I don’t see nothing wrong with a little shmup n’ grind…
Bullet hell shooters and RPGs are two genres I’ve always been a big fan of. So naturally, when I found out that Nantes, France-based indie studio Alkemi was working on a game that fused the frantic, bullet-dodging mechanics of the shooter genre with the depth and customization of an action RPG, I was pretty eager strap myself into the cockpit of my trusty star fighter and explore the perilous skies of Drifting Lands‘ shattered world.
Now, having turned thousands of evil robot ships into space dust, I can report that Alkemi has indeed managed to craft a meaty shooter with a meaningful progression system, but a lack of personality and repetitive and unsatisfying level designs make for an experience that, while occasionally satisfying, never quite manages to soar above mediocrity.
Customization is king in Drifting Lands
Let’s start with the good: Drifting Lands does a great job of nailing what makes a good RPG so addicting. The Ark, the space station your scrappy band of mercenaries, politicians, and outlaws call home is equipped with a hangar that allows you to spend your hard-earned credits to upgrade your ship in a number of ways. By upgrading its core stats, which include Navigation, Power, and Structure, you can equip bigger and better armor, guns, engines, and the like. In addition to outfitting your ship—which come in three classes, each with varying strengths and weaknesses—you can also select from over 100 skills (four active, and two passive) which offer a number of offensive and defensive capabilities.
Drifting Lands doesn’t throw you power-ups the same way most shooters do. Want to heal yourself in the middle of the fray? Equip a healing skill! Want to devastate swarms of drones at close range? Slap Conflagration in a slot and watch nearby baddies fizzle out like moths that fluttered too close to the flame! Much like an MMO, each of these skills has its own cool-down and warm-up timer, too. This means you’ll have to keep a close eye on the action and choose the best time to unleash your more potent abilities.
It’s easy to become completely immersed in trying to upgrade your once-humble craft into the ultimate force of airborne destruction. And I’d be lying if I didn’t find myself playing stages over and over again just to unlock mightier guns or other bits and bobs to assist me in toppling the next story mission. It’s a really addicting mechanic, and easily one of the real highlights of Drifting Lands’ package.
While the RPG elements are great—safe for a rather paper-thin and predictable story—the shooter side of things leaves quite a bit to be desired.
You see, a big part of what makes a bullet hell shooter stand out is found in its stage design. The best shmups feature memorable stages that are designed like intricate Rube Goldberg machines, players’ skills as they’re forced to cautiously navigate labyrinths of pulsating bullets on their path to the inevitable boss fight awaiting at the stage’s conclusion. The thing is, Drifting Lands‘ stages are bland and uninspired. And worse yet, backgrounds repeat frequently over the course of the campaign. Additionally, the game uses procedurally generated waves of enemies, which, while this adds variety to the levels, it also means every stage lacks that finesse that comes from a tightly-choreographed shooter like you’d expect from Cave, Toaplan, Psikyo, and the other masters of the genre. What we’re left with is a wide selection of largely same-y stages that you’ll forget about as soon as you reach the score screen.
Oh, and those boss fights I mentioned? They’re a precious resource in Drifting Lands. Most stages end with a standard enemy who can take a few more shots than your average drone and drop a bit of extra loot for you to collect. And when proper boss fights do appear, they’re nearly just as middling.
Everyone knows that exciting weapons are a huge part of what makes a shoot’em’up shine. Sadly, this is another department where Drifting Lands misses its mark. Most weapons pack all of the punch of a Super Soaker filled with lukewarm piss, drenching your enemies until they explode. Most likely out of pity for our pilot, who’s been tasked to beat back an army of sentient robots with the most underwhelming arsenal this side of Alpha Centauri.
A jack of all trades, master of none
Even though Drifting Lands isn’t the most stellar shooter armchair flyboys will experience this year, it’s not without its moments. Flying through a raging storm while reducing swarms of ships to scrap metal can be a thrill. And upgrading your ship from an interstellar jalopy to a proper force of a galactic destruction is tons of fun. That is, so long as you don’t mind the grind the requisite grind to get there.
It’s also worth noting that the game features a pretty fantastic soundtrack. The twanging guitars and industrial sounds that make up the Ark theme fit the hardscrabble bastion of human resistance perfectly. While upbeat synths and pounding percussion are the perfect sounds to accompany a perfect run through a swarm of mechanized death at 30,000 feet above the planets shattered core. That said, if you’re going to buy Drifting Lands, spring a few extra bucks for the soundtrack edition. Trust me, it’s worth it.
The role-playing elements are the star of the show in Drifting Lands. And if they were grafted onto a more refined shooter frame, the game would probably end up being something very special. The thing is, Steam is already chock full of quality shooters right now. If you’re simply looking for a solid Danmaku experience and could do without the RPG trappings, there are much better options out there (I’d recommend checking out the sublime DoDonPachi Resurrection if you haven’t already). Still, if the idea of a Bullet hell RPG appeals to you, and you don’t mind the repetition and an overall lack of refinement, this might be worth checking out. Just don’t go in expecting this to replace your shoot’em’up of choice.
Final Verdict: 3/5
Available on: PC (reviewed) ; Publisher: Alkemi ; Developer: Alkemi ; Players: 1 ; Released: June 5, 2016 ; MSRP: $18.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a review copy of Drifting Lands given to Hey Poor Player by the publisher.