If there is one thing that calls me to any game of any genre, it is loot. The shiny sparkle of legendary, unique or just plain badass weaponry is the lure that always drags me towards new offerings. Though these loot systems can lead to odd design decisions (Destiny, Diablo 3) elsewhere they provide legitimately compelling additions to gameplay (Breath of the Wild, The Crew). I was actually about to pass on Drifting Lands when the games advertised skill and equipment system caught my eye. While I’ve never been great at shoot em’ ups or bullet hells of even moderate difficulty, a well done levelling or loot system can allow bad players to compensate to beat difficult areas.
My initial impression of Drifting Lands was great, the visuals are incredibly crisp. The music is all heady, quick-paced and well suited to the destruction on screen. There is a surprisingly well drawn cast of characters and story-locations to go with the extremely detailed ships and backgrounds in normal gameplay. While weapons don’t sound incredibly distinct against the frequent explosions and soundtrack, the developers are still tweaking the game with a flurry of patches post release. The game will hurl hundreds of bullets at you, and tons of enemies. Despite that, all of the action on screen is very clear. All of your weapons and abilities can be clearly picked out from the enemies salvos, which makes playing a real treat.
In terms of difficulty, the game starts rather easy, but has a ton of time and room to grow. While the meat of the story ends at a difficulty of stage four, there are ten stages in total with around 100 levels to play across the ten stages. The story is linear, and fairly weak, but I understand that it was added late in the games development. Each level is semi-randomized with each play, broken up into mini-wave chunks that are handcrafted. This allows every playthrough of each level to be distinct, while each wave can be tweaked individually for difficulty, and new waves added over time (new waves were added in one of the first post release patches). The most impressive thing to me is how malleable the game is to different playstyles.
With three distinct ship types on offer, each ship has bonuses to certain stats, as well as a completely different method of gaining Focus. Focus is the game’s score multiplier, which is integral in getting credits, powering up certain skills, and attempting to top any of the scoreboards for the challenge levels. The speedy Interceptors reward you for grazing bullets and avoiding damage, Marauders gain focus from moving around the screen and staying in glowing circles, while the heavy Sentinels merely need to regenerate their shields and avoid dying. The Interceptor is clearly harder to play than the beefy Sentinel, however they also gain much higher rewards from maintaining a high Focus. Players who want to make the most credits, or really push their scores would do well to pilot an Interceptor.
Aside from ship type, a variety of weapons and ship parts will drop that can drastically change the power of the many skills available. Weapons have a ton of firing patterns, and the randomized stats on weapons and parts are reminiscent of Borderlands gun hunting. Allocating stat points will allow you to equip different classes of armour and weapons, like most ARPG’s, as well as boosting your power in specific areas. Your skill loadout consists of four actives and two passives, and you’ll unlock around sixty skills total. While these amount to various ways to avoid damage, heal, or destroy your legions of foes, there is one passive skill of particular note that the game points out very early.
You see, by default every ship comes with the “automatic retreat” skill equipped. If you remove it the game warns you about the very real consequences. A death without “automatic retreat” or a skill of similar function will cause you to lose your ship and everything on it (unless you’re playing the games forgiving mode, though you’ll still incur a hefty penalty). You can manually retreat from any risky situations with or without the passive, which allows you to escape and recover valuables you may have obtained in the current mission. Playing without automatic retreat is essentially playing on hardcore mode, in return you can choose another powerful boost to your ship or your score. The entire game is built around the idea of a high risk, high reward scoreboard climb. The best scores will doubtless be set by cocky Interceptor pilots risking everything, and I love it.
I put a bunch of time into Drifting Lands, the colourful enemies and flashy weapons are hard to ignore. I would shut it down, and immediately want to jump back in for a quick level, or two, or three. I lost a few ships, and a few great items along the way, but never felt impossibly frustrated. The main story has an achievement to beat in three hours, but my first attempt took twelve, and then nine when I had more experience. I would estimate that getting to stage ten could take forty hours plus. I’ve still yet to reach the highest stages, but every new stage is a definite spike in difficulty, and I’m working my way there slowly but surely. I was of the opinion that certain weapons were unbalanced or weak, but I’ve seen staunch defenders of most of the weapon types on the discussion boards, so it may just be personal preference at work.
If you’ve got your eye on Drifting Lands, you’ve probably already seen something that will appeal to you, either from trailers or the feature list. Putting itself forward as both a Shoot Em’ Up and an ARPG, it does a great job of mixing both halves of the formula with a super shiny coating on top. This is a game absolutely deserving of your time, and hopefully a future sequel, fingers crossed.
The publisher provided us with a copy of Drifting Lands for review purposes.