In 2022, after a two-year COVID-induced absence, PAX Australia returned to the Melbourne Convention Exhibition Centre. While some attendees bemoaned the lack of AAA games and the presence of big brands like PlayStation, Nintendo, and Xbox, the flow-on effect was a larger emphasis on Indies. Specifically Australian Indies. With titles like Cult of the Lamb, Untitled Goose Game, Wayward Strand, and Unpacking taking the world by storm, the recent quality coming out of the Australian indie scene has been at an all-time high. So, it’s no surprise that one of last year’s PAX Australia standouts was from Brisbane developer EmergeWorlds with its game Dros.
Dros is a story-driven 3D adventure puzzler platformer where you play as a small slimy creature named Little Dros and a human bounty hunter named Captain. Having broken free from the glass pod she was imprisoned in, Little Dros desperately seeks to find a shell to fuse with so she can survive. She soon stumbles across Captain, who has had their arm amputated and has been left for dead. Despite Captain’s reluctance, Little Dros bonds with him, making Captain her new shell and keeping them both alive. Together they seek to move upwards through a crumbling tower that has been overrun by a young rogue Alchemist. Trapped inside, they each have their own motivations for ascending and escaping the tower. Captain with his eyes on a magical flute used by the Alchemist to control and trap everyone, as well as the bounty and gold finding it will bring. Whereas Little Dros’ motivation is ending the young Alchemist’s control to free the other Dros in the tower and to restore the peaceful village of Nilemah.
A little bit of the bubbly
The main strength of both the story and the gameplay is the dual character switching mechanic. With this you take control of either character at a time, highlighting the dichotomy of Captain’s and Little Dros’ relationship to each other. From a story and character perspective, it’s very reminiscent of the original Ratchet and Clank where they resist each other but reluctantly rely on one another and eventually need to work together. This is even stronger here as neither character can operate without the other. Captain has an almost brash, stubborn, and rude demeanour, whilst Little Dros is more optimistic, innocent, and cute. The banter between them and the accompanying side characters makes for some good comedic moments. This is hard considering the obvious relationship that is set up and the numerous times we have seen this type of dynamic in games and media before. But here it feels playful, organic and works a treat.
One of the inspirations for Dros was Captain Toads Treasure Tracker. In the case of Captain Toad, they have taken the idea of small diorama-based levels, built upon that and increased its scale and complexity. Quite early on you unlock an ability called Gaze, which lets you zoom out to a bird’s-eye view where you can almost see the entire level while still controlling our heroes. Using the right stick rotates the camera and gives visibility to secret areas, hidden collectables, and other points of interest. Using Gaze is an essential skill for discovering all that Dros has to offer. Rotating or manipulating the camera to find a secret passage or hidden switch was rewarding and invited finding every nook and cranny for that “aha” moment.
The main mechanic you utilise for exploration and combat in Dros is detaching and returning. As Captain, you are heavy, bulky, and lack certain abilities like jumping. However, you are armed with a sword and can engage in combat. The combat and controls with Captain are simple; slash, spin, and block. The combat never feels overwhelming and, with patience, there was no real threat in most of the levels. It was quite easy, thanks largely to the audio and visual cues above enemies’ heads when they attack. Even if you did lose all your health, you can repeatedly tap a button to revive Captain with some of the common Prima collectibles that are found in levels. The only trade-off was the same Prima is used to power some of Little Dros’ advanced Alchemy powers or if you were trying to finish the level goal of finishing with a certain number of prima.
Each level has three types of collectables to find for the collectathon fans. Prima, Bloodrock and Moderats. The Prima is the most common and easiest to find given how often you’ll be using it. The Bloodrocks is a pink crystal with a smaller, specific number per level and the Moderat is an otherworldly gadget that needs to be assembled from its missing pieces, one to each level on each floor. Outside of personal satisfaction and unlockable lore explanations in the game’s journal, there is no incentive or real gain from collecting all the Moderats or Bloodrocks. That may demotivate players from finding everything in a level but personally uncovering secrets to get the Bloodrocks was motivation enough. It was more about the joy of exploration and I think that could be enough for fans of this genre or style of gameplay.
When it comes to Little Dros, her ability is to detach from Captain, move quickly, jump, double jump, and travel through pipes in order to get to hard-to-reach places. She also activates Dros-specific switches to open up pathways and clear obstacles for when, with the press of a button, you transport back to your “shell”, the Captain. The recall mechanic is fast and helped prevent unnecessary backtracking or overreliance on simple puzzles due to platforming limitations. The only consideration for playing as Little Dros is she has to be stealthy and can’t be seen too close to corrupted or enemy Dros. If she is seen she will be zapped and instantly thrown back to the Captain. This created a really good blend of stealth and combat dynamics that felt balanced between the two without getting in the way of exploration or solving puzzles.
Along the journey, you run into a bunch of quirky side characters, each with their own crazy story that adds to the lore. Some were really endearing, with my favourite being the little tin foil hat Dros that wouldn’t leave his home. One of the characters you meet is Enki, the young Alchemist teacher who provides you with several power-ups in the form of his experimental soda. I already spoke about Gaze but the other four powers help perform charged-up versions of Captain’s slash, sprint, and block. I found Jolt, which deflected enemy projectiles back at them, was the most useful ability. I only used Rush, which increased sprint speed, to help backtrack quicker, but I can see it being valuable for players trying to finish each level under the target times for speed runners or players wanting a challenge.
The 40 levels are all quite impressive and are colourful and vibrant with the four tower levels based on each of the four elements, earth, fire, wind, and water. Each level has a number of different puzzles to solve along the way. The gameplay and the way you use each character to traverse and solve puzzles is a ton of fun. The use of switches to rotate giant pieces of the earlier levels is very clever and different mechanics are added in later levels to keep things fresh. Highlights included sending Little Dros up in a bubble, shooting her from a pipe launcher, drawing on the floor puzzles, or adjusting water levels to reach different places. The final level of each tower also concluded with a boss stage that required traversing a level-sized boss and deactivating a number of switches to take them down. Almost like Shadow of the Colossus. The boss levels and puzzle variety kept things engaging but I wished there were more Dros-heavy stealth levels like the bubble-focused one in the later stages. At 7 hours to complete the base game, and 30-40% of collectables nabbed, I never felt like Dros overstayed its welcome.
The hand-drawn character art is charming, and the instrumental soundtrack is quaint when it needs to be and an electronic ball of heightened synth in some of the more panicked moments or boss levels. It is the perfect vibe to fall into the rhythm of jumping into a level, assessing what’s in front of you, and then venturing forward in a rhythmic trance of tracking collectables. Almost channelling the stories of the Alchemist’s flute powers just like the Piped Piper.
Gotta collect them all
Dros’ gameplay feels nostalgic for gamers growing up in the 90s, while still feeling modern and fresh for newcomers. It is a great blend of stealth, combat, puzzle solving, and exploration. The banter between Little Dros and Captain is funny and engaging and the level design, hand-drawn characters, and soundtrack all combine for a fun, engaging 3d puzzle platform adventure game. If you are a fan of old-school collectathon puzzle platformers with quirky characters Dros will scratch that itch.
Reviewed on PC // Review code supplied by publisher
- July 20, 2023