by Michael Stallworth
reviewed on PC
Standing Out From the Crowd
Galaga-style top-down shooters are a dime a dozen, ranging from the most simplistic barebones gameplay to highly complex bullet hells, which require lighting quick reflexes to avoid the flurry of enemy fire. For indie developers, making a game like this is sort of like reinventing the wheel; unless they really jazz it up with some new gameplay mechanics or an intriguing aesthetic style, they’ll have a hard time making their game stand out from the pack. Black Sand Drift could never be accused of being “like every other vertically scrolling shooter”; it puts some twists on the traditional galaga-style gameplay and its artstyle is certainly unique. Unfortunately, the execution of these elements are a bit of a mixed bag, making Black Sand Drift equal parts fun and frustrating.
Less is More
The plot of Black Sand Drift is almost incomprehensible, beginning with a strange prologue detailing a mythology heavy explanation of the birth of the universe. The narrative then abruptly shifts to two characters in mid-conversation, talking about how the main character isn’t actually alive but just a recreation of a memory that was retrieved to help fight the evil Spiral. It’s all a needlessly confusing back story for a plot that is essentially; a group of rebels who pilot a ship called the Tilda, and use it to fight against the oppressive Spiral, a group who has enslaved the galaxy. It feels like the developers really wanted to stretch their creative muscles when coming up with the plot of Black Sand Drift, but they probably should have followed the rule of “less is more” when storyboarding the game.
Piles of Style
The first thing that you’ll notice about Black Sand Drift is its unique style. The visual aesthetic and the sound design feel totally unique to this genre. The artstyle is quite minimalist, with everything in the game looking like brightly colored paper cut outs. While I can appreciate the developer’s attempt to make Black Sand Drift look special, they can’t quite pull it off. The number of bright colors that are flashing on screen at all times often borders on visually overloading the screen, making it difficult to keep track of what is going on. The oversaturation of colors and objects on screen at any given time makes the game’s artstyle feel crude and amateurish.
In some of the later levels, the game switches to a more simplistic color palette of primarily black and red, which I found much more visually appealing. The game’s soundtrack is just as unique as the visual style, fortunately this works much better in practice. Each of the Black Sand Drift’s 25 levels has its own song, all performed by a full band consisting of guitars, bass, drums and vocals. The game’s soundtrack is unique in that it isn’t packed with fast paced techno or electronica music that one would traditionally associate with a bullet hell-shooter, rather all of the songs are light indie rock songs. This musical style may sound at odds with Black Sand Drift’s fast paced gameplay, but I found that they worked surprisingly well together. The slower paced music made the gameplay feel more zen like, relaxing me while staving off the sensory overload that comes with the game’s overwhelming visuals.
Gameplay for Masochists
Much of Black Sand Drift’s gameplay will seem familiar to anyone who’s played a vertically scrolling shooter. You’re base level weapon continuously auto fires bullets in a single line in front of your ship as waves of enemies fall upon you from all directions. To help you deal with the huge swaths of enemy ships, you are able to pick up two types of power ups, in the form of special weapons, which temporarily increases the effectiveness of your ship’s weapons; or in the form of capsules, which do things like restore health, freeze enemies, or increase your score multiplier. Collecting these capsules is essential to getting through each level of Black Sand Drift, because beating a level isn’t reliant on just surviving until the end of the stage, rather the completion of a level is based on reaching the minimum score for that level. This presents a unique challenge in that it forces you to aggressively destroy enemies to succeed, so just running out the clock while dodging enemy fire is not an option.
Speaking of unique challenges, Black Sand Drift is honestly one of the most difficult vertical shooters I’ve ever played. Even the first levels of the game are frustratingly hard; phalanxes of enemy ships swarm at you from all sides and can only be avoided if you're fast or lucky enough to slip through a small gap in their ranks, which I found to be literally impossible. I actually watched gameplay video at ¼ speed just to verify that these gaps existed at all. I can’t see how anyone could consistently dodge through the constant walls of enemies unless they had obsessively memorized the enemy attack patterns for that level. I love challenging games and even when I’m not good at a game, I can still appreciate it if I can understand how it could be beaten by a more skilled player. But in the end, I honestly feel that Black Sand Drift’s level of difficulty pushes past the point of challenging and into the realm of punishing.
Black Sand Drift clearly wants to stand out in the crowd. Its atypical visual, musical style, overly complex plot, and high level of difficulty makes it feel like the developers tried to squeeze too many ideas into one game. And while I admire their ambition, I feel that they stumbled in the execution.
Great sound track, wide variety of power ups.
Overly difficult gameplay, simplistic graphics, confusing story.