Drakengard 2 (PlayStation 2) review
"If Dynasty Warriors wrote the book on manly brawling, then Drakengard 2 filled a library. By game's end, thousands of ogres, undead soldiers, and knights will fall with blood spraying from their broken heads. However! Fans of the first game be warned: you no longer play as an insatiable madman!"
This review is for Drakengard 2.
Forgive me for stating the obvious, but I think it's important. Unlike some reviewers, I'm not going to abuse this opportunity to exalt or demonize the cult-classic original. Either you played the first game, or you didn't. Either you liked Drakengard, or you didn't.
My feelings on the first don't matter, because this isn't a rehash! This is something new. This is a triple-A, big-budget spectacle designed to compete against the likes of God of War and Devil May Cry 3. Heck, Square-Enix and Cavia probably had to pay millions of yen for the ridiculously famous Japanese voice cast alone.
Now, just in case you're one of those people like me who loves listening to languages they don't understand, I'd better clear something up before you drop 40 clams: Ubisoft re-dubbed the game into English. Sorry, no famous Japanese film stars for you! Fortunately, Ubisoft's localization is awesome. The translation is clean, names are spelled properly, the voicework is authentic, and disturbing scenes -- like the psycho goth girl crawling along the ground with blood pouring from her mouth, babbling about not being hurt at all -- remain intact. Ubisoft did remove and replace the beautiful main vocal song Hitori, but the remix of Growing Wings that they used isn't horrible so I won't knock their otherwise incredible efforts.
The localization was so thorough that Ubisoft even re-mapped the menu buttons for "cancel" and "confirm" to match the US version of Drakengard (the Japanese version used different buttons). That's a minor detail, but it's AWESOME because it proves that someone in charge actually played the first game.
The high-quality localization begs the question: is Drakengard 2 actually worth that kind of effort?
The answer to that question depends on whether you enjoy slaughtering hundreds of enemies in gruesome medieval combat, or whether you'd prefer to --
NO NONSENSE, NO PACIFISM
Well, I guess that answers that.
By game's end, thousands of ogres, undead soldiers, and knights will fall with blood spraying from their broken heads. However! Fans of the first game be warned: you no longer play as an insatiable madman! Caim, a bloodthirsty swordsman clearly modeled after Guts, may have slaughtered the forces of evil, but he also gleefully slaughtered children or anyone else who got in his way. That's because Caim and his comrades weren't heroes by intent; they were heroes by circumstance.
By contrast, Drakengard 2's protagonist "Nowe" basically announces his heroic intent the minute he steps into the castle courtyard for the initiation ceremony. When Nowe slices waves of foes apart, there is no smile. When Nowe slaughters innocent peasants, friends don't beg him to stop. Nowe himself begs the peasants to lay down their arms so that he can stop killing them. But as long as the villagers wield pitchforks, knives, or any other weapon... Nowe kills without hesitation. No nonsense!
You might be thinking that peasant-murdering sounds kind of... unsettling. It's supposed to feel that way. However, it's an order from above. Nowe, who was raised by a proud dragon and adopted by one of the most noble knights in history, isn't willing to throw away honor because of personal qualms. Nowe wants to prove that he's more than a lucky boy with a strong dragon; Nowe needs to demonstrate he's a fine warrior in his own right.
After successfully completing a few unsavory missions for the holy knights, Nowe is introduced to Lord Gismor's band of misfit Lieutenants. One of them is clearly insane. Another looks like a demented hobbit. Never a good sign.
From the start, Lord Gismor is clearly a villain. When he reveals his true nature, it's no surprise... but the manner in which he reveals himself is so dramatic and personal that it manages to be powerful. Powerful enough to convincingly shake Nowe's faith. Powerful enough to turn Nowe against the entire knighthood. Now, his friend and mentor -- the lovely Eris -- hunts the traitor and his blue dragon. She hunts you.
"Now, dragon boy, let's see if that reptile raised you well."
Strong stuff -- and every chapter keeps getting stronger. From the very first opening cinematic (like Dark Wizard, there are two different introductions if you let the game sit), I knew Drakengard 2 was going to be heavy on story and heavy on emotions. The part that surprised me was the quality of the combat.
Battles are uncommonly swift and smooth; when I first started playing, I was struck by how quickly Nowe moves. He's slicker than most manly brawler heroes, and he can perform four different two-button combinations with each weapon. Considering you can swap blades at any time (you can carry eight at once), that's more diversity than you'll find in Dynasty Warriors! Some levels simply throw you into a field full of a hundred monsters waiting to be butchered into quivering lumps of monster sushi, while others force you to play defensive games against quick-witted thieves and their razor-sharp knives.
The defensive game is one area where Drakengard 2 really pushes the genre. Blocking will protect against attacks and spells, but you can also deflect any weapon -- even a hefty minotaur's hefty axe -- which causes the foe to stumble. It also makes a really cool yellow flash. When trapped in the middle of a pack of undead knights, mindlessly attacking would be suicidal! Blocking, using the right analog stick to turn your character (and the camera), parrying, then delivering a five-hit combo to the guy on your right... that doesn't feel like button-mashing. That feels like being a bad-ass.
Casually sidestepping an archer's crossbolt, so that it hits the knight pursuing from behind, also feels very bad-ass.
Sometimes, you'll be knocked off your feet by a powerful attack. Fortunately, the defense button can be used to right yourself and land safely. Once, a distant mage's explosive magic knocked me and three enemy soldiers into the air. I righted myself so that I'd land on my feet, because that's the kind of acrobatic hero I am. I quickly decided that wasn't cool enough. On my way back to the ground, I pressed the horizontal attack button... delivering a spinning attack to all three soldiers who had been thrown up into the air along with me! You won't find that level of physical interaction in most brawlers.
In addition to swapping weapons, you can also swap characters at any time, each with their own unique strengths and weaknesses. Cooler than that is when you RIDE THE DRAGON. Whenever you're outdoors, you can scream your dragon's name -- "LEGNA!!!" -- and leap up into the air for some free-roaming crowd control. While riding Legna, you can target enemies and launch homing shots, decimate entire legions with explosive fire, or perform special berserk attacks (like setting the entire battlefield aflame or EATING enemy soldiers). There are some cool aerial missions too, where you take on giant multi-part battleships, hot air balloons, and scythe-wielding reapers. If it sounds kind of like Panzer Dragoon, that's probably because part of Team Andromeda works at Cavia now.
All of these aspects come together to create an intuitive and engaging combat system... but the forceful clangs when blades connect or the booms when enemies hit the ground are what make it feel real. Some brawlers lack this level of impact and feel dream-like. The bloodshed in Drakengard 2 ain't no dream.
Still, I can't help but think that Drakengard 2 could have been a lot more than it is. I think this because I'm a drone who can't appreciate a game to its fullest unless all the magazines tell me that it's a Halo-killer.
Wouldn't it have been awesome if:
* Enemies and allies spoke to you during real-time battles?
Just imagine how cool it'd be if you were were lobbing homing fireballs at an enemy dragon, and the dragon's rider kept making fun of you. If you ever did land a serious hit, maybe the rider would get mad and scream at you. Then she'd summon a bunch of sorcerors, who would cast a magic spell to seal your dragon's breath. This would force you to dismount and hastily kill the sorcerors while the enemy dragon pelted you with shards of ice.
* There were 70 weapons to collect and master?
It would be cool if the game had dozens of spears, axes, swords, and two-handed longswords to collect. Maybe the game could even have a miniature nail bat. Nail bats kick ass, especially when they're used to bash in the heads of people who don't understand why slaughtering hundreds of beasts (and villagers) is fun. NO NONSENSE, NO PACIFISM!
* You could rack up huge chains by consecutively killing enemies?
It would rule if a counter in the corner of the screen kept track of how many consecutive hits you had racked up. With higher scores, the game could even increase the experience you earn from each kill. It would also be cool if the deeper you got into battle, and the higher your chain count soared, the faster you started swinging your blade. Even though the offensive aspect of combat basically amounts to button-mashing, that change in speed would make it feel dynamic, like you were actually caught up in the heat of battle.
* Playing through the game multiple times changed the game's storyline?
The game's ending is great, but just imagine how it would feel to know that you could play through the game again (on a harder difficulty) to see a new, better ending! It would also be awesome if there were new missions, and if you were able to keep all of the weapons you had earned the first time through, and if you could play every mission with any character. It'd be cool to see how axe-swinging Urick -- normally unavailable until Chapter 5 -- would handle the game's first 20 or so missions.
Oops, my bad -- all of that stuff already is in the game. About the only things missing from Drakengard 2 are blood mammoths and demonic babies, although it does include fly-infested behemoths and diabolical amputees.
To write this game off as just another brawler, or even as an inspired sequel, would be a mistake. Drakengard 2 brings new and old elements together in such a way that anyone -- even those who never played the first -- can appreciate. I know this to be true, because I didn't ever play the first until I had finished the second. Even so, the scene where sinner-turned-saint Manah comes face-to-face with her guilty past left me breathless. The combat engine is phenomenal, the characters are memorable, the adventure is timeless, and the replay value is enormous. After 84 hours of play-time... earning the last, ultimate ending was like saying goodbye to a beautiful lover for the final time.
Goodbye, Drakengard 2. You won't ever be forgotten.
Staff review by Zigfried (February 20, 2006)
Zigfried likes writing about whales and angry seamen, and often does so at the local pub.
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