Drifting Lands is a new shoot em' up, RPG hybrid brought to you by French developer Alkemi. You are given the task of assisting your colony via piloting in combat missions. The combat in this game is in the form of a side-scrolling SHMUP. On top of that, you need to upgrade your ship, buy new parts, and choose special abilities to bring into combat. The RPG elements fuse with the shooter elements both inside and outside of combat, and there is an abundance of upgrades and methods to improve your ship and keep you in the skies.
Drifting Land's backstory is that a cataclysmic event ruined the planet and killed billions of people. Nevertheless, there were survivors and they found refuge on drifting continents kept afloat by gravitational anomalies. Corporations control the continents and fight amongst each other for the resources.
This is where the player comes in. There is a floating colony called "The Ark". The player assumes a role as a pilot on The Ark which is filled with rebels and mercenaries. The ship is able to roam freely but runs into problems with some of the families in power, other bands of mercenaries, and there are times it must control its own rebellious population.
Though the story line is well set up, it doesn't prove interesting beyond the opening scenes of the game. The elaborate backstory plays out in both cryptic and bland scenes with dialogues that don't go much further than one-dimensional characters and plots that are too shallow and undeveloped to truly elicit any sort of emotional response.
The story is mostly played out in the Command Center where you can click on cutscenes that lead to new missions and or advance the game. As the game furthered, I found myself caring less and less about the storyline, and there were too many ambiguous plots that never really coalesced or strengthened the main plot nor characters. The plot was by far the weakest aspect of this game, which was disappointing since the game had a heavy RPG influence, a genre known for its rich storytelling.
As a hybrid of two long withstanding genres in gaming (RPG SHMUP), they both need to be addressed individually and sometimes have a symbiotic, functioning relationship, while at other times distract from one another.
I thought that the RPG elements were well crafted and gave the game an exclusive layer of depth. You can choose from three space-crafts as per many shooters, and these ships have differing stats such as faster speed or better armor. In combat different colored items will be dropped that give the player money, ship parts, health i.e. Between battles you always return to your ship where you can head to the hangar to upgrade the craft or hit up the market for new parts.
There are numerous ways to upgrade the ship. You can spend money to improve the base stats, trade in your ship entirely (later in the game), equip new parts, and you can use the skill tree. The skill tree is where your choices really matter. Each of your four attack buttons on the controller is synced to an ability, and you can choose any ability you want to fit in these slots as well as having a couple passive powerups. These abilities may let you lunge across the map, create small explosions around your ship, lay mines, absorb bullets i.e. It's quite impressive just how many abilities there are, and as your rank increases more skills become available. In combat, you can use these skills as many times as you want, but they require a recharge time as found in some MMORPGs.
The SHMUP part of the game was surprisingly less impressive. First off, the ship moves a bit slower than most other shooters and feels slightly sluggish. My biggest complaint though was that the game started to feel boring after a couple hours of game time. There are only a handful of maps (which get repeated), and you will see many of the same enemies with the same attack patterns. Most levels do not have bosses, and the game lacks the excitement and edge of your seat anxiety that made the old SHMUPS so much fun.
The controls work well, and I really enjoyed tinkering with new parts and abilities in combat, but after playing through a few missions, and having to grind a little bit to improve my ship, I began to feel disinterested in the game, and I was playing the game more for how I could alter my ship between skirmishes rather than the combat, which is the meat of the gameplay. The guns are underwhelming, and you usually need to lock onto an enemy and hold for a few seconds before it blows up. The bombastic explosions and relief of overcoming a foe are often diminished in Drifting Lands, though I did really enjoy the frantic moments where I had to use my abilities in a chain to survive the onslaught. I often found that I could easily just avoid enemy encounters if I had to, and I could survive, whereas I wanted the combat to feel more immediate. There are points of crushing difficulty, but I found that the ability to heal and just let enemies fly off the screen took me out of the pilot's seat on many occasions.
There is a lot that is done well with the gameplay, but there are definitely some glaring weaknesses that detract from the game's full potential. I admire the ambition and breadth of the game, but I never felt addicted to the combat outside of rare instances that were mostly ephemeral.
visuals and sound
I found Drifting Land's hand-drawn graphics to be both beautiful and stand out amongst other games. The rooms in the ark or where the plot progresses were well crafted and detailed: one such scene was a dingy bar lit with dusky lights and sultry guests that reminded me of other sci-fi movies and games I had played/watched. Best of all were the backgrounds and ship designs in combat. The backgrounds were both simple and aesthetically pleasing, and I enjoyed stuff like the billowing clouds that drifted over distant peaks or riding through a lighting storm as I ripped through countless opponents. Initially, the levels were definitely visually enthralling, but the level designs are too frequently repeated, so, unfortunately, the effect didn't maintain itself throughout the game.
The soundtrack is utterly fantastic. The music in The Ark is fitting and gives off the ribald, mercenary vibe that I would expect. However, it's the music during the missions that I fell in love with. Many modern shooters have a bouncy, electronic soundtrack, and while you will hear some of those same sounds in Drifting Lands, Alkemi did an amazing job in creating a varied and dramatic soundtrack that fits and enhances the gameplay. I loved soaring through the skies as pulsating double bass notes gave way to light synth keys. There were ripping electric guitar solos and beautiful string arrangements that were all brought into this game to deliver a more immersive experience, and it nearly always delivers. I never knew exactly what style of music or what instruments I would hear before beginning a mission, and I was always happy with what I got. There is a package you can buy on steam with the soundtrack included, and I can see why since the soundtrack is memorable and excellent.
Unfortunately, the great soundtrack may come at the expense of the epic sound effects of a standard shooter. You can adjust the sound if you like, but by default, the sound effects are nearly muted, and you won't be hearing intense gunfire and grandiose explosions as you blaze through a level.
There is a lot to love, and there is a lot to be longed for in this unique mash-up. Drifting Lands absolutely nails the customization and ability to let the player choose their own playstyle, but the lack of an emotional plot detracts from the RPG elements. This becomes even more apparent and filler as you keep playing and watch cutscenes that continuously leave you feeling apathetic to any of the characters or hardships of this universe.
Battles can be fun and exciting, but the lack of maps and repetitious levels and hostiles definitely left me longing for a shorter game with more meaningful missions. The excitement of a SHMUP just isn't present enough in the game, and I found myself healing and evading my way to victories when I had to. I did enjoy the strategy and ability to heal, but at the end of the day, this is a game of contradictions and most of the combat was a double sided coin that I both loved and hated.
Drifting Lands undoubtedly has something for fans of both genres as well as newbies and veterans alike. A game like this is likely to polarize fans, and it's definitely an ambitious project. If you enjoy these genres, don't mind some repetition, and are willing to grind a bit, then you may fall in love with the game. If you want something with a deeper story, and or a faster-paced shooter with more focus on the SHMUP area of gameplay then you may want to look elsewhere.
|+ RPG Elements work well||– Repetitious levels|
|+ Beautiful Soundtrack||– Insipid plot|
|+ Upgrades are well thought out||– Lacks SHMUP excitement|