Some of the team behind ace dungeon-crawler Legend Of Grimrock have broken John (RPS in peace). That's John Walker, renown strategy disliker, who said that Druidstone: The Secret Of Menhir Forest felt "like something special". Those words and more are in his Druidstone preview, which has blown my initial misgivings out of the water and made me want to devote my whole evening to it. That's convenient, because it just came out.
I'm surprised, because at first glance Druidstone looked like the sort of game I'd lost patience with. I'm thinking of the thoughtful, intricate and creative combat in Divinity: Original Sin 2 - the kind that I can recognise is good, but ultimately find too draining. John's preview has shattered those expectations.
It's split into 35 missions that see you trotting about on a quest to stop "a cancerous growth of purple cysts" from ruining your nice Druidey picnics. Within those missions, you and your (gribbly, monstrous) foes take turns using upgradable abilities. It's hard, deliberately so, and leads to the sort of shenanigans John describes here:
"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…"
There are puzzle levels in the mix too, as shown in this here trailer.
I'm most allured by John's comparisons to deck-building games, even though the game is sans both decks and building. The trick is that many of your important abilities can only be used a limited number of times on each mission, lending each use import and tension.
"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."
I want it.