Blissful Death: Drainus is the best new shoot ’em up for a very long time

Blissful Death: Celebrating the Shoot 'em Up

Looking at the shoot ’em up landscape today, it’s sometimes hard to believe that this was once believed to be a genre that was outmoded, outdated and “beneath” what the video games medium was truly capable of. While there’s been a quiet undercurrent of shoot ’em ups releasing throughout the entire history of gaming, the genre hasn’t been thriving like it is today since its golden era in the 16-bit home console age. And Drainus is a great example of why it’s a great time to be a shoot ’em up fan.

Drainus is a new shoot ’em up developed by Team Ladybug, the Japanese developer previously responsible for Touhou Luna Nights and Record of Lodoss War: Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth. If you’ve been paying attention to the doujin games scene in the last couple of years, that should already be enough to make you sit up and take notice, since Team Ladybug has repeatedly demonstrated themselves to be absolute masters of modern pixel-art 2D games. And, indeed, Drainus is no exception to that.

Drainus

In Drainus, you take on the role of Irina, a young woman who, along with her family, has been enslaved by the Kharlal Empire. To make matters worse, her father is suffering with an illness that can only be treated on the far-off planet of Earth — and you better believe that the Kharlal Empire isn’t going to just let a slave up and leave. And to make matters even worse for Irina specifically, her sister Layla was recruited by the Kharlal Empire as a child, groomed into becoming a commander, and now stands as a proud leader of the “enemy”.

Fortunately for Irina, just as things are looking particularly bleak, she meets a frog-like humanoid named Ghenie who claims to have come from the future in the hope of preventing a massive war started by the Kharlal Empire, in which more than five thousand planets are obliterated. To achieve this, he has pinched a prototype of the Empire’s new spaceship, the Drainus, and says that Irina is the only one who can help him. Such is the way of the shoot ’em up hero.

What then unfolds is a horizontally scrolling shoot ’em up across several long stages, featuring some distinctive mechanics, a solid but accessible challenge and a surprisingly compelling story. In fact, probably the highest compliment I can pay Drainus’ narrative component is that it reminds me of ’90s shareware PC games such as Traffic Department 2192, where the narrative complemented the arcade-style action well without being overly obtrusive.

Drainus

As good as the story is, though, most Drainus players will be here for the mechanics, so let’s talk about each of them in turn. None of them are complex or hard to figure out in their own right, but the way they blend together is nothing short of absolute elegance, making Drainus one of the most pleasing shoot ’em ups to play for a very long time indeed.

To start off, the Drainus’ basic capability is, as you might expect, to shoot. At its basic power level, it is able to shoot a single shot forward at a rapid pace, and this is upgradeable to a double shot and a 3-way shot by collecting power-up icons. At least, this is how it starts.

Drainus’ power-up system is a real highlight of the game, because it allows you to absolutely customise the way you play the game to your own preferences. Power-ups are assigned to “sockets”, which are activated one at a time as you collect power-up icons; initially, you only have two of these, one of which is “locked” to always contain the double shot, but the second is customisable.

Drainus

As you blast your way through the stages, you’ll collect crystals, which in turn will gradually fill up energy tanks. These energy tanks can then be used at any time from the game’s pause screen to purchase new power-up options and assign them to your sockets. You can also upgrade your ship to have more sockets, allowing for a broader range of power-ups to be equipped.

There are several types of things you can put in the sockets. Shot power-ups affect how your ship shoots, and include the usual choice between a wide spread shot and a powerful focused laser. Mine power-ups allow you access to the various types of missiles you’d typically see in a Gradius-style shoot ’em up. Stabiliser power-ups allow you to attach rear-facing guns to your ship’s floating stabiliser. Shield power-ups let you take a certain number of hits of various damage types. And bomb power-ups allow you to access various types of special attacks.

As you pick up power-ups, your sockets become active one by one, allowing you to have several of your upgrades on the go at once — though the twist is you can’t have multiple power-ups of the same type active at once. So for example, if your sockets all have shot-type power-ups in them, you’ll simply switch between the different shot types as you power up rather than firing them all off at once. To this end, it pays to put a mix of power-ups in your various sockets to take advantage of all of them.

Drainus

Power-up sockets also act as armour for your ship; getting hit in Drainus means that you simply deactivate a socket rather than immediately losing a life, with your ship only being destroyed if you get hit with no sockets active at all. This makes the game enjoyably forgiving, but given the strong focus it places on risk-taking, it’s a very welcome addition.

Drainus’ unique selling point — and the core of that risk-taking aspect — is its “Guard” system. By holding a button, you can activate a special shield around the Drainus which will absorb energy-type enemy bullets — those which are purple in colour. Suck ’em up then let go of the button and you’ll release a powerful homing Reflector shot that is key to dealing damage to hard-to-reach enemies and bosses with guarded weak points — but of course, you have to be careful as your ability to guard doesn’t last forever.

You also have to watch out for physical-type shots, which have a distinct crimson outline around them in contrast to the purple energy shots. These cannot be blocked by Drainus’ guard system — though there are shield socket items available that can block them — so you’ll need to avoid them, often while weaving through hails of energy bullets and absorbing them.

Drainus

Absorbing enemy shots also charges up the bomb meter, meaning that bombs can be used fairly liberally as a powerful special attack rather than as simply an emergency measure. In fact, they’re not all that useful as an emergency measure under most circumstances since they tend to take the form of powerful beam blasts rather than screen-clearing bombs — but they do at least make you temporarily invincible and cancel enemy bullets while you’re firing them.

As you progress through the game, you’ll earn more energy tanks, which will allow you greater options to fill your sockets as well as the opportunity to increase the size of your guard and bomb meters. The usefulness of these options shouldn’t be underestimated; both are just as important to success in Drainus as your main weapons are.

Drainus’ stages are all pretty long, though thankfully through the combination of the sockets’ “armour” mechanic and some generously placed checkpoints if you do run out of lives and need to continue, it’s rare you’ll be set back more than a couple of minutes of gameplay if you mess up. And this is good, because the story mode takes a while to beat — not only does the basic story take quite some time, you then have to run through all the stages again in a “Deja Vu” mode before getting the true ending.

Drainus

The levels are brilliantly designed, with some truly memorable encounters along the way — plus a wide mix of enemy types. Some stages feature a lot of powerful almost boss-like enemies that will need dealing with in their own distinct way, while others are all-out blastathons full of popcorn enemies. There are even some stages that require intricate manoeuvring through tight passageways and figuring out various ways to open the doors in your way — Drainus certainly keeps you on your toes.

Score-chasers will be pleased to note that there’s an unlockable arcade mode with a more complex scoring system once you’ve beaten the main story, and this places some fairly strict limitations on your experience — rather than being able to freely switch your loadouts in mid-flight as in the story mode, for example, you can only do this once per stage, so you better make sure you have a strategy in mind!

It should be pretty apparent by now that Drainus is a very good game which successfully manages to make itself feel distinct in a genre where it’s doubtless tempting for developers to clone successful formats from the past. There’s nothing wrong with that — one might argue that Rigid Force Redux is a better R-Type than R-Type Final 2, for example — but it’s always nice when a developer decides to do things their own way. And Drainus certainly stands out in that regard.

Drainus

As Team Ladybug veterans might expect, Drainus also excels in its presentation, featuring some astonishingly beautiful pixel art, wonderful integration of low-resolution 3D objects that look like sprites, spectacular visual effects and an absolutely flawless frame rate. There’s also a thumping soundtrack that, while a bit lacking in melodic, tuneful tracks, does a great job of complementing the on-screen action and adding a genuine sense of cinematic drama to the climactic moments of the story.

In short, Drainus is an absolute triumph for Team Ladybug, and should be considered an essential in any shoot ’em up fan’s library. Here’s hoping it gets a console release so those of us who enjoy collecting games like this can have it on our shelves one day…

Drainus is available now for Windows PC via Steam.

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Pete Davison
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