Bullet hells and shoot ’em ups are usually a tough sell for me. So often games like Ikaruga and eXceed are just too punishing, focusing on the the insanely brief spurts of time I spend feeling like a badass, dodging lasers and blasting foes, while ignoring the other 99% where I felt like an utter failure, which is why I felt a bit pensive about trying out the demo for Drifting Lands. After about 15 minutes with the game, however, I was hooked.
Drifting Lands is a shoot ’em up influenced by action RPG’s like Diablo. Players blast baddies in procedurally generated levels ranging from simple to hair-pullingly, screen-punchingly difficult in order to gain money and upgrade their ship. The ship has four active skills and two passives to utilize on a quest to blow up everything in site. On its surface, it’s simple, but it’s the nuances, such as the customizable skills and level variety, that give Drifting Lands a huge leg up over competing titles.
Each of the game’s four currently available levels are gorgeous. The background has just enough elements to punctuate the abilities of their artistic team, but are minimal enough not to clutter the screen. Enemies filter in from the foreground and background, giving you ample time to anticipate how you’ll handle each wave as well as creating a great sense of depth.
Levels don’t just offer up just a new map to play on, though. Different enemy ships populate each level, and they need to be handled in totally different ways. The laser-filled Sand Shard demands masterful use of the dodge skill, and the bullet-heavy Storm Range requires timely use of the shields. The opponents you’ll face as you blast your way from scene to scene in Drifting Lands each present a problem which can usually be solved by creative use of your skills. Foes that surround your ship can be disintegrated with conflagration, while ones that follow you and explode can be dodged with a quick dash. Each stage and foe presents a new puzzle to figure out, and once you have you’ll feel like an absolute king.
As I said earlier, the unforgiving nature of SHMUPs is what really turns me off of the genre as a whole, mostly because I am a big whiny baby, but Drifting Lands handles difficulty levels differently than its competitors. Where some games might have two or three different levels, Drifting Lands offers 50 in the demo, with 100 promised in the final build. While most games raise difficulty by increasing enemy health or upping the number of bullets and bad guys on screen (which Drifting Lands does aplenty as well,) opposing ships will also move in harder to track patterns, new bosses come into the mix. Gaining more coin for completing harder levels had me wanting to push myself, but you won’t get that bonus unless you complete the level without dying or retreating, which is another unique feature Drifting Lands offers.
If you notice you’ve gotten in over your head while a flurry of bullets threaten your ship, you can pull out of the fight and head back to base. Players aren’t punished for trying to push their limits; if you can escape the battle before explosion, then you’ll get all the money you’ve earned from destroying enemies, you just won’t get that sweet, sweet difficulty bonus. There is also a passive powerup that allows you to automatically retreat from battle when your health reaches zero, but you won’t even get the cash you’ve earned if you take that route, so planning your escapes ahead of time is always the best option.
Maybe you like flirting with danger? If you think escaping from battle is for cowards, then there are also passive skills that reward players in cash or power for staying below a certain percentage of health.
Even just the alpha version of Drifting Lands offers enough skills to make me feel like I was tweaking my ship to fit my personal play style. Skills are broken down into different mods; the conflagration attack, for example, can either be used to create a single burst surrounding your aircraft, or as a chargeable fireball that vaporizes anyone in front of you. The final version of the game even promises loot and more skills to customize the experience even further.
Players seeking to prove themselves among others can go to the leaderboards, which are broken down by level (but not by difficulty), providing players who are willing to take that extra risk to bump up their difficulty level for a larger reward payout, and thus a higher score, an advantage over those who don’t.
If it continues on its current trajectory, Drifting Lands will be the go to solution for anyone with a SHMUP fix. Its gorgeous graphics, varied skills and scaling difficulty make it the perfect pick up and play action game, while still offering enough depth to keep you going after that initial burst of adrenaline.