Drifting Lands was almost one of the few games I’ve given up on before the end, and that’s really only because I ended up hitting a brick wall of difficulty that no possible skill loadout could help me past. See, this is a game that claims on its store page to be “first and foremost an action-RPG” with a Gradius-style 2D space shooter on top of that. I’m great at the former and terrible at the latter, so it stood to reason that my aRPG skills would suffice to reach the end of this game. Calling itself an aRPG first and foremost is incredibly misleading, however, because you absolutely need a certain amount of skill at bullet hell-style shooters to get past some of the insane difficulty spikes that unexpectedly crop up. One minute I was steamrolling my way through levels on the first try with a few boss-type exceptions that required a bit more effort, and then an annoying earlier boss was suddenly doubled up and the entire screen was awash in bullets that most of my paltry skills were helpless to do anything about. The few that helped had cooldown timers that ensured that I was stuck without them for the majority of the fight on each of my ~30-40 attempts, each preceded by the same 5-minute level. It was only when I opened up Cheat Engine and slowed down the game to 20% of its original speed that I was finally able to dodge enough to get through (and even then, only barely) and continue playing all the way to the end of the story, but by that point my opinion of the game had soured somewhat and the moments of fun that had been so plentiful instead became intermittent glimmers punctuating numerous frustrations.
The story is fluff, but interesting fluff
When I was considering giving up on the game, I thought that my struggles at the end of Grade 3 (out of 10, with Grade basically being set points where the stage difficulty is ratcheted up) meant that I was 30% finished with the story. As it turns out, the story ends in Grade 4 and everything after that is merely a grind against harder foes in order to find better loot. One thing that really stands out about Drifting Lands’ story is that it throws you in at the deep end with almost no introduction to its characters, factions, or overall world. This is something that really bothered me about The Banner Saga, but here it actually works since there are fewer characters to keep track of early on. It certainly doesn’t hurt that your unfamiliarity with the various factions lends a certain sense of mystery to them that causes the entire storyline to have an inherently interesting quality to it. The story itself is fairly humdrum, though, never really building up to anything and lacking the kind of fleshed out characters or compelling writing you can find in other games. All things considered, the plot does its job admirably and provides adequate justification for all of the shooty-bang-bang stages, but ends up feeling a bit tacked on.
I adored this game at first
Gameplay goes a bit like this: you equip skills, do a stage like the one above, and then return to base to sell and equip the loot as appropriate. It’s a satisfying gameplay loop for the first few hours, and there are enough early skills available to give you more than enough entertainment playing around with new gameplay possibilities in a fairly easy environment. The supposed aRPG part of Drifting Lands comes in the form of both randomized loot (including many different types of weapons with unique firing quirks—the machine gun slowly moves to a wide spray while the single laser fires a lone beam directly forward, and so on with many other weapon types) and these skills, which operate based on cooldown timers and usually exhaust a certain amount of energy. Your ship’s upgrades gradually increase your maximum health, shields, and energy in addition to all three recharging naturally during stages, so those early moments really do feel like you’re gradually becoming stronger and more formidable with each stage.
And then you start playing catch up
Somewhere along the way I started to notice that no matter how great my shiny new weapons were, I was doing roughly the same amount of damage to enemies. Shortly after that, slightly less. Suddenly the grind stopped feeling like a rewarding process, and grinding several levels for the absolute best equipment available became practically mandatory thanks to a boss annoyance that I’ll get into in a bit.
The game lost a bit of its luster around this time, but I was nevertheless enchanted enough with the idea behind Drifting Lands to power through the occasional problem. Still, I started to notice small, grating flaws like distracting visual elements that block or otherwise obscure parts of the screen at the worst possible times.
Cooldowns are the devil
If you could use skills at will with the only limitation being energy, this game would be much more accessible. Instead, most skills have prohibitive cooldown timers that ensure that you can’t ever rely on them too heavily. 5-10 seconds can be an eternity when there’s an entire screen of tightly packed enemy bullets sitting in front of you, and there aren’t a lot of skills that help with that sort of thing. Worse, the only way to tell that a skill has become usable again is by either looking at your skill bar or paying attention to a white circle that pops up around your ship for a (too) brief second when a skill has recharged, and gleaning any meaningful insights from a short flash of information can prove a tricky task when you’re dodging through said screen of tightly packed enemy bullets that are demanding the entirety of your attention. The end result is that I rarely knew when I actually had skills available, on several occasions being forced to fly into a barrage of enemy fire because there were no gaps to slip between and my skills were all on cooldown. Even if the cooldowns need to stay in place to appease the hardcore “git gud” contingent of the fan base, however, it would do wonders to either pair the white circle with an audio cue or provide some kind of persistent feedback on or around the ship.
Touching bosses is death
Part of what makes the early parts of this game so good is that, unlike most 2D shooters in this vein, getting hit doesn’t blow up your ship or end the stage. Much like in Tyrian 2000 so long ago, you have shields, and then health once your shields are depleted. Even ramming into most enemies isn’t an instant death, and the game counts on this as it sends tons of kamikaze ships at you. Then you reach a boss fight and the rules go out the window. Not immediately, mind you—early bosses are easy enough that you’re unlikely to notice, but you’ll eventually have a boss ram into you and take out your shields and health in a single blow, even if both are at 100%. This wouldn’t be a problem if not for the sheer size of bosses and the unpredictable ways they move; you have to learn their patterns to know the best way to attack them without having them veer into you unexpectedly. Given how many skills require you to stay rooted in place, this is hugely important.
This would be fine if they weren’t also timed
One of the game’s early gimmicks is that you have to do a certain amount of damage to a fleet of ships that have breakable parts. This is one of the early boss fights, so I went through it being careful to attack them from behind as they flew past me rather than risking attacking from above or below. Then they randomly stopped showing up and I got a “mission failed” popup. Turns out that this boss fight is on a timer, and it’s not the only one, either—I had another boss flee after a certain point, failing the entire stage in the process. I don’t know if all bosses are timed or if only certain ones are, but this is a terrible decision that undermines everything; having bosses be timed means that you have to have weapons strong enough to take out their life bars before they flee, forcing you to grind for ever-stronger weapons. Even once you have them, you’re required to play incredibly risky, getting up close and using your skills so that you can damage them enough in time. Playing defensively is never an option, and since your skills have long cooldowns and it’s difficult to see what’s available to use while also dodging through waves of enemy bullets, you also find yourself using defensive skills less frequently so as to avoid getting the “skill not ready” voiceover and flying headlong into a million enemy projectiles (which happened dozens upon dozens of times and had me constantly paranoid).
Failure means redoing the whole stage
If bosses were their own separate stages, that’d be one thing, but these things are always at the end of stages that last several minutes. These fairly short stages begin to feel laborious and unnecessary as you’re forced to go through them again and again, and the whole thing quickly turns Sisyphean. It’s a needlessly frustrating experience, and going through a stage for the umpteenth time with a new skill loadout, only for it to prove ineffective against a boss and send you back to do the whole thing over yet again is something I began to hate the game for. It felt like my time was constantly being wasted with these fluff stages that might as well have been long, unskippable cutscenes for how routine and mindless they eventually became, and since each attempt ended in death, the loot was lost each time and nothing was gained in the end. There are even some chained stages where failure can set you back 3-4 entire stages, and while these all seem to be optional and you can store your loot between each stage, losing to the boss at the end is still a crushing blow that undoes tens of minutes of progress in an instant.
Distracting visual elements
If you’re the type of person who’s bothered by flashing lights, this game is absolutely not for you. Even the early daytime stages have foreground elements whizzing past the screen, making it look like the screen’s flashing randomly, and that’s nothing next to the chaos of exploding ships and background lightning effects that come into play later on. Speaking of lightning effects, the amount of bloom in the level with the lightning is distracting and can make it incredibly difficult to see where bullets are. The same can be said of explosions later in the game—the boss fight where I got stuck was filled with kamikaze ships and a screen full of bullets, and destroying the kamikaze guys caused small explosions that flashed and made it difficult to see nearby bullets. Then there are the animations for incoming ships in which they come up on you from both the foreground and background. The background ones are annoying because they look like enemies who can be attacked while they’re untouchable, making things busier than they need to be. Having ships coming in from the foreground is even worse, though, because they block huge portions of the screen and become incredibly disorienting as they move past your ship, which is a bad thing to suddenly fall prey to when gameplay revolves around adroitly dodging through a bunch of enemy projectiles.
The graphics and music are great, though
Both Drifting Lands’ graphics and music are perfect for the type of game it is. Stages are beautiful, cutscene art is great, loot looks great, and everything else looks equally great. Enemy ships look and act differently depending on which faction they’re from. Different attacks are telegraphed in different ways that you quickly learn to identify. Really, I have no graphical complaints except for those about the distracting elements, and the music is something I similarly have nothing negative to say about. It’s top-notch stuff, providing a ton of energy to stages and atmosphere to the base, and while you’ll quickly hear it all and start to notice it repeating, every single track is good enough that you won’t mind.
*A review key for Drifting Lands was provided for the purposes of this review