Review of the Month; Drakengard (PS2)

Sometimes I feel a need to dip myself into a new franchise that has a strong following to see what things are about. At times I may find a pleasant surprise that will make me stick with them series to some extent, but there are times as well that simply disappoint me to no end. Much like books, games can’t be judged by their covers, but covers tell surprising lot about the game. You can see whether or not the cover reflects the game or if it reflects what the developer team wants it to reflect. It’s like judging a fruit and how ripe it is.

Drakengard is one of those games I gave pass when it was released somewhere 2003. It was the cover that told me how the game wouldn’t stand up the standards. On an interesting note, Drakengard was the first game Square-Enix published, as the developer Cavia had a publishing deal with Enix. They could’ve done a whole lot better thou. If we cut the chase and get to the point, Drakengard’s pretty awful game, as the gameplay is highly repetitive and monotonous. Nevertheless, it has certain weird charm to it.

Drakengard holds two different modes of gameplay. First is a hack-n-slash similar to Dynasty Warriors or Devil May Cry, and the second one is aerial combat on a dragon, inspired by Ace Combat, but with a dash of Panzer Dragoon in there. The two modes mix together as well, as you are able to ride the dragon on the battlefield and rain fire on them. There are limitations to this with some enemies resisting magic and the dragon’s fire and plot points.

The ground combat seems to be have shoved into the game in the middle of the development due to the popularity of Dynasty Warriors, and it shows. The stages are vast and littered with hundreds, if not thousands of enemies you to cut down with controls that simply aren’t up to the task. It would be nice if the player character Caim would feel like a proper human, but his movements look more or less like gliding above the ground. The worst part of this is that there’s no weight to his attacks and the feedback you get connecting with the enemy is non-existent. There’s just one button to attack with, and the attacks never change. You will do the exact same loose attack over and over again. If the game was faster, there would be far more enjoyment.

There are high number if different weapons, but those don’t really help the case, when each weapon has one combo cycle. While each weapon has its own unique magic, it doesn’t help much when the combat soon becomes mind dulling. Even changing the weapons feels archaic as you need to be doing absolutely nothing to be able to change the weapons, which feels clunky. A quick change isn’t possible. All this forces the player to approach the combat from a more distant point of view, where you are wrestling with the controls rather than with opponents. It doesn’t help that the camera controls are essentially trash.

With old belt scrolling action games like Final Fight you do punch down multiple variants of the same enemy over and over again, but in the end each opponent takes only so many hits and usually come in different set of formations in each stage. In Drakengard the same enemies and their variants always follow the exact same pattern, sometimes in slightly larger numbers. This game could’ve used two-player mode.

However, the monotony can be broken down by hopping on your pact dragon Angelus. Here it’s almost like a weird 3D version of Xevious, where you shoot fireballs at the enemy formations and hope there’s no arbalest units in there. The magic here makes fire rain from the sky and decimates your immediate below, but even this feels rather weird. it certainly looks cool and the whole deal makes the game slightly more interesting, but even then controlling the dragon is a chore.

In the aerial stages the comparison with Panzer Dragoon is not too farfetched, thou you are not on rails. Controlling your red dragon is relatively easy and is far more refined than what the ground battles are, but it still doesn’t feel all that smooth or natural. The aerial stages are the best parts of the game in terms of how well they are executed, but sadly the time you spend in these stages is far shorter than the time you will be using to mow down countless of enemies. There’s surprising amount of movement options with side dashes, but it lacks excitement. If Ace Combat was the inspiration for this, it doesn’t show.

The bosses can changes things a bit, but only in that you’re fighting a single significant enemy rather than mixing things up significantly. Well, outside one ending, I suppose. They provide a larger challenge for sure, but ultimately follow the exact same route as any other enemy in the game, just with something extra added in there.

Nevertheless, despite all these issues, there’s something compelling about it. Yes, the gameplay is sub-mediocre and dull, but at a short bursts there’s something that entertains. Drakengard however has gained its cult status not because of its fine gameplay, but because of its story.

Drakengard has five different endings and handles a bit more mature subjects than your standard video game plot. The main character Caim for example can be seen as meta-commentary on the player’s will to slaughter countless of mindless enemies just to grind without any remorse, and Caim reflects this. He isn’t really a hero as much he is a killing machine meant to slay each and every thing standing his way. The story can be seen as unnecessarily over the top when it comes to the macabre and dark subjects, but that’s part of the charm. It’s not the gameplay and visuals that it has that gained it the PEGI 16+ rating.

The visuals in this game are lacking. There’s a lot of fog and things have little detail. This is of course to allow all those enemies to be displayed on the field without framerate dropping. It’s not a pretty game to look at, but it’s not ugly as such either. It’s dull to look at, but one can argue that its earthly tones reflect the story very well.

As for the music… well I can’t really tell. To be honest, I failed to notice it. It’s in the background and doesn’t make itself into something to listen to. The music in Drakengard doesn’t leave you humming any particular tunes, as it’s mostly just a set of mood pieces. The one that seems to seep through all the mass is the Weapon Selection screen with its heavy, depressing music. What plagues the whole soundtrack is that it is very repetitive by design. The music doesn’t take any chances in itself, but one notable thing it does is how it progresses to become bit more cacophonic as the game progresses. Clear tunes are lost in some songs and all you’re left with pieces that can be described to consist of random instruments making sounds rather than having traditionally cohesive songs.

Drakengard is very much a piece that that’s a bad game, but as a wholesome entity it compels. Some people seem to want quite a lot of money for it for its cult status, but it’s not worth more than fifteen euro or so. Drakengard is more fascinating than entertaining, and that fascination has kept it alive. Indeed, the core fans deem the gameplay secondary to the story. To use one word for Drakengard, it would be that it is unsettling. It is awkward, blunt and unrefined. Perhaps Drakengard reflects its director, Taro Yoko, quite well.

But it compels you, and that is its strength.

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2 thoughts on “Review of the Month; Drakengard (PS2)

  1. Despite all of its flaws, it was a fascinating deconstruction of the typical Japanese quasi-western fantasy narrative. It’s kind of a shame that the English release was changed so much to try to cover up some of the darkest elements of the story.

    1. I would have rather seen the English localisation working on making the gameplay better, agreed there. Then again, we can always discuss whether or not we need so much murder, incest and incest murder in our dark fantasy worlds.
      But then again, a good gameplay can carry a whole game, but a game with good story and bad gameplay will always fall short. If you can read Japanese, I recommend reading the novel, it’s far better written and tells the story more cohesively.

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