Few things in this world make me smile. There’s my dog, drinking whisky in complete silence, and schadenfreude. There are probably some other things, but they aren’t important right now. What is important is the latest addition to this very short list, because it also happens to be the subject of this review: Driftmoon.
What sorcery is contained within the game to make it elicit the unnatural contortion of my mouth, you ask? Well, it’s a delightful blend of RPG and adventure game, full of wit and charm, it allows you to travel with a haughty royal panther, features drunk crabs and it spins a great many wonderful yarns. All in all, it is very much my cup of tea. A very nice earl grey, if you will.
Driftmoon begins with the protagonist being pushed down a well by his mother. Rather than being a distressing case of abuse, she’s doing it out of love. The hero’s quaint village immediately gets attacked by lizard men, the inhabitants get turned to stone and his father gets kidnapped — dragged to the evil undead King Ixal, who is dead set on petrifying the world. Horrible chap.
And so begins a quest to gather some magical gems and put a stop to the foul monarch’s plans. It all seems rather by-the-books, but the main quest only exists to give agency to the proceedings, spurring the hero on in his exploration of the world of Driftmoon.
The journey to save the world is anything but humdrum, however, and the developers — of which there are only two — appear to like playing with expectations. A potential battle against a ferocious wild animal can become a sad story told by a talking beast; an encounter with some animated bones could turn into a sales pitch and a chance for shopping; and a monster jumping out of the darkness, looking to gnaw on the hero’s bones may instead become a chance for the monster’s redemption as it reclaims its forgotten past.
All of those scenarios could have ended in violence, and there’s certainly room for players to take a more selfish, violent approach, but the game seems to favour thoughtful, patient heroes. Not only does avoiding violence and helping people confer upon the hero extra rewards, it also sometimes ends in new quests and the opportunity to learn more about Driftmoon itself.
The various difficulty levels make the game more or less combat intensive, with the lower levels pushing Driftmoon further into adventure game territory. I played it balanced between combat and adventuring, but I can’t say I would have enjoyed it any less if I’d turned the difficulty down a notch. It’s not that the game was challenging at the level I played it on, it really wasn’t, rather it’s that the story and exploration are far more compelling than the combat.
Virtual scraps are rather rough around the edges, to say the least. Clicking on an enemy makes the entire party — of which only the hero can be directly controlled — attack said enemy until it is an enemy no more. There are your typical RPG stats, and a number of abilities that at first may seem small, but for a game of 10 – 15 hours is appropriate. The abilities are a little bit bland, to be honest, but there are a few neat tricks like a glowing avian chum who can appear and heal and cure allies and, if you level the ability up, stun enemies.
The best parts of the combat are only tangentially related to fighting, it’s all about the gear. Weapons and armour all tend to have humorous little stories behind them, a lot like many of the items found in Baldur’s Gate, and they are frequently cursed, making using them risky, even if their stats are rather desirable.
Near the beginning, the hero comes into possession of The Hoe of Doom, which is just an ordinary, yet sharp, garden hoe. It’s menacing past only extends to hurting the foot of its previous owner. At one point, my intrepid adventurer was sauntering around Driftmoon with a tortoise shell hat come bird’s nest, an axe that kept cutting him, and a fake nose that glowed red when danger was near. Oh yes, and his shoes glowed in the dark — a gift from an evil clown.
While Driftmoon’s comical moments are more hit than miss, there are times when the developers should have reined themselves in a wee bit, which is probably harder to do when there’s only two of them. One skit featured the entirety of the Black Knight scene from Monty Python and The Holy Grail, word for word. There was no subtlety and no twist; it was just a scene from a movie that, let’s face it, almost everyone has seen. That instance was probably the worst offender, but there are others that feel just as out of place.
After seven years of development, there are moments, like the aforementioned Black Knight scene, where the game seems like its trying a bit too hard to get a laugh. I could almost feel the developers nudging me and giving me sly winks. Less really is sometimes more (a lesson I could do with learning, as well). This also seeps into the dialogue, which is a tad heavy with over-exposition and could probably have benefited from an editor. With that said, it remains an impressive effort from such a small team, and those issues were outweighed by its charm. It even contains puns that made me laugh, and I bloody hate puns.
Puzzles! Pardon the outburst, but Driftmoon has good puzzles, something most RPG developers seem to have given up on. There’s a significant degree of physicality to them, as well, which is something I favour quite a lot. A lot of the objects scattered around the game can be dragged by the cursor, revealing secret items, hidden doors, and long forgotten paths. Even the lever and sliding floor puzzles are fun, and such things tend to be tedious at the best of times. In many instances, puzzles even find their way into interactions with NPCs, with the hero needing prove himself to them or solve an issue for them using his brain rather than hitting something with a garden tool.
Impressively, Driftmoon has been designed with mods in mind, even total conversions. My favourite mods thus far are rather silly, but also possibly created by geniuses. There’s one that turns all spiders into cardboard monstrosities, another which gives them massive cartoon eyes, and finally a mod that attaches a tail to everything, because tails are bloody awesome. I’m hoping to see more ambitious undertakings once the game has been knocking about for a while, though.
If smiling is an activity you get some measure of enjoyment out of, you owe it to yourself to take Driftmoon for a spin. Remember to be polite to the skeletons, because they might just want to sell you some food or tell you an amusing anecdote. Or they might just want to kill you.