I'll be honest, I wouldn't be surprised if there really IS something like that in here.
I mean, my experience with the game was "finding it to be too easy" + "never gives items" pretty much every time I tried.
And for whatever reason, each player seems to find that the game ALWAYS goes in one direction, but never in the other, as they keep playing it. It either gives them lots of stuff, or it never gives them anything.
It really does sound like there's a very badly set up rank system in here. Much as it's used in shmups I don't really think THIS specific sub-genre is the right place for such a thing.
That being said, even with a system like that, "brutal difficulty" is usually still the norm. There's always a base difficult that the ranking system wont go lower than, and over the course of a given game, well... it's kinda like AI War's "AI progress" mechanic. There's things that you do that influence it to go up or down, or whatever, but no matter what you do, over the course of an entire game, it *will* constantly rise. At the end it'll be a lot higher than it started as. That's how rank systems work. You cant just keep it down, or lower it past it's starting point, or prevent it from going up at all; you influence it, but the end result will always be harder than the game started out as.