It’s hard not to love a game with heart (and quirky colloquialisms) like Instant Kingdom’s recently released roleplaying adventure, Driftmoon. A product of seven years’ worth of time and effort, —the game is a labor of love and full of childlike wonder and whimsy, with a refreshingly light-hearted tone and a healthy dose of oddball humor.
The protagonist is a fairly normal young man whom players are free to name as they see fit. Driftmoon refuses to take itself too seriously, so no matter how ridiculously you choose to name him, he will still probably feel right at home. His story begins when the small Driftmoonian village of Northrop is attacked by “a zillion lizard warriors” and (almost) all of the inhabitants are turned to stone – except for his alchemist father, who has been stolen away along with his research. It is up to you and your protagonist to find the alchemist, uncover the dangerous secrets of his research, and (hopefully) save the world somewhere along the way.
Driftmoon is teeming with all the familiar fantasy elements that have become staples of the RPG genre – dark magicks, anthropomorphic animals, undead warriors, weapons with high-and-mighty names like The Blessed Sword of Drakine the Hero, and of course the Quest Object, the Resurrection Stone. Yet the game dances to its own tune, evoking the spirit of classic childhood fairy tales and adventure stories with a style unique enough to avoid feeling stale or overdone. There are several unexpected elements tossed into the cauldron to spice up the recipe, including a very high-seas adventure side-quest involving buried treasure, a steampunky submarine, anachronistic jokes, and a moon whale. And don’t get me started on Mitten the disembodied hand.[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GrBSUK6XI8g&w=560&h=315]
Despite a standard and sometimes predictable plot, the overall story is engaging enough to make gameplay feel enjoyable and worthwhile. Sadly, there is no voice acting, and some of the sound effects (especially during battles) leave something to be desired, but the score is decisively epic and the graphics are generally pleasant enough, if a tiny bit blocky at times. Most importantly, the world itself is impressively expansive, with a wide variety of locations and climates which are all ripe for exploration. The history and culture of Driftmoon is also nicely fleshed out, and thorough investigators will be rewarded with a wealth of backstory and context in the form of books, memos, memories and hearsay.
Even if you’re no historian, however, be prepared to read. Though anyone familiar with the genre will already expect a decent amount of dialogue to skim, one of the minor flaws in the game manifests itself in the form of several monstrous text blocks. Encounters with these beasts are mercifully rare, but it would have been more merciful still if these had simply been broken up into smaller, travel-sized bites instead. But whatever you do, don’t skip the reading, or you’ll run the risk of missing out on an important detail or (even more tragically) one of the many pop culture references embedded in the game. Dueling with the skeleton of Monty Python’s Black Knight, for example, is now officially one of my favorite gaming moments of all time.
The other issue with the writing is that at times it can feel a little uneven, as though the game isn’t sure whether it wants to be a comical frolic through fantasyland or a serious-business quest with deep character development. That’s not to say it couldn’t be humorous and deep, but in Driftmoon the balances are heavily skewed towards the former, making the infrequent (often unexpected) instances of sincere emotional drama feel a bit out of place. It’s an awkward moment when random side characters like the Bogeyman have a more interesting psychology than, say, a main character like Sarah, who seems to wobble between being a strong, self-confident gearhead with charm and an infatuated teenager who won’t stop blushing at the sight of you. On the whole, however, the characters are nothing if not engaging and memorable, and verbally sparring with the likes of Blotch the piratical crab and Bill the semi-evil skull is half the fun of the game.
The other half of the fun, of course, is the actual gameplay. While Driftmoon lacks some of the sophisticated complexity which more seasoned RPG fans are used to, all the fundamental elements are there, making it an excellent introduction for gamers who are new to the genre. Gold can be found, earned or stolen to buy goods from several vendors scattered across the world, and side-quests and meticulous investigation may grant you special items which cannot be found in stores. Killing monsters and completing quests gains you experience points which add up to leveling, and each new level gains you points to spend on skills. The selection of skills in Driftmoon is not the most varied or the most interesting I’ve ever seen (strangely, there are no purely magical skills) but it gets the job done. The usual health and mana meters are present as well, with thankfully reasonable regeneration rates, and you get by with a little help from your friends – who, unlike you, can’t die, even when their health hits zero.
As with the story, the tried-and-true basics of gameplay in Driftmoon are supplemented by a few novelties to keep the experience unique and interesting. Skills like befriending a phoenix or the ability to see invisible goldfish come in handy more often than you might think, and a new spin on movement mechanics allows players to click and drag certain objects in the environment, adding a whole new level of interactivity to exploration. There is also a sort of karma counter – making good choices adds plus one karma, while doing evil subtracts karma points. This affects several aspects of your story, including who’s on your side and, ultimately, how the story will end.
Despite what feels like a massive amount of content, in the end Driftmoon is surprisingly short and relatively linear for a roleplaying game – even doing all the reading and completing all the quests, I clocked in at about 12-13 hours during my first playthrough. That being said, the option of achieving a different ending does invite at least a second try, and the built-in mod maker and downloader opens up a whole new world of gaming possibilities, should you tire of the original story.
If reading this has given you a severe case of wanderlust and questing mania, Driftmoon is available for purchase directly from Instant Kingdom for €14.99 (or $19.49, for the conversion-challenged) on the official site. They also offer a free demo, which comes complete with the modding tools, and the game is currently up for voting on Steam Greenlight.[review pros="Engaging gameplay with a unique brand of humor, memorable characters and entertaining dialogue, new click-and-drag mechanic, an expansive world with various locations to choose from, choices impact the ending, good introduction for new gamers" cons="Writing and characters sometimes uneven or underdeveloped, some text blocks are hard on the eyes, skill tree needs some embellishing, quests are somewhat linear, relatively short playtime" score=88]