Drifting Lands is a very unique take on the classic SHMUP genre. It takes the classic on rails shooter, and merges it with RPG elements from games like Diablo 3. What you get as an end result is a game that not only provides immense challenge, but provides a wealth of depth being able to customize your ships equipment, and come up with optimal specs to overcome the biggest hurdles. Although it sounds great on paper, some pacing and level design issues hold the game back from being great, but still executes it’s core function very well.
The world of Drifting Lands is a shattered planet, that has been fragmented by a huge cataclysm hundreds of year ago. The civilizations left of this world are controlled and exploited by money hungry private corporations. You play as a pilot recruited to a band of outcasts, looking to liberate the free worlds. In your journey, you not only restore freedom to the world, but need to overcome internal politics of your new found community.
The story plays out through written dialogue told through slides with characters embedded on backdrops. They do get the point across for the story, but I didn’t find I cared much for it. I payed attention to the big picture of things, but ended up ignoring the small details of what was going on. I personally didn’t find it too interesting, although this aspect doesn’t make a break the game, since the emphasis of Drifting Lands is about combat and customizing your ship.
The core of Drifting Lands plays as a classic SHMUP. You navigate your ship from a side horizontal perspective, moving from left to right through the games many stages. As you take the skies however, it’s not all sight seeing, as you need to fend of the many hordes of enemies. You’ll occasionally take part in a boss encounter, or do a mission that requires you to drop cargo to reap the rewards. The game easily plays far better with a controller compared to the keyboard, as the button mappings align perfectly with the shortcuts seen on screen. Since the release, Alkemi has added full mouse control, although I’ve yet to give this a try, given that I primarily play on the couch if I can.
Your ship is equipped with a wealth of gear, being able to change the main weapons of your ship, to being able to equip different shields, armor, helmets, and even CPU chips. Each item brings with it benefits, such as reducing shield cool downs, or increasing attack rate. Others can bring in flaws which introduce negative effects, such as your gear breaking upon retreat. Due to this, it’s not an easy case where every new item will prove beneficial compared to your existing gear. Flaws in gear can stand out and make you think twice before equipping a gun that gives you more damage, but takes away a point of focus. To counter this, their are blueprints that can be scavenged, that can be used to craft a limit number of items. Furthermore, gear that has flaws can be converted into blueprints, to eventually remove those flaws entirely.
Aside from your standard guns, you have a arsenal of abilities at your disposal. This come in the form of explosions that affect a radius around your ship, to shields that can deflect bullets. There’s quite a bit of variety in what your ship can do using different abilities. Each ability can also be upgraded which brings trade offs and new perks. So it’s never a case where upgrading an ability will be better in every way. This makes planning out your ships spec a very thoughtful affair.
The levels in Drifting Lands take on a basic horizontal structure, requiring the player to simply navigate from left to right while taking on hordes of enemies. The level design is a let down and there is simply no variety here. The back drops are all that really change from stage to stage. Although their are aesthetically pleasing, the environments you see do not play any role in how the level plays out. There also isn’t much variety in how the levels look. Lastly, there is no concept of environmental hazards, or land, so there is nothing to dodge or fly around besides enemies. I can see the inclusion of this being a problem, given how chaotic enemy encounters can get, but it is something that still sticks out. Ultimately, it makes the game feel very repetitive early on.
What Drifting Lands does right are its enemies. They come in all sorts of varieties, and are pretty tough at times. There are enemies that move in a straight line and fire projectiles. Some tougher enemies use their numbers to try and get the upper hand, such as hordes of small drones that shoot across the screen in circular patterns in attempts to overwhelm you. Others create a stream of lasers, forcing you to navigate around to avoid constantly taking damage. What really kicks up the challenge is when the game throws multiple enemy types as you in a single encounter. Quickly doing simple things like destroying enemies while dodging their projectiles, lasers, mines etc. become very daunting. Expect to die or retreat in these instances, especially when you take on the higher difficulties. Enemy encounters are also procedurally generated, so it’s never guaranteed you’ll run into the same situation each time. You constantly need to be on your feet, and coasting through is typically not an option as you need to adjust to each situation. This also puts a huge emphasis on the weapons and abilities you choose to use, as each has their pros and cons in each situation. This really make the challenge of Drifting Lands very fun and rewarding when you figure out something that works for you.
Drifting Lands provides great challenge for any player. Ranging from casual play where your ship auto retreats when defeated, to more hardcore difficulty which exposes your ship to being destroyed, along with your gear. Despite this, I found the pacing early on to be a bit under whelming. I was able to coast across the first set of stages with minimal effort. I’d expect this early on in such a game, but it just seems to span across too many levels.
About an hour or two in however, you do unlock the next difficulty grade, which is where things start to get a bit more interesting. Suddenly enemies become more daunting, and to a degree, a bit overwhelming. However this does provide new abilities to hone your craft. You will need to put a lot of thought into what abilities you now choose, and really need to keep your eyes peeled to dodge all incoming enemy fire. The increased challenged is very welcome, as it helps alleviate the repetitiveness found early on in the game.
Outside of flying the open skies, you will be spending a good amount of time in Drifting Lands hangar and market menus. Here you will be managing your ships inventory, stats and abilities, as well as selling loot, buying equipment and managing your blueprints. You won’t make it very far without taking the time to properly assess your gear and their stats. You may be spending extended periods here on some of the harder level encounters trying to figure out the best way to re-tackle them.
I find this is where the games biggest glaring flaw becomes apparent, and that’s the interface and navigation through it’s many menus. Drifting Lands claims on startup, that it is best played with a controller. However menus are not optimized at all for controller use. Using a controller, you cannot use your directional pad or analog stick to quickly select key parts of the menus, but instead have to navigate a cursor to the menus item you desire. This makes doing simply things like comparing and selling loot more difficult than it should be.
There is also a lot of wasted space, as menus items are typically scattered very far from each other for some reason. This not only makes it difficult to navigate using the cursor, as you have to cover more ground, but reading menus items and fonts it extremely difficult. It’s near impossible to read anything from a TV, and even up close to a monitor, it still felt noticeably small. It makes playing from the couch almost an impossible task. Also, no inclusion of hotkeys such as being able to quickly sell an item make it needlessly annoying to have to keep dragging items to the part of the menus where they can be sold.
Visually, Drifting Lands is very impressive. Despite stage are lacking variety at times, the back drops are quite stunning. Some stages depict ongoing storms with tornadoes and lightning being beautifully animated in the back ground. Enemies also steel the thunder, as even though their ship designs may have simplistic designs, they can be a site to behold. There are many epic moments where swarms of enemy probes will appear from one side the screen, circle around you and exit from the other appearing like the are moving towards but past the camera. It’s quite a spectacle to see.
One area that Drifting Lands lacks is in it’s sound effects. It simply lacks OOMPH. Right from the get go during the opening moments, your ships weapons lack punch, and enemies ships explode have no kick to them. It stood out to me instantly, and never wore off. I really wish things were highly improved in this regard, as I find when things get chaotic, I would normally find sounds of enemy gunfire helpful to know somethings coming my way. Instead, all I hear is music.
However from an audio perspective, Drifting Lands sound track is it’s saving grace. It features some very intricate progressive heavy metal. It features blazing fast guitar solos, melodic keyboard interludes, and lots of double bass from the drums. I find the back and forth dynamic between the melodic pieces, to moments where the music opens up, really suits the chaotic action on screen, as well as the open feeling of soaring through the skies. There isn’t a whole lot of tracks available for all the stages, but I never found that thing ever got repetitive. It was always welcoming to hear the amazing tracks over and over again.
Drifting Lands is a very interesting game. It is one of a kind, being a perfect blend of SHMUP and RPG genres. Customization is incredibly deep as there are so many aspects you can tweak on your ship. Each item brings all sorts of variations and flaws, that one can pour hours and hours upon finding the optimal build along with complimenting abilities for your ship. It’s only real problems is it’s interface issues, difficulty spikes and level variety. However, it makes up for this with it’s interesting and challenging assortment of enemies. Where it lacks in providing challenges in navigating levels and avoiding obstacles, the enemies more than make up for this, and serve as the games platforming elements. For the price of admission, there is a ton of content. For those willing to sink time into customizing your craft, Drifting Lands will ultimately reward you. Alkemi has also proven they will continue to support Drifting Lands, as a month after release, they have added features such as mouse control, which was not available on release. Anyone who has any doubts can try out the awesome lengthy demo available on Steam.
Disclaimer: This review was done using a Steam copy of Drifting Lands provided by the games publisher/developer, Alkemi. Please be assured that this did not affect my opinion of the game, and that my criticisms are an honest and true representation of my thoughts on the game.