Driftland: The Magic Revival Review18 Jul 2019 0
Driftland: The Magic Revival Review
Released 18 Apr 2019
It’s been a while since we last touched upon Driftland: The Magic Revival, an interesting and very well produced RTS about mages waging war on floating islands far above a broken planet. I’ve been looking forward to revisiting it once the final version was released and the bugs ironed out, and now there’s only one questions that needs answering: how good is it?
Driftland: The Magic Revival is a bit of a unique beast, being an RTS in the old mould of 'build stuff in real time and send units around to do war' Age of Empires style, but with several tweaks that makes anything but the basic buildings unrecognisable.
Taking place in a world ravaged by centuries upon centuries of mage-on-mage warfare, the game sees young wizards -- the first born in several generations -- try to unite the many shattered continent remains that float above the planet's raging magma. Starting with a single castle in a land bereft of space, each wizard must expand and often defeat its foes throughout the course of every level.
As a classic fantasy setting, Driftland's humans are joined by the Dark Elves, Dwarves, and Wood Elves. All but the Wood Elves have campaigns available from the start, while the nature lovers require the player to have completed all three previous campaigns. Each of them has a different plotline, such as the Dark Elves fight for survival and the Dwarves internal quest for vengeance and family.
Thanks to the care given to all races, each of the factions feels rather unique, packing not only the usual visual and unit/building variety but also visually changing the land they inhabit. While human islands have a grassy terrain with normal chunks of grey rock underneath, Dark Elves have purple and black spiky spirals that mimic their black, spiky architecture -- a design decision that makes them very reminiscent of Warhammer's Druchii. They even get to build spiky palisades on the edges of their islands that stop other races from building bridges across and lends a very macabre look to their little bastions of floating rock.
Speaking of floating rocks and bridges, connecting islands is the butter of Driftland's bread. With every piece of the planet currently floating in orbit thanks to a powerful bit of magic, the main gameplay loop comes from building stuff on your very finite island perimeter, and then expanding to nearby islands to build even more stuff. All the staples of RTS are here, from houses and farms to blacksmiths and watch towers, and the bridge-building and island-taking offers a bit of a strategy by denying the enemy territory and creating bottlenecks they must go through to get to your inner lands.
The magic aspect of Driftland is most visible on that island management part. Wizards (and by extension, players) are able to move islands using wizardry, bringing them closer to their territory or away from opponent's in order to build bridges to add them to their empire. Players can also terraform islands to convert them to their species' needs, launch fireballs and ice storms, or take a gander in forlorn parts of the fog of war by simply tapping into their magic powers.
The main issue with Driftland comes from its relatively singular focus on expansion. The game's scope and ambition could easily support diplomacy, spying, and a more logistics approach to conquering, but it instead it rather doggedly follows the 'build more stuff, recruit a big army, attack the enemy' route of every single RTS in the last three decades. The game's pace is purposefully slow -- a huge boon, in an age where every single RTS foregoes strategy for APM and mindless rushing -- and levels can take easily 40 minutes or more to clear. Since the majority of the game can be reduced to "slowly expand until you're big enough to attack the enemy", things can often feel a bit rote after a couple of missions.
Similarly, some of the issues I had with the Early Access version have been fixed, but not all. Resource balance is good enough now that you no longer expand so quickly you dig yourself into a grave, and you are no longer blindly attacked out of the blue in the lowest difficulties, giving you time to actually enjoy and focusing on base building without overpowered enemies knocking on your door. Or Bridge. However, the game still insists on a very cumbersome and indirect control scheme for heroes and soldiers. Driftland uses a system similar to the old Majesty games, where units are not controlled directly, but directed with flags instead. You can mark areas for attack/exploration/investigation/etc by paying 10 gold and even pay extra to make something a priority, but characters still furiously refuse to run, ever, even when the very existence of their home is on the brink of destruction. It is ridiculous concept, in which you cannot give any orders to your hired soldiers without shelling out for every single action, and even after paying them, they will still treat an attack on their home as nothing short of a minor inconvenience.
Similarly, the actual gameplay area looks dreadfully bereft of life, given no one is rendered outside heroes and soldiers. Without peasants and workers moving about, kingdoms look dead which detracts from the gorgeous islands bobbing and rocking under levitation all around them and waterfalls plunging over the edges into nothingness below. This ‘under’-crowding should make things easier to read, but it is often hard to understand what is going on given the many units and GFXs going on at any one time.
On the bright side, the UI is surprisingly good, and does a great job of organising the many spells and buildings in a comfortable manner. Graphics and polish are really good, delivering a presentation far above the standard of indie titles and suitable for an almost AAA game, with a soundtrack and voice acting to match. In fact, the music is one of the most surprising portions of Driftland, thanks to its amazing score -- each faction has their own soundtrack, and the sung hymns of the Dwarves are wonderful compositions that sometimes reminded me of Tolkien's excellent Durin's Song.
There is something special about magic. The idea that one could easily lift a whole building with their powers and fling it across an incoming army is the kind of power fantasy games are apparently born to fulfil, yet one that rarely -- if ever -- happens. That is especially true of strategy games about magic, where their mystical, boundless capabilities more often than not are reduced to gimmicks and meaningless buffs but luckily, Driftland bucks that trend; not in a flashy way, but by making magic an everyday part of the gameplay. If you are looking for a polished, novel strategy game involving magic, look no further.