Creativity isn’t a mysterious talent, but rather a neglected skill. As rare as it is, genuine creativity should be instantly and emphatically appreciated, so I’ll make it the first thing I praise about Driftmoon, Instant Kingdom’s latest action RPG. Regardless of its other merits or its faults, Driftmoon contains moments of brilliant creativity that may seem like small things — a piece of magic gear or an enemy design — but they combine to evoke real artistry. Narrative and gameplay hang-ups provide moderate barriers to enjoyment, but Driftmoon is essential for fans of comic fantasy, such as that championed by Piers Anthony, Robert Asprin, and Terry Pratchett.
When a game makes comedy a central component, a player’s enjoyment of the game no doubt hinges on his sense of humor. This is quite the risk, as comedy is surprisingly subjective, and while there’s surely such a thing as a bad joke, what’s charming or downright hilarious to one may be juvenile or groan-worthy to another. Driftmoon takes place in a comic fantasy realm full of pop culture references (a Harry Potter spoof, for example, and the ubiquitous Monty Python nod), hyperbole, anachronisms, and general silliness. Most players will likely find something to smile about, even if some of the jokes and gags are pretty unimaginative, particularly those pertaining to pop culture. Ultimately, Driftmoon’s bright tone favors a certain sense of humor, and those who lack it may be immune to the game’s charms.
The characters are a bit underdeveloped, but the protagonist’s companions are certainly unique: a talking black panther, a talking firefly, a talking skeleton — most everything speaks English in Driftmoon, including some plants. The humor and light tone overshadow the game’s dramatic scenes, but the narrative includes a few creative turns, even if it’s essentially an extended fetch quest. Fortunately, it never quite feels like one due to the constant barrage of weird characters, strange puzzles, and rubber ducks that may or may not be magical.
Driftmoon concludes after just six to eight hours, and the ending made me rethink some of the game’s themes. Although not entirely obvious throughout the rest of the adventure, the game’s ending minutes are surprisingly pious. I say this as commentary, not warning: there are definite Christian themes to the story. If there is a warning to be made, it is in the game’s final moments, which can be interpreted as downright proselytistic.
The developers seem to have spent more time on story and world creation than combat and character progression, which are simplistic, clunky, and a little boring. Clicking on an enemy makes the protagonist and his companions attack. When that foe falls, they go right on attacking another and then another until all lie dead. The player is left managing a small arsenal of special abilities tied to a shallow magic meter. Even on high difficulties, combat is too passive and repetitive. Despite some creative abilities, such as one that allows a player to sense and locate hidden goldfish that boost stats or provide other bonuses, the skill tree feels stunted, as if pruned by an inexperienced gardener.
There are truly creative designs in Driftmoon, however, and the world is lovingly hand crafted and a joy to explore, with secrets hidden everywhere. The level of detail and care put into the environments and dungeons is wonderful. Silver feathers with a secret purpose, humorous books, and talking animals with strange motives are among the treasures to be found on and off the main path. Imaginative enemy designs make combat a little less dull: blobs reflect projectiles and explode on impact while scuttling scamperers shoot out missiles when attacked that damage even their allies, creating amusing chains of bullets and death. There are also delightful magic items, such as the Ring of Megalomania that makes the protagonist shout out things like “Kneel, inferiors!” wherever he goes. If Driftmoon’s cheesy humor doesn’t turn you away, you’re likely in for an enchanting adventure.
Driftmoon’s top-down camera angle combined with the low graphical quality makes identifying objects difficult at times. Late in the game, for example, I explored an entire area and found no way to proceed. When I opened the map, I saw a marker that drew my attention to a “statue” that I had previously taken to be just another rock. The graphics are obtrusively bad. Gareth Meek’s original soundtrack is very, well, Driftmoonian, but the tracks often play at inappropriate times, something that always takes me out of the moment like a fly on my neck.
Driftmoon’s old school sensibilities are tempered by conveniences like fast travel, but overly simple and occasionally clunky combat and character progression hamper an otherwise creative work of art. Even if I don’t appreciate the humor that saturates the game (or the proselytizing), I’ll always appreciate “hand-made” RPGs like this. In an industry filled with generic, over-produced schlock, these games are to be cherished. Fans of comic fantasy and action RPGs will be comforted by Driftmoon’s cheerful atmosphere and delightful exploration.