Drakengard Review

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Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Cavia

Platform: PlayStation 2
Reviewed on PlayStation 2

War has erupted between the Empire and the Union. Once part of the Union, a splinter group has gathered fortresses and troops. Calling itself the Empire and supported by unfathomable force, that splinter faction is seizing castles and lands formerly held by the Union. In a dash to save his sister from besieging Imperial troops, Prince Caim attempts to single handedly cleave his way through an entire army. Mortally wounded, Caim accepts a pact with a desperately wounded dragon – they link their lives and spirits so that together they can turn the tide of the Imperial threat.

Kyle Ackerman

Drakengard makes a really bad first impression. It's unfortunate that the first few levels (verses, in Drakengard parlance) focus on the most monotonous gameplay in the drabbest environment possible. If you set your jaw, grit your teeth, and plow through the opening sequences, you'll find yourself alternately single-handedly slaying armies on foot or swooping through the air astride the ancient and powerful red dragon Angelus. Four or five hours into the game, it becomes engrossing, and is at its most engaging when unlocking the background stories and extra chapters, after concluding the main plotline. You just have to reserve judgement and not put the game down after the first ten minutes.

Not Your Father's Fantasy Plot
(It might belong to the guy who receives orders from his dog)

Drakengard begins as standard high-fantasy fare. Two great forces are at war. The Empire has enlisted dark mages and demi-humans such as goblins in its effort to conquer the land and break four seals that could bring the salvation or destruction of mankind. Caim pays a high price (his power of speech) to form a pact with an ancient female red dragon he finds chained to the flagstones of a castle courtyard, filled with arrows and sword gashes, expiring in a pool of her own blood. In a bloody scene, Caim and the dragon rip out and exchange their hearts so they might live to slay imperial troops by the hundreds, or even thousands.

Caim is entirely without compassion – his parents were slain by an Imperial black dragon, leaving him emotionless. His only motivation beyond inflicting as much pain as possible on the Imperials is protecting his sister, Furiae. Caim will occasionally kick or backhand his allies during cut-scenes if they show excessive feeling. As Caim slaughters enemy troops ranging from pig-men with hammers to innocent child-conscripts, the dragon (sounding like Aughra from The Dark Crystal) taunts him for his lack of feeling and an elderly priest begs him to show mercy. That's not the strange part. Furiae happens to be the human embodiment of one of the seals, so she is called "Goddess" and must be slain to unleash the Seeds of Resurrection. Simple war between fantasy armies becomes a tale of the rebirth of the world culminating in an aerial battle with a floating, hundred-foot-tall, evil little girl accompanied by dark and dissonant music.

On the easy setting, it will take ten to fifteen hours to reach the ending of the main plot. At that point, you'll get a message that "Four endings remain" and the game will tell you that you've completed 50% of the content. If you continue, you'll get to some of the most compelling levels in the game that also tie up the many loose ends in the plot and give background for the supporting characters. This is a great device, as it makes you feel like you've accomplished something when you complete the game, yet there is so much game left. The strangest story elements are also yet to come. This is where you'll encounter scorpion-tailed angels and, if you play to the final endings, stranger twists yet. The story line is dark, bloody and portentous. It's sometimes incomprehensible, yet it's compelling. The story, supported by staggeringly beautiful animated cut-scenes, is one of Drakengard's big draws.

Char Everything That Flies

Aerial combat is another highlight with its arcade-style dogfights. These tussles advance at a stately, but somehow engrossing, pace. As with everything in Drakengard, air combat starts off slow and dull, and picks up over time. At first, you face bat-like creatures and mildly threatening arrays of cubes above a drab landscape, which you easily eliminate with balls of fire. After a few hours, you're taking down enemy dragons, griffons, gargoyles and armored ships floating in both sea and air. Late in the game, the pace picks up as grinning clusters of skulls chase your tail above an apocalyptic cityscape steeped in deep reds. High in the sky or skimming the ground, the dragon's animations are a pleasure to watch.

On ground-based missions, the dragon can indulge in strafing runs. It's great fun to drop a fireball on troop formations only to flip in the air and drop another on the back of their necks. Enemies pop into view close by, so you'll often have to make a second pass at a target, but you can always use magic and drench the landscape in a maelstrom of fire that easily clears large formations. Crossbowmen, mages and siege engines will take aim at the flying dragon, and can knock Caim to the ground, forcing him to join the melee. In a space clear of enemies and obstacles, Caim can remount. Of course, if the game's designers want you to fight on the ground, they'll put Caim somewhere the dragon can't fly to or throw in magic-resistant troops that won't succumb to dragonfire.

War is Hell (and Very Bloody)

Battle on the ground is where Drakengard falls down. It's too bad, because the concept behind melee seems to work, but only once you've played the game past the first of the endings. Caim has few moves – he can attack, roll to either side and block. Each weapon has a sequence of combination moves that demands a different approach. Some are fast and slice through smaller foes, others are slow but can knock bruisers onto their backs so you can pound them while they're down. Just as Caim and the dragon gain in experience and power, weapons get better as they are used to kill large numbers of enemies. So, use a sword enough, and its combinations and associated magic spell get better. Late in the game, when you face a few different enemies at once, it helps to switch back and forth between weapons.

Unfortunately, early on, you only have one weapon and are pitted against thousands of identical footsoldiers standing around a gray battlefield in tight groups. Why give me a varied system of weaponry if I can't use it until I've played through the worst, most boring parts of the game? For the first hour, combat feels like bowling. Run up to a wedge of guys, scatter them and then pick up the spare with a few sword strokes. You're helping the Union army, but you never see an ally in combat. You can tag-team with allies you've unlocked (substituting them for Caim if he needs a moment's break), but mostly it's just Caim and a dragon against the world.

Your biggest enemy isn't the early monotony. It's the camera. Caim is attacked on all sides, and the camera is always pointed the wrong way, making it difficult to execute the acrobatics necessary to dodge or strike in combat. Because of the camera, you will certainly want to play the game on the easy difficulty level and will often swing at enemies based on your estimate of their location from the radar. Even on easy, if you find yourself short on health you can go on optional expeditions for more experience and practice. Fortunately, you don't have to kill everything. You can make a beeline for your objectives (typically troop commanders) and eliminate them to move on. The enemies aren't bright, but there sure are a lot of them. So, until you get an assortment of weapons and the Empire sends more than one type of enemy at once, it's a chore.

Don't Lead With Your Weakness!

For the first ten minutes of Drakengard, you just want to quit. The next few hours are... adequate. The second half of the main story is where things really pick up. Once the main storyline was complete, between my need to fill the gaps in the bizarre plot and my suddenly entertaining arsenal of weapons, I found myself playing for hours after the game had (theoretically) ended. Drakengard is a lesson to game designers everywhere. Variety and color are not things to introduce gradually. Difficulty, sure, but we need fun throughout. No scheme or storytelling technique justifies forcing us through boring and repetitive gameplay to get to something interesting. If you are considering Drakengard, there is a great game that gradually emerges from the early mess.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on March 15, 2004 3:12 PM.

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