Played on Windows
Disclosure (Review copy) at the end of the review.
Druidstone is the first game from the Ctrl Alt Ninja, the new company formed from Almost Human. While the company’s name change, they say it’s mostly the same group of developers, but the result is a very interesting game. Almost Human was the company that produced the Legends of Grimrock series, an interesting call back to Might and Magic style RPGs. This time around Ctrl Alt Ninja looks back to D&D inspired strategy RPGs, does it hit the mark a second time?
The first thing that Druidstone’s looks reminded me of is old D&D RPGs, such as Balder’s Gate, Icewind Dale, and similar games. This is a style of art that isn’t seen that often anymore, but Druidstone definitely captures that same look and care those games produce.
The enemies similarly stick close to D&D lore in a number of ways, while there appear to be some of their own monsters, most enemies in this game feel like they would fit in with the D&D monster manuals if that’s not where they came from. Druidstone has everything from skeletons to floating exploding balls to Dark Knights, each enemy feels unique and interesting.
The maps are beautiful at times, and the characters are well detailed even if you don’t get too close.
In addition, Druidstone adds gravitas to each enemy. The size of an enemy gives a good hint at its strength and power rating. A small slug, might not scare player’s much, but a larger basilisk should be considered dangerous, though those would be nothing next to the even larger enemies including the Ice Giant. Many enemy’s presences are notable and will draw players attention while they consider how to deal with the new enemies.
Similarly, the environments are beautiful in Druidstone, the game starts in a forest and keeps expanding from there. While it does tend to focus on the tried and true game level formula with notable stops in ice and dungeons and while the cancer seen in a tutorial produces an interesting look to Druidstone, the cancer is rarely seen, and I can only remember it on two or three maps.
Still, the locations are gorgeous at times, as are the characters. Druidstone does have beautiful character designs, and while the camera does stay zoomed out on the characters, it’s always clear which character is which, even if the acolyte (Oikos) is of what feels like an undefined race. The two other characters, the Warden (Leonhart), the druid (Aava, also the daughter of an archdruid) are also really well designed and each character looks great.
Here’s our happy party after a victory of lighting bonfires.
Though Druidstone doesn’t get that close to the characters often, really only happening for a victory screen, most of the time the players are placed in the same isometric view many of the screens will show. The cutscenes seem to focus on this view as well. While it doesn’t look bad and works well for the story in Druidstone, the characters are a bit limited in what you see.
Druidstone starts off strong with the main character, the Warden, being introduced to the druid and acolyte, each one getting to know the others while deciding to work together, though admittedly the story does start with the typical RPG story of a legendary hero who is strange in some way, in this case, the Warden is born as part of a cocoon and is charged with saving the forest. However this time around, our main character doesn’t know his destiny, it’s delivered by the druid who seems to know a remarkable amount about the tale.
The characters have interesting discussion, but the side character like the Red Priests leave me with so many questions I want answered.
Each character can be named as the player wants, which is why I’m focusing more on their classes than given names, but Druidstone has very little customization. The main character is a male Warden who always wears green, the druid is always a female, the acolyte (technically a wizard with how much power he wields) is a short blue character of unknown race. Druidstone also lacks a voice over, everything is delivered as text on the screen, so you’ll be given a pretty standard story, but it works for developing these characters.
From there the adventure introduces what seems like the major plague or villain of this world, a cancer that is said to be spreading everywhere. While this does become a major plot point, it really only appears at the beginning and the end of the game, rather than a constant struggle. The opening hours of Druidstone has a bad habit of introducing characters or enemies only for them to disappear soon after and then reappear in the second or third act. While there are major villains that the characters fight, the pacing of the game is a little strange.
Druidstone does create a major villain early on called Mad-Eye, but only really starts to explain who he is later in the game. In fact, when Mad-Eye was first introduced he has an interaction with the characters while talking to the female druid. However, the druid was dead during the first attempt at the map and yet the game completed the dialogue with a one-sided chat which sounded awkward.
However this was a rare occurrence, most of the story is delivered in interludes in the story and while it’s a good system, the story is a weaker part of Druidstone. While all the threads do get tied up here, it just isn’t paced well for players as there are large spans between when moments happen, and when the player gets a full explanation for those moments.
I did still enjoy Druidstone, and there is a huge amount of world building. In only a handful of scenes, Drudistone made me more interested in this universe and wanting to know more. The Red Priests are an interesting group but they are set up almost as a joke order to be slaughtered, yet they seem to possess some power, so I want to know more about their story and the place religion has in this world. Similarly, what was the original and true story of the Warden? The druid seems to have more to her story that is told, and what exactly is the acolyte, he’s a short blue character, but I still only know his back story as a failed acolyte of the Red Priests, there has to be more to learn about his race.
The lack of information though only makes me want more Druidstone, I want to know about the acolyte’s backstory. I want to see if more happens with the druid and Warden, or what else may happen in this world because it’s fascinating, but sadly Druidstone only contains the beginning of the world development here, it wets my whistle but doesn’t quench the thirst of knowledge.
Druidstone might look like a classic RPG of the style of Baldur’s Gate. You have the same stoic characters, the same type of enemies and the abilities appear to be the same. However, I feel that Druidstone has more in common with games like Into the Breach.
While that might seem like a strange comparison, there are three pieces that really stand out in Druidstone’s gameplay for me. The first is that there seems to be a minimal amount of randomness to the combat to Druidstone. Attacks will always hit unless a very rare status effect is in play, and I only saw that effect applied a few times over the course of the game. There is no accuracy rating, and all attacks will flat out tell you they’ll do X damage, or heal X life. It’s not a die roll that will hurt you in Druidstone, it’s a strategy or a plan that blows up in your face.
You can move a certain amount of grid positions, and an attack, it’s well designed.
The second reason is that every attempt at each map has the same enemies appearing on it. There are no random encounters in Druidstone just a series of enemies to fight your way through. The number of enemies and positions may change through difficulty, but each map is set up the same each time it’s played. While this isn’t the same as Into the Breach, there are limiters in place on the enemies that appear there that make it feel very similar, compared to traditional RPG games that focus on a more randomized selection of enemies.
Finally, the gameplay is more of a puzzle than a straight role-playing game. Players will often have to solve how to tackle enemies or use the map’s layout to their benefit. While players can attempt to level up, the levels in Druidstone only give more abilities to the character. In fact, I was prepared for a power creep scenario or issues, where the original characters 3 points of damage would change to far more by the end of the game. In fact, in the early game, a couple of enemies appear that are significantly more powerful than the party.
However by the end of the game I was still only causing similar amounts of damage to enemies, I had gained new abilities and weapons, but none of this made me drastically powerful, understanding the systems, having abilities that assisted, and learning how to rack up more damage through a number of tactics is what ultimately won those battles. Druidstone is more of a puzzle in many of these respects.
With that understanding made, let’s talk more about how Druidstone is played.
Druidstone is quite similar to many strategy RPGs or Tactical RPGs, the player’s party is given a turn, and during that turn, they’re able to act with each character. Each character is given a set amount of move points (usually three or four) and an action point. From here, the player can tell any player how to move or act. Move points are expended for squares in a grid that the characters move, but any order of steps can be anything. Characters can move 2 spaces, attack and then move two more, for instance. In addition, each character can combine actions, so character 1 can move closer to character 2 for some reason, and then after character 2’s action, continue his move and take his own action.
The victory screen racks up your score but also delivers full experience to the whole party.
There are rules, unlike Disgaea, which allowed players to cancel moves with no penalties and abuse the movement system itself, Druidstone is a little more strict, perhaps too strict. If the Druid moves two spaces, she can undo that move, even if she took damage. If she moves two spaces, and then the player looks at a different character, suddenly that Druid’s move is locked in and the player can only move her farther rather than being allowed to take back the initial move. This happened multiple times in the early game, especially when I figured out a superior tactic after moving a couple of characters.
Druidstone isn’t without mercy in these cases, though it has an interesting system. In Into the Breach, each map allows the player to undo a single turn. It’s a nice balance between hard choices and realizing your mistake halfway through a turn.
Druidstone does something similar but more interesting with the druid’s pendant. This specific item gives her the power to rewind the current move. If the player has already used any characters, they can use the stone and revert to the beginning of the turn. It’s a way to implement the Undo Turn in game. However, there’s one main caveat with this. If the Druid has been killed or unavailable, the undo turn is similarly unavailable. I think this is on purpose and it adds an interesting twist. There was a point where I accidentally killed the druid using an attack and suddenly I realized I was unable to undo that move because she was gone.
Once the player has moved all his characters (or just clicks end turn) the enemies get their chance to attack and each will use a similar system, though I believe the AI always moves, then attacks with each character in a set order.
Each level starts with a letter or reason to go to a new location, it’s another way the world is developed.
There is a minor issue though with the enemies in that the enemies abilities do not appear to be given in any meaningful way, so if an enemy has a freezing attack, you might be surprised with it the first time you meet them. In addition, a number of times in almost every level reinforcements arrive, while these moments are completely scripted, what appears will be unknown to the player the first time through a level.
The bigger problem is the unknown attacks though. I’ve had to restart a level more than once when I found out a specific enemy has a different attack or a ranged attack I wasn’t aware of. While many enemies list a “Range” it doesn’t list what the attack using that range might be. It’s one of the small issues I had with Druidstone. A quick test run on a level and then replaying it does let the player know what to expect but it feels more like a cheat than the intended purpose of the game.
The good news is the game will restart relatively fast, and ultimately the game is more of a puzzle with its tactics than a straight up RPG, but the fact is, I do often feel that the gameplay is a little disconnected from the story and its adventure. Since the adventure is about exploration, the deterministic nature of so much of the level, and the puzzle nature of the gameplay can feel awkward. The experience isn’t bad, it just isn’t what I would have expected at first.
But each map has its own tricks. There is one map where the player has to lead a character to the exit, but the player is not allowed to control the character, and can only whistle for him to follow, it’s a clever map with a number of tricks and, in fact, was quite enjoyable as a single map. Other maps have minor puzzles, and there’s even an odd map where there’s no combat and you’re controlling the player as he explores his way out of a dungeon. There’s so much variety in Druidstone I didn’t find that I minded playing through thirty-five levels because only a couple felt similar.
Each level does have clear goals, so as the player and enemies continue to take turns, the player will strive towards their objectives. Rarely will the player be forced to kill all the enemies, and most times enemies are just nuisances while the challenge might be to gather three objects or reach an exit.
Some of these locations just really have a ton of character themselves.
Only a few levels expect the player to clear the board and the ever-growing number of enemies that will appear on most levels tends to make the player have to push through them to reach their goal. There are a few levels where I was able to clear the board of enemy units with no more reinforcements coming, but much of the time, the player will be harassed by the enemies and be pushed by them to race for their objectives. Playing overly defensive does work for the early maps, but eventually, the game pushes the player to be more aggressive.
There are a couple of ways the game will do this. The spawn rate of reinforcements can grow quite a bit. In addition, strong enemies are sometimes spawned, such as the dark knight in the tutorial mission. Some levels like the Cancer growths will change after a certain amount of turns, and other levels have other traps such as a collapsing dungeon or a freezing breeze on an ice level.
Often, I found a perfect run to be unachievable, I often sacrificed at least one of my characters to pass a level, or to distract an enemy, and in fact, this is a part of Druidstone I heavily enjoyed. The fact that often the player can’t just overpower enemies but instead the challenge is to know when to sacrifice a character so the rest can complete a task.
There are many moments where my characters had to act like Gandalf defending the bridge, but there were equally many when I threw the life of a character away through some foolish action. Similarly, most abilities in Druidstone have limited uses, so while it might seem smart for the first attack being the main character rushing into the middle of a group of weak enemies and using a whirlwind style attack to hit everything around them, that ability might have more use later in the current map.
The good news is that death isn’t a major issue with Druidstone. If the Warden falls in battle but the rest of the team (or really just one character) survives, every character earns the full experience points for that encounter, and the rewards are doled out as if the sacrifice didn’t happen. The next map will come up and all the characters are fully recharged, so imperfect runs may feel awkward, but are an acceptable approach to Druidstone. In fact, in a few levels, they may be required.
There’s also about five puzzle levels that are excellent. They are well designed without being too hard to figure out.
At the same time, death isn’t always the answer. There are a couple of levels I played through where a character death put the map in an unwinnable state. At least one level requires all the characters to be alive, and my druid (the only one with a revive spell at the time) sacrificed herself to open a path. Unfortunately, in the next room, I was stuck and it turned out that three characters had to do a specific action and without my druid or a way to revive her, the map was lost. I had similar problems when characters holding mission objective items died, that item is on that character and, at least a couple of times, it was impossible to get that item back from our fallen comrade.
While the game does have main objectives, every level has other challenges, and these can range from killing a specific challenging enemy to ensuring everyone survives, or even opening a certain number of chests, or a special case. Each of these optional objectives rewards the player with money, skill gems, and more. Some of these, especially those in the early levels are extremely challenging. There is an early level where the player has to run away from a large beast, known as a basilisk in the game. There’s no chance of taking one down but the objective is to kill a basilisk. However coming back later in the game, and tackling one of the two basilisks becomes an easy challenge, and by the end of the game, players will have enough skills and abilities that neither Basilisk will present a challenge if the player using clever tactics.
The gold in the game is used in a shop, similarly, that shop gets more items to buy as the player opens special chests, that are bonus objectives. This is a way to customize characters more and I spent a decent amount of time there. While most gear in the shop isn’t a massive upgrade, there are a number of pieces that are useful and characters will feel different as the player chooses different items to equip to them.
The player also will earn skill gems through the game. These are ways to customize their abilities. The player is able to take a huge list of abilities into the game and eventually will have to pick and choose which abilities they take. But in addition skill gems allow them to enhance the skills they have. They might pay two skill gems to get an extra point of damage out of the Fire spell, but they could also get an extra use of the spell for a single skill gem, up to three gems for three additional uses.
Each skill and inventory item has specific upgrades that are offered for gems, and players can only purchase what’s offered but it’s a great way to allow players to customize characters between each battle. At the same time, players are able to change skill gems at will so, outside of the shop, there are only a few decisions that are permanent in the Druidstone.
Changing where you allocate skill gems is great, trying new loadouts is fast as well, so this all works well.
In addition, Druidstone offers players the ability to go back to rack up more experience (though at a 50 percent penalty) and complete additional objectives.
Druidstone is extremely good if you like the puzzle but not everything is perfect here.
Some enemies have special tricks to them, there’s a very specific trick that is needed for at least one boss, and there are a few tricks to a number of maps that aren’t always clear.
There are two big bugs that I ran into, the undo turn object rewound to a previous turn a couple of times for no reason. This normally isn’t allowed and isn’t the way it was supposed to work, but it could have been useful if I knew how to do it reliably. This is actually a positive bug in my opinion.
A worse bug was that there was a large boar-like enemy who used a charge attack, but didn’t reach me, still, my character got injured. The enemy was still four units away from me (With a tree between us) and yet I still took full damage. Minor bugs like this frustrate me, but this only happened once over about 20 hours, so I can accept this.
Some of the dialogue can be humorous at least. The acolyte definitely has the best lines.
There’s a fourth character in the game, and I’ll try not to say too much but she comes out of nowhere, feels a little like fan service for a certain type of player, and while additional damage and attack is always welcome, she comes into the game quite late in the play time, and is set at level one when other characters are closer to level eight, meaning she’ll never catch up.
I found the lack of saving in the middle of a map to be annoying, while I could restart any map easily, I would have preferred to have a save point halfway through a couple of maps, because some maps get far harder in the final turns, and losing there can mean a loss of fifteen to thirty minutes of progress. I wouldn’t have minded a single save, but no checkpoints meant that a lot of time could be lost.
One last piece of Druidstone is the difficulty I actually played through 90 percent of this game on Normal difficulty and only a single map in the middle of the game gave me a firm enough challenge to drop it for that map. There is a point at the end of the game where I felt the challenge jumped quite a bit, and I tried to play the game on Easy. At first, I thought it was the same level, but there are very subtle but important differences to the map. It appears all the characters, and abilities are still used at full power, but most enemies lose about a single hit point which makes them easier, as well as removing specific enemies that make the flow of the map less challenging. It strikes a nice balance of making the level easier without making the level trivial.
I do think Normal is an appropriate difficulty, though the final levels do find all new ways to make the player struggle, and I’m glad I switched to Easy, so I could enjoy the ending rather than getting frustrated as I replayed level after level while trying to watch the story wrap up.
Overall, I like Druidstone, a lot more than I expected. I was thinking I’d get Baldur’s Gate where I had to slog through a number of fights and protect party members every fight, but instead, I found almost a puzzle RPG game where strategy and tactics were important. Druidstone reminded me of games like Disgaea and Into the Breach quite often, but it also has a lot of similarities to chess puzzles, where there may be a great solution but even if you can’t find that, there can be good moves, even if it’s not the best.
I think Druidstone excels at what it does, but the question is more exactly what does Druidstone do, and for me, it entertained me, gave me a wealth of content, a new world I was curious about, and all the while challenged me with different objectives and goals. It’s unique and because of that it really stands out.
I give Druidstone a
Final thoughts: A strange RPG that mixes tactics and strategy to the point where you’re almost solving a puzzle in each level. It’s a great adventure, with a lot of fun gameplay. I’m thrilled to have played it
Stats: About 16 hours played. 12/20 achievements earned.
Disclosure: I asked Ctrl Alt Ninja for a copy of this game. They provided me one, and I appreciate the review copy, however it did not affect my opinion on the game. I am disclosing though so you can best judge my review and opinions.