Druidstone is a tactical strategy game from the developers of Legend Of Grimrock, and it is pretty much exactly the kind of tactical strategy game that I’d expect the developers of Legend Of Grimrock to make.
The Grimrock guys do like their puzzles, and consequently Druidstone (which has been lumbered with the rather unfortunate subtitle Secret Of The Menhir Forest) feels rather more puzzle-y than your standard tactical strategy experience found in campaign-driven games such as XCOM and Battle Brothers. Each battle in those games takes place on procedurally-generated maps against procedurally-generated groups of enemies, and the focus is usually on killing all of the enemies present before they can do the same to you, in large part because doing anything much more complicated than that in a procedurally-generated game is just asking for trouble. For better or worse this use of procedural generation is genre-standard now, even though it’s an approach that has significant weaknesses to go along with its strengths — which is why it’s actually been quite refreshing to play Druidstone. Druidstone eschews procedural generation almost completely in favour of a “simple” collection of 30-odd hand-crafted combat missions (plus half a dozen puzzle missions); it actually feels like a throwback in a lot of ways because this is how strategy games were being made during the genre’s initial heyday back in the mid-to-late ‘90s. And even though this style of fully-scripted design has fallen out of fashion on PC, it’s still very much in vogue in console titles such as Fire Emblem, which Druidstone bears more than a passing resemblance to — except Druidstone also takes the concept a step further to provide some rather more thought-provoking strategy problems than your typical XCOM level throws at you.
It has to be said that Druidstone doesn’t have the best setup. The tutorial mission appears to start after an introduction cutscene that doesn’t exist, so your trio of characters are introduced with barely any explanation of who they are or why they’re together. You’ve got Leonhard, the Fighter-type of the party who is there to tank and shove people around; Aava, an archer/cleric hybrid who does little damage on her own but is critical to mission success thanks to her buffs and debuffs; and Oiko, the mage who (as usual for mages) ends up being the source of most of your damage thanks to his area-of-effect spell attacks. These three characters cover all of the stereotypical RPG party basics, which is handy because for the first half of the game they’re all you get — a fourth character is added to the roster at the halfway point, but for some reason they start out at level one when the rest of your party is at level seven and so are relegated to the role of dealing a bit of supplementary damage and tanking a few blows with their face and little else. Importantly none of these characters will ever die; anyone who goes down will be “knocked out” instead of dying and can be revived mid-mission with the appropriate ability, and will miraculously recover to full strength at the end of the mission no matter their status. There’s no choice over party makeup either, and you take all three (later four) characters into every mission.
This means that, for every mission, you’re working with a known set of tools. Both you and the people who designed the missions know exactly what the potential capabilities of your small force are going to be, and while there is a bit of variance introduced by the skill system the end result is a set of encounters that are very highly-tuned, enough so that your small band will be pushed to their utmost limits in almost every mission. Nearly all abilities and spells that aren’t basic attacks have a limited number of uses; for example, the mage can bring a base of three Fire spells into every mission, and once he’s used all three of them he’s out of luck and will have to switch to his Forcebolt attack, which is unlimited use but can only hit one enemy at a time instead of bathing a 3×3 area in magical napalm. Balanced against that are the enemies you’ll have to face — anywhere up to 10-12 at a time and usually two or three times that over the course of a mission as more enemy waves spawn in. Not only are you outnumbered to start with, but you’re under time pressure as well; you have to kill enough enemies by the time the next wave hits that you’re not overwhelmed, all while fulfilling the mission objective. These objectives aren’t particularly complicated by any means, usually involving you visiting certain points on the map or blowing up targets before fighting a boss, but they’re enough for the emphasis to not be on slaughtering all of your enemies, and instead on simply managing their numbers so that you have the space you need to complete the level.
There’s just one tiny snag involved in killing enemies, though: nearly every enemy in Druidstone is unusually tough relative to your party’s base damage output. Your basic attacks do 2-3 damage to a single enemy, and an interesting thing Druidstone does is to keep your attack damage flat throughout the entire game; levelling up gives you more abilities and spells and thus more options in combat, but it does not increase your attack power. Oiko’s Fire spell at level 1 does the same damage as his Fire spell at level 10. Leonhard started my campaign with a sword that did 3 damage per attack. He finished it with a sword that did 4 damage per attack — and that was the most powerful weapon in the game for any character. Meanwhile the weakest enemies in the game1 have at least three hit points. More typically they’ll have around 4-8, and the most powerful ones will have an Armour attribute on top of that that is subtracted from the damage of every attack that you make — and that’s not even getting into bosses, who can have up to twenty hit points and are Armoured to boot. Attacks always hit, which at least lets you plan your strategy over multiple turns with a fair degree of certainty, but if you want to take out Druidstone’s enemies with basic attacks you’re probably going to be there all day — and as we’ve established, thanks to the constantly-spawning enemy waves you don’t have all day.
What you do have is an ever-expanding arsenal of upgradeable abilities, both active and passive, that you can use to turn Druidstone’s battles in your favour. Each character level up grants a single new ability, and the abilities on their own are nothing to write home about; Aava’s Volley ability, when you buy it, will deal her base attack damage (of 2) to two separate enemies instead of just one, and you can use that Volley ability just once per battle. Which, while useful for clearing up chaff or weakening an enemy so that Leonhard can batter it to death, is rather underwhelming as a skill ability. However, Druidstone’s big gimmick is that each skill has a number of “power gem” slots (i.e. skill points) that can be used to boost skills into a far more useful state. A common use of power gems is to increase the number of uses you get from an ability, with each power gem invested allowing you one additional use of that ability per battle, but they can also grant additional attributes to an ability. For example, you can invest two power gems to give Volley the ability to apply the Poison debuff to enemies, which increases the damage they take from all sources by one point per attack. This makes Volley into a crucial tool for taking out the tougher enemies who will require multiple attacks to kill, as every attack action is precious and Poisoning them with a Volley attack as your opening gambit can potentially save multiple actions if they’re heavily armoured. Speaking of, your weapons and armour can also be upgraded with power gems, and so they can be used to give Aava’s bow the Pierce attribute, which lets it ignore one or more points of armour and chew those hard targets up even faster.
Using power gems to build up your party skills into something that’s capable of clearing an otherwise-tricky mission is probably the defining feature of Druidstone, as demonstrated by your being able to respec any or all of your power gems for free whenever you’re outside of a mission. There were at least two points in my playthrough of the campaign where the build I had wasn’t good enough for clearing a given level and I had to drastically change my approach; you’ll probably get some mileage out of a one-size-fits-all build that’s just focused around pure damage, but it won’t be good enough to complete all of the optional objectives from each level — and that’s a problem, because completing the optional objectives is how you get the power gems in the first place. If you don’t engage with the system and experiment you’ll likely not have enough gems to complete the later levels, which I feel is as it should be — Druidstone would be a far lesser game if you could just Fireball your way to victory. Thanks to those low-damage attacks you have to get significantly more creative with how you combine utility skills and positioning in order to kill enemies while keeping your party alive.
Part of this is an extension of the usual RPG party tactics you’d expect from any fantasy strategy game. Aava can move the furthest, so she usually gets the job of running for any distant objectives. On the other hand Leonhard has by far the biggest health pool and can be given Armour to soak up even more damage, so you want any highly-damaging attacks to hit him first. This often means positioning him at a chokepoint so that he’ll get attacks of opportunity on any passing enemies — which is enough to dissuade the AI from simply rushing past him to get to your squisher backline — but the problem with that idea is that standing in the ideal position for holding a chokepoint might not let him make an attack that turn, and you need all the attacks you can get. However, Oiko gets a free Teleport ability he can use every turn that can swap him with any enemy or party member, and so it’s often a better idea to make your attacking move with Leonhard, run Oiko into the chokepoint instead (his positioning doesn’t matter so much as long as he’s behind Leonhard and has line-of-sight to the enemy), and then use Teleport to swap places with Leonhard. Or perhaps you need to move Oiko into Fireball range but he can’t get that far on his own — but Aava can. Occasionally there’ll be environmental effects in a level that hit certain tiles every turn which can also be leveraged by Teleporting enemies into them, and once I Teleported a barrel full of dynamite into the middle of an enemy group, which was worth a lot of bonus damage when Aava set it off. In fact there’s quite of a lot of Into The Breach-style position-manipulation in Druidstone, with skills such as Push, weapon knockback and Leonhard’s Charge attack all being important for knocking enemies off ledges and grouping them up for maximum Fireball efficiency. You can only fire off so many of them each mission, after all, and so if you can catch just one more enemy in the area of effect that’s often enough extra damage to win the level.
Then there’s the buffs and debuffs you can apply, which are just as critical (if not more so) than manipulating party and enemy positioning. Sometimes you’ll be in a position where taking damage is unavoidable, and some of the enemies hit hard enough that your characters will go down in 2-3 hits. Given the comparatively small size of your party’s HP bars (Leonhard can be buffed to 12 HP, Aava and Oiko have a maximum 8 HP, and enemies will typically do 2-4 damage per hit) you need to be just as pathologically obsessive about minimising the damage you receive as you are about dishing it out. Often this is a matter of keeping out of enemy attack range, or pushing enemies out of attack range, or killing enemies before they can attack, but for the situations where you absolutely, positively cannot avoid taking hits there’s the Protect spell. The fully boosted version of Protect applies +2 Armour to your entire party over two turns, which can often translate to 12-14 additional points of damage negated and lets you be a little more aggressive in your actions by (for example) having Leonhard distract a boss by letting it punch him in the face for a couple of rounds while your other party members ignore the enemies clawing them and try to focus fire it down before the Protect spell runs out.
The fully deterministic nature of Druidstone is one of its biggest strengths, I think, because there’s absolutely no risk management to it and everything has a known outcome, letting you plan your moves two or three turns in advance if necessary. You just have to solve the puzzle of ensuring the amount of damage you dish out equals your enemy HP totals exactly, since using a Flurry (5 damage) to kill a wounded enemy on 3 HP is wasting two points of damage you might otherwise be able to use elsewhere. You’re constantly doing these damage and HP sums when you’re playing Druidstone, trying to sequence your ability use throughout your turn to maximise your damage output across multiple bad guys. Oiko can hit that group of three enemies with a fireball which will do four damage and leave two of them with three HP and one of them with four HP; if Aava hits them with Poison from her Volley first that’ll be +1 damage from the fireball along with 2 damage from the volley, killing the two weaker enemies — but what about the survivor? Leonhard can deal 3 damage with his sword, but that won’t kill it and anyway you need him to Charge another enemy down a pit. However, if you use Power Attack to boost his damage by +1, and then Execute to refund the action point so that he can execute the Charge afterwards… Druidstone’s missions are all about planning ahead like this, far more so than XCOM and even Into The Breach since there’s a far wider range of possible actions available to Druidstone’s party than ITB’s mech teams.
The missions themselves have enough variety to sustain Druidstone through the twelve hours it took me to finish all of them. One thing I did note was that the earliest missions were arguably overtuned thanks to the usual problem this genre has: the game is hardest at the start when you don’t have any abilities to play with and easiest at the end when you have your full toolset available. Thanks to Druidstone’s “flat” levelling structure and its ability to fully-script enemy spawns and level layouts to compensate for player power, the final few levels remained challenging in spite of my party being able to do literally ten times the amount of stuff it could do at the start of the game. Still, I did notice a considerable difference between the first 5-6 levels, which I initially could not fully clear despite several restarts, and the rest of the game, where I had to go through a couple of passes on my skill build on tough missions to finish them but never experienced the same “I’ll have to come back later when I’m more powerful” feeling of those opening levels. Replaying previous missions with your current party is something that you can do in Druidstone, of course, and it’s why it’s not particularly a significant problem for the game; however I do believe that mission difficulty should be designed around the party you have at the time, not the party you’re going to have ten missions from now. I was also not particularly impressed with the mission that was basically an extended cutscene with no combat and a lot of blundering around a dark maze, and the dedicated puzzle missions felt distinctly lightweight compared to both Grimrock’s puzzles and Druidstone’s actual tactical challenges.
And while I’m picking holes in Druidstone I might as well mention the skill system, which I have indirectly praised a lot in this review for the way it impacts Druidstone’s fights, but which is considerably more muddled when you’re actually picking new skills during a level up screen. Each character starts with twelve skill slots, and every time you level up you get to pick one additional skill from a pool of at least two options which is then slotted into one of your free skill slots. Once all twelve slots are occupied you can continue to level up and choose new skills which will go into a pool of un-slotted skill cards, and you can swap existing skills out for these unequipped ones at any time — but you can only do this when you’ve maxed out your skill count. While you’re still in the process of levelling up to the skill cap (which takes most of the game) your skill slots are all locked, which means that if you suddenly realise “Oh, I went for the Tough perk on the last level up but having the Push skill instead would be quite useful for this mission”, you can’t actually do anything to walk that decision back except load an earlier save. I think this goes against Druidstone’s general ethos of having your party build be flexible in response to the specific challenges posed by each mission scenario. It would have been far better to have each level up just open up an additional free skill slot that the player could fill with any skill — especially given the lengths it goes to to keep the party levelling curve as flat as possible, since that means there’s no such thing as a lategame or “ultimate” ability lurking at the end of the levelling tree. Skills just give you more options, not more raw power, and putting restrictions on what you can and can’t put into a skill slot seems odd given how otherwise-accommodating Druidstone is with its respecs.
So Druidstone’s not perfect, and it makes more than a few mistakes. There are definite improvements that could be made to skill selection and equipment variety and it spends way too much time on lengthy cutscenes where you have to click through line after line of dialogue about the nonsensical plot — although I guess that’s another point of similarity with Japanese tactics games such as Fire Emblem and Final Fantasy Tactics. Druidstone’s fully-scripted nature also works against it a little as, while I enjoyed playing through it very much, I have no urge to replay it now that I’ve seen all of the campaign content, making it a very one-and-done kind of a game. However, these few niggles aside, it does have a very good grasp of the sort of game it wants to be, and if you ignore the cutscenes2 it wastes very little effort on not being that game. It’s one of the more focused indie games I’ve played in recent years, even if it does lack the ruthless design purity of Into The Breach. And while it might not have much to offer outside of being a short and relatively sweet tactical brain-teaser, I think Druidstone is very definitely worth a look if that sounds like your jam.