Drakengard (PlayStation 2) review
"That's the real problem with Drakengard: it's annoying. Killing stuff just isn't fun. If it were, I'd be able to gloss over such faults and thrive in the moment. Alas, a poor camera (you cannot manually control the view) and a lack of impact (weapon blows feel like they're striking sacks of wheat, not people) further hamper the action."
The lone warrior "Caim" makes an immediate and impressive impact, cutting a bloody path across a field of flesh. Even after suffering a mortal wound, Caim slices through pockets of steel-clad soldiers, eventually stumbling upon the treasure they guard: a ruby red dragon, itself lingering on the cusp of death. To survive, the pair forms a sacrificial pact -- Caim gives up his voice, the dragon gives up its independence. Together, they shall take flight and slaughter all who oppose their path of vengeance.
This is the way games were meant to be.
It's a truly invigorating opening. Unfortunately, Caim's mute presence and the dragon's awkward controls can't sustain an entire adventure. One-sided conversations soon grow tiresome, slow combat speed and poor camera angles hinder the swordplay, and developer Cavia's efforts to hide these weaknesses spawn an entirely new set of issues.
Manly brawlers rely on heavy population and exciting action. On occasion, Drakengard admirably succeeds at the former; unfortunately, enemies are just as often spread across the map in easily-eliminated pockets of four or five. As far as exciting action, the game simply fails. Caim's speed, as well as that of his opponents, is just too slow. If the ancient Dynasty Warriors 3 represents natural action, then Drakengard feels like a battle fought underwater. Furthermore, since it lacks a variety of battle techniques, Drakengard compares even less favorably to its PS2 brethren Chaos Legion and Berserk.
To disguise the action's simplicity, the developers included an experience system by which weapons increase in size and power. Locating all of the hidden weapons -- dozens of them -- is challenging and enjoyable, but replaying previously-conquered missions to earn the large amounts of experience necessary to hone those weapons is a pain. On top of that, experience is unfortunately lost whenever the player continues. Play for 20 minutes... should you perish, those 20 minutes are wasted. I don't recall the norm when Drakengard was released, but many others in the genre preserve experience even after death.
As another effort to introduce more variety to the gameplay, Caim can leap atop his dragon and drown enemy armies with a rain of fire. Although it sounds impressive, this game mechanic draws immediate (and unfavorable) comparisons to the far superior Panzer Dragoon games. The dragon is quite slow. If hit by two arrows -- two arrows -- Caim falls back to the ground. Does being knocked off the dragon make the game hard? Not really. Does it make the game annoying? Yes.
That's the real problem with Drakengard: it's annoying. Killing stuff just isn't fun. If it were, I'd be able to gloss over such faults and thrive in the moment. Alas, a poor camera (you cannot manually control it while on foot) and a lack of impact (weapon blows feel like they're striking sacks of wheat, not people) further hamper the action.
But as others will attest, Drakengard is more notable for its story than for its action.
I disagree. Drakengard is notable for its imagery. Dueling black dragons amidst sunset skies, spewing fire across fields stuffed full of soldiers, soaring past cyclopean giants as they smash towers to pieces, watching a grief-stricken villain clutch the lifeless body of the woman he loved... these are powerful images. The story itself is simplistic. The storytelling is pathetic.
At one point, a major (and sympathetic) character was killed, but I couldn't tell until the text synopsis popped up and said "SO-AND-SO LIES DEAD". The reason I couldn't tell is because this character was propped up against a large rock, as if still standing. There was no blood pool. There was no visible weapon protruding from the body. As for our "badass" hero Caim: when he saw this senseless murder, he didn't wreak havoc on the evil-doers. No, Caim casually turned around and walked away.
At another point, a new character joined Caim's motley group -- joined Caim's party -- in the second chapter. Through all nine chapters, the new character never spoke or appeared onscreen again. In the third chapter, the third chapter of nine, a crazy lady who supposedly eats children (according to the instruction manual) joined the party. For the remainder of those nine chapters, she never spoke or appeared onscreen again. I spent hours and hours of playtime asking myself: "When are these characters going to do something?" The unfortunate answer was... "never". I've played for hours and achieved three endings. Three times, I've heard the music play and seen the credits roll. Never did the war-weary traveler interfere with Caim's slaughter, never did the crazed elf Arioch slaver over a child's bloody corpse. Never did the "grotesqueries" I've read about descend from the sky, never did I fight some supposedly awe-inspiring pregnant demoness.
Friends tell me that the game doesn't get cool until I achieve the fourth and final "true" ending (I'm told that the fifth alternate ending is a bit of a joke). Perhaps I've been spoiled by dozens of other titles, but an action game shouldn't require a twenty-hour warmup. If a maniacal child-eating elf travels beside me for twenty hours, I expect to see her act maniacal or eat a child at some point.
One of the above characters does appear during a side mission, which I played after beating the game for a third time. During this special mission, Caim kills children, but these "children" are simply pint-sized versions of the same soldiers he's been decimating for chapter after chapter. The only person who begs Caim to cease his slaughter is a battle-shy man named Leonard.
Leonard begs Caim to spare the children. Leonard is also portrayed as a fool. Suppose, for a moment, that the player should heed his pacifistic plea -- suppose as well that the children, like any other enemy soldier, should stab Caim over and over until the game ends. Buoyed by the encouragement of his dragon, Caim suffers no moral dilemma. It's rather obvious that Caim must kill the clone child soldiers or die himself (and thus condemn the world). This is no heart-wrenching moment; this is a weak attempt to shock the player.
During that entire side mission, with the corpses of children falling left and right, the maniacal child-eating elf still somehow managed to never eat a single child.
I can sense the ambition in Drakengard's imagery, I can sense the desire to create a unique product with dozens of hidden weapons, but I can't sense the emotion. What did the developers want me to feel? Is there any purpose to this devastation beyond chic, adolescent nihilism? Why won't any of the secondary characters participate in the storyline?
Reading about Drakengard -- reading how Caim slaughters children, reading how Arioch eats babies, reading tales of dementia and human sacrifice -- is more exciting than actually playing the game and experiencing these events firsthand (or not experiencing them, as the case may be). Drakengard is more than broken; it's empty.
This is not the way games were meant to be.
Staff review by Zigfried (August 01, 2007)
Zigfried likes writing about whales and angry seamen, and often does so at the local pub.
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