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Mr. Driller DrillLand

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: Bandai Namco Games
Release Date: June 25, 2020


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PC Review - 'Mr. Driller DrillLand'

by Cody Medellin on Sept. 14, 2020 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

Mr. Driller DrillLand is an action-puzzle game where players must “drill” their way to the bottom of the screen by destroying colorful blocks in the game field.

In 1999, Namco brought about an interesting puzzle game called Mr. Driller. In what eventually became a spiritual successor to the classic Dig Dug series, Mr. Driller had players drilling into the earth, and the title also threw in certain gameplay conditions that made the title live up to the "easy to learn, hard to master" aphorism. Though it gained a following in North America, it was a bigger deal in Japan, where many of the franchise entries were released and only a tiny number were ever exported. One of those titles was Mr. Driller: DrillLand, a highly praised game that failed to sell substantially due to its GameCube exclusivity. Eighteen years later, Mr. Driller: DrillLand finally gets a port and arrives on both the PC and the Nintendo Switch.

The story starts at the grand opening of the DrillLand theme park, which is located deep below ground. Fascinated by the theme park's unique nature, Susumu Hori and his friends and family visit the park, and before long, they're tasked with saving the world from destruction once more.

The story's biggest weakness is that it's dependent on you knowing about every character beforehand, both heroes and villains. However, only half of the series's games ever made it to the West, and those games were light on the story and usually entirely in Japanese. As a result, the characters, their actions, and their jokes don't have the expected impact.

The park contains five different attractions, each representing a different game type. World Drill Tour features the base game formula: drill down in the earth to reach various depth milestones. The blocks you drill through are of different colors, and adjacent blocks of the same colors stick together to form larger blocks. The further down you go, the more air you consume, thus increasing the need to find air capsules to continue. Some blocks require more air to destroy, but you'll likely be preoccupied with destroyed blocks causing other blocks to fall and possibly crush you.

This creates a frantic experience where mindless drilling gets you killed, and planning a route to the next air capsule is as important as drilling the correct block so the other blocks match up and destroy themselves to make your job easier. World Drill Tour also lets you pick your character, each with special abilities. For example, the robot Holinger-Z is perfect for beginners since he can take two hits instead of one and consumes air at a very slow rate, and the dog Puchi makes up for his slow movement with slow air consumption and the ability to climb up two blocks instead of one.

Star Driller is the second game type, and at first glance, it doesn't seem that different except for the space setting and locked to playing Susumu. The mode adds star blocks that award extra points if you can drill them before they disappear. Another addition is power-up blocks, which don't need to be drilled but contain a random power-up to either help or hinder you. For example, one power-up can turn out to be a black hole that warps you to the beginning of the stage, while another can call forth a meteor to clear some blocks.

The other three attractions are where the formula transforms, and for series veterans, this is where DrillLand gets exciting, since it does away with some rules like having to monitor your air levels or having blocks disappear when they connect during freefall. Drindy Adventure has you playing as Susumu's dad Taizo, and while the goal is still the descent to a certain depth, you must also have a certain number of golden idols in your possession. It's a clever nod to "Raiders of the Lost Ark," and that tie is only strengthened by spike traps and rolling boulders.

Horror Night House has you playing as Susumu's older brother Ataru, and you no longer have to worry about falling blocks or reaching a certain depth goal. Instead, your goal is to eliminate ghosts and collect the drystals they leave behind until the quota is met. To kill the ghosts, you need to inject holy water into the haunted block before destroying it. Leave the block alone, and the effects of the holy water will vanish; destroy a haunted block that has not blessed with holy water, and bats will fly at you and drain your health.

The most involved theme park attraction, The Hole of Druaga, features Susumu's rival Anna, and the setup is ingenious enough to make you want to return. Falling block damage is back, but air consumption only occurs when you break a block or attack monsters, which are unique to this attraction. You pick up drystals, which feature special abilities including health refills, changing block colors, and warping to the top of the room. Reaching the bottom of the stage isn't necessary, since doors to other rooms can be located in the middle, but the main goal is to reach the main door to face Druaga. To do that, you'll hunt around for a dragon and take the key to Druaga's lair before using your drystals to inflict damage.

There are two difficulty levels you can choose from when you begin. There's the classic difficulty, which keeps everything as tough as the GameCube original. There's also the casual difficulty, which keeps the game challenging but initially eases things up for new players. For example, bat attacks in Horror Night House won't take away so much health, and the air consumption slows down, sometimes to the point of none at all.

No matter which difficulty level you choose, the game doesn't make you struggle too much to reach the end credits. You only need to finish the first level of every attraction before you unlock the final attraction, where you chase a giant drill and reach its core a few times before you get to the 500m depth marker. One cut scene later, and the end credits roll. While that would normally be the end of that mode, the game encourages you to revisit every attraction before unlocking an endless mode. As expected, those higher levels are tests of skill and show how well designed each mode is, but you can use points to activate helpful power-ups. Using any power-ups disqualify you from the online leaderboards, though.

There are additional modes beyond the main five and the related boss fight. On the multiplayer side, one mode is essentially a four-player race to the goal depth, and another mode rewards medals for completing specific tasks in time. The additional modes are fine but not something you'd necessarily play multiple times. The PC has an advantage with Steam's Remote Play feature, which gives the local-only modes the ability to go online. You can check out the history of the attractions and franchise up to this point, and you can also use your points to collect trinkets or trading cards to see character bios. About the only extra that is no longer valuable is the parade, which has your chosen character participate in the park's nighttime parade. On the GameCube, this mode had you transfer creatures that you had raised in the Game Boy Advance iteration of Mr. Driller A, so they could also be in the parade. With that functionality gone, there's little reason to check this out this extra mode.

All of the praise that DrillLand garnered all those years ago still rings true in this iteration. Graphically, this can be attributed to the initial use of vector and line art, which scales up very nicely and can stand toe-to-toe with modern indie games. The colors are bold but well balanced to the point where every element is distinct, and there are charming details in the character animations. The sound is also excellent, with strong voice performances in Japanese and the music hits each theme with an upbeat tempo to keep it lively. They're all a joy to hear, and they foster the desire to return for another round, even after defeat. The only exception is the game's ending theme, which sounds fine until you hear the lyrics. It's a decent song on its own, but talking about marriage doesn't fit at all.

As far as PC specifics go, the game lacks any options that can be tweaked. The game runs rather well on low-end hardware, and it doesn't take much to get it running at 4K 60fps, but those looking to play with the settings beyond resolution are going to be disappointed. Also, for those planning on playing the game with a gamepad, it will work, but the button prompts all refer to the keyboard. Even though the game doesn't use too many buttons, it means that navigation will be confusing at first. Exiting the game requires the keyboard, since no button presses activate that function.

Mr. Driller: DrillLand is an excellent game for puzzle fans of all types. Longtime series fans will find that this is the pinnacle of the series, with almost endless replayability due to formula variations and online leaderboards. New fans will find this to be the perfect entry point given the variety and available difficulty settings. Unless you absolutely dislike puzzle titles, DrillLand is worth a spin.

Score: 8.5/10

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