Early Access Preview: Driftland: The Magic Revival

By Marcello Perricone 18 Dec 2017 0

Centuries of conflict was all they knew. Among huge armies and gigantic castles, quarrying wizards battled each other for control of the planet; a world ravaged by war, the strain so great that it finally split the crust into smithereens. The remaining mages put their differences aside and came together to keep the pieces from falling apart, but in the process drained the planet of its magic. Now, generations later, children are starting to be born with wizardry in their veins, and the world slowly regain hope. With the return of magic, however, came the return of war, and war… war never changes.

You are one of those new sorcerers -- now a grown-up mage -- which must put the world in ruins back into place piece by piece. Moving the islands with magic and connecting them with bridges, you must keep your people fed during your inexorable conquest of every piece of land.

 

Driftland: The Magic Revival is an RTS title by newcomers Star Drifters, a Polish indie studio made up of about a dozen people. Taking place in the floating islands that were once the planet’s surface, the game tasks you with defending your castle as you slowly accrue nearby territory and expand your empire.

The actual gameplay takes place in small islands that can be moved around with magic and connected by bridges. Each island has a very finite amount of space, meaning further islands are essential for expansion both in terms of resources and building space. Each floating piece of terrain also increases your population limit and contains a random chest with rewards, increasing the appeal to annex them as fast as possible.

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That expansion impetus, however, is held back by the one major problem Driftland has: horrible balance. It is very easy to expand too quickly and quite hard to rein it in once it’s done, leaving you in a very precarious position that takes a long time to recover from. That does not depend solely on your rate of acquiral, as the game’s resource flows change at a whim -- food suddenly goes scarce even with most of an island real estate dedicated to its production.

This would be somewhat simple to solve with careful building if the construction area wasn’t extremely restrictive and misbehaving. The game allocates arbitrary spots for erecting structures, and their size does not always equate to the amount of space lost -- a small cottage can easily take up a medium portion of the land, completely negating essential terrain that clearly could house another construction if it was up to the player. This restriction makes the core gameplay loop extremely frustrating, as you feel constantly reined in by developers decisions and what seem like unpredictable hard limits.

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The other major problem comes in the way of combat pass, which truly managed to ruin my enjoyment of the title. In my first 28 minutes with the game, I was attacked three times -- before the tutorial was even done and I had no idea how to defend against anything, there were already marauders attacking buildings and people inside my territory. I could not discern where they came from or how to possibly stop them, which significantly soured a so far satisfying experience. Later, when testing other difficulties, I played an Easy match and was attacked twice within the first 10 minutes -- one of them by a firearm totting barbarian that almost killed my only hero. A direct fireball intervention of my own turned the tide, but the fact such a senseless thing could occur during the game’s warm up phase on the lowest difficulty is ridiculous.

The aforementioned fireball is part of Driftland’s most well executed feature: magic. Spells have a satisfying effect to them, dropping with thunderous force and exploding into flames when a fireball or blinking into existence among splintering shards as an ice blast, delivering an audiovisual feedback that feels meaningful and right. Unfortunately, their damage and cost are a bit on the unhelpful side, meaning that while you can accrue a lot of uses during peace time, they rarely serve to properly make a dent in serious engagements.

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This is especially important as magic is your only way to actively affect gameplay: in Driftland, units are not controlled directly, but directed with flags instead. You can mark a chest or enemy for exploration or attack, respectively, or flag an island to be scoured for unidentified resources, and the heroes will make their way there at their own pace. You can even increase the “reward” and pay extra gold to make something a priority, but that feels cumbersome and useless given characters furiously refuse to run at all times, even when the very existence of their home is on the brink of destruction.

And destruction, suitably, comes often. Driftland: The Magic Revival is a simple RTS, in the sense there is no diplomacy or trade to worry about -- there is only war. Your one and only goal is to control all islands on the map, to the detriment of every other faction out there. There are four factions to choose, from which only the Humans and Dark Elves are available right now. They have different stats and models, but all work towards the same objective: conquering Driftland for themselves.

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The faction models do look quite different, and it’s one of the games strong points. In fact, the whole art design of Driftland is lovely, and the opening cinematic is specially surprising, its gorgeous visuals accompanied by a powerful narration and booming score to deliver a bombastic introduction to the lore of its universe. The game’s graphics also do not disappoint, with islands bobbing and rocking under levitation and waterfalls plunging over the edges into nothingness below. Aside from the visually dead kingdoms, barely bereft of citizens and looking more like abandoned ranches, the game world looks quite good.

While the UI is surprisingly good and does a great job of organising the many spells and buildings in a comfortable manner, the actual screen can be hard to read at times.It is often hard to identify an enemy within your territory, which coupled with the lack of precise notifications and the fact a barbarian raider can destroy a building in a minute leaves you very little time to react. However, that was the only technical drawback I saw in the release -- it is quite good for an Early Access title, and none of the few bugs I encountered were anything but slightly inconvenient.

In the end, Driftland: The Magic Revival is a game with a lot of potential, but severely held back by its atrocious balance. It’s production values are miles above what is usually found in the indie scene, and deliver a promising experience that fails just short of being satisfying. Given the game just launched on Early Access and the developers look quite active and passionate about the project, I have no doubt its shortcomings can be fixed before release.

Driftland: The Magic Revival entered into Steam Early Access on November 29th, 2017. At the time of publication, Version 1.0 could take anywhere from 6 to 12 months.

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