Sunday 7 August 2022

Druidstone: The Secret of Menhir Forest

Menhir Forest is in danger. The Archdruid has gone missing and a horrible growth, known as "the Cancer," is spreading through the forest, consuming everything in its path. Corrupted, dangerous creatures are appearing. The druids call upon three allies to help investigate and solve the crisis: Aava, the Archdruid's daughter and a keen archer; Leonhard, the Warden, a mighty warrior with a mysterious past that he cannot remember; and Oiko, a renegade Red Priest who has rejected the evil ways of his former colleagues.

Druidstone: The Secret of Menhir Forest is an intriguing game which mixes several influences: tactics games, like XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Final Fantasy Tactics; JRPGs, particularly the Final Fantasy series; and old-school games which rewarded tactical thinking and creative combinations of abilities, perhaps unsurprising given the same creative team worked on the throwback Legend of Grimrock series. It is more accessible than Legend of Grimrock, and can easily be summed up as "fantasy XCOM" (even if it's not quite as accomplished in that field as the Banner Saga trilogy).

The game proceeds from quest to quest with your fellowship assigned a primary objective, achieving which immediately ends the mission, and secondary objectives. Secondary objectives are not essential to complete the mission, but they are essential to acquire gemstones, which boost your abilities. You will very quickly learn that these gemstones are not optional and are urgently needed to make some of the later missions achievable in any fashion.

Each mission plays out in a familiar XCOM style, with a grid across which your characters can move and take actions. You can move up to an allowance and attack, but attacking does not end your movement, so can pop out of cover to get line-of-sight on an enemy, fire off an arrow or magical attack, and then nip back into cover, which creates lots of intriguing tactical options. One limitation is that if you are adjacent to an enemy, you cannot move away from them without triggering an opportunity attack (the same is also true for you), although several items and abilities do allow you to accomplish this.

You have a baseline of abilities and levelling up your character allows you to add new abilities. More important are the gemstones, which enhance the abilities you already have. These may allow you to add more damage or a status effect to an attack, or simply use the ability more often. Using abilities usually replaces an attack action, but some are free-to-use and can combine with attacks or movements to impressive effect. Your magic-users can utilised "Focus" to enhance their magical abilities, such as taking Fire from a single-target ability to an area-of-effect ability that can hit up to nine enemies if they are standing closely together (or if you manipulate or trick the enemy into bunching together). Oiko has an underrated ability to swap places with any unit in his line of sight (friend or foe) which allows you to increase the range of your melee characters' movement (Oiko moves up to his maximum, swap-teleports with a melee character who can then move to the maximum of their movement, allowing them to get into combat a round earlier than just waiting for the enemy to approach).

Progress is mostly linear, although at key points you have a choice of several missions to proceed with. You can also revisit previously-completed missions to gain more experience and gold, although the amount you gain each time you replay a mission dwindles with each playthrough. You can also only get bonus gems from any given mission once. This does allow you to sometimes complete a mission without getting the bonus objectives and then coming back later on once your overall strength has improved.

Graphically, the game is solid but not amazing and the music is pleasant, even if more than one tune only narrowly avoids have Square Enix's lawyers frowning and reaching for the telephone. The user interface is great and an "undo move" button is a welcome sight given how easy it is to accidentally move somewhere you didn't want to go. More annoying is the way that Oiko's "teleport" and "forcebolt" icons are very similar, meaning you sometimes end up swapping places with an enemy you meant to attack and vice versa.

In terms of story, the game is okay but the lack of any voiceovers at all feels a bit outdated (as much as it kept the game's budget down). There's also sometimes far too much dialogue before a mission starts, little of it interesting. The story is also a bit odd, one subplot where a character is possessed by a another being and stays that way for the rest of the game being weirdly under-explored. There's also a strange thing where you really (eventually) have five party-members, but to bring the fifth party member into the battle requires summoning them at the start of every mission. It feels like they should really have just been in the party all along.

Druidstone: The Secret of Menhir Forest (****) is not going to be winning any prizes for originality, but it is a tightly-designed fantasy tactics game with a nice story, interesting characters and some fiendishly designed missions. These make up for a sometimes confusing UI and a lack of voice acting in the game. The title is available now on PC.

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