I remember my first novel attempt. It presented a grim yet kooky fantasy landscape in which a young boy’s village was destroyed and he was forced to seek out the evil undead king responsible, collecting various MacGuffins in the process. It seemed original for about a month. Of course, I was twelve then and have since learned.
Ville and Anne Mönkkönen, a husband and wife team who make up Instant Kingdom, were both by their portraits online somewhere in their mid-twenties when they began designing Driftmoon seven years ago. That then begs the question of why they didn’t have second thoughts about centering their game around a story which a child quickly realized was walking down an unbelievably well-trod road.
Let me back up. Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh. In fact, I know I’m being harsh, but there’s little point in offering praise where it’s not earned, is there? An indie game such as Driftmoon should not be set to the same exacting standards that large-scale developers are considering the significant reduction in available manpower and resources. Yet mollycoddling indie games fails to encourage them to work harder, and it certainly does the buying public no favors. So, I’m forced to cast my thoughts back through the mists of time to an era of wonder and barbarism, hope and naiveté: 2004
A Bard’s Tale dropped in the lazy, hazy days of summer in 2004 for the PS2. It featured an amoral musician being cast out on a fanciful quest despite being anything but the shining hero the story was looking for. It’s clear that Instant Kingdom’s development team attempted the same semi-adult parody of the sword and sorcery fantasy genre, but whereas A Bard’s Tale pulled it off despite lackluster reviews, Driftmoon has unfortunately bungled it.
- Story: As already stated, the story features a young man (or boy depending on your definition) having his village attacked. The town’s occupants are turned to stone and it becomes evident that your father was an unwitting keeper of a gem that was part of a Pendent of Resurrection created by an ancient and wise king. That king, now undead, is back, intent on obtaining the fragments of the pendent for his own ineffable purposes. Pretty straightforward for fantasy.
With talking crabs, talking wolves, friendly skeletons, and Hoes of Doom (the kind that you use in gardening), it’s clear that Driftmoon is trying to poke fun at fantasy stories. But the parody is eclipsed by the characters (and hence the player) being so seriously involved in proceedings, making for some painfully awkward moments. Jokes come off as flat, partially due to delivery (no sound cues or stings to drive home corny jokes), and partially due to language barriers. Instant Kingdom is a company based in Finland. And while dialogue and story is intelligible, you end up getting beaten over the head with the same statements and plot points time and time again. It’s presented in too heavy-handed a fashion to be considered humorous, in other words.
- Gameplay: This is an adventure-RPG combo with a variable overhead perspective, character customization aspects, linear storyline, and a basic companion AI system. And, yes, I’m well aware that spiel could describe thirty radically different titles, which is why I’m resigned to keep writing.
Your inventory system functions like the original Diablo, though loot and equipment are scarce. Standard skill tree allowing diversification into ranged or melee classes, though the poor companion AI means you have no tank to withstand damage while you use ranged attacks. Each level lets you increase a stat by a single point, and since they’re all equally useful you’ll probably just Christmas tree the thing. You collect ingredients to craft, primarily for potions to keep yourself alive longer.
Movement is with your directional keys, but since your character orients in the direction of the mouse you’ll spend most of the game running backwards. And that tends to break cognitive flow.
Interactions are straightforward. Your intelligence stat, if sufficiently high, will allow you to make statements you wouldn’t normally. Otherwise, you pick from whatever response seems most appropriate, and you’ll usually employ them all before the conversation is done, making you wonder why you were even given a choice in responses if you were going to be railroaded nine times out of ten.
The game possesses a day-night cycle. Good. Some quests can only be carried out at specific times. Also good. You can’t fast-forward your day-night cycle, so you end up sitting on your ass for up to half an hour waiting for the right time to roll around. Super bad.
Combat is the focal point of the game, which is kind of depressing. You have an auto-attack function, and then a series of hotkeyed abilities and items. There’s a lag in their use, so you’ll frequently launch an attack long after it was useful. The abilities are limited to a heavy attack, shield bash, huddling behind your shield, and a few others, though with your extremely low mana bar you’ll only be able to employ two abilities per encounter. The rest is a matter of how many health potions you’ve got queued until your auto-attack finishes off your opponent.
- Graphics: Graphics are boxy. But colors are vibrant. You spend most of your time outdoors, and the same shrub, grass patch, and palm tree that passes you by for the thousandth time will have you doubting your sanity. And palm trees in snowy, mountainous terrain? What the hell?
Any significant failings in visuals are minimized by your camera angle being almost directly overhead, which while the camera angles seemed to impede your view in games like Diablo, you get the distinct impression that not being able to see much of your character and your enemies is somehow a mercy you’re being done here.
What will seem strangest are the limited combat animations. There’s one animation for a sword swing, and one for firing your bow, and that’s about it. It makes for some pretty anticlimactic encounters. The same can be said for your interactions. You have no cut scenes. You also have no voice overs when talking with other people, just walls of dialogue which do nothing to pull you into the story. This dialogue often restates the same thing several times, meaning after the first few encounters you quickly learn not to bother reading it in its entirety.
- Sound: Sound is the one aspect of Driftmoon that comes close to meeting expectations. It was all composed by Gareth Meek of Instant Kingdom. And you just know that someone named Gareth has got epic fantasy locked down tight. The ongoing soundtrack is sprightly and pleasant, and you’ll be satisfied by the ambient sounds of insects clicking and birds chirping as day progresses into night. Regrettably this can be counterproductive. In moments of extreme stress, such as when a loved one is in danger, the music sails on dreamily, killing the suspense that developers were trying to establish. There’s also no change into something more edgy when entering combat or exploring dungeons. Plus, a shriek of violins when a sudden plot point is revealed would’ve gone a long way toward establishing cognitive flow in the player.
To sum up, I think the developers of Driftmoon attempted something that would have gone over passably well when they first conceived of the idea seven years ago. But their limited resources combined with their failures to innovate in terms of story or gameplay has produced a game which just sort of sits there making you feel guilty for not wanting to play it.