Drifting Lands – See You Space Cowboy

Drifting Lands is a side-scrolling shooter after my heart. It takes a side-scrolling shooter and adds in RPG and rogue-like elements and that should keep me coming back far longer than pattern recognition does. I stepped into it a few days ago and found myself backing away from it before I even got a chance to finish. What it does is interesting, but its design largely misses the point of the shooter genre.

Drifting Lands offers three ships to start out with – one fast-but-frail, another with poor maneuverability but strong defense, and something in the middle. Each ship allows for some surprisingly deep customization with parts on the ship replaceable with scraps you pick up in flight or with the credits you earn after each mission. These can get into some very deep stat changes that might seem to barely affect anything, but might be just enough to better adapt your ship to the way you want it to control.

And almost none of these are always universal improvements. For every stat improved upon, you’re going to take a hit in something else. More often, it’s affecting the three major attributes of your ship – structure, power, and navigation. Equipping something might see a drop in a few points in one of these attributes, but you can shore up against that by buying points in them.

Sound good so far? It did to me too, but a few hours in, the charm wore off.

While the idea of swapping out “gear” for your ship is cool, in practice, it’s cumbersome. While finding specific parts for specific sections of your ship isn’t anything unusual to RPG’s (akin to equipping armor onto specific body parts), the practice of actually equipping it is plodding. You get a lot of gear in each level and figuring out what might actually improve your ship to do something more akin to what you’re shooting for is a process that can take longer than the actual stages are. Checking the minor differences in stat changes is a process that’s almost necessary early on. Your ship starts out more than a match for the enemies you encounter, but you’ll find in a few levels that they start to throw more and more of them at you, some that just become more hardy to the damage you deal, making these tiny changes almost completely mandatory. While I don’t have a problem, in theory, with spending more time in menus going over stat changes, the clunky interface for equipping and selling the items made it feel more of a chore than it should have.

While the actual RPG side of Drifting Lands is better than serviceable, the shooting is where the game should hold everything together. Rewarding combat can keep me coming back to a game I might otherwise lose interest in, but Drifting Lands just misses the mark on that front as well.

The ship controls are fine, but there’s just something off about them that I could never quite put my finger on. I found myself moving ever so slightly too far when things got hectic and took damage that kicked off a chain of trying to recover that ended up leading to my demise. This isn’t something I have a big issue with in other shooters. Seeing what I did wrong and storing it away to muscle memory for my next go is one of the aspects of the genre I find most rewarding. Drifting Lands takes that away with randomized levels, making it impossible to ever get true mastery over them (or surprising competency, as is the way I get through most shooters).

Oh yeah, none of those floating rocks damage you either,

You have four active and two passive skill slots you can equip on your ship, giving you a substantial amount of offensive and defensive options (in addition to the main gun of your ship being able to be swapped out for varying spread effects). The active ones give a slew of options that can add more variety of attacks to your ship and the defensive ones can add abilities that let you recover damage. The passive ones allow you to do things like auto-escape should things not be going well and collect more money. While these options are, once again, great in theory, they started to highlight the inherit weakness in the structure of Drifting Lands.

Being able to heal your ship is a nifty little option, but what it boils down to is the random levels never really feeling great. There are some discernible patterns to be spotted, but getting a “bad” pattern of enemies makes getting through some levels more of a chore than they should be. It’s a crutch that’s more than necessary to lean on because of the randomness. The other option to overcome some of these hurdles is to grind for credits and equipment, but when the combat just isn’t speaking to you, it’s hard to go back to earlier levels that have less challenge when they only last a couple of minutes.

This is where I keep hitting my head with Drifting Lands. I just can’t find that sweet spot that other games doing something similar bring. Rogue Legacy gives you a great sense of progression with your abilities even though failure comes far more frequently and the levels there are randomly generated as well. The combat just never clicks the way it did in something like Raiden V. It’s a mash-up of two genres that I actually really enjoy, but it just never quite connects the way games that are specifically in those genres do. It’s unfortunate that something that felt like it was going to be another one of those games that felt tailor-made for me fell well short of my expectations. Drifting Lands does some things well enough that I didn’t hate it, but to feel rather ambivalent about something that should be right up my alley is what caused me to walk away from it without finishing it.

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