Drifting Lands review: Making a case for the RPG shoot ’em up

I’d never really thought about before I heard about Drifting Lands, but RPG and shoot ‘em up are two genres that should go together really well. Take the hectic action of a shmup and layer RPG loot and progression systems on top of that, and you’ve got a fresh new take on both. That’s what French indie studio Alkemi decided to do with Drifting Lands, and it works well – for the most part.

The basic idea is simple: while on a mission, Drifting Lands plays like any other horizontal scrolling shmup, as you dodge bullets by the hundreds and take out an onslaught of enemy ships. However, the damage you deal, your defence, and your available weapons and tools are no longer set in stone with the ship or character you choose at the outset. Defeated enemies leave behind credits and loot, which can be used to improve your ship’s stats and abilities, or even buy entirely new ships.

In a typical shmup, good play and mastery of the game’s systems all lead to high scores and topped leaderboards. That’s certainly enough motivation for the sorts of hardcore players that the genre usually courts, but for the more casual player, such goals can seem esoteric and not particularly exciting. Drifting Lands puts a more practical spin on learning the ins and outs of the game’s scoring systems by tying that directly to ship progression – better play means more credits earned and better, more frequent loot drops. The integration of these different mechanisms is really quite ingenious.

Drifting Lands review

The RPG systems are quite in-depth, too. There are just three main stats – Navigation, Power, and Structure – that you can manually upgrade, but these feed into a range of secondary stats like health, defense, attack power, and so on. It’s not a one-to-one relationship, either, so you can’t simply stack all your points into Power to bolster your attack strength; the other stats also contribute, both directly and by allowing you to meet the stat requirements for desired pieces of equipment. On top of that, loot comes with a wide range of semi-randomised stat bonuses, which you can then refine and tailor through a complicated crafting system. For the min-maxers and stat nerds, there’s plenty to work with here.

In keeping with its RPG design, Drifting Lands also gives you a lot more room to tailor your ship to your playstyle. There are three classes of ship, which are the standard shmup variety: slow and bulky, quick but flimsy, and somewhere in between. Class doesn’t affect your weaponry, though, and your shot patterns depend entirely on the gun you equip – a railgun gives you a powerful, focused, linear shot; a shotgun gives you a nice wide spread but a low rate of fire; machine guns come with a range of different patterns, from a simple three-barrel cone to parabolic waves. Finally, you can equip up to six abilities – four active and two passive – from a total of about 70 that you can unlock. For active abilities, these range from bombs and powerful shots to speed boosts and defensive shields. For passive ones, you’ve got the likes of increased credit earnings or automatic effects that trigger when certain conditions are met – like a temporary defence boost after taking a hit. Instead of a simple choice of three or four predetermined ships, Drifting Lands gives you the freedom to create a build that’s just right for you.

However, for all its success as an RPG, Drifting Lands falters as a shoot ‘em up. This is a genre that lives or dies by its level design; good enemy layouts and bullet patterns turn a mechanically simple action game into a meticulously choreographed performance. A well-designed level makes you react and adapt, but also solve puzzles on the fly, navigate creative mazes of shots, and learn the intricacies of each level so that nothing takes you by surprise. Watching an accomplished player in a game like Ikaruga or DoDonPachi is like watching a ballet, where every move is planned, calculated, practised – a dance in tandem with that of the bullets flying across the screen.

Drifting Lands review

Drifting Lands has none of that, instead opting for procedurally-generated levels that lack and sort of identity. The individual elements that each level is put together from are themselves not particularly interesting, either, with generic enemies collected into simple, dull arrangements. Don’t get me wrong, the game does get hard, but it doesn’t have that sense of craftsmanship that the best shmups have. It’s not a game that you master and turn into a performance art so much as one that you can just play and get good at.

Bosses – a hallmark of the shmup genre – also leave a lot to be desired. They’re few and far between, and tend to just feel like beefed up versions of the regular enemies you’ve been shooting down. Again, there’s none of that creativity that goes into making an iconic boss design, whether visually or in terms of the attacks it throws at you.

As is often the case with RPGs, you can overcome many of Drifting Lands’ challenges simply by levelling up until you’re stronger, and this is something I’m in two minds about. I think the RPG elements add a fascinating new dimension and makes a rather daunting genre a lot more welcoming, but it also runs counter to the ethos that underpins the shmup: these are games of skill in their purest form, where you’ll never be held back by an unlucky roll of the dice or by not been able to match up with the challenges in raw numbers. Succeed or fail, it’s all on you. I don’t say that to be a “git gud scrub” elitist, but because so much of the joy that shmups have to offer comes from that process of learning and mastery.

Drifting Lands review

I think with some better level and boss design, Drifting Lands could have the best of both worlds. Take an intricately crafted level of the likes we see in the bullet hell giants, and then layer Drifting Lands extensive options for ship customisation on top of that – you’ve still got that element of mastery, but with more tools to work with, more steps for your choreography. For the casual player, it takes some of the rote repetition out of the process, while still fundamentally being about learning to choreograph a response to the level designers’ bullet ballet. For the hardcore, it provides a wealth of options to explore in the search for ever higher scores.

I’m not saying Drifting Lands is a bad game at all – far from it. It’s a game that creatively blends two very different genres, and all things considered, it executes that vision very well. Sure, it doesn’t get everything spot on, but it still has plenty to offer to fans of both RPGs and shmups. More importantly, it shows how much potential there is in the “RPG shoot ‘em up”, and I sincerely hope we see more of it from Alkemi and any other devs with the good sense to take notice.

Drifting Lands is developed and published by Alkemi. It’s available now for PC.

A press copy was supplied by the publisher for this review.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.