Developer: Instant Kingdom (Ville/Anne Mönkkönen)
Publisher: Instant Kingdom
# of Players: 1
ESRB Rating: N/A
Score: A (95%)
Do you own a decent cap or hat, dear reader? If you do, go get it now, put it on and tip that cap or hat in the general direction of Finland (Jyväskylä, to be a bit more precise). If you don’t have a good cap or hat, what’s wrong with you? It’s cold outside! Anyway, what’s with all the polite haberdashery tilting? Well, dear reader, it’s a hats off to Ville and Anne Mönkkönen for the seven years of work that went into one of the best games of this year. Driftmoon is an instant classic you’ll want to dive into and explore at your own pace just to experience great game design in action. Solid writing, great visuals and the excellent hybrid adventure/RPG/puzzle gameplay make a visit to Driftmoon well worth the price. As great as the game is, the included easy to use editor gives this one endless possibilities for users to craft their own potential classics…
What makes the game so brilliant is it never takes itself too seriously, but there are also a number of nicely dramatic elements and a few well done plot twists to keep you intrigued between chuckles. Both the humorous and dramatic elements aren’t crude or forced at all and the game gives you more than enough chances to laugh at and with the hero you play as he makes his way throughout the game. From the moment your character’s mother shoves him into a well at the beginning of the game (I won’t say why nor reveal any of the actual plot so you’ll buy this and find out for yourself or at least play the awesome demo) to some of the item descriptions and even a few of the more unusual enemy encounters (Monty Python fans get a real treat at one point later in the game), the game is a refreshing change of pace from all those other game that try too hard to shake their “indie” cred in your face every three seconds.
As you travel around Driftmoon, you won’t be completely alone. You’ll gain a few interesting allies along the way to aid in your quest, some optional, some necessary to advance the plot. Whimsical talking crabs, a “boogeyman” with an intriguing past, a few other sentient creatures (deadly and not so deadly) and helpful humans all require talking and listening to. As the game has no manual and the first time through I was so thrilled to play a game that made me grin so much with it, I initially missed a few helpful things. One I found out a few hours in was you can actually change the weapons and gear your allies use by asking to see what they’re carrying then dropping gear into their inventories and clicking it to complete the change. This led to a restart that I didn’t mind at all because I was having such a blast and wanted to see how much better gear worked on some against some of the peskier foes. This wasn’t the only restart I ended up doing, as I’ve had the demo version for some time and got the almost complete version as Ville was on the brink of adding some really great fixes I’ll get to below.
The balance between exploration and combat is nicely done, as a checkpoint system allows hopping between multiple points in an area, saving you from backtracking everywhere and battles are tough, but fair when you’re well prepared. Item crafting using plans, plants and other goodies you’ll find scattered throughout each area along with careful use of the gold you’ll gain will keep you alive, but using a few magical aids and your growing skills can make even the most brutal battle beatable. From screenshots, some gamers might think this is a total click-fest in the vein of a Diablo or other similar fast-paced action/RPGs out there. However, combat has been streamlined to a beautifully simple dance of sorts where one click starts a battle and aside from tapping a few hot keys or pausing the game to play around with your inventory, you’re not wearing out your mouse hand (or your mouse for that matter). That said, the game is less about battling and more about getting caught up in the world created by the Mönkkönens.
While the game isn’t as deep as an open world experience with dozens of NPC’s, there’s a morality system at work here that rewards you with Karma Points and additional experience if you take a less violent approach to certain encounters. While you can be a total jerk when meeting some NPC’s and fight (or attempt to fight) them to the death, I rather liked that the lesser option gives you less in the way of meaningful dialog choices should you choose to dispatch someone right off the bat. I’m a fan of reading as much well-done dialog as possible, so yes indeed, I chose the nicer options in my first plays through the game. I almost don’t want to ruin my Karma by being a stabby guy to some of the foes and potential friends here, but we’ll see what happens when I fire up the game again.
There are also a few fun puzzles here that keep the game fresh and you’d better get used to pushing around every conceivable object you can, as there are some pretty interesting secrets to uncover. Of course, a few of those puzzles may end up as not so fun puzzles if you’re not a fan of progress stopping your smile while you throw levers in order to make your way through a short maze (that gets made fun of in a tossed off line of text) or some other puzzles with nasty surprises if you’re not careful or quick enough. But the game is designed so that nothing can stop you if you’re persistent enough and as we know, persistence pays off. Yes, it can be really easy if you choose Adventurer (the easiest setting), but if you’re a veteran adventure fan or player looking for a true challenge, click on Guardian difficulty and see the enemy count rise a bit (and their strength) increase geometrically).
Visually, all you need to do is play the game, look around and do a bit of zooming in and out to see it’s chock full of detail that makes every nook and cranny quite believable without relying on graphics card melting photorealism. People and environments are solid and lovingly rendered, little bugs (no, not THOSE types of bugs!) and other critters skitter around and overall, there’s a nice sense of place thanks to the varied locations and the amount of interactivity in most of them. The game shortcuts what would be long-winded (and expensive to produce) expository cinemas into text and dialog that convey mood and move the plot from place to place almost perfectly. While there’s no voice acting in the game, the lovely character art and some of the character descriptions and dialog pull you into parts of each character’s life. You end up liking many of the people you team up with or at least wanting to know more about them.
The original top-down viewpoint was fine with me, but feedback from a few gamers who didn’t like it led to Ville fiddling around and adding the ability to tilt the camera angle down to an isometric view reminiscent of the Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale and other Infinty Engine type CRPGs. I’ve played plenty of games using both top down and iso views, so I enjoyed the game fully using each. If you go all iso all the time, just be careful near some map exits that require you to readjust the camera back to the original position or close to it so you can click on the exit icon. Other than that, there’s nothing bad to say here. I could nitpick and guess that SOME gamers won’t like this because it’s not relentlessly gloomy and the otherwise great, detailed visuals aren’t going to tax any modern system (you can practically run this on a block of wood with a screen hole cut into it). The lighting has also been subtly boosted, but you’ll only see this if you’ve been playing the demo for a few months and can remember what certain areas looked like (or just poke around the game’s site for screens).
If I had to complain about stuff, I’d say the truncated finale isn’t going to make the “Does it have a New Game+?” crowd do the happy dance (this isn’t a JRPG, kids!) and yes, the game is quite linear if you do all the quests in each area and get busy hunting down every Silver Feather and hidden Goldfish. There’s a day/night cycle in place where picked plants regrow, but this only seems to work if you spend 24 game hours or more in the same location. Even though you can create your own mods and yes, entire games with the editor, as far as I know, you’re stuck with a male character from what I’ve seen and don’t even think of playing as a female in the main game. I’m hoping we eventually see a mod for modders from Ville or another user that adds playable ladies to the game just to satisfy anyone who wants a little more gal power in what they create.
That said, those gripes are minor in the grand scheme of things and none of them should keep you from snapping this up as soon as possible, jumping in feet first and enjoying the ride. Driftmoon works so well because all the elements blend together like a good stew where each ingredient is cooked perfectly and there’s more depth to be found as you reach the bottom of the bowl. In a nutshell: Tip cap, buy game, sit back and get ready to smile early and often and you take a swim in an ocean of nostalgia.