Drainus. Whether a ham-fisted portmanteau of Darius and Gradius, or relating to the game’s core mechanic, it’s a silly name any way you look at it. Japan-based developer Team Ladybug, more recently known for the rather good Record of Lodoss War: Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth, has had the Switch shooting game hardcore waiting eight months since the game’s Steam release, but does it live up to the hype?
Drainus pays homage to many genre classics; a touch of Border Down in its ship functions and styling, a nod to Einhander in the aesthetic of its stage-two train assault, and plenty of Gradius V in its transforming boss phases. The one influence that’s been touted heavily in previews, inexplicably, is Ikaruga, as if it’s the only other title in the genre the mainstream gaming press has ever heard of. While Drainus features a system of absorbing enemy fire that can be returned in a flurry of homing lasers, the execution here has far more in common with Takumi’s Giga Wing than it does Treasure’s puzzle-shmup hybrid, making it a largely erroneous comparison.
Drainus features the odd typo, has a tutorial that fails to teach you about your laser bomb, health, or quick access ship speed adjustments (engaged with the left shoulder button). While initially confusing, it’s nonetheless a remarkable piece of work: bold, brash, exhaustingly creative, and utterly beautiful.
While the absorb and reflect function is simple enough to understand, perfecting its timing takes practice, especially when you’re looking for a spot to inhale amid a curtain of bullets. A constant, satisfying, rhythmic engagement, the overarching stage design takes into account every aspect of its possibility, requiring its use not just to sweep enemy fire, but to navigate through laser wheels, interior mazes, and for survival against large cannon strikes. Boss appendages open up, revealing laser bonds and bridges to draw upon or manoeuvre through, and stage obstacles regularly require its timely usage to survive the forced scroll. For tighter segments that require precision movement, you can slow the ship down using the right shoulder button. This inventiveness is what makes everything tick so effectively. Equally, Drainus is pure action, requiring reflex and muscle memory rather than rote strategising to overcome.
Visually, it’s a work of art, running a smooth 60 frames both handheld and docked. Rarely has a 2D shooting game been blessed with such spectacular visuals – and it’s high time. Modern hardware has the capacity to create a graphical showcase without being overblown or using crude, misplaced assets. Drainus, like Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth, spins sharp detail and beautiful animation into an incredible spectacle, its styling not dissimilar to Phalanx on the X68000.
The first stage has you charge from a frayed sand pipe, the landscape spinning 360 degrees, before you rip across a desert surface and headlong into a Fury Road-esque dust storm. From there you ascend to rainy skies, water droplets rippling across the screen, and then space, where the planet beneath is nuked into oblivion, leaving you to navigate a smouldering asteroid field in its wake. It’s quite something.
Bosses and mid-bosses are fantastic assemblies of mecha-dragons, transforming fortresses, and even a 2001 monolith, many of which offer appendages to strip and multiple phases. Not since Radiant Silvergun have we seen such a creative tour de force of large-scale enemies, and Drainus doesn’t shy away from borrowing a few ideas. There are typical shooting game tropes, such as the giant mothership assault, where you punch your way inside to destroy the core, but it’s done in a way that feels wholly fresh.
In terms of gameplay, however, there are a few particulars that won’t sit immediately well with shooting game purists. In terms of scoring, there are certainly methods to claw more digits than the next best player, but at the same time overlooked opportunities to flesh out a dedicated system. Additionally, your score counter only takes a dent on continuing, and there’s no sign of an online leaderboard (yet).
Drainus also features a weapons upgrade structure that requires pausing the game mid-run. While halting the action is usually frowned upon among shooting game diehards, it is time to accept a new way of doing things, and the ship-fortifying characteristic lends a unique dimension to the action. Arcade Mode, however, which restricts upgrading to mid-stage intervals, should probably have been a default option rather than locked until you clear the game’s two loops.
Energy canisters accrued during play act as a form of currency. Within your pause screen lies an enormous menu of bolt-ons and power-up options. Initially, your ship has three slots, and you can apply newly acquired weaponry to the available spaces in an order of your choosing. In-game, picking up power-up icons triggers each slot in ascending order, engaging their applied weaponry automatically. These slots also double as your ship’s health, meaning eating a bullet will drop one slot and fall back to the next weapon. When you’re teetering on the last active slot with an underpowered pea-shooter, you’re in the precarious position of being one collision away from death lest you can power up again. It’s a system that encourages you to go unscathed, especially if you have your best weaponry sensibly applied to the highest possible slot. There are shot power and laser upgrades, option formations and plenty of other trinkets to purchase and configure, and half of the game depends on how and when you spend your currency. It is quite possible, depending on skill, to go several stages without purchasing anything, and then grab a hefty bounty all at once. Every player will define their own personal preferences, but it will take plenty of playing before you know what suits you, and, owing to rather limited descriptions, a while to figure out what it all does.
Perhaps one glaring issue for purists is that the default and even hard difficulties are too leisurely. Although admittedly seasoned in the genre, we achieved a two-loop, single-credit clear on our sixth attempt. And, while the second loop comes on harder, it’s softened by retaining all of your lives and power-ups and gracing you with even more powerful weapon options. Saying it’s too easy might not be entirely fair, but for some it certainly will be. Finishing both loops and the true final boss does unlock additional modes, however, including a “Ridiculous” difficulty setting for high-level players to get their teeth into.
Drainus never quite reaches the adrenaline highs of Andro Dunos 2, partly because the music — while still good — isn’t on the same level, and the overall climactic nature of things doesn’t quite hit as satisfyingly. Where it excels is in its desire to impress. When you’re needling through mothership internals, detonating enormous structures, coasting on power-ups and bolstering the heat, it really takes hold. The visual feedback is sufficiently heavy-duty, and the constant pressure to work with bullet absorption creates a layered sense of involvement that feels more engaging than most shooting game gimmicks.
Team Ladybug is really demonstrating its programming expertise with Drainus. It’s both dangerous and brave to attempt a shooting game on the scale of Gradius V or Einhander, yet for the most part, the developer pulls it off in convincing fashion. It’s not entirely perfect, arguably overly easy, and various aspects will sit better with some players than others. But, at the very least, it’s a spectacular sci-fi action epic that constantly evolves, creates, and showboats. To that end, Drainus will land well with both hardcore and casual players alike.
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