Drifting Lands Review -- Shmup Stirred, Not Shaken
A cocktail is an alcoholic beverage that is made up of two or more other drinks mixed together. In a cocktail, the proportion of drinks is enough to tip the scales between the utterly forgettable and the so-good-you-can-never-recreate-it. Thankfully, Drifting Lands is a shmup that falls into the latter category thanks to combining unique genres and mechanics into something that is both satisfying and memorable.
Developed by French studio Alkemi, Drifting Lands is an arcade shooter set in a sci-fi, post-apocalyptic world where mankind lives in a dystopic and broken world within the sky. To make matters worse, corporations have become powerful, selfish, and totalitarian nations. Oh, and there's also the threat of machines that want to annihilate humans.
In Drifting Lands, you take up the reins of a pilot tasked with protecting your caravan from various dangers and threats -- both inside and outside of your aircraft.
Take 1 Cup of Shmup...
At its core, the title is a horizontal shooter, much like R-Type. From the beginning of Drifting Lands, you can choose among three ship types: balanced, fast and squishy, or slow and tanky. Your preferences will probably depend on your skill level. For instance, first-time players may want a more balanced ship, while shmup veterans can opt for speed.
Yes, you will shoot down squadrons of enemies. However, missions vary from time to time. Some require you to survive for a set amount of time, while others task you with finding a target/items and so forth.
Throughout the game, you'll face a number of stages across different environments. As you progress in the story, the game's difficulty organically increases. Of course, you'll meet new enemies, more dangerous than the last at each new turn.
Instead of receiving a score only within stages, you actually gain income. You receive a certain amount of your earnings after each stage. The better you perform the more it'll pay off. Like any shmup, you also get to have fun facing off against large bosses. It's tense and unforgiving like the classics of old.
Add 1 Ounce Of Adventure...
While Drifting Lands' combat heavily borrows from its shmup roots, it chooses to diverge via the inclusion of a narrative. The title presents a large colorful cast of interesting characters, with each playing a special role within the plot. Your pilot will often question the motivations of comrades and commanding officers alike.
For example, the main story involves following the caravan leader for the good of the people. However, at the same time, your retainer implores you to go on missions that will help undercut her influence.
We, as the audience, even see our pilot play the part of unwilling pawn to shadowy schemes. The missions satisfyingly follow along with the narrative by increasing the difficulty and stakes in just the right ways.
Honestly, I really enjoyed how the narrative interwove these social-economic, political, and mystery themes together. Even more impressive is how the plot hardly falls flat.
One example is a subplot that involves the black market. Fueled by a need for more money, you potentially put your caravan in danger working with criminals. This branch of the story plays out slowly across the larger narrative.
Pour A Dose of RPG...
If you feel that an RPG is only as good as how deep its systems can get, then you will be delighted to know that Drifting Lands is a proverbial bottomless ocean.
At the core of the game, you have to maintain your ship and keep its performance top notch. There are a number of options available to the player to accomplish this.
First are skills; these are either weapons or abilities to use in battle. You're able to use/equip a number of active skills and auto skills. An active skill, for example, would be explosives, which detonates around your ship to blow up foes. There's an added layer of strategy at play as well. Active skills have a cooldown after each use, so you can't merely just spam them. You have to be aware of your actions at all times.
You then have passive skills such as auto-retreat. For example, when you lose all HP, you'll automatically retreat to the base. It's one of the first skills you have in the game and the most valuable. It has the added bonus to help you not lose your ship. More advanced skills become available via story progression and difficulty escalation.
You can also improve your ship directly with currency. For a price, you can -- and should -- level up your firepower, maneuverability, or durability. These stats not only dictate your overall performance but also determine what parts can be equipped.
This brings us to the deepest part of the RPG experience: ship parts. Parts can be bought or collected via the plentiful loot drops left in the wake of your enemies' remains. Tougher stages, a better personal performance, and a higher difficulty setting also helps with gaining war spoils. Specific rewards are also available via side quests and so forth like any RPG.
Add A Dash Of Futuristic Tunes...
So what would you expect in a futuristic game's music? Electronica? Maybe some subdued atmospheric tunes? You would be correct, friend. It's one of the best soundtracks I've heard this year. Composed by Louis Godart, the soundtrack is a unique blend of musical genres. Godart crafted an album that also consists of rock, orchestral tunes, and a bit of eerie spacefaring tunes. The soundtrack was composed over a number of years and your ears will definitely confirm that.
These various mechanics and genres blur beautifully. You'll wonder where and when the action adventure stops and the shmup begins. One of the best examples, when genres blend effortlessly, is loot hunting.
Hunting for better gear has been a role-playing staple for years. So with your trusty ship, you can spend a good day shooting down tons of enemies for performance sake. During the course of this, you're becoming more skilled at the art of shmup. At the same time, you're making use of resources you have available in skills and so forth. The brilliance really is that it comes organically and doesn't feel separate.
An Acquired Taste?
Yes, this is a very fun and fulfilling game to play. However, it does have its flaws. The downsides to Drifting Lands are really due to it being an indie title. It's hard to believe but there are a number of people that will ignore a game because it is indie. Yes, it makes no sense but it happens. The other knock against the title is that some may feel that it's too difficult at times. But that's a criticism that even the best of shmups receive.
Yes, I realize I've written quite a lot about this title. To repeat, Alkemi was able to create one hell of a video game cocktail. Who knew that we needed a full blown adventure shmup. The game can be tough as nail and makes you pull your hair out. At the same time hours will be lost mulling over stats and equipment. The music is perfectly complimentary and is never out of place. Lastly, the narrative present isn't watered down in anyway -- I guarantee you that this game will hold your attention and challenge you from start to finish.
Fans of action RPGS and shmups can purchase Drifting Lands for PC here.
Note: A copy of Drifting Lands code was provided by the publisher for review.