Druidstone: The Secret of the Menhir Forest Review

Eschalon: Book II

Release Date:2019-05-15
Buy this Game: Amazon ebay

Introduction

Druidstone: The Secret of the Menhir Forest is a tactical turn-based RPG where you control a team of heroes tasked with protecting an ancient forest from unnatural corruption. The game was developed by the folks over at Ctrl Alt Ninja, and while the studio itself may be new, its key members are anything but novices, having previously created the Legend of Grimrock games under the banner of Almost Human Games.

An isometric tactical RPG is quite a departure from a real-time first-person dungeon crawler, and having completed Druidstone, I'm afraid it can be considered a shining example of the old, “if it ain't broke, don't fix it” saying. Still, even though Druidstone is not in the same vein as their exemplary first efforts and ultimately not as good as I hoped it would be, it certainly has its merits. So let's see what works and what doesn't, shall we?

Gameplay

The game starts with your party fighting a bunch of angry slugs over some mushrooms. Initially, this party includes a confused warrior who doesn't know much about anything, an archer connected to the local druids which gives her access to an assortment of support spells, and a mischievous accolyte who specializes in offensive spells and battlefield manipulation. Later on, they'll be joined by a ninja spirit who speaks Japanese.

Prior to fighting the slugs, your heroes exchange a few words and after the fight is over and the slugs are defeated, they chat again before moving on to the level select screen. This is Druidstone's basic mission structure. Get some dialogue, fight some monsters, get some more dialogue. Repeat 35 times.

Granted, some of these 35 missions break this mold by offering you a puzzle of the block-moving, plate-pressing variety instead of a battle, but those don't happen all that often.

The main meat of Druidstone are its turn-based battles. And credit where credit is due, these battles are fairly competent and challenging. During your turns, your characters can move and attack by using an assortment of fairly unique skills. Initially, things seem a bit too simplistic as you don't have that many tactical options. But as you go through the game and unlock new skills, find better gear, and get access to some summoning spells, your turns can become quite complex.

On top of the primary mission objectives that will have you defeating certain enemies, reaching particular points on the map, or surviving for a set number of turns, each mission will give you some optional tasks. Open all the chests to get some bonus gold, discover a crate with some stuff you can buy after the mission is over, that sort of thing.

The game is not particularly easy, either. If you know your way around a tactical game, the normal difficulty may pose a bit of a challenge early on if you aim to complete every objective on each level. Later, when you know what you're doing and have access to more options, normal becomes quite easy, but you can always change the game's difficulty in the settings menu and crank it up to hard.

And while I definitely had some fun playing Druidstone, the one thing you should keep in mind is that it was originally conceptualized as this procedurally generated roguelite experience, but halfway through the game's development cycle, that idea was abandoned in favor of a more hand-crafted deterministic approach.

What this means is, the enemies you fight on each mission are predetermined, the damage you inflict and take does not have a roll associated with it, there is generally no chance to miss, and given the exact same actions on your part, the missions will unfold in exactly the same way. This also means that whenever a mission starts, every single enemy is immediately aware of your presence, which limits your strategic options to all-out assaults and beelining to the mission objective while ignoring everything else.

The game's clean and well-made UI insures that you always know what will happen at any point. And if you make a mistake, you can undo your turn and try again, which is a really convenient feature to have.

However, going back to the game's procedurally generated origins, some specters of that past have managed to make their way into the final version. For example, when dying, enemies have a chance to drop nothing, some gold, a health point, or an action point. The latter in particular can drastically alter your actions, but you never know which one you'll get and if you reload, you get a different outcome. Same goes for the crates scattered throughout levels. A couple of abilities can also inflict the dazed status effect, which makes it so every attack has a 50% chance to miss. Things like these feel extremely out of place in a game where everything else is set in stone.


The game also autosaves your progress between missions, and unless you want to quit, you can't save manually. Which would be understandable in a game inspired by the roguelike genre, a game where you have to make tough tactical decisions and live with their outcomes. Druidstone is not like that. Each of its missions is almost like a puzzle, where you want to complete every single objective in the most efficient way possible.

Without being able to save, a single mistake can ruin your perfect run, and that would be bad enough already given that the game doesn't even have checkpoints. But you add those little random elements into the mix and you get a game where trial and error can be the only way to progress.

Especially if you consider that on top of everything you see on the field when a missions starts, you will most likely be forced to deal with a timer of some sort and additional waves of enemies spawning in as the mission progresses. Those enemies will routinely surprise you with abilities you've never seen before, and the missions themselves can take surprising and unpredictable turns at various points.

This leads to a lot of frustration when you're forced to replay missions several times if you want to perfect them. Which, once again, would be fine in a game that's different every time you play it. But when the game is as deterministic as Druidstone, this creates an incredibly irritating situation where you have to repeat exactly the same actions just to get the board back to a state where things went wrong, and depending on the mission, it can take anywhere up to 20-30 minutes.

To make matters worse, you can't even skip the banter that happens before the actual fight starts. You can skip the so-called interludes where you just get some story bits, but not the actual conversations that precede a proper mission.

And on top of it all, the game actually wants you to replay its missions. It has a rating system that lets you know how well you did on each mission. It has a checklist of optional objectives you missed. It even grants you some additional experience points for replaying old missions. And then it makes replaying them needlessly annoying.

Speaking of experience points, completing missions grants you some of those, a handful of gold you use to buy new gear, several upgrade gems, and depending on your actions, access to additional equipment.

Your characters' base stats are mostly set in stone, and upon leveling up you can choose one of several skills. And that's pretty much the full depth of Druidstone's roleplaying system. Passive skills are fairly straightforward and make your characters strictly better. Active skills, on the other hand, give you new abilities to use in combat. These can be upgraded in a variety of ways by using the upgrade gems mentioned above. The upgrades can greatly alter your playstyle, and seeing how you can freely redistribute your gems between missions, you have a lot of room to experiment with builds in Druidstone.

Eventually, each character can have up to 12 active abilities, plus whatever additional skills their gear grants them. On top of that, you can find some consumable items during missions, which leaves you with plenty of options when considering your moves. And while some of those skills you can use at will, others can only be used a certain number of times per mission, which I thought was quite a nice touch.

If not for those “gotcha” moments that the game likes to throw at you, its combat system would have been quite enjoyable. As it stands, you should be ready for some frustrations.

Presentation and Story

The game looks and sounds great. The crisp vibrant visuals do a great job of selling the idea of this forest full of magic and mysteries, while the soundtrack gets you in the right mood by alternating between serene fantasy tunes and exciting rock riffs. And in general, it adopts this whimsical tone by assaulting you with cute critters, glowing meadows, and humorous dialogue.

At the same time, Druidstone suffers from a lack of internal consistency. Its whimsical atmosphere is undermined by the characters catching you off guard by swearing now and then. There's also a set of missions that feel like they were created during the game's earlier development days, when it was originally intended to have a different scope and theme, but my assumption is that the developers liked them so much, they decided to leave them in. For this particular set of missions, the game abandons its usual lighthearted tone and becomes much more grim and macabre, which seems out of place in comparison to the rest of the game.

I was also a bit puzzled by the way Druidstone presents its missions, skills and items. The former, for no particular reason, have star ratings. And while it's nothing more than a stylistic choice, at this point I can't help but associate star ratings with mobile games. And seeing how upon mousing over a mission on the overworld map that serves as Druidstone's mission select screen, we get a detailed breakdown of that mission's objectives and their respective rewards, I fail to see the point of those star ratings existing in the first place.


The same can be said about Druidstone's skills and items. Both of them are represented by cards. Mind you, there are no card mechanics of any kind in the game. The icons just happen to look that way, and that also reinforces Druidstone's mobile game feel. Which is a bit baffling, because the game doesn't play like a mobile game, and its UI is well-crafted and responsive.

And when it comes to Druidstone's story, the game sort of just throws you into the thick of things and expects you to figure out who's who and what's going on as you go. You're given next to no introduction and no reason to care about the characters or their journey. Eventually you figure out that there's a forest that's being corrupted, a Warden who has to protect it but can't figure out why, a mysterious and powerful evil Sorceress whose mystery is only exceeded by her power, and a bunch of druids who stand between the Sorceress and her evil plans.

As the game progresses, the story takes quite a few turns, but never really starts to make sense. Plenty of story threads go absolutely nowhere. The evil Sorceress who is supposed to be the antagonist is absent for most of the game, and in the few instances where she appears on screen, it's fairly obvious she has some split personality thing going on, but that's pretty much all you ever learn about her. The game does a very poor job of explaining things to you, and as a result it's very hard to care about anything that happens, especially since you play the part of a passive observer throughout it all, without having a say in anything. And while the bits and pieces of dialogue you get between missions are generally well-written and your characters are fairly likable, you don't spend enough time with them to start caring.

Going back to the topic of consistency, one of the characters you encounter on your journey is a Wild West bounty hunter for some reason. Your fourth party member is a Japanese ninja spirit from another world. And pretty much every lore-related question you may have while playing the game never gets an answer.

With that in mind, the fact that the game ends with you rebooting the universe and fighting a space and time-eating demon that was the Sorceress' alter ego all this time without being foreshadowed once, doesn't even manage to raise an eyebrow despite the fact that an hour ago you thought you were playing a game about saving a forest from some nefarious evil-doers. At that point you just shrug and roll with it.

Thankfully, all this madness happens within the span of 12-15 hours of playtime, and as such things don't get a chance to become stale or infuriating enough for you to quit in frustration. And I guess, we can consider that a plus.

Technical Information

The game ran very well and took mere moments to load. I didn't encounter any bugs and can't remember any blatant typos. The game did crash on me once, which forced me to replay a fairly lengthy level.

Which brings us to Druidstone biggest technical flaw - its save system. I don't see a single good reason for this game not to let you save at will. With how annoying it is to repeat literally the same steps while replaying missions, and with the possibility of the game crashing on you, letting you save your progress, or at the very least giving you checkpoints, seems like the obvious choice.

Furthermore, every time the game autosaves, it creates a new save file, which left me with 76 of them by the time I finished my playthrough.

Another thing to mention here is that the developers intend to add a level editor to the game in a future update, and that should allow you to extend your playtime by playing through some user-created missions.

Conclusion

In the end, I was not a big fan of Druidstone, but I'm also not unsatisfied with the time I spent with the game, either. It's a relatively short experience that can surprise you with some tactical challenges that are wrapped within a pleasing set of aesthetics and surrounded by a rousing soundtrack. However, if you're looking for deep RPG mechanics or an engaging - or at the very least coherent - story, you'll probably end up disappointed.

I really wish the developers had a better idea of what they wanted this game to be, because we continue to see release after release chasing the Legend of Grimrock formula and falling short. I doubt Druidstone will invoke the same level of copycat activity, and I can only hope that will lead to the team returning to its roots and blowing us away yet again.