Drainus Is a Perfect Name for a Shmup—and a Great Game, Too

The Shmuptake #9: It Is Now My Duty to Completely Drain You

Games Features shmups
Drainus Is a Perfect Name for a Shmup—and a Great Game, Too

Welcome to The Shmuptake, an occasional column about the history of the shoot ‘em up, aka the “shmup.” Here’s an introduction, and here’s an archive of every column so far.

Drainus is an apt name for a shoot ‘em up. With its arcade lineage, this is a genre built on draining the player—originally of their quarters, later of their patience, stamina, and mental well-being. Shmups are all about the marriage of repetition and escalating tension, where you do the same thing over and over while somebody steadily twists a knob that amplifies every aspect of the game. It’s the videogame version of somebody gradually pushing a needle deeper and deeper into your skin, while you grit your teeth and find yourself enjoying the pain. “Drain us,” shoot ‘em up fans demand, and that’s exactly what Drainus is here to do.

Team Ladybug’s 2022 shooter arrived on the Switch in early February, nine months after it was first released for PC. If I had played it then it would’ve easily been near the top of my year-end list. As is, it’s the first great game I’ve played in 2023, and a must-own for any shoot ‘em up fans with a Switch.

Most shooters have a hook, and with Drainus that means you can inhale the enemy’s fire and shoot it back at them. Drain their shots to drain their life: that’s the Drainus way. You absorb those shots by triggering a shield around your ship, but that shield has a short life span and can’t block or soak up certain types of projectiles; those bullets will hurt you even if your shield is up. Knowing when to trigger that shield is perhaps the most crucial key to success. Some enemies can only be defeated by absorbing energy and firing it back at them, including one particularly difficult boss battle that takes a lot of patience and delicacy. 

Beyond the shield gimmick, there are two things that distinguish Drainus amid the shmup set. The first is its deeply customizable weapons package, which operates on a five-tier upgrade system. Upgrades and power-ups can be purchased at any time through the start menu, using energy tanks that slowly fill up as you defeat enemies as currency. There are five tiers of weapon upgrades that your ship climbs as you collect power-ups during a game, and they effectively act as a health meter, too; so if you’re in the middle of a run and have grabbed three power-ups, then you can take three more hits before you die. Of course every time you’re hit you lose whatever weapon upgrade that most recent power-up unlocked for you, and trying to maintain as many of your five upgrade tiers active as possible is a major and constant part of the game’s loop. 

Drainus

You also have the option to change all five of your active upgrades at any time during any playthrough. You can even set the point on that five-step tier when you access a specific kind of upgrade. If you want the first power-up you grab during a game to give you homing missiles instead of a stronger main weapon, feel free. If you’d rather start with a slight damage multiplier or a backwards shot, it’s up to you. There’s one basic limitation to the upgrade system: you can’t stack upgrades of the same type. So you can only have one main gun, rear weapon, or super bomb active at any time. That doesn’t limit your options too much, though; there’s a ton to play around with here, and new opportunities keep opening up as you purchase more upgrades the more you play. This isn’t just a cool tool set that’s fun to play around with but doesn’t ultimately impact how you play the game that much; the best power-ups to prioritize and the smartest order to unlock them will change not just from level to level but often during a level, especially when you get into the game’s second half. So make sure you trade those jugs of blue energy in for new power-ups whenever you can, and don’t be afraid to experiment. This all might sound confusing but it’s very simple and easy to understand when you’re playing the game. 

The second thing that really sets Drainus apart from other shooters is its story. Yes, it has one—that’s not always a given in this genre. And instead of another alien invasion or interplanetary war, this sci-fi tale is driven more by emotions and relationships than the urge for vengeance or survival. I don’t want to give too much away, but Drainus is about two siblings dealing with shared grief and loss in very different ways, and the gradual revelation of the full backstory acts as a kind of reward for completing each level. There’s a soul and humanity here that very few shmups even strive for, but there’s still room for cosmos-spanning evil empires and stolen experimental spaceships and time-traveling frog androids. Drainus never forgets the genre it’s working in, but realizes there’s room for a bit of depth and emotion within that sci-fi framework.

If there’s a knock against Drainus, it’s one that would only bother the most diehard shmup fans. It doesn’t get all that difficult until halfway through the second playthrough. (For storyline purposes, you immediately replay the whole game upon your first completion, with the difficulty heavily ramped up.) I’m sure I had to continue a few times during the first half of the game, but it wasn’t until the second time through the third boss battle that I hit a wall that required a lot of work to get through. I could see some fans of the genre, the kind who play to push their thumbs and knuckles to the brink, feeling unchallenged by Drainus and quickly losing interest in it if the story or customizable combat options don’t resonate with them.

If you’re a total neophyte or just a casual fan who remembers the genre’s heyday in the ‘80s and ‘90s and want to see what’s happening in this space today, Drainus is the best recent shmup for you to dip into. Deep-in-the-weeds shmup lifers absolutely need to give it a shot, too, even if they ultimately might nitpick it to death. I don’t know how highly I’d recommend it to rank-and-file players who aren’t interested in or familiar with the genre, but if you’ve ever been curious about shoot ‘em ups, Drainus is ready to devour however much time you put into it.

Drainus
Year: 2022
Developer: Team Ladybug 
Publisher: Playism
Platform: Switch, PC

 


Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.

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