Dancing and fighting are more similar than many people seem to realise. The creators of family-friendly entertainment sometimes conflate the two, using dance as a substitute for violence in conflict resolution. Moreover, the planning process for both activities in theatre and film is called choreography, and in a real-world setting, both are forms of physical expression that demand poise, agility, grace, and fitness from their practitioners. With a few exceptions, video games are less keen than other mediums to embrace dance overtly, but the player’s experience can be different from the developer’s intention. Alkemi’s ARPG-cum-shoot-‘em-up Drifting Lands is an example of a game in which the player’s idea of combat gives way to performance. As the title’s beautiful backgrounds are obscured by ballistics and enemy ships, the usual demand of a boxer’s aggression recedes and successful navigation of the chaos requires a ballerina’s pinpoint precision. The difficulty of Drifting Lands, however, can be tempered through the application of strategy, and although failure sometimes feels unfair, the sheer pleasure of play is enough to overcome the frustrations that mar the experience.
In merging the character management mechanics of the RPG with the hectic side-scrolling action of the shoot-‘em-up, Drifting Lands presents a unique gameplay premise. The action segments are the undisputable heart of the experience, comprising the bulk of the game’s play time as well as being the area in which the player’s skills are constantly tested and refined. Unfortunately, this element of the game offers nothing new or revolutionary to the shoot-‘em-up genre. As in forebears stretching back to 1981’s Defender, players take control of a lone spaceship and are charged with running a gauntlet to complete each mission, often immediately after taking down a boss or mini-boss. The main enemy types are similarly derivative; introduced early, reskinned and upgraded throughout the adventure, but ultimately familiar and forgettable. While the tepidity of the game’s design is disappointing, the use of well-worn mechanics and ideas infuses Drifting Lands with a sense of confidence rarely found in similar projects. This willingness to be unabashedly familiar is the source of the game’s propensity to push the concept of conflict to the side. As bullets and ballistics fill the screen, the desire to overcome a challenge falls to the wayside, replaced by the primal drive of survival, which in Drifting Lands requires a balletic display of precision and panache to simultaneously evade the hailstorm of oncoming projectiles, increase the focus bar (which improves end-level rewards), and thin the enemy’s ranks.
Aiding the fulfilment of these goals are the game’s RPG systems, which affect the ship’s stats and abilities. The freedom to modify and replace weapons is a well-worn trope of shoot-‘em-ups, but the diversity on display in Drifting Lands is notable. Although players will likely find a preferred weapon and set of skills, the game is varied enough to ensure that no single loadout, no matter the buffs and stat increases provided, can act as a catch-all solution. Instead, experimentation is encouraged. Supporting the ethos of experimentation is the fact that many of the campaign’s missions are randomised. Opting for an instant replay retains the same enemy cycles, but exiting the fail screen to alter equipment will adjust the mission parameters; difficulty remains unchanged, but enemy positions and types change, presenting an entirely different challenge for which the new loadout, no matter how carefully chosen, may not be suitable. While the randomisation makes for a more dynamic experience, the mechanic can also lead to a negative feedback loop whereby revised mission layouts consistently work against a player’s adjustments, becoming a source of considerable frustration. These RPG systems seem of little import in the opening stages of Drifting Lands, more a marketing ploy than gameplay modifier, but they become evermore fundamental to the overall experience. Although the primary weapon is initially the most important factor, the active and passive skills (measured with energy drain and cooldown periods, and ranging from mines and blades to on-the-spot repairs and protective forcefields) often have a more tangible effect on the player’s success or failure. Thankfully, competence is determined solely by the application of skill and strategy, rather than also being reliant on superhuman dexterity and precognitive abilities.
Players are never subject to a situation that demands more than the sublime controls and intelligent heads-up display offers. Although Drifting Lands is, as the splash screen notes, best played with a gamepad, the keyboard setup works wonderfully, with intuitive key mapping that makes skill use and inventory management straightforward. In comparison to the controls, the visual interface is a tad more troublesome. Some of the menu functionality, such as the marketplace, is organised poorly. More bothersome, however, are the missions with stormy backdrops, as the intensity of the artwork overwhelms the screen, making the processes of navigation and combat needlessly difficult. These issues are a blemish on an otherwise stunning technical and design achievement, but Drifting Lands, unfortunately, contains a much larger and more noticeable flaw in the form of a lacklustre narrative.
The developers at Alkemi have clearly expended considerable effort in the attempt to create a deep and engaging story for the game. Drifting Lands is rife with lore, packed full of proper nouns that connote a backstory and characters who drive the action onward. Unfortunately, the effort is wasted with the twists and turns of plot failing to invest the player in the conflicts between the various factions of the game’s universe. No doubt the lack of connection is attributable to the absolute segregation of narrative and gameplay. Rather than taking cues from contemporary games that give weight to the narrative by putting players in control of the action, Drifting Lands adheres to an older tendency for the story to act as a frame, justifying and giving context to the missions without ever feeling necessary. The ethereal beauty of the hand-drawn 2D artwork and character designs that accompany story scenes is noteworthy, but fails to elevate the plot beyond simply being present. These issues are compounded by the sheer length of the game, with approximately a hundred campaign missions and numerous additional optional ones easily pushing the title to dozens of hours of play time. The factional conflicts are poorly explained, the characters are archetypal, and mission justification is trite, with the result of this tepid blend being a narrative that falls flat and fails to leave anything more than a momentary impression.
The inclusion of voice acting may have made the story segments more memorable, but the absence instead contributes to a middling audio presentation. The soundscape of each mission begins strongly, with the pounding electronic tunes generating a crackling sense of energy underscored by the bark of weapons fire. In a personalising touch, a robotic voice periodically informs players of their ship’s status. Unfortunately, none of these audio elements are capable of lasting the distance. The repetitive music and sounds effects fade into the background against the attention-absorbing demands of gameplay, leaving white noise that neither contributes to nor detracts from the player’s engagement with the action. Thankfully, any such intangible heightening factor is unnecessary.
Drifting Lands’s ultimate drawcard is the ultra-refined gameplay and slick mechanics that make arguments for just one more mission all too easy to find. With the delightful fusion of skill and strategy supported by truly eye-catching artwork, the game’s presentation is appealing enough that the relatively high difficulty offers no barrier to entry. Ultimately, though, the lacklustre audio and uninspired narrative drag the entire experience down and detract from the possibility of unquestionable enjoyment. Despite these shortcomings, Drifting Lands remains a very strong title and a game well worth standing among the giants of the shoot-‘em-up genre.