Drifting Lands Review: Line ‘Em Up, Shoot ‘Em Down

Drifting Lands Review: Line ‘Em Up, Shoot ‘Em Down

Alkemi’s Drifting Lands is a 2D shoot-em-up (or shmup, if you’ve not encountered that term before) that takes place in a post-apocalypse Earth.  Make no mistake, despite what the developers say about this game, it is 100% a shmup.  Now this is not a bad thing, as it is a very good shmup, but the marketing focus on avoiding that label is a bit puzzling; despite the customization the gameplay does boil down to improve your ability to shoot the hell out of things. Semantics aside, this is a very fun game with a few minor flaws and one really annoying element. Is it worth your time overall? Let’s answer that question.

Genre: Shoot’em Up (Shmup)/RPG
Developed By: Alkemi
Published By: Alkemi
Release Date: June 5th, 2017
Platforms: PC (Reviewed on PC)
Price at time of review: $18.99

Drifting Lands Features

  • Multiple Hulls: You have three hull-types to choose from, each with their own play style
  • 70 Skills: Many active and passive skills to choose from, each with their own distinct feel
  • Random Levels: In most levels the enemy waves are randomly generated
  • Random Loot: Loot has levels and random bonuses

Story and Setting

Alright, so let’s get the sour out of the way first, because I really feel this game deserves a review that ends on a high note.  The story is one of the most non-engaging messes I’ve encountered in games in a long time.  Yes, I know, I’m complaining about the story in a shmup. Normally, such a thing wouldn’t even be a footnote.  One does not watch a classic Godzilla movie for quality acting, and one does not play a shmup for an enthralling story.  The problem here is the story is thrust in your face in such a way that you just can’t ignore it.  It tries to get you interested by starting in media res, but all it did was confuse the heck out me.  You can’t ignore the story either, you have to click through the dialog sequences so you can get at the mission.  Really, it’s more an annoyance than anything else, but it might have been salvageable if the setting was something worth caring about. It’s not. 100% standard sci-fi fill-in-the-blank post-apocalypse setting.  The real tragedy of this is that visually, this world is beautiful.  If they had set this in some arbitrary Not-Earth setting, it would have served them much better.

Audio and Visual

OK, enough griping about the story, this is a shmup after all, so what about the rest of the game? Well to start things off, the aesthetic is beautiful. Alkemi has created a gorgeous game that is going to age very, very well.  Every single aspect of the visual design of this game fits together in an excellent way.  Both the levels themselves and the screens back on the home ship all feel like they are part of the same world, and the transition between the two is seamless.

The audio design is solid, though nothing to write home about.  The tracks that play during missions are very good, but there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of them.  This is a bit of a problem as the game’s design is such that you’ll be replaying levels.  A lot.  Towards the end I started noticing some repetition, but it was nothing major.  The audio feedback from shooting, hitting enemies, getting hit, and enemies going boom is all good, as is the visual feedback.

Gameplay

So how does this darn thing play?  Well as I’ve mentioned several times, it is very solid shmup in all aspects.  While the game does allow you to control it with the keyboard and mouse, I don’t recommend it.  This is a game that you will want a controller for, especially for the later levels.  While this game never gets into true danmaku or bullet curtain territory, things can get pretty chaotic in the later levels. The other reason you’ll want a controller is the skill system.

You can equip up to four skills which you can activate at anytime. By default these skills are mapped to the four buttons on a standard controller which makes them fairly easy to use.  A bit less so when trying to use the mouse and keyboard.  As a quick side note, the game does allow you to completely rebind all actions on the controller, which is rather nice.  Coming back to the skills, having them adds a nice bit of stability to combat. There are a nice variety of skills that keeps your setups interesting and fun to tinker with and they serve the combat in some fun ways. Some help you evade, others bolster your firepower and some do unique things like resurrect you. While your equipment can alter how effective skills are, I never felt that I had to change them out to match my gear.

Speaking of gear, let’s talk random drops.  You have a lot of equipment slots on your ship to fill – one engine, shield, power, weapon and helmet (a helmet?) and two computer chips and two armor slots.  That’s a lot of potential customization.  You’re going to have to pay attention to all of this, which is both a blessing and a curse.  As you blow stuff up in a level, you get random drops. The drops have rarity levels and actual levels that determine how powerful it is.  Obviously, higher level missions drop higher level stuff.  Once you complete the level you head back to the hanger and dump everything from your hold into storage. Why that doesn’t happen automatically I’m not sure, but that’s a minor nitpick.

Once everything is in storage, you can then check to see if anything is an upgrade.  Thankfully they make this very easy.  When you mouse over a piece of gear, it clearly tells you what you lose and gain if you equip it.  In the case of gear that has two slots, using the the mouse scroll wheel will toggle between the equipped items.  Want to equip something?  Just right-click on the item and bam! In the slot it goes.  Notice I’m referring to mouse controls here instead of a controller.  Oddly enough, the menu systems between levels are designed to be used with a mouse. Just another head-scratcher decision that holds this title back from being truly great, and is something that could be addressed post launch.

At first I carefully examined every piece of gear, but quickly determined that it really wasn’t worth the time seeing if low-rarity pieces were any good, and I started clicking the sell-all buttons for common and uncommon pieces.  I also found it just didn’t matter all that much if I had sub-optimal gear, with the exception of weapons.  Having a sub-optimal weapon will make kill times much slower, which has a knock-on effect of you getting less resources per run because you can’t kill as much.  This exposes what I feel the greatest flaw of this system is: being forced to use weapons you don’t like.

Every weapon has a different fire pattern.  This is good.  I rather enjoy the wide variety of patterns available here.  Of course, there are weapons that I love, like the straight laser, and weapons that I hate, like the dual gatling gun.  I just can’t seem to deal with that weapons’ pattern very well.  Regardless, you’re going to find that some weapons you like, and some you don’t. The problem here is that unless you want to occasionally stop and really grind hard which is tempered a bit by the fun levels, you don’t get much of a choice on what weapon you use. It is always more efficient to use the highest damage weapon you have, which means you’re going to get stuck using weapons you don’t like. Now there is a market in the game, but I’ve found the items contained withing to be less optimal than anything I can get through drops, and crazy expensive to boot.  I suspect the market is there for when you lose your ship, and not much else.

So let’s deal with a few more systems before we wrap things up.  Death.  It happens, of course.  Sometimes it happens because you use the wrong friggin skill and teleport into a boss but hey, learning experiences, right?  So there’s a few ways this can work.  If you have the auto-retreat passive equipped, you do exactly that.  No risk to your ship.  Now you will lose everything in your hold, get no rewards, and potentially have equipment break, but your ship will be fine.  Now if you want that passive skill slot for something else, you’re taking a much bigger risk.  If you die in a mission, that’s it.  The ship, all equipment, and all upgrades are gone.  Unless you’re in easy mode, in which case you just get hit with a massive repair bill.  Now the game will provide you with a basic replacement ship, but you’re basically back to the starting point.  Thankfully the market doesn’t reset as it’s based on level progression, so it shouldn’t take too long to get your ship back into a semi-decent state.

Finally, there are challenge missions.  These missions are not randomly generated, and you don’t get loot for them.  So what are they good for?  High score attack and leaderboards, that’s what.  You can check to see how you rate against other players, and since the levels don’t change it allows for a degree of strategy.  Do you bring skill X, or skill Y, and maybe this time you’ll use gun Z instead.

7.5
Summary: Should you buy this game?  If you are a fan of the shmup genre, then yes you should.  Drifting Lands is a solid shmup that belongs in the collection of any fan of the genre. A few odd design choices and a distractingly bad story hold it back from being excellent, but it is a fun game in spite of it. Just be aware that if you're looking for a danmaku, you might be left a little wanting.  If you've never tried a shmup before, this is still a good purchase, though you might want to start on Easy to make the game ease up on the perma-loss aspect.  The game does have a demo, so if you're sitting on the fence, download that and see for yourself. Now if you'll parden me, I need to get back to looking for a straight laser drop.
Story & Setting (6)
Gameplay (7.5)
Visual and Audio (8)
Replayability (8)
Price Point (7.5)
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Tea. Dragons. Cartography. Video Games. These are a few of my favorite things. Still waiting for someone to combine them all into a holy gestalt of entertainment, but until then I'll just keep playing and analyzing games.

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