"I loved earning new abilities and unlocking new gear, knowing combat would get more inventive and interesting moving forward."
Almost Human brought us the world of Legend of Grimrock and its sequel, only to have gone quiet over the past few years. In that time, Ctrl Alt Ninja appeared on the scene with Grimrock's co-creators Petri Häkkinen and Juho Salila at the helm, and Druidstone: The Secret of the Menhir Forest to show as their opening gambit. After beginning production in the summer of 2018, the game has released just under a year later and brings something new to the strategy RPG genre.
In the opening moments of the game, you aren't treated to much exposition. You see a simple enough scene play out as a little red-cloaked creature forages for mushrooms in the woods. He is set upon by large bugs only to have two humans comes to his rescue; subsequent battles follow that not only introduce the basic mechanics of combat, but the concepts of the world of Elo Sphaera and the continent of Ecodari specifically, where the Menhir Forest lies. The very confused Warden, Leonhard, is a classic fighter and new to the world, joined by the scout/healer hybrid Aava, daughter to the Arch-Druid, and an impish Red Priest Acolyte, Oiko, wielder of elemental and control magic. These three form the core party of the game as they face off against the Cancer that has begun to encroach upon the beautiful Menhir Forest they call home.
Within these opening missions, the party is drawn back to the druid's circle where tragedy has struck, revealing the villain of the story, the mysterious Sorceress. Knowing what lies ahead, the story begins in earnest as you are free to choose missions and discover the truth behind the Cancer, the Sorceress, and how they are linked to life on the continent of Ecodari. Dialogue and storytelling happen in pre- and post-combat "Interludes", and explores a largely well-written and engaging tale. However, I often found that Oiko's sometimes tone-deaf language pulled me out of my suspension of disbelief. While he is the main source of comedy, the far too modern dialogue is jarring to me as he tromps through this mystical fantasy world where no one else speaks as he does. Druidstone presents little new to players familiar with the RPG genre, as similar beats are followed in other classic RPGs. Though the schemes of global destruction, manipulation, and a hero's struggle with identity are nothing new, they are still presented with a refreshing veneer that makes the tale enjoyable to follow even if the finale is simple enough to guess at.
While the game appears to be a classic isometric RPG at first glance, the combat mechanics fall into the strategy genre: you manoeuvre your heroes about the field, manipulating acquired skills to maximize damage output and battlefield control. The system is the entire foundation upon which Druidstone is built and, thankfully, is quite satisfying to play with. Each turn, characters have their set amount of movement points and one action point to make use of in whatever order they choose. The flexibility of this system allows for a great deal of control over the battlefield, making the tactical gameplay shine as players reap the rewards of a well-executed plan. Additionally, certain obstacles like bodies of water or triggered traps encourage players to be aware of their surroundings as they move through each environment. As well, enemies will have attacks of opportunity that can punish characters for withdrawing or straying too close mid move. Thankfully, if a movement was misjudged, there is an "undo" command that resets the character's turn. However, the moment an action is executed or players swap between characters, a movement can no longer be undone. While this may catch you off guard at first, it is an important mechanic to dissuade players from abusing the system and restarting entire turns on a regular basis (although Aava has the ability to do that once per battle). With this simply executed combat system in place, Ctrl Alt Ninja had solid ground to build from.
The world map is used to navigate the story of Druidstone, as missions are delivered via a natural network of furry bird friends called Shido, clearly reminiscent of the beloved moogles of Final Fantasy and Furbies of the 90s. Players usually have a couple missions to choose from that need not be completed in any particular order. Others will not be unlocked until the story mission is cleared. These missions take you all across Ecodari to progress the story, while others present more unique challenges simply to earn rewards and world build. There are mandatory objectives necessary to succeed, but also optional ones to earn bonus rewards, which offers you something more thrilling than the usual "kill all of X" or "get to X".
Additionally, the puzzle missions offer a complete switch from the combat routine, challenging players to use more lateral thinking as they work their way through ancient ruins. I thoroughly enjoyed these refreshing reprieves from battle, since many of the puzzles are satisfying brainteasers that, upon completion, flooded me with thrilling validation. They are entirely optional, and with only one feeling a quite obtuse, so I recommend players dive into each one they find in their journey. Finally, to shake up the rote battle routine further, certain missions have environmental effects that often manifest in limiting player turn-time before something alters the battlefield, like freezing damage over time or growths of Cancer that summon more enemies. With a variety of mission styles to fill out the story, Ctrl Alt Ninja has ensured you won't find yourself bored at any point in your journey.
What further sets Druidstone apart is the lack of statistical and inventory bloat routinely tied to isometric and strategy RPGs. Characters have 4 stats, 4 item slots, and their collection of up to 12 abilities to manage. The UI is so clean and clear that even the uninitiated will find it easy to discern. Your team of heroes will level up the tried and true way of getting experience gained from felling foes and completing missions. Each level offers new passive or active abilities that can truly alter the outcome of the next encounter. Furthermore, many abilities can be improved by assigning power gems into slots that give extra bonuses. Take Leonhard's basic Charge ability for example, which has one slot that increases its range while the other earns health with a kill. With the variety of abilities offered at each level, characters can be built in unique ways. Some equipment also has slots for power gems to add effects from additional health to poisoning foes or even more unique things like summoning Shido or the dead to fight for you. There is much flexibility in character construction, despite how simple it seems to start, which serves to make each playthrough unique. There is also the option to restart and try a battle with a different approach. Druidstone isn't the sort of game that allows players to rest on one game winning tactic, instead challenging them to assess each battle and plan accordingly, making full use of the characters' tricks. The only time this rings false is during the final missions where the maps and boss fight offer little in terms of battlefield control and exploitation, and I felt forced into a rush to deal as much damage as possible. That one dent aside, I loved earning new abilities and unlocking new gear, knowing combat would get more inventive and interesting moving forward.
The engine built for the game presents an aesthetic that blends classics like Baldur's Gate or Diablo with a brilliant, vibrant look akin to Torchlight or Kingdoms of Amalur. The isometric view will have long-time RPG players feeling right at home while the world itself is largely fresh. Though they are graphically simpler than the environments, the character models offer a surprising amount of animation in the storytelling moments to adequately articulate emotional gravity. In combat, abilities have a certain amount of flare when activated, and the camera briefly pans around characters as they initiate a spell or attack, offering a more detailed look at each model. The game doesn't cause players to suffer through needlessly drawn out animations either, as spells happen with an exciting execution that conveys their power without overstaying their welcome. The colourful maps are lush and fun to explore each turn as players mow down monsters, many of which are uniquely designed for this world, and explore the environments for secrets. Different biomes are expertly crafted as well, conveying the chill of frigid mountain battles or the gloom of dour swamps. The acrid, electric pop of neon pink from the Cancer draws the eye each time it appears, making it clear that this manifestation does not belong amongst the natural tones of this largely untouched continent. Ctrl Alt Ninja put a lot of love into the crafting of Ecodari and its monstrous denizens, making this fantasy world feel alive and unique amongst its contemporaries.
The soundtrack work by Scoring Helsinki offers a lot to set the tone for various moments in the game. On the surface, Druidstone presents as a western RPG, but I found much of the soundtrack work to be akin to JRPGs, with rousing electric guitar combat themes and emotional moments that would not seem out of place in Ys, Final Fantasy, or Tales. As such, much of the music does not sound unique on its own, but when paired with the aesthetic and world of Druidstone, it sets itself apart in an interesting juxtaposition. Suitably, many of the boss fight themes stand out, as well as the mystical theme of the main menu that draws you into the enchanted world of the Menhir Forest. Much of the Ctrl Alt Ninja team also contributed to building the library of stirring sound effects that make combat as rousing as it is. I did not expect to have each footstep heard as the character traipsed through grass, splashed through water, or thumped over cobbles. The attentive soundwork makes the action that much more intense and gives each ability more impact upon execution.
Druidstone: The Secret of the Menhir Forest is a successful labour of love, built from the ground up by a small team that have made something truly delightful. I sincerely looked forward to each moment of play, which is something I haven't felt in a while for a game. The satisfyingly simple character progression and largely well-implemented tactics of the battle system make for an experience that is just plain fun. While the story is nothing new, the relationships built with the characters may offer enough of a connection to leave you shocked at times by the journey's end. It's clear that Elo Sphaera has more to offer players and I hope Ctrl Alt Ninja invites us back into this world.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.