A marriage between side-scrolling shoot em ups and loot grinding RPGs sounds pretty awesome to me. That’s the mindset I started with as I fired up Drifting Lands for the first time. Here we have a side-scrolling SHMUP with fairly deep skill customisation and progression, and a loot system expansive enough to make you want to spend a fair amount of time tinkering with your setup after each mission.
There is a story, but it’s little more than window dressing to be honest. I can’t say that I paid much attention to the characters that popped up to give me vague and uninteresting context for the next mission. It certainly didn’t grab me in any way. I am yet to encounter a SHMUP that wowed me with its narrative, and that’s absolutely fine. This is not a genre that needs a particularly rich story.
It is a genre, however, that has traditionally involved lovingly-crafted enemy patterns and epic boss fights.
And herein lies the rub.
I love what Drifting Lands is trying to do. Its levels are constructed of randomly placed segments, meaning each time you play a mission it might have a different structure. That’s sort of ok, it keeps things fresh and tries to train you to be adaptable and responsive. Instead of having you learn levels through repetition, Drifting Lands teaches you to remember specific enemy types and smaller patterns.
It plays into the game’s skill systems. As well as a variety of primary weapons, you can tap into energy-based skills. These allow you to do things like launch powerful special attacks in front of you, destroy surrounding enemies, slow time momentarily, shield yourself for a few precious seconds from projectiles, and so on. The skills all have various cooldown timers and so must be deployed carefully. You start with the ability to repair your vessel, but this particular skill has a lengthy timer and its efficacy is based on how you set up the base stats of your ship.
The point is that instead of focusing in on just a handful of mechanisms, Drifting Lands sort of gives you the option to play the way you want. There are three types of craft to choose from initially, which broadly fall into the categories of tank, balanced, and speedy interceptor. The first is slow but well-shielded, the last is quick and powerful but very susceptible to damage. You can guess what balanced means. Each of the ship classes gain Focus, essentially your credits multiplier, in different ways. The Sentinel, being a shielded powerhouse, requires that you basically not die and keep recharging your shields. The mid-range Marauder has you flitting between glowing rings as you try to take down enemies to boost your multiplier. The Interceptor can gain Focus swiftly, but requires near misses and close shaves. It’s a high-risk/high-reward type of ship for daring pilots.
So far, so good. But the trouble comes when you leap into the missions themselves. Put simply, Drifting Lands just isn’t that much fun when it’s trying to be a SHMUP. There’s a distinct lack of enemy variants and the core weapons at your disposal feel weak and lack impact. At no point did I feel like a badass, and that’s a big problem in a game like this. Part of the problem is that this genre is so riddled with acclaimed examples and historic luminaries that trying to come close to the perfection in design exhibited by Ikaruga, R-Type, DoDonPachi, and so on is almost impossible. The finest SHMUPs manage to find the balance between making you feel like a badass, and shredding your nerves with devilish difficulty. It doesn’t always come from obliterating everything in sight, sometimes it’s just the thrill of perfectly navigating a bullet-hell field of death or triumphing over a boss by the skin of one’s teeth. But even when the difficulty increased, I couldn’t help but feel that Drifting Lands never maxed out the Thrillometer.
Too often, projectiles can be lost amongst the game’s backdrops. There are too few enemy variants by far, not to mention a distinct lack of marquee battles against bullet-spitting bosses. Sadly, Drifting Lands just isn’t particularly satisfying to play as a blaster. As you progress, the damage that you’re doing seems to stay relatively consistent as the difficulty rises. So although I can see that the sweet new cannon I just got should be doing more damage on a statistical level, I don’t feel that in-game. Moreover, the increased difficulty ranks up enemy damage and resistance rather than really introducing more complex enemy types or new adversaries to face.
It’s a real shame because it effectively nerfs the best part of the game: the loot itself. I spent so much time during my first few hours with the game weighing up the pros and cons of new bits and bobs for my ship. The various armaments, their projectile patterns and rates of fire, do vary. You can set up your ship to be shield or armour heavy, tailoring the modules of your vessel to cater towards your style of play. Again, I can see what the developers were going for here. They clearly didn’t want to railroad players into any one approach. To their credit, they haven’t – there’s a lot of choice here for would-be pilots, and that level of customisation makes up for the relative paucity of base ships to choose from.
But there comes a point where the novelty wears off, and the game loop reveals the grind to be pretty unrewarding when all is said and done. While the loot system is very nice and functions more or less as it should in terms of execution, it simply doesn’t translate into satisfying gameplay. Whereas a game like Borderlands will feed you constant little blips of excitement as you gain increasingly awesome weapons, Drifting Lands never manages to get there. Its action elements are too repetitive, too recycled, and too generic, and its rewards are too muted, used against bland, forgettable enemies.
It looks very nice, as you can see from the video. The hand-drawn style is very pretty and the game runs rather smoothly. The soundtrack starts off as a pulsating, adrenaline-pumping joy as well. But given the amount of time you’ll spend in this game, trying to grind for better gear, it isn’t long before the same tunes begin to appear over and over.
It’s tough because, as I mentioned earlier, I really like what Alkemi have tried to do here. It’s certainly a welcome fresh approach to what can sometimes be a bit of a samey genre. I recognise that one of the issues with reviewing any variation on SHMUPs is that there’s a sense that perfection has already been achieved. But there’s still room for modern greats (the likes of Sine Mora and Steredenn, for example, come to mind). Sadly, Drifting Lands falls short. As a loot grinder, there’s some satisfaction to be had in accumulating stuff and flogging it at market. But as a blaster, there are simply more enjoyable, faster and more frenetic games out there that will scratch that itch.
And most of them can be had for under a tenner.
Bullet Hell Meets Borderlands
Alkemi have done a fairly decent job of mashing up a loot grinder and a shoot-em-up, but sadly it's the grind part of things that proves most prevalent. Drifting Lands is conceptually ambitious, and it's a pretty solid game, but a lack of punch on the offensive end, and a dearth of memorable enemies and encounters means much of its ambition is wasted. Still, one to watch for in the sales.