Manage resources, conquer new floating islands and send out autonomous flying heroes.
Type: Single-player, Multi-Player
Genre: Management, Strategy, RTS, 4X
Developer: Star Drifters
Publisher: Star Drifters,
Release date: 18 Apr, 2019
2019 is definitively a great time for resource management game and city builders, the revival of an entire genre. For this game, we are focusing on the revival of magic as the planet was shattered to pieces and so much magic was used to hold the pieces in the sky to prevent a cataclysmic event, that the magic users have all lost their powers for a few generations. Now that they are gaining back their abilities, all they seem to think about is going to war with each other!
The magnificent post-apocalypse
The premise of floating islands is a refreshing idea, and Driftland delivers beautifully. Heroes ride atop eagles or dragons exploring the world, and magic can be used to bring an island closer to your empire and connect it with a bridge. Water cascades fall into oblivion, as you can see the lava of the planet’s center far below. What a gorgeous sight!
Everyone is a hero
Starting a new map can be daunting as the heroes do not necessarily start atop a flying mount, and your own buildings do not provide such aerial creatures. Before explaining the process, I will quickly complain about the semantics: Games usually categorize units as either common troops or heroes, unique characters that cannot be mass-produced. Driftland names all its soldiers and uses the term heroes for everyone, and thus I was sometimes confused with tutorial prompts or in-game text telling me that I should use heroes to accomplish some tasks, and at that time I couldn’t imagine that the game was referring to my basic soldiers, nor that they were also able to fly. It took me a while to understand that I had to capture wildlife nests on some islands, then connect them to my empire. My soldiers were then able to walk to these nests and mount the ravens that I had purchased, and suddenly I had a whole aerial army.
Trust the AI
What also took me a long time to get used to was the indirect method of control: similarly, to the old RTS Majesty, units are not controlled directly but the player places a flag with a command, and if someone is not busy then they will do it. I am in two minds about this. On the one hand, I dislike not being able to micro-manage my troops, on the other hand, the AI is surprisingly one of the most competent that I have ever seen, and I could leave a lot of the busywork to automation. There are a lot of little things that make me say that.
Autonomy and directions
For one, heroes are actually quite independent and do not hesitate to explore a bit, collect resources, fight enemies, go back home once they are injured, and most importantly, prioritize helping defend the empire whenever there is an enemy attack. This means that you trust the AI to defend you while you are busy looking at another screen, although you should still build defensive towers for when your troops are too spread out to come back quickly. But then, it’s not always so nice, and enemy troops can also quietly leave the battlefield when they have low health; and when your troops are vastly outnumbered and still wait to be at critical health before leaving and get obliterated when flying over a well-defended territory, you can’t help but feel that a direct control scheme would have avoided this situation. Another issue is that it is not very intuitive how to coordinate a massive attack with all your troops at the same time rather than one at a time randomly deciding to go where you laid a flag.
Technically, all of this can be solved after learning the full extent of the game mechanics. Groups of troops are organized with pitch camps that can then aggressively raid an island. To pull your units out of a combat situation early, do not hesitate to remove the flags that directed them here. And finally, you can deal with units leaving by the skin of their teeth with your spells, slowing down enemy units or encasing them with ice. There are lots of fun spells to use, as long as you are in range from your main castle (this range can be extended in the tech tree), and you can pause the game at any time to aim carefully or chain attacks (although the different spells are on a cooldown). The indirect control scheme is not all that bad and it can help you manage your vast empire in a relaxed manner, but ultimately it also prevents late-game fights from being fun as cleaning up island after island becomes tedious. Even the nice exploration aspect of the earlier phase of a map becomes repetitive when playing several games in a row. All heroes are equally as competent and there are no unique situations that require a different approach every time.
Managing your empire
The resource management layer of the game has sort of the same strengths and weaknesses. A clear strength is the interface and also some degree of automation regarding where to assign the workers, and it can be changed on the fly without micro-managing every building – unlike upgrading them, which is a serious chore. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, and I will first explain the resource system. Buildings, units or upgrades require several types of resources, harvested from the islands thanks to specific buildings tied to each industry. What Driftland does well is that selecting a new building to place shows helpful red or green marked areas rather than letting the player do something stupid, what Driftland doesn’t do well is to give life to these industries. They collect numbers, and you never see little people working and carrying the resources. I guess that it’s fine since the rest of the game is so pretty and after a while, you zoom out rather than having your nose at the doorstep of your citizens, but still, the resource management is a by-the-numbers affair and feels a bit dry. Then there is the main loop. You get gold from taxes, so you build cottages to house more citizens. But more citizens mean that you need to produce food, and so the citizens have to be assigned to the farms rather than assigned to stay at home (since obviously, they produce gold by rubbing their feet against a magic table at home). Since you don’t produce as much gold as you want, you place more cottages, but then, ah, you need even more farms. Beginning a map is always a bit tricky because of that, and it takes a while before you are freed from this loop and can focus on other things. (Also, some people don’t seem to know that you make money with gold mines, it’s not just collecting taxes) At some point your empire becomes self-sustainable and you keep producing goods without having to bother dropping new buildings every minute, but until then it’s a clickfest to upgrade all your buildings one level at a time. This is the part of the game that I hated the most, I would have rather preferred a tech tree that could upgrade all buildings of the same type at the same time.
All of Driftland’s problems were made all the more obvious in one of its early campaign levels. Right as I was struggling to build my empire, my coffers were emptied by having to repair my buildings from a constant dance of tornadoes and waves of enemy raids. Assigning my workers to gold would prevent them from farming, and the famine would cause riots. Assigning my workers to farm would keep them pacified, but I wasn’t earning any gold. In the end, I decided on several minutes of farming to build up my reserves of food so that I could sustain a few seconds of gold production, just enough time to place a new building (a defensive building or a farm). Rinse & repeat for what felt like several hours. Once I was strong enough to repel the enemy attacks, I sent my valiant flying heroes to explore and find the enemy camps. For some reason, they were not highlighted on this map, leading me to manually place flags all over the map to send my heroes. Even with the game sped up 4x, it was so slow that I was reading a novel while playing the game.
A lot on offer
Ok, that was one really bad mission, the rest were not that bad. The game weirdly sits in between “very well designed, automated and relaxing” and “tedious upgrades to click click click, too long and repetitive”. It’s hard to describe; I was sort of enjoying myself while regretting spending too much time in the game. Actually, you can expect to sink a large number of hours if you want to finish Driftland. There are four campaigns, skirmishes on randomly generated maps (you can fine-tune what you want more or less of), and even online multiplayer that can either pit you against other players or play coop. The campaign follows the story of four races: humans, dwarves and two types of elves. While the gist of the game is the same for each race, they all have slight differences as well as a unique look to each of them.
Graphically the game is gorgeous, and it runs quite well on older hardware with everything bumped to the max, although there can be slowdowns at times, but it’s still playable so I never felt the obligation to lower the graphics. The gameplay video with this article had more slowdowns than normally, due to the recording, so don’t judge the game on that alone. I was also impressed by how far you can zoom out and the icons have little numbers that let you quickly see what you need to see. From sliders to icons, the developers of Star Drifter made an excellent job with the UI! The first few steps in the game can be a bit overwhelming, but once I got used to it, it all felt just right.
I had a good time with the floating islands of Driftland, and its indirect control scheme is well compensated by a great AI and a smooth UI. After an adjustment period, I saw how this game could be very relaxing while keeping a tight control on the flow of a huge empire. Still, while it’s overall well designed, the lack of direct control as well some gameplay loops will be a clear turn-off for many players. Truth is, Driftland does combat better than a vast majority of resource management games, so well that it feels like an RTS. But because of that, players expect it to handle just like a fast-paced RTS, which the game never attempts to be. As to me, it’s the sort of management game that I enjoy playing one map at a time, otherwise, it feels too long and repetitive.