One of the more refreshing aspects of videogaming today is the way the restrictive generic boundaries thrown up in the early days of the medium are being gleefully ripped apart as games mix up styles to provide a new spin on what could otherwise be rather tired gaming experiences. Of course us reviewers hate that sort of thing because it makes it much harder for us to review (and it messes up those top ten “best of genre” lists we all like to make as well). Drakengard is a fine example of this, it actually has its feet (claws) planted firmly in three different genres (the Dragon in the game has enough feet to be able to achieve this) and so instead of judging by one set of generic standards and conventions, I must actually draw upon three.
Is Drakengard a roleplaying game (rpg)? There is levelling up all over the place to be done and a strong linear plot to be followed which has always been one of the hallmarks of that genre (the Final Fantasy games) and as many new RPG’s forsake the random battle the lack of those in Drakengard doesn’t necessarily make it less of one either. But the central characters battle actions are limited to one button for attacking, one for jumping, one for blocking and one to cast magic attacks. His health is represented by a health bar, not a number and he has no party of fighters to draw upon for aid. So although the game has many rpg elements it’s not strictly one.
It actually falls more squarely into the “Dynasty Warriors” mould of gaming, in that most of your missions see you pitted as one man against hundreds of adversaries. By choosing the best weapons of the ones you have collected you carve your way though masses of opposition using simple repetitive combos until your mission goals have been completed. That seems simple enough, until you factor in that every few missions throw yet another type of gameplay at you, that of the Panzer Dragoon/Rez style shooter. Taking to the skies you use your dragon to lock on and destroy airborne enemies, the more shots you can lock on and combo, the bigger magic boost you get, the more magic you get the more often you can launch a thermonuclear style attack that obliterates everything on the screen.
So as you can see, I’ve already referenced several games with nothing in common to describe the gameplay elements in Drakengard, but the big question that remains is how successfully do these disparate elements tie together to make the final game. Well they tie together extremely well at first, then it all goes horribly, horribly wrong. But to discuss why that is so, I first need to fill you some more on the content of the game itself.
The basic story behind Drakengard is actually a simple one. Two powers are fighting an almost constant war. Many years of skirmishing and land grabbing have finally exploded into a huge conflict. You play Lord Caim, a young man who leads the forces of the Union against the enemy forces of the Empire. Unfortunately some dark force seems to have sided with the Empire, supplying it with hordes of non-human fighters and dark war machines. The fight is going badly and Caim’s sister is under threat. She holds together the various magical seals that lie across the world. If the seals are broken and she dies a tremendous destructive force will be unleashed, a force the Empire seems to want to control.
The story begins with Caim, mortally wounded fighting his way to the castle where is sister is staying. There he find a wounded dragon chained up. Although he has despised dragons ever since his parents died at the paws of one, he seizes his chance and makes a pact with the stricken beast. She is also none to happy about this having nothing but contempt for humans, but sees it as preferable to death. After sealing the pact, Caim’s price for the power he has gained is the loss of his voice. From now on the Dragon will speak for him. Together they begin to lead their army in a fight back against the Empire and try to discover who (or what) is trying to open the magic seals. As the game progresses other pact-partners are collected, people who sacrificed something important to gain the power to fight on, which gives the game a satisfyingly dark edge.
The story and progression of the game is framed around the concept of a book. Each important section of the game is called a chapter, and within the Chapters are the individual Verses which are your actual missions. Ground missions pit Caim against hundreds, sometimes thousands of enemies, although he only needs to kill a certain number to progress. Aerial missions see him flying the dragon and taking on battles in the sky. Event missions are short interludes where he will hack up a few weak enemies then trigger the next major plot revelation. As the game progresses and you gain allies you can flip back to earlier chapters and view short new verses telling you what that ally was doing at the time.
You can also replay any mission you like at anytime, to level up, or find new more powerful weapons. You can also switch difficulty modes at anytime to which means that you can pass a mission on Easy mode first time to progress the game, the revisit it on Normal Mode to gain a particular weapon. There are a lot of weapons for Caim to collect and they also need to be levelled up, different weapons have different attack speeds, strength, reach and magic attacks. Caim can also chain attacks and combos together, the more he can chain before being interrupted (or running out of things to hit) the better rewards he can get in the form of orbs dropped.
In easy mode these are just health refills, in normal mode they are things like damage multipliers, energy blasts and kill bonuses. So some tactical thought can be applied to the simple hack and slash gameplay here, a short dagger may not pack so much killing power, but its attacks can be chained to ridiculous levels, unlike a mace or long sword which will see you running out of enemies before you can reach the high scores. Ground missions also require some tactical thought to progress in. You can ride your dragon to on some missions and blast the enemies from the sky, but dragon fire and your weapons magic attacks will be automatically countered by red-clad enemies knocking you off or hurting you. Many levels contain crossbow units which need to be dealt with very quickly as they can wear your health down very quickly. You also have the ability to call on an ally for a limited time, by pressing a button Caim will switch with a chosen ally. They cannot be killed; when they run out of energy they switch back to Caim. They all possess devastating magic attacks which can clean up whole regiments of enemies, so they also need to be used tactically as you can only call for them three times per mission.
In the first half or so of the game you are not forced into long boring levelling up sprees to progress, most missions will only be failed due to poor forward planning or over confidence. The Ground Missions are designed to represent huge battles in which mission objectives are added to as the flow of battle changes. So you may easily dispense the first lot of target units, only to find more arriving, and more and more while your health begins to dwindle to nothing. Although Caim cannot speak, battles are punctuated with commentary from your Dragon, and your various allies and NPCs which all add to the frantic nature of what’s going on.
Aerial missions also work well, the dragon flies forward constantly but can be steered, flipped around or made to dodge. Although in comparison to Panzer Dragoon the steering is rather clunky, within the framework of this game it works well enough and provides an exciting change of pace when the constant hacking of the ground missions begins to pall. Indeed the repetition of the gameplay is a problem for the game, but, as I played on, the drift of the story kept me enthralled, the missions got shorter and sharper and when I defeated the final boss character after about 12 hours of gaming and watched the final scene I felt satisfied. The plot had wrapped itself up in a downbeat but incredibly touching way (I cried) and the game had been short enough so that the simplicity of the fighting had not outstayed its welcome. As the end credits rolled I felt very well disposed to the game.
Then a terrible thing happened. A number flashed up saying I had completed only 65% of the game and that four endings remained. Stunned I checked and saw that several new chapters had opened up and of course I felt duty bound to complete them all. Doing this pretty much soured every good feeling I had towards the game for several reasons. First of all the difficulty curve suddenly steepens outrageously. Now you do HAVE to level up to progress even on easy mode and given the limited fighting option is gets very VERY boring. The in-game camera, which up until now has behaved itself very well, suddenly seems to get very drunk, lurching hither and thither and leaving Caim assaulting more walls than enemies. The biggest crime of all and one that made me so ANGRY I wanted to have the developers in the room so I could slap them about a bit was the atrocity performed on the games storyline by this addition of alternate endings.
I actually began to wonder as I started to play the chapters leading to the other endings if this wasn’t in fact the evil handiwork of the publishers Square-Enix (the game is actually developed by a company called Cavia). Both renowned for making long rpgs with oblique and twisty turny plots it seems that the original ending for Drakengard wasn’t good enough, I mean it wrapped up all the plot strands and provided emotional closure! We can’t have a game that does that, we need our players to be scratching their heads wondering what the hell is going on! (oh yeah and we can’t have a funny yet sinister final boss staying in the gamers heads, here is a patented Squaresoft final boss, an angel-winged giant mutant sorcerer as seen in pretty much every Square game ever). So we get a rotten mish-mash of incoherent plotting and character assassination that ruins everything the wonderful first ending achieves. One ending was so stupid and inconsistent with everything that had gone before I actually flung my pad away in disgust and only reviewers obligation brought me back to finish the game completely.
So after another ten hours of levelling up and weapon collecting had made me so bored I almost felt sick when I picked up the controller, only the ability to rewatch that first wonderful, emotional game ending at any time made me remember that I had ever actually enjoyed playing this game. And I had enjoyed it very much. There are a lot of great things about this game, the voice acting is superb and the script is of very high quality with the Dragon especially exuding a cynicism towards petty human affairs that makes her gradual love towards Caim all the more gorgeous. Amusingly most of the heroes have proper British accents and the evildoers are American, which warmed this British person soul after all the years of seeing the villains speak the Queens English.
Graphically it’s crisp and smooth and the design exudes a great atmosphere of medieval Europe and the middle-east, with the sinister flying machines and peculiar magic creatures fitting in very well. There is pop-up, mostly I imagine due to the hardware limitations. But once enemies are up close, lots will fight on screen without any slowdown. The music to is very good, very bombastic and orchestral, it’s just a shame the battle noises are so subdued.
I’ll say it again, if the game had had the guts to end after the first ending it would have been great. Not an essential purchase, but considering its budget price one that would have offered 10-12 hours of intense gaming with a great story and an interesting hybrid of styles that work very well for the shorter duration. By artificially extending the life of the game, the cracks begin to show and by the time the third or fourth ending comes around any narrative coherence has been lost and the gameplay is shown up for the painfully limited button bashing that it is and can’t sustain the level of storytelling found in much longer and deeper rpgs. Play this game by all means, but once the first ending has rolled around, pack it up and file it away, or trade it in to hang on to your good memories of it. Don’t be tempted to play on, it reveals nothing of importance or interest. Sometimes more is much, much less.