The last thing I was expecting Druidstone: The Secret Of The Menhir Forest to remind me of was a deck-builder. Not least because it doesn't feature any decks. And yet, there's something about this deeply tactical isometric RPG, from Legend Of Grimrock's creators, that contains the same spirit of gradually gaining a deeper and more refined understanding of a limited set of tools, through repeated failure, and incremental improvement.
This is at first glance a very traditional turned-based RPG - much as Grimrock recalled the glory days of the first-person dungeon crawler, this visually suggested memories of late-90s BioWare-ish battling. But playing it, it quickly becomes apparent this isn't going to be a game that lets you spam your most powerful attacks at repeated mobs, but rather something that's going to demand a lot more planning, a lot more forethought. This is going to be tough.
Gosh, it's so tough. At one point over the weekend I emailed the game's creators, Ctrl Alt Ninja, to say, "Ha ha, you got me. This is impossible, isn't it?" They'd warned me it was hard. "Pretty hard for first timers, so good luck!" they said when first sending me this single level, before deploying a telling smiley face. But, I thought I'd realised, they were teasing me. Because once I'd managed to survive the first two mobs (three attempts), I then took about five goes to get past the third. (This is no rogue-like - the game checkpoints you within a level, although I was soon to learn this is as much a curse as a blessing.) But I did it! I was mastering this thing!
And then the level's boss appeared, and started conjuring four other utterly lethal enemies every third turn, while at the same time turning the floor on which my team were standing into some terrifying roulette of death. I had a single go at just attacking everything, and that quickly proved suicide. So I thought: tactics! I left two of my three heroes on the other side of the door before triggering him, perhaps sacrifice the one guy while the other two sprint for freedom? Oops, nope, because a) the key to rescue the prisoner we were here for in the first place was in with the boss, and b) it turned out that coming in the way I wanted to escape were approximately 49 billion skellingtons, priests and demons, and they were flipping raising other monstrosities from beneath as they went.
So it was that I sent my you-got-me email. "Oh haha, it's literally impossible!" I began. "You meanies," I finished. And yet when their reply came back, it was a list of tips. They were for real. I'm meant to be able to do this. "Now, go and defeat that sick bastard," Petri Häkkinen concluded. "I'm counting on you!"
Yeah I think I know who's the sick bastard mumble mumble.
One of the most important points Häkkinen made in his hints was to say,
"If you have wasted a lot of abilities early in the mission (it can easily happen to beginners because they don't know the basic premise of the game yet), it could be easier to just restart the demo and replay the early parts. You will find the early fights much easier this time."
Yup, that really was it. Because as I mentioned, Druidstone is a game that makes me think of Slay The Spire meets XCOM 2 before it makes me think of Neverwinter Nights. At the start of this level, each of my characters has a healthy list of abilities, spells, attacks. But a lot of them have little numbers alongside. Aava, a ranged character with a bow, also has the ability to raise a companion from defeat! Except that has a little "1" by it. And that means she gets to do it precisely once this entire level. That's not per encounter, but per whole mission. Her volley attack that allows me to hit two enemies in one shot also comes with a dreaded "1". Meanwhile little Oiko, a sort of mage-thief, can stab up close as often as he likes (which isn't often with his paltry health pool), and fire ranged Forcebolts with alacrity, but his AOE Fire spell only has three charges, and powerful chaining Lightning just the one.
And yes, of course, I'd used them all up when fighting the mob of rats, then the small gang of skeletons, and indeed mopped up any remaining taking on the even more powerful band of druids who appeared after. My cupboards were bare but for the simplest attacks come the big boss, my heals and revives had gone, and I wasn't in any fit state for anything. And you know what else? He was right. Playing again those earlier fights that had left me so ragged? They weren't so tough! Without any of the limited abilities, too!
It's that sense of having a far better understanding of my 'deck' from each repeated attempt at each set of encounters, which cards I really don't want to exhaust, as it were, that made this the case. Except, that is, until the priests and their guards.
Nope, I still need to throw everything I've got at them. And then I'm still struggling. Oh this is so hard. The guards have a movement range, and a lunge with a pike weapon, that is one tile longer than Oiko's Forcebolt range. Which is to say, I can't put him close enough to attack, without his receiving one hell of a thumping. So put someone else in the way? But by that point I'm getting my melee fighter Leonhard in the range of the other guard too, and both of them attacking one after the other is going to see his five remaining hearts gone in one turn. Do I use a precious heal on him, in order to see him reduced to minimum health after the encounter anyway, just to keep Oiko safe to take a shot? That means another heal, which brings me down to only 3 left, and I've still not even reached the door for the boss. Let alone figured out how I'm going to deal with the Red Priest and his Imp that are still in the way...
It's this sort of detail that makes Druidstone feel like something special to me, because despite the difficulty (and let's stress again for the sake of my ego, this is set deliberately hard), it's also astoundingly accessible. There aren't inventories, I'm not juggling gear, or worrying about which sword someone's holding. This is about the minutiae of the encounters, about trying to play your pieces with increasing deftness. You aren't worrying about what load-out you chose going in, but rather how to juggle your sparse set of abilities to survive.
Oh, and I used a barrel of dynamite! Rather than trying to fight either guard, I slowly lured them out of the corridor and into the open space with the barrel, chipping away at them with weakly ranged shots all the time. And by the time they were stood in place, the imp had flown in too, and with one arrow I took them all out. I'm amazing!
To a limited degree. I still can't complete this. But the important thing is, as someone averse to all things strategic, I really want to! This has that immediate feeling of accessibility, that sense that it's not the systems, the rules, nor the complexity that's preventing me from succeeding, but simply that I've not yet learned to be good enough at it.
I don't yet know how all this will fit together as a larger game. Ctrl Alt Ninja tell me this is an example of a much larger level, which is something of a relief, as the playing board is pretty daunting here. How characters will develop, whether we'll choose abilities, and how much variety there is throughout, is all unknown to me. The game is currently in alpha, still an unknown distance away from complete ("Spring 2019"), yet it must be said this level I've played (and played, and played) is utterly solid - I've not seen a single bug, glitch or fault at any point.
The writing is nice too. Speech bubble conversations take place before and during the level, giving a decent amount of context to the encounter. And as you can see from the screenshots, it's a traditional style, but very prettily done. This all looks like it could come together very nicely.
But more than anything else, what Druidstone has already achieved is taking someone like me, who doesn't relish the more complicated battles in a standard RPG, and had me obsess over just a single one. For many hours.