Sometimes a game lands on your desk that you're completely unaware of. It usually doesn't bode well, as great things tend to make themselves known, but when it comes to certain genres the road to mainstream recognition isn't always straight. Driftland: The Magic Revival is a combination of the 4X genre and in-direct control real-time strategy games, and it reminds us of the Majesty series. It's been a while since there was a new Majesty game, so there's certainly an itch to scratch even if Driftland offers its own unique take on the genre.
Ever since we first played Skies of Arcadia on Dreamcast we've been drawn to the idea of floating islands in the sky in video games. But in Driftland it's not just a way to allow for exploration and discovery, but it's also an integral part of the gameplay as it offers plenty of strategical and tactical options.
Driftland: The Magic Revival has just been released into Early Access on Steam and offers a rather complete experience in singleplayer sandbox mode. More content will be added as well as campaigns and multiplayer, but even this far out from full release there is plenty to explore and the mechanics themselves are solid.
Driftland offers you a wealth of resources to mine for and consume. Naturally, you have workers who man your farms, lumber mills, quarries and more advanced buildings. They need food. You also need to earn gold to pay your heroes or mercenaries. There are resources to use for buildings and bridges (stone and wood), and there are magical resources and gems to mine. It's a bit overwhelming during the first minutes, but it's really rather intuitive and there's a brief tutorial to ease you into proceedings. That's something we'd like for the full game, tutorials, or at least a more fleshed-out user interface for more advanced buildings and tactics later on in the game. For instance your explorers can survey new islands to let you know what sort of resources are hidden there (extracted by more advanced buildings like a gold mine), but it's not easy to access that information and as you multi-task you don't really have time to note what the explorer discovers as he's doing it. Maybe the information is in there somewhere, but we do like mouse-over info boxes for this kind of thing.
It's a game of managing your economy, a rather complex one given the various resources, and you'll also need mana to power your own God-powers that are both used for exploration and combat. Further into the game, you're not just able to move islands, but also terraform them. This opens up a lot of strategic options, and something as simple as deciding between connecting your islands with bridges or magical portals has far-reaching effects. And then you have to consider what that might mean for multiplayer where you'll be able to manipulate things to create chokepoints and drop portals to create shortcuts for units, remove bridges, and so on. You can, of course, do this in single-player too, but the threat of a human opponent employing these sort of tactics will make for potentially very interesting matches.
At the start, you have access to Explorers (poor at combat, but able to search new islands and survey them) as well as Knights (sturdier combat units). These level up and you'll want to keep them alive, even if they're not under direct control (so some might perish simply because they happen to be first responders when a dragon comes flying in). Quite early on we happened upon a Raven Nest, granting us access to flying units, and as you'd expect upgrading your castle lets you upgrade other buildings and spawn more units or new ones. In the sort of skirmish sandbox mode that's available now you'll want to have a balanced setup, but clearly, there are lots of decision to make here to optimise your route through the tech tree.
One thing we didn't get a good feel for and something that's likely going to go through some iterations before Star Drifters find a good balance is how quickly you can and should expand your empire. We didn't feel penalised for exploring at all, even if we hadn't maxed out our existing island at all, so that's something that we're curious as to how it plays out in the later on during the end-game phase.
Typically after having played an Early Access game for a couple of hours we walk away thinking that we might return after an update or two, but that's not the case here. We'll likely return to it soon, and that says something about the quality of the base offering. It should be said, however, that while it is important that the basic features of the game are there, much of the overall appeal of the product will be found in the campaigns and the multiplayer portions of the game, and those are not yet available in the Early Access version.