Review: Drifting Lands is an alluring experiment in genre melding that can't quite master either side
Drifting Lands works very hard within a strict set of limitations.
One thing that I can safely say about Drifting Lands is that I have never played a game quite like it, which in this day and age, is quite extraordinary. That is to say, I have played my fair share of Action RPGs and Shmups (Shoot ‘Em Ups), but never a game that tried to tie the two genres together. That’s Drifting Lands, in a nutshell, combined with a beautiful hand-painterly aesthetic, it’s a game that succeeds at standing out on first glance amidst a digital shelf of similar looking offerings within their respective genres.
That said, while Drifting Lands is a worthwhile experiment, its execution doesn’t fully come together, mainly due to a prolonged mission structure that doesn’t deviate much from shooting everything on screen till it blows up or flies away with patterns of enemies that you’ll start to recognize within the first hour. Throw in the handful of recycled level backgrounds and a story that tries to come off as more important than it really is, and what you’re left with is the grind to improve your ship across missions you’ll have little emotional investment in.
That said, it’s perfectly fine if that’s what you’re into as the whole point of Shmups is to shoot stuff within skill-based gameplay parameters, and the Diablo-style loot grabs manage to keep things interesting from a game mechanics perspective. If anything, I wished Alkemi had toned down its story elements (or just gotten rid of them altogether) and focused entirely on its core gameplay.
That said, here’s what you need to know about Drifting Lands.
As a Shmup, Drifting Lands sacrifices some of the difficulty to keep looting as a constant presence in its game loop.
One of the things you can always count on with a Shmup is that you are going to have your reflexes tested, with death being a constant reminder of how brutal the genre can be. Drifting Lands doesn’t lay down the law as harshly as other games in the genre like Ikaruga, though you will die (or Automatically Retreat on the lower difficulty) from time to time. Considering the type of game that it tries to meld with it, it makes sense seeing as how the frequent acquisition of loot and death can’t both be constant without one bringing down the other to some degree.
As a result, Drifting Lands chooses to emphasize the loot grab, which in turn pushes the threat of death to the background in favor of allowing the player to experiment with different weapons that they loot or abilities that they unlock through in-game currency.
As an Action-RPG, Drifting Lands offers enough loot to keep things interesting, without the narrative chops to back it up.
Experimenting with different builds is where Drifting Lands flies highest, as there are a plethora of different weapon types that you can mix and match with different attacks. Finding the sweet spot and discovering new ones is what it’s all about with this game. As you’d expect, enemies drop new equipment, health and ability power-ups, and in-game currency. There’s an unlockable passive ability that enhances the money drops based on killstreaks, which makes running through levels to grind for gear pretty painless. That said; the grind is the most polished part of the package, as its context comes off as relatively banal with a narrative that feels like it’s injecting its importance into the experience rather than organically being a part of it.
There’s are attempts at drama via leadership struggles, but the way the player is introduced to the story makes it feel like it already started without you. Add in the fact that the game recycles the same animated segments as establishing shots and tells its story via text blocks and still frames, and there’s not a whole lot that will actually engage you.
I’m glad I got the opportunity to try out Drifting Lands because it’s not every day you get your hands on a game that experiments with genres that haven’t been thrust together before. While it doesn’t quite master Shmup or Action-RPG conventions, what is here is a legitimately solid effort. Drifting Lands is not terribly expensive, coming in at under $20, so there isn’t much in the way of risk on the part of the consumer.
That said, purists of both genres are likely to scoff at a game that sacrifices from each to obtain a functional middle ground. Drifting Lands, being developed by a small indie team, obviously had a lot of limitations to work within, it’s just a shame they couldn’t find a way to mask the repetition of assets better.