"The game John is meant to review," said the email attached to Driftmoon review code. Well, I'm not one to argue, so in I went. An RPG from a two-person team - Instant Kingdom - made over seven years, is an intriguing prospect. Having been intrigued enough to finish it, here's wot I think:
A short RPG is, I've realised, a far too rare thing. And indeed a relative term. With the average game in that very non-average genre clocking in around 30 hours (and indeed a few reaching up to 200 hours) the personal investment is enormous. And that's often a fantastic thing, but what about something similar that clocks in at around 15 hours? Well, have a Driftmoon.
Described as being an "adventure-roleplaying game", it certainly falls more into the latter genre, what with roleplaying already being imbued with the best aspects of adventuring anyway. You play as a young man (sadly there's no way to play a woman), who is mysteriously shoved down a well by his mother. On finally escaping, he discovers that everyone in his village, his family included, has been turned to stone. Except for his father, who is missing.
This begins a journey to find your father, uncover the mysteries of a missing gem with which he had been experimenting, and stop the actions of the evil wizard King Ixal. Which naturally involves befriending wily skellingtons, vain panthers, and an infectiously enthusiastic fireflie, Fizz.
Driftmoon is unquestionably crude in appearance. A top-down RPG, rendered in clunky polygons, with reams of text dialogue and clumsy combat. But none of that matters one bit, as it happens. The presentation is perfect for the nature of the game, the text is invariably well written and worth reading, and the clumsiness of the combat genuinely becomes one of its charms. And it's combat you can mostly opt out of if you choose, either by talking your way out of some fights, or indeed just switching the game to "Adventure" mode and having that aspect skipped over.
There are other settings, letting you crank it up to a combat-focused challenge, or settle somewhere between them. I picked what felt like an ideal combination of the two aspects, letting me enjoy adding fighting skills to my repertoire, both for melee and bow. It's always mucky, but with an option to pause and glug potions, and means to pre-load a set of attacks, there's enough going on with it to ascend it beyond just a distraction between the chats and puzzles.
And there's another lovely aspect - proper puzzles. Yes, at one point this does include a giant floor-based sliding tile puzzle, and yes, the International Adventure Convention Of 1992 does explicitly state that this should mean the game should be burned in a fire, but they keep this momentary blip short, simple, and somewhat excused by its being rendered using the game's dragging physics. (Throughout you can slide barrels, chests, petrified human statues, etc, around the scenery, to reveal hidden bonuses beneath, or solve object-based puzzles.) It's a proper pleasure to be faced by the occasional brain teasers in a genre that too often shies away from them.
But best of all in this charmingly home-made-feeling RPG are the companions and other characters. Fizz the firefly's unwavering chirpiness may bug some of the other characters in the game, but it made me grin every time. Queen Velvet The Third, an arrogant panther, is a pleasure to tease. There's a polylinguistic crab called Blotch, a sly fencing walking set of bones called Quan Sixfingers, ghosts, mysterious librarians, and a bunch of other surprisingly rounded people to meet or have come along with you.
This is the work of just two people, taking them seven years to put together. And while it's never not on the clunky side, it's so overwhelmingly charming, and so packed with fun silliness, that it's impossible to care.
It goes too far on occasions - a tiresome sequence recreates the entirety of Holy Grail's black knight sketch, and there are completely needless allusions to Monkey Island and the like, all of which are hackneyed and distracting. And I admit that there were a few conversations I skim read, as they were perhaps a little too far on the side of lengthy superfluity. But these were blips.
I'm really impressed with Driftmoon. Not just because it's such an impressive indie project, but because it was a memorable RPG in its own right. A fun, light-hearted game, with a more serious story running beneath it. And once it's over, there's still more to do. The game comes with its own modding kit, letting you create further adventures to share with others, all immediately accessible via the game's launch screen. Some are extremely silly, like converting all the game's spiders into cardboard boxes (one for our arachnophobe friends there, eh Richard Cobbett?) or adding tails to all the characters. But there are also "total conversion" mods too, new stories to play. One click to install them, a second to play them. Absolutely perfectly implemented.
The game's available via GamersGate (£11.95), Indievania ($14.99/£9.90), GOG ($14.99) or Desura (£10.99), and you can give it a deserved vote in the awful Greenlight. Or you can buy it directly from developers Instant Kingdom, for €15 (£12.93).