Drifting Lands is an interesting new indie game that combines a shoot ‘em up with RPG elements. It’s going to be the first to be analyzed and possibly criticized in my new First Impressions series, where I play a game for a few hours and then analyze it. Nothing past my first impressions of the game will be considered.
The Menus & The Controller Mouse Cursor
The game recommends a controller, but navigating the menus, the hub, or anything outside of the shoot ‘em up sequences is clearly designed to be used with a mouse. The left-stick moves the cursor across the screen. This is one of the most unintuitive uses of a controller I’ve ever seen, despite a controller being perfect for the gameplay itself. It’s quite shocking when you have to choose a save slot and mode using cursor control instead of normal selection using up or down.
I like the thought that was put into having a mode that was clearly intended for the more “casual” player. In both modes, you automatically have an Auto-Retreat skill equipped which forces your ship to retreat instead of blowing up. In Normal Mode, there’s perma-loss, while Forgiving Mode you can pay to have your ship repaired instead of it being permanently lost. The Auto-Retreat skill can be swapped out, which does make me question what the point of Forgiving Mode is if you know what you’re getting yourself into by removing it. Your entire progress is essentially tied to your ship, so I know the developers had a pure heart here when implementing Forgiving Mode.
The game introduces some intriguing story: Sven couldn’t finish repairing the ship before you set off, then you find out your location was found out by the enemy corporation called Redemption and according to Thor, it’s Susan’s fault. The beginning of the game introduces conflict well. We’re wondering how it’s her fault and who the enemy is. I think it’s also worth mentioning that the characters call each other by different names than their dialogue box names… why?
Then you set off, and it continues with Sven telling you he really wasn’t ready with the repairs, so the ship has “important structural damages.” Well, for having important structural damages, you can just repair your ship fully with your skill, so what’s the point in having an engineer mechanic at all if I can just repair important structural damages myself?
The Tutorial And The Magic Of A Masochistic Score System
The tutorial never says anything about how to fire the basic weapon. The tutorial also never says anything about that yellow cloud that charges Focus. After playing for almost two hours, I found out that everything Focus-related was in the Help menu. The Focus system increases the score bonus percentage.
The medium ship gains Focus by following the previously mentioned yellow cloud; the smaller, faster ship gains Focus by grazing bullets (grazing is used loosely here); and the slower, bulkier ship gains Focus from shield regeneration.. meaning the more the bigger ship gets hit, the more Focus earned, and thus increased score bonus. This isn’t for the sake of those players who need the extra armor since the whole Focus and Score system is entirely optional and is encouraged for those who are more than comfortable with the game (according to the Help page). So considering “pro” players are going to be using the Focus system, why on Earth would getting damaged be considered for a score bonus?
However, as game designers or analysts, we have to consider every possible intention. The big, blue ship is exactly that — a big ship. Since this ship is easier to get hit by bullets or enemies, and sometimes it’s almost inevitable as a ship that big, then we can reasonably conclude that the shield regeneration route is appropriate for an essentially beginner ship; especially if we consider that a don’t-get-hit alternative would be unfair.
So let’s not consider a don’t-get-hit alternative. Focus could have been gained in the more traditional killstreak sense, as that would feel more satisfying to a beginner player than to reward reckless behavior.
Drifting Lands quickly makes the point that killing every enemy isn’t the goal of the game by sending huge waves of small enemy ships flying about. There is considerable potential regarding this idea of enemies being more than an object to destroy but an obstacle or a hazard that can coincide with other enemy types or bullet patterns, but it’s never truly taken advantage of, at least in the early game. I’ve played a level or two past the first boss, and it does get harder, but enemies are just kinda thrown at you and hard-to-dodge bullet patterns are wrought by only an enemy or two at a time. Of course this isn’t always the case but it’s common enough to be noticeable.
The levels are scripted. Retrying the same levels brings about the exact same enemy patterns. I would have expected this to have been procedurally generated since there isn’t any perceived rhyme or reason to many of these waves.
If Only I Could Smack Rock
The background is very well-made, as is the art style, but the background objects are misleading. There are rocks that could be mistaken as hazards but are merely scenery. Countless times has Captain Shawn swerved thinking that he was about to smack rock, but alas his intuition failed him. If these rocks were actual obstacles then they could have not only made the game more challenging, but they could have filled in empty space on-screen as well.
Talking about how obstacles would make the game more challenging leads me straight into difficulty. Drifting Lands is easy. Many times there are ships passing by that don’t fire any bullets; they simply fly in patterns and present no challenge. Sometimes there are periods where nothing shows up on the screen at all. Sometimes the small enemies swarm, which would create an interesting barrier or hazard if it was combined with something else since these enemies essentially restrict part of the screen. Sometimes these swarms provide much more of a challenge by firing bullets as well, so the game does succeed at mixing hazards occasionally.
As I have mentioned before, the difficulty does seem to pick up, if only to lift me from boredom to apathy from the lack of a satisfying challenge through cleverly designed enemy and bullet patterns. I never felt satisfied.
Bullet Pattern Previews And Progression
The weapons give a hint of how they work, such as the Minigun being multi-streamed bullets and the triple gatling being..well.. three streams of bullets. There’s no way of knowing the actual bullet pattern until we jump in-game and test them. This cannot be understated: Player convenience for the sake of unnecessary trial and error should always be implemented. Drifting Lands should have offered a preview button that brought up a small overlay displaying the pattern, especially since many of these bullet patterns are completely random and thus we would like the option to avoid these. Random patterns don’t feel satisfying to use, especially since the game lacks any form of weapon or bullet progression.
Speaking of weapon or bullet progression, yes, there is none. By this I mean how bullet patterns upgrade throughout the level, which is indeed a common feature of shoot ‘em ups, but here’s the real kicker: An overhaul of the Focus system could have changed the depth of the game and the weapons in its entirety.
Focus could have been used to change up the bullet pattern. Each ship has a different method in which Focus can be gained, and so gaining Focus can slowly upgrade the weapon, or rather the bullet pattern. A major mechanical choice was missed that could have brought a whole unique twist to the bullet system. Instead of added depth, we have an isolated score system.
Basic Skills, Oh My
Hull Patch is the basic heal skill.
Flame Blade is pretty useless since it can only hit one enemy at a time.
Conflagration does the same amount of damage as Flame Blade but has a much better AOE instead of simply being straight ahead. Projected Conflagration is a ranged version of the base skill, and feels responsive, easy to use, and satisfying. Conflagration is a really well-balanced skill set.
Self Powered Bubble & Reflex Bubble
The bubbles can absorb or reflect bullets, pretty standard. One thing to note is the Reflex Bubble. Having the option to choose a more short and sweet bubble skill is definitely a smart move, since such a little change makes a big difference on how it can be utilized.
Simple Dash & Multi Dash
Simple Dash allows a forward and backward dash. At first, I was disappointed that it was only forward and backward, but thank goodness I unlocked the Multi Dash ‘cause that skill is a lot of fun to use. Multi Dash unlocks a lot of mobility potential.
Expert Level 5 Versions
Three of these Basic Skills have a Level 5 that increases the effect based on your Focus level, which is perfect for late game since the developers intended on Focus being an expert mechanic.
Now to the Advanced Skills, which kinda sounds like they’re better in its own passive aggressive way.
Focus Fire is straightforward and a great addition — temporary increased fire rate. Forked Fire — press a button to fire backwards, let go to fire forwards — and Missile Barrage — replaces the main weapon with missiles that target the nearest enemy — both provide their own unique twists for the Focus Fire category, although I’m a little worried that Missile Barrage can be on for ⅓ of the level (5 seconds on, 10 seconds off), but since this is First Impressions, it’s not something I was able to find out.
Combat Reflexes & Bullet Warp
What I did find out however, is that the Combat Reflexes stops time around you… and you. So the only possible benefit would be for it to give our brains additional time to process, but since Drifting Lands isn’t touhou, the other skills simply outweigh Combat Reflexes. Bullet Warp is what I originally thought Combat Reflexes would be, but Bullet Warp has less range. Keeping skills under control is key to a balanced di- game, although Bullet Warp brings bullets around you to a crawl — the opposite of Combat Reflexes, as in way too good.
Speaking of balancing issues, Fire Ring is a skill that will always be active. Fire Ring is essentially a permanent barrier around you, at least for anything but bullets and lasers. Fire Ring starts to diminish as enemies are hit by it, but by the time it starts diminishing, the cooldown has finished. It completely breaks the game, not to mention Multi Dash would be a much more enjoyable tool if knowing where I was going to land mattered more. Fire Ring is essentially invincibility, at least for the early game since it does start to become less powerful if the Power stat isn’t kept up with. Vortex Ring sounds like invincibility against bullets and lasers instead of physical enemies, so again it’s a skill that sounds clearly broken, albeit two skills in the same class can’t be equipped.
The Mine is a versatile tool since it can be placed anywhere, but it can cause friendly fire. This is the perfect balance since we have to be aware of what’s going on to truly utilize the Mine to its full potential. The counterargument is that the Mine has almost no cooldown, so mines can be tossed around freely.
Plasma Spear is kinda broken, despite the developers trying to make it reasonable by removing movement while active. It does require more awareness than Fire Ring, but I ended up standing still and taking out a horde of small enemies with it. I will say that Harpoon Spear, you can tell they had fun with that one just by the description. #stolenfromdishonored2
While Drifting Lands is an overall solid game that has a lot of heart and tried to add RPG elements to a shmup, it has a lot of glaring flaws that make it hard for me not to feel bored. But it’s a step in a direction, and it provided some excellent game design topics. That, my friends, is what it’s all about.
Bonus: The First Guardian
First off, it is a neat touch that we get to see the guardians in the background, but it made me think this fight was going to be an epic three-parter. Don’t be fooled, those are Guardians to fight at a later date. Seems a bit recycled to me.
The following two GIFs comprise the entire boss pattern.
The First Guardian starts off strong. There’s a point where it becomes invincible and draws itself to the middle before being vulnerable again with its widespread bullet pattern. It pulls back and shoots sets of five — easy enough to dodge while simultaneously lining up our fire.
The First Guardian becomes invulnerable again and lines up a shot with a clearly marked path. The Guardian moves extremely slow during this, so it doesn’t feel satisfying to dodge. However, the Guardian will one-shot us if we get caught in the line of fire, so the damage should have been lessened and the speed drastically increased.
The Guardian mixes it up with a wide stream of bigger bullets, which is well-implemented especially with the sound effects. The boss pattern begins again.
Overall, the First Guardian is a solid boss, but I was hoping for something more (disregarding my problem with the slow speed). The Three Guardians that we saw flying in the background would have been an amazing fight, but then again, who knows what happens later on.
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