Old-school shooters have always been where you’ll find video games most directly, and the side-scrolling subset of the genre is where you’ll see them in the most solemn and spectacular way. Konami’s Scramble started the format in 1982 and later morphed into the atmospheric masterpiece Gradius, and Taito brought cinematic scope to the genre, including the three-screen spectacle of Darius. The complex scoring mechanics are less worrisome, and the action is simple and fun, paired with a pure sci-fi panorama, making these games a far cry from thrilling rides. Anyway, that’s why I love them so much.
It’s always a pleasure to meet other fans, and developer Team Ladybug’s passion for the genre shines clearly in the somewhat unfortunate title of Drainus – a moniker that pays homage to the side-scrolling shooter genre’s dame, which offers Lovely big inspiration if it doesn’t sound synonymous with dumping. Still, silly names have never stopped shooters in the past, and they certainly don’t undercut the good work here.
Indeed, Drainus’ spectacle is so plentiful that it makes a good argument that it’s the best of its kind since Treasure’s Gradius 5 – Drainus has the same creativity, and its environmental puzzles have Same spark, occasionally throwing in few physics-based mechanics for you to unlock and the same wit in its multi-stage screen-filled bosses.
Like Darius and Gladius before it, this isn’t about throwing a bullet bar your way. Basically, Drainus is not a bullet screen, so that a screen full of enemy fire is a nimble opportunity, not frustrating. Unique to Drainus is your ability to absorb enemy fire and toss it back with a volley of homing missiles that get more powerful the more you drain; a neat, satisfying catch and drop Rhythm, which provides a stable background for the action.
It also gives Drainus a more steady pace compared to other shooters, with the ultimate defense always within reach (although it’s fairly generous, there’s a limit to how much you can absorb before taking damage, and your ship’s hitbox is more than enough) Small if these defenses are insufficient, even the densest bullet field is simple).
Those who play shooters primarily for the challenge may be disappointed – within an hour of walking through Drainus, there’s very little that will make veterans of the genre break out in a last-minute sweat, and you’ll have see through Drainus once to get into more. Challenging difficulty.
If a simple credit clearing sounds like heaven and you’re playing shooters mostly for the vibe Drainus provides, then some. A string of engrossing scenes and outrageous sci-fi spectacles pick out delightful formations of enemy spaceships as you traverse sandstorms and skim along the surface of a distant planet as you dance across the screen.
The aesthetics are sublime, told in glorious artwork that has the cohesion of true genre greats (there’s even a story that ties them all together, told in the occasional short cutscene – a slight and silly little thing) , still helping to reinforce Drainus’ lovable character).
Meanwhile, the bosses are told through beautiful animation, and often wear their inspiration up their sleeves, in what feels like a cameo from Gradius and Treasure’s killer duo, Radiant Silvergun and Ikaruga. Look closely, however, and things fall apart, such as the boss not timing out and opening scoring holes as a result, or the tangle of upgrades and power-up upgrades in your hands that never seem to coalesce into a tangible whole.
There are greater failures and setbacks. I wish the upgrade system was as smooth as the visuals, rather than indecently leading you to a tedious pause menu when you want to enhance your ship, which is an odd approach that can only be corrected in arcade mode , you can only access the menu once at the start of a stage – and even then, it’s an unruly and not particularly pleasant way to power up. Essentially, there are tweaks to make this really special when the inevitable console release rolls out.
Although if you have any affection for the genre, or any love for people like Darius and Gradius, there’s really no reason to wait until then. Drainus has a goofy name and a few minor frustrations, but that doesn’t stop it from delivering the same exhilarating spectacle and sharp, satisfying action that takes the greats to the sky. This may be just one of them, but it’s still a refined shooter.
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