Driftland preview (PC): Cool map morphing mechanic

Driftland: The Magic Revival is an exciting start for an early access game. It plays like a mix of RTS and a turn based 4x game that places you in the role of creator of worlds, rather than just an explorer and conqueror.

Driftland leans heavily on the mechanic of shaping the map as you discover magical floating islands and move them around to grow your empire. It’s satisfying to determine the optimal places for them in order to best utilize resources in the face of growing upkeep costs and the knowledge that you are slowly inching towards your enemy.

All the pieces are present for Driftland to be a great addition to the strategy genre. However, the game is still far from complete in everything from balancing (in nearly every aspect of the game) to having competent AI. I think it’s fair to give this game some credit and to keep tabs on it through its development. If they manage to improve on what they already have, it will be a great game.

Welcome to Driftland!

Driftland review (PC) - A picturesque human village
A picturesque human village

Driftland prominently displays multiplayer and campaign modes on its main menu but they are not selectable. Promises for the future! Starting a new game reveals more promises, such as multiple win conditions (for now there is only conquest) and 4 races to choose from (currently you are limited to Humans and Dark Elves). The races each have their own bonuses; however, other than having different names and models for units and buildings it doesn’t feel like there is much difference. We’ll have to see what they choose to do with this aspect of the game.

Once you are in game, you are greeted by a single floating island bobbing around and undoubtedly excited to be united with the islands around it. There are a lot of rules to learn from this point forward. Things like how upkeep costs work, how your population grows, where resources come from, and so on. Worst off, at this point there is no good way to keep track of your empire. While you can sort of cycle through buildings (no keyboard shortcuts at this time), trying to keep track of what is going on really becomes a headache. There are no lists of any sort, which is a problem because there is a lot of information that is specific to each building, island, and unit.

It discourages you from growing too much because it’s simply frustrating; especially when everything else in the game is so unbalanced. Not having a good way to keep track of anything takes away a lot of the fun that comes from digging deep into this game.

A Unique Twist for RTS

Driftland review (PC) - Previously mentioned Human village now slightly electrified.
Previously mentioned Human village now slightly electrified.

You interact with these islands by spending mana to cast spells. Right now this is the best part of the game. One spell reveals areas of the map in order to scout islands. Another moves islands where you wish, assuming no other islands are in the way. Once you’ve pulled an island in close you build a bridge making it an official part of your empire, yours to build upon and exploit for resources.

There is also a spell that lets you terraform the islands to a degree. Each race has a biome they find hospitable. Buildings in inhospitable environments are less efficient, terraforming the island with magic removes the problem. You can destroy islands to make space which helps lower the upkeep cost of buildings. The further away an island is from your castle, the higher the upkeep cost becomes to keep a building there (like I mentioned, lots of rules to learn.)

The whole system is fun and allows you to take a lead role in planning your kingdom. It’s unique. It could almost stand on its own as a city builder and resource management game. I’m excited for multiplayer since I can imagine the trollish and silly behavior that will occur when players have all this power to bring against one another. It brings a level of creativity and control over the world that might allow you to thwart some of the strict rules that govern how strategy games are often played.

The spell system goes further than just interacting with islands. It offers an interesting twist to the player’s role in combat. You are not a general who is commanding from the back lines. Instead, you are akin to a god who can sway the direction of a battle if you choose to spend some of your mana to send down a fire bolt or create a small tornado. It’s a nice change of pace from simply watching your units fight.

Balance Issues

Driftland review (PC) - I achieved this victory in about 15 minutes, ignoring the actual RTS portion of the game completely. It looks cool though.
I achieved this victory in about 15 minutes, ignoring the actual RTS portion of the game completely. It looks cool though.

At the moment though, these spells are completely overpowered. The fastest way to win a match is to build a bridge of islands into enemy territory until you see their castle. Then it’s just a matter of deciding if you want to use the destroy island spell or send a torrent of tornadoes and fire bolts until their building crumbles. In either case, your AI enemies are not clever enough to put up much of a defense against this strategy. It almost completely negates the need for spending money on military units.

You could try to play the game “correctly” but it’s going to be aggravating on every level. You are limited to 4 units per military building. If they die they can only be replaced at that specific building. You’ll need a lot of military buildings and a lot of resources. Without going into too much detail, you can imagine how not having any menus that track buildings and units becomes a nightmare. It’s almost unplayable at this time just because it’s unmanageable. Creating and equipping items upgrades units reducing the need for larger armies. But that system is not fun right now because you have no easy way to keep track of which units have which items. It’s a mess.

AI Problems

One further issue is the unique system for controlling units. Instead of simply telling your units exactly what to do they decide based on rewards you offer or whatever else is happening on the map. This is convenient in some respects, if attacked they can be trusted to deal with it on their own. More often I felt I had zero control over my units. Because of this, it feels like the spell system is once again the star of the show.

To win big fights, you’re going to need to help your army a bit. This isn’t a bad system, but at the moment it feels wiser to use the spell system exclusively. Once again, it’s an interesting piece of the puzzle that can become great but right now is just frustrating. On top of all that, the enemy AI is completely unresponsive. I mentioned earlier that you can blow up the enemy’s home island and they’ll mostly just sit there waiting to lose. Its starts to feel silly pretty quick.

A lot of Promise

Driftland Review PC - A fight between my beloved Dark Elves and presumably bear fur costumed barbarians.
A fight between my beloved Dark Elves and presumably bear fur costumed barbarians.

Should you buy it?

The game has great potential and the developers seem committed to achieving it. Honestly, the spell system and interaction with shaping the map is enough to make me excited! But everything around those systems is so far from complete that the game becomes more and more frustrating. I think the devs are committed to making it work. I had several complaints yesterday that got fixed in a patch before I could write this review so I think the game is in good hands.

Personally, I hope they expand on the spell system and interactions with the islands. That is what is unique about this game and it’s just plain fun to create the map while you’re playing. Overall It’s a great starting point for an early access game. But, I can’t see myself playing this game very much until it moves much further along in development.

I expect this game to be in development for 1 to 2 years still. They are planning on adding 2 more races and having “4 intertwining campaigns”. Multiplayer will also likely add a whole slew of balancing issues. They have a long road ahead.

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At 10 years old I played Knights of the Old Republic. I thought I would like to play a Mad Max version of that game and discovered fallout 1 and 2. Shortly after my friends all bought Warcraft 3 and here we are today. I went to the University of Minnesota for computer science. Ended up playing more video games than I was studying for Calculus. I switched over to English, budgeted my video game time a little better, and got my BA.
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At 10 years old I played Knights of the Old Republic. I thought I would like to play a Mad Max version of that game and discovered fallout 1 and 2. Shortly after my friends all bought Warcraft 3 and here we are today. I went to the University of Minnesota for computer science. Ended up playing more video games than I was studying for Calculus. I switched over to English, budgeted my video game time a little better, and got my BA.
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