The RPG genre is a very popular one nowadays and looking at all the titles that come out every year one cannot avoid noticing a certain issue called ‘being formulaic’. The staples of the genres are so well known and established that the basic formula seems to be written in stone and actively forcing a lot of developers to stick to it, almost in a religious way.
Druidstone is a puzzle tactical game with a hint of RPG. It is a bizarre description, I know, but that’s what it is and thanks god it’s something original, very much so.
What’s the story here?
The gist of it is pretty simple. There is an overarching main quest with a story that involves a colorful cast of fantasy characters and a narrative that is nothing to write home about and is a bit too much on the cheerful side…but all in all it is serviceable and contains also some average humor. Again, nothing super good, just the usual run-of-the-mill story that will do the trick in carrying on the events.
What is not that ok is how the characters get verbose and really push one’s patience. It is the usual weak point that we have found in countless games of this genre: the need to describe a situation with a very lengthy story full of not-needed details that would be more at home in other media (books?). Some writers are just sticking to their old guns and struggling to modernize to the new language requirements.
The result is that after a few missions you will be VERY tempted to skip those dialogue lines; not good. But the meat of the game is really somewhere else as the story is there just to provide a thread to follow. In fact, the main hub of the game is some sort of strategic map in which you will find all the missions that you have available. The location is not really important and there is no traveling, you just pick the mission you want and magically appear there, ready to go. This hub also gives you the possibility to upgrade your characters (when you have the gems to do so).
Tiles and Turns
Missions are of two different kinds: combat focused and puzzle focused.
Combat missions are the most fun ones and, in the end, the real focus of the game. Druidstone uses an XCOM-like square grid with a turn-based (unsurprisingly) system in which characters moves and fight using an allowance of move points and action points. Some missions have a limited amount of turns to be completed, some others don’t, but the ones without a timer pose an even more arduous task as the enemies tend to spawn more aggressively and more numerous.
Combat missions are the most fun ones and, in the end, the real focus of the game.
The puzzle idea behind these missions is all about efficiency, making the most of your limited pool of characters (three in the beginning but growing later), their actions and their abilities. Cleaning off the enemies, recovering loot, achieving priority objectives and completing the secondary ones…there is so much to do with so few resources that your brain is always buzzing with different solutions, none of them perfect, none of them easy.
You also have to make the most of what you find. Monsters often leave some useful resources (HPs, action points, coins) and there are chests laying around containing juicy new items.
The missions, hence, are a joy to play, for the puzzle inclined, as you will have to constantly compute different solutions and different results. In addition, the situation is bound to change periodically as there are a lot of scripted events that will keep you on your toes.
As it is often the case, with difficulty also comes satisfaction as envisioning the right set of actions to proceed successfully nets you a lot of good feedback in the form of loot, objectives, experience. But solving the puzzle is also something that is hugely satisfying in itself, mainly because the game is immediately taxing and throws at you, right from the start, interesting situation full of decisions.
As a final note, take into consideration that every mission can be re-played in order to achieve the perfect score, that is solving every objective (main and secondary), killing every monster, and looting every chest.
There is a very sharp contrast between the cerebral strenuous task of solving the missions and the happy fantasy atmosphere of the universe of Druidstone. By not providing a dark, stressful environment, devs achieved a relaxing atmosphere that suits perfectly with the slow paced and reflexive gameplay.
The puzzle-focused missions are deprived of monsters and present a logical puzzle that is often similar to those we are used to in our trips in dungeons: move stuff on pressure plates, activate triggers, figure out patterns, and the likes. These missions do not have a turn-based structure and are all about figuring out and executing; they provide a nice change of pace and we found them, on average, less taxing, brainpower-wise, than the combat ones.
By not providing a dark, stressful environment, devs achieved a relaxing atmosphere that suits perfectly with the slow paced and reflexive gameplay.
Characters are fixed (you cannot create new ones), there is no customization (besides names and progression) so you are stuck with what the game gives you.
As for character progression, leveling up means getting gems that you can place on some of your items or some of your abilities to enhance them. You can switch gems freely even after having placed them; this means that you can constantly tailor your character abilities and items to the next mission. Very sweet.
Items and Skills can be acquired by leveling up or by founding cards in chests or, in general, in the loot, you get during missions. There are also shops that you can use to spend coins in to acquire weapons and skills.
A pretty picture
On the graphics side, Druidstone is a good effort that nails a very important objective: the game is very clear in providing all the information needed in every moment of the adventure. The tutorial introduces you to the intricacies of combat very efficiently and you will find yourself at home right from the get-go. The 3D environments are lush and finely detailed while not sporting the quality of AAA titles; the game doesn’t have incredible production values in this department but is still very pleasant to look at and, most importantly, provide, again, a seamless environment to move and play in.
The sound department is ok both on the music and effects sides, but the whole story and dialogues could have used some voiceover; it would have eased the burden of reading those lengthy dialogues and helped the whole immersion.
All in all, Druidstone: The secret of the Menhir Forest is a fine, interesting game that achieves some originality and, by sticking to a clear and precise plan, delivers a fun and entertaining experience to players that are into tactics and puzzles. Character progression and combat have limited space in Druidstone, while puzzles have the lion’s share; keep this in mind when you think about buying it.