Alright, let’s ditch the copy-paste introduction the previous three entries in this series have had. This is the fourth of the NieR/Drakengard series in which I’m exploring the narrative and mechanics of each game in turn. Following on from my examination of Drakengard 2’s narrative, I’m now going to take a look at it’s gameplay, as I did for the first game in article two.
As with the narrative, there’s probably less to say about Drakengard 2 than its predecessor; for the most part the combat and combo counter mechanics feel similar, but there are some significant differences in the way that weapons, attacks, and companion characters work, as well as changes to the handling of your dragon mount, and an overhaul of ‘strafe mode’. I’ll be referencing article two heavily in this to contrast and compare, so if you haven’t read that it might be worth a skim – it’s probably going to be the better of the two anyway.
Credit for all images included goes to the game’s manual.
A Game of… Two-ish Modes
As with the first, Drakengard 2 is primarily a hack-and-slash game reminiscent of the Dynasty Warriors series, though for this outing the scale of things is more frequently paired down to smaller-scale dungeon delving and duking it out with tankier enemies. Of course the dragon mount remains as the series gameplay gimmick as well.
This time around your dragon, Legna, controls almost identically in ground missions to aerial missions, allowing you to freely fly up and down rather than maintain a fixed height over the battlefield as we saw in the first game. He also has a hover button to allow him to hold position while dishing out damage, and ‘Dragon Overdrive’, which takes the place of Angelus’s magic meteor shower attack, but largely his purpose is the same as hers was: quick escapes, transportation, and dishing out heavy damage to vulnerable enemies.
Other changes to ground and aerial combat bear closer inspection, as does another late-game mechanical development. I won’t get too in-depth this time about certain aspects of gameplay already explored, but I will say that there’s probably a lot more to the mechanics here on the surface level, compared to the first game.
Aerial Combat Changes
Let’s address aerial combat first, since there’s the least worth saying about it; there are two significant changes to aerial combat:
The first is the addition of ‘breath spheres’. These are glowing orbs of various colours dropped randomly by enemies killed with unguided fireballs. Their colour can be changed by additional fireball shots, which has a nice arcade feel to it, and each has an associated magic ability it can be expended in order to cast. It’s a good enough system but a little too awkward and situational for my preferences, most notably because you can only carry one type of orb at a time. There’s not a lot else to say about it.
The second is a general increase to your dragon’s speed and manoeuvrability: accelerating either forward or by strafing applies a much greater amount of momentum to your dragon than in the previous game, causing him to ‘drift’ when you steer. At first this felt very weird and nonsensical, but in later missions drifting becomes an almost necessary technique for avoiding enemy fire while making attack runs, and I grew to really enjoy it.
Ground Combat Changes
While ground combat in Drakengard 2 has seen a great number of changes, it does retain the same feeling by and large – if perhaps somewhat slower and more methodical. This is most noticeable in the use of blocking and dodging; where dodging was more of a repositioning tool in Drakengard, and blocking only really useful for deflecting ranged attacks, here we frequently encounter smaller groups of enemies including some with sluggishly telegraphed attacks and heavy shields that encourage the use of counter attacks and more a more defensive approach. This is a change for the better in my opinion, breaking up the monotony of whirring blades that otherwise carries over from the first game, since the rest of the changes are more straightforward extensions of the existing mechanics.
Weapons level up as before, based on their total number of enemies slain, but rather than simply improving the magic attack performed by the weapon, each level unlocks an extra notch on your magic bar to which magic can be charged by holding the button, adding some welcome nuance to its application
Finishing blows make a return, but this time each is triggered automatically at the end of a two-button attack sequence. Each weapon has several different attack sequences which are unlocked as it is levelled up, rather than a single one-button string that we can exit into a finishing blow by pressing the magic button at particular intervals. This means that for any one given weapon you have a number of different finishing blows at your disposal, but you must choose at the start of the attack sequence which you want to use. Helpfully, the game has categorised finishing blows and given them icons this time around, so we have: Unblockable, Linear Sweep, Heavy Damage, and Ground Sweep finishing blows.
Honestly, I’m not certain how I feel about this – it’s good in theory, adding some variety and harried decision making to combat. However, the fact that each weapon has only a small subset of its type’s attack sequences available without any apparent rhyme or reason leaves me constantly interrupting gameplay to remind myself which ones the weapon I’m wielding has. In the first game I could just rely on the intuitive flashes during my single-button chain – in retrospect, quite a clever piece of design.
Additionally, the companion character system from the first game has been overhauled and merged with weapon switching – it sounds bizarre but I think it’s for the best. Rather than working like a limited-use, timed super mode, each companion character in your party is now assigned a unique weapon category. Switching to a weapon of their category during a mission will swap Nowe for the appropriate character, who has their own health and mana pool.
Finally, weapon types or characters (depending on how you want to look at it) now have distinct strengths and weaknesses against different enemy types – Manah’s rod is strong against magic users, for example, while Eris’s spear is strong against undead, and Urick’s axe against monsters. This can be a pain in the arse, but no more so than the general tedium of the original game. I think that applies to all of these changes really: a little rough around the edges, but at least you have a significant amount more to think about now.
Notice that I have deliberately avoided using the common language ‘combo’ to refer to attack sequences performed by alternating patterns of button presses. This is because the combo system from the first game makes a triumphant return, where a ‘combo’ or ‘chain’ means landing successive attacks, and scoring high numbers of hits causes glowing orbs to drop from your enemies. The numbers of hits at which orbs drop may be different from the first game – the first orb is higher if I remember rightly – but the principle is largely the same, and it works just as well here as it did in the first game. You’ll get mana orbs, health orbs, xp orbs, and more, including orbs that boost your attack speed if you get a really high chain.
This time around there are a few more things you can exploit to score high combos more easily, unlike the first game where you had to rely almost entirely on pulling enemy groups and using ranged finishing blows to bridge gaps. By utilising the new companion system you can deliberately switch to a character whose weapon does less damage to the enemies you’re facing, thereby increasing the number of hits an individual punching-bag can contribute to your chain before perishing. Alternatively, you can just switch to Urick, whose fast and weak – though also short-ranged – attacks make getting high combos a bit of a joke.
Level design is a bit more interesting and varied in this entry anyway, so you’ll less often find yourself mopping up bland fields of enemy mooks, trying to make your own fun by pulling them into groups and racking up big combos. That said, I do have fond strong and pleasant memories of my excitement at having racked up enormous combos in later missions, only to be rewarded with a boost in attack speed that let me keep pushing that number higher!
You can also purchase, carry, and use a stock of healing items in Drakengard 2, so the need for working up that combo is diminished. It’s almost a shame – I think the use of that combo system has real legs and could be emphasised to great effect, but I’m not going to pretend that it was deliberately or at all well implemented in the first game, so I won’t lament its de-emphasis here.
Finally, we can talk about bosses: We get proper boss battles this time around spaced fairly evenly throughout the game. They’re mostly forgettable, but more enjoyable than the original game’s repeated, frantic aerial dragon fights, or that one with Manah. One of them uses a combination of on-foot and flying gameplay, which is pretty cool. One of them is a surprisingly creepy and character-driven callback to the first game. Then there’s Caim, who was fun, but only really noteworthy for being Caim.
I talked at length in the first article of the series about the severe mechanical shift made for the final boss – something I like to call ‘Sonic Heroes Syndrome’ since that’s the first game I noticed it in, but have since seen in the likes of Lost Planet, Dark Void, and even pre-final boss in Final Fantasy XV and the original Devil May Cry! Drakengard 1, 3, and NieR: Automata remain the only examples I’ve seen that stick the landing on this, by at least being deliberate and meaningful, though not necessarily fair or enjoyable.
Whether in an attempt to ape the first game, or just by misguided design, Drakengard 2 also does this, and in a much more typical manner than its predecessor: there’s an aerial boss fight where you play as Nowe, but rather than riding Legna you sprout wings and wield a magic sword. The controls are sloppy, you aren’t familiar with them, it’s hard to tell where you are, it’s generally more difficult and more frustrating than it should be. In fact everything I’ve said in this paragraph could be repurposed to talk about cases of Sonic Heroes Syndrome in the games mentioned above, with the exception of those from the NieR/Drakengard series – for some reason it always seems that the protagonist is given a big power boost only to be thrown into an aerial fight, the mechanics of which have clearly been rushed and given not a fraction of the love and attention needed. The thing is, because it’s so drastically different from the rest of the game, often done for big, cinematic reasons, and usually at or near the end of the game, it sticks in your memory and etches a particular response whenever your mind wanders across that part of the record:
So little of importance is there to say about Drakengard 2 in my opinion, that I’m actually writing this section before the majority of the article. If you’re a casual gamer in 2019 – even if you really enjoyed the most recent entry in this series, NieR: Automata – there’s really not very much to see here. As a generic Japanese action rpg it’s a fairly solid package – significantly more polished and accessible than its predecessor – so if you have a soft spot for that kind of thing you might enjoy it. But even for lovers of the NieR/Drakengard series trying to squeeze as much as they can out of it, the most likely draws would be a perverse preoccupation with the combat style shared by this and the first game, or the few faithful call-backs to the first game’s narrative which I previously explored.