal tomb guardian, really.

“The beautiful, enchanted world of Driftmoon trembles in the shadow of a forgotten evil, for the dark King Ixal is again gathering his forces. The last hope of an enchanted world lies in an unlikely alliance: a hyperactive firefly, a queen panther with a whale-sized ego, and a fellow who’s lost all but his bones.”

After sinking so many hours into the bleak and gore-soaked Path of Exile in recent weeks, Instant Kingdom’s Driftmoon feels almost like the antidote. Taking the player from the usual conflict-driven, monster infested worlds to one where most people are pretty friendly, a good number of monsters can be reasoned with, and just about every animal can talk. There is – of course – some grand menace looming on the horizon, and your usual plethora of quests to complete, but there’s not much in the way of weight and pressure bearing down on you as you pick through people’s houses, leaf through their coffee-table books and chat with their pets. Driftmoon is very much a casual RPG in every sense of the word.

The result of seven years of work by a Finnish husband-and-wife duo, Driftmoon is one of those quiet little projects that feels like a game made to satisfy personal ambitions, rather than a clear market niche. The graphics are clean and clear, and the UI respectably well designed, but there’s really not much to say about it graphically. The environments are relatively low on polygon count, and the textures are sharp enough to work at the distance the isometric camera is usually zoomed out to, but it’s certainly nothing to write home about. Still, it’s hard to find anything to seriously complain about, either – my only real gripe with how the game looks is character’s faces and heads, which look a little flat and awkward to some degree on human characters, but especially so on animals like wolves.

The Gift of the Gab

The developers may not be native English-speakers, but you’d never know it from reading the reams of dialogue. The writing is fairly snappy and to-the-point, and while it feels like you may be drowning in block-paragraphs of dialogue at some points, it’s likely more due to it being printed in a really large font by default. On top of the lengthy dialogue trees, any accompanying characters you bring along with you will constantly share their thoughts via little overhead speech bubbles. There’s a surprising range of things that they can comment on, to the point where you might have to slow down just to catch up on everything they’re saying. There’s no voice acting, and it might have helped with the incidental banter, but the writing is solid for the most part – self-aware and leaning on the comedic side of things, but does manage to keep up a childlike sense of innocence and adventure throughout.

It’s unusual to see combat almost take a back-seat in a modern RPG. On the default difficulty setting, the game is overtly designed to make fighting a fairly casual, low-stress challenge. You click on your intended opponent to begin a simple (and pauseable) auto-attack cycle, and fire off special attacks and defensive spells with the number keys until one of you runs out of health. On the lower settings, you probably won’t even need to go that far; the basic automatic combat cycle should get you through everything short of boss battles, and sometimes even them, too, assuming you’ve levelled up a bit and got decent gear. The higher settings demand that you take things more seriously, giving you both more numerous and tougher foes, but any serious challenge is purely optional, and clearly not the focus of the game.

There’s definitely a focus here on accessibility. The tutorial segment of the game seems geared towards players with no knowledge of the genre, which is quite reasonable, given the family-friendly, low-pressure angle the game takes on most fronts. While you can often progress by grabbing every item in your path and picking fights constantly, there’s a good number of non-violent solutions to problems along the way, some requiring automatic skill-checks based on your character’s stats, which you can steer the development of each time you level up.

In a nod to modern RPG design, there’s a basic karma system that effects the ending, but unless you’re actively trying to be a jerk to everyone and everything you meet, you’ll almost certainly be finishing your adventure on the saintly side of things. In a world where even typical undead dungeon-fodder are likable, it doesn’t feel quite right to be a bad guy. The game even gives you the opportunity to apologize for certain negative-karma dialogue options. I can’t think of many other RPGs that regularly let you say, “sorry.”

Googly Eyes Make Everything Better

In keeping with the more mellow pacing of the action and dialogue, Driftmoon is no sprawling epic. While things escalate somewhat from the low-key start in a magically bushwacked village, this isn’t a 50-plus-hour sprawl that charts the growth of a hero from a nobody to a slayer of gods. A first playthrough might take you around 8-12 hours, maybe longer if you plan to hunt down every side-quest and bonus objective possible, but Driftmoon isn’t a massive game. To mitigate this, a very comprehensive set of modding tools has been built directly into the game, along with the power to upload creations to a public server and download new content directly into your game. Mods already available range from new areas to explore to a visual tweak that sticks googly cartoon eyes on all the giant spiders in order to make them less menacing.

If you’re a hardcore RPG fan looking for the next gritty, pathos-laden plot and tactically demanding combat, then Driftmoon might not be the game you’re looking for. This is strictly a casual RPG – something to be played with a cup of tea in hand on a lazy afternoon. For those new to the genre, it’s a great introduction to all the common trappings of action RPGs, but without any of the difficulty spikes or orchestra-baiting tragic decisions. It’s generally kid-friendly, too, and even the slightly awkward, delivered-too-quickly romantic sideplot is innocent enough. While not huge, there’s already a respectable amount of mod content available for the game, and that’ll only grow in time.

If you’re either new to the genre or know someone who is, I can happily recommend this as a starting point, and it’s a refreshing change of pace if you’re starting to burn out on relentlessly grim fantasy adventuring.  Those seeking something more substantial might want to hold off for games such as Wasteland 2, the new Shadowrun titles or even the much-belated Age of Decadence. Driftmoon is out now for Windows PCs, and can be purchased direct from the developers or from a variety of digital distributors for $12-15, depending on region and whether the starting discount is still running. For those who won’t touch a game without it being on Steam, it’s on Greenlight now – throw them a vote.