Ah, the old 4X mantra: build an empire. Timeless. Compelling. And rarely followed as faithfully as in Driftland: The Magic Revival, a new strategy game from developer Star Drifters which is about arranging floating islands into a livable kingdom. It recently launched on Steam Early Access, and after diving in for a fair few hours, I've returned pleasantly surprised—and on the brink of war.
Here's the rub: in a world shattered and now held together by magic, you, a promising young mage, have the power to move floating islands. You start with just one island, on which you build your all-important castle, but by spending mana you can drag other islands close enough to build bridges connecting them. Once you learn more advanced spells, you can also change an island's topography to suit your race, or just destroy islands outright.
Islands pull double duty as real estate and resource pockets. You need the raw space to build cottages for your citizens and farms to feed them, and you need the ore and other materials islands contain to grow your empire. It's an intuitive system that rewards exploration and reinforces Driftland's sense of discovery.
Most maps start you off with a serviceable stash of stone and wood, the basic building materials. But before long, you'll need coal, steel and other resources, so you have to branch out. So, you drag some islands over and hire explorers to scout them, both to check for hostiles and to determine what resources new islands contain. Each island can only support so many buildings, and only contains so much of a given resource, so you've got to use them efficiently.
You might think hunting a specific resource and not finding it would get annoying, but Driftland's mystery box islands are actually part of the fun. You don't know what you're going to get, only that it won't last forever. Instead of complaining about what you don't find, why not make the best of what you do?
There was one point where stone became a huge bottleneck for me, the only thing standing between me and tier-three cottages. So, I scouted three new islands. No luck; only one small stone vein between them. Luckily, I did stumble across two big gold veins, giving me the option to purchase stone directly via the marketplace I'd built. It was a more roundabout way of doing things, but the fact remains that because I explored new islands, I was able to pimp my cottages.
This leads me to Driftland's building types, which I'd call resource, passive, combat and utility. Each resource has a designated harvester (iron mine, gold mine and so on), and many harvesters have support buildings which provide passive bonuses. You can build sawmills to improve your lumber yield, for example, and granaries to amp up your farms. Then there are combat buildings like archery guilds, wizard towers and knight halls, where you can recruit soldiers to fend off beasts and invaders. There are also combat support buildings, like smithies which give your knights better weapons. Finally, you have utility buildings like the marketplace where you can import and export resources, and laboratories which produce progress points used to unlock yet more passive buffs.
You wouldn't know it from Driftland's tight-lipped tutorial, but passive buildings are incredibly important. For instance, building a granary is often cheaper and more efficient than building a new farm. It's always a good idea to build vertically rather than horizontally—that is, to make better use of the same space rather than take up more space with new buildings. You also need to think like a hermit crab: where will you go once you outgrow (or, more likely, deplete) an island?
My experience with Driftland was limited to the single-player sandbox mode, which was fun but left me goal-hungry. After an in-game year, I lost sight of what to do. Which is bad news for my neighbor, an AI Dark Elf empire, because I'm considering declaring war on them just to shake things up.
There are also a few other areas I'd like to see improved before it leaves Early Access, which Star Drifters reckons will be after six to 12 months. Most importantly, I'd like to see more spells, especially defensive options. I don't feel like much of a mage as things stand. A menu showing all the buildings you have and their tiers would also be nice, as would clearer soldier upgrade paths. But Driftland has already received a sizable update, so I've no doubt it will continue to build on its rich foundation.