Preview

Driftland: The Magic Revival is a Majestic Ode to Classic Strategy Gaming

The world of Driftland is shattered. Decades of magical warfare took its toll upon the earth, to the point where all life upon the planet was in peril. A last-minute truce between the game’s factions utilised all remaining magic to prevent total destruction of the world. However, they were too late to save all but a few precious drifting islands. With magic gone, civilisation regressed into a primitive but peaceful state. After many decades, however, people with magical powers are being born once again, and with them, the eternal conflict sparks back to life.

Driftland: The Magic Revival is the first game from Star Drifters, a small independent studio based in Warsaw, Poland. Pulling inspiration from Civilization, Warcraft, Majesty, and Populous, Driftland‘s Early Access build forms a solid foundation for a deep strategic game with a magical twist.  

Driftland: The Magic Revival wholeheartedly embraces the 4X principles of explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate. The player begins with just a single island and castle to their name: a tiny speck on the expansive map. The goal is to build a thriving economy so the empire can grow to consume neighbouring islands and become more powerful. On each map, three win conditions are available: Extermination, which entails destroying all enemy castles; Domination, in which the player controls a number of Antique Tellurions or Ravaged Mausoleums, which are heavily guarded locations scattered across the islands; or Expansion, wherein the player controls the majority of the islands. Working towards one victory condition often has benefits for the other conditions too; defeating an enemy castle will also award the player all the islands the enemy possessed, and the treasures found within a ravaged mausoleum will strengthen the player’s army thus making the process of defeating enemy castles much simpler.

To reach one of these goals, a great deal will need to be built. Buildings are broken down into four main categories: infrastructure, industry, military, and bridges. Infrastructure contains the basics for keeping the population looked after: housing for the people, marketplaces for exchanging resources, scholarly buildings for research points, and upgrades for the basic resources of food collection, stone, and lumber.

Industry contains all the resource producing buildings, from the common food, wood, and stone to rarer mana, rubies, and diamonds. Each island has a different distribution of resources, and part of the balancing act of building a healthy empire is the choice of whether to build a mine close to the castle, where it will be cheaper to run, or on a far away island with a richer vein of materials.

Military is where all the fighting units can be created, with melee, ranged, and magical fighters making up the roster of an army. Training centres can be built for each faction to improve their skills. Giant flying birds have nests scattered across the map, and taking control of the nest will allow the fighters to ride them. Unlike other games in the genre, units in the army have free will and will generally do as they please, shooting nearby enemies or exploring ruins. The player can request certain actions with a bounty, paying out an amount of gold to the unit for completing a task. More expensive bounties will give greater priority to the command, but a hungry or injured unit may still choose not to respond.     

Finally, bridges connect islands together, officially adding the new island to the empire. A new island is an opportunity to find rare resources or treasures, but may also bring danger in the form of barbarian encampments or dragon nests.

Along with the city building, magic plays an important role in keeping an empire running smoothly. For example, the player can use spells to see through the fog of war with a magic eye, or pull islands closer so they can be bridged and added to the empire. Higher level spells can terraform an island into the biome most suitable for the player’s race, grow new islands, or destroy them. Magical Gates of Thyr can create a temporary portal between two islands, ideal for invading enemy territory or grabbing treasure from a far away island. Different races have their own unique offensive and defensive spells, too, with Wild Elves summoning powerful golems, Humans raining down elemental attacks, Dwarves analysing an island’s resources, and Dark Elves performing high risk, high reward necromancy spells.

As the empire grows, progress points are accumulated from defeating enemies, exploring new areas, upgrading buildings, and recruiting scholars. These points are spent on the ‘Path of Progress’, a skill tree that adds buffs to economic, magic and warfare abilities. The  improvement to statistics can change the pace of the game dramatically; one less gold per building upkeep or 20% cheaper mana costs adds up fast, and choosing the right option can turn the tide of battle.

With so many different aspects to balance, Driftland: The Magic Revival can initially be quite overwhelming, especially for those new to the genre. Thankfully, the game utilises an ‘Active Pause’ mechanic, which allows the player to issue commands while gameplay is paused. A barebones tutorial is present in the skirmish mode, but the strategy behind the careful balancing act of creating a successful empire can only be gleaned from practice.

A better way to learn the basics of the game is to try out the campaign mode, the first part of which has just been added in the 0.8 version update. The six maps of the human campaign each focus on a different aspect of the game, ramping up the difficulty smoothly from mission to mission. The campaign’s story revolves around the dynamic between main characters Emeryk and Urias, a bratty mage and his heroic older brother. Unfortunately, the translation for the campaign in its present form is rough, with a lot of errors and phrases translated literally rather than inferring the intended meaning. For example, in the first mission, a ghost asks the player to ‘tell of my son decision’, meaning to find out how his son lived his life. Another hero bemoans that ‘Great problems have yet arisen very soon’. The writing problems are not great enough to interfere with gameplay, but they stick out like a sore thumb compared to the otherwise polished state of the game. Clearly, a lot of thought and care has gone into the writing of the campaign, but the tone is simply lost in translation.

While the writing might need a bit more work, the appearance of Driftland: The Magic Revival’s shattered world is simply beautiful, with colourful characters and varied environmental elements. The slow floating animation of the islands as they are pulled around with magic feels satisfyingly powerful every time. The screen is generally easy to read, with each different structure and unit having a distinct appearance, but in the heat of battle, it can become cluttered and a little confusing. With the army’s autonomy, the crowded screen is usually not a problem, but an option for a shadow or outline to highlight enemy units would be helpful.

As an Early Access game, a few rough edges are still present, along with typos, occasional weird AI behaviour, and the rare crash. At one point in a playthrough, a ruby mine bizarrely started draining the supply of resources rather than adding to it. At other times, the enemy AI has backed off when they easily could have won the match. By and large, however, the game feels polished and close to release. The true test to the systems will be when multiplayer is patched in, due some time in the first quarter of this year.

Driftland: The Magic Revival is a dense, complicated yet approachable strategy game. The use of islands and magic give the game a unique appeal, and autonomous units take some of the pressure off of micromanaging an enormous empire. The game is off to a strong start, and OnlySP is excited to see how it will develop from here.

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