Drakengard 2 – A Stumbling Sequel

In a previous post here I explained my plan for a series of articles exploring each of the games in the NieR/Drakengard series. Yes, it has been many months since then, and I’m just now getting started on the second game, but I’m determined to see through my original plan of venting all my thoughts on the Drakengard games before touching NieR itself, and then revisiting Automata.

There’s probably less to say about Drakengard 2 than its predecessor, but I’m going to stick to the format established in my previous articles: first this piece rambling about the game’s narrative, and then a second breaking down its mechanics and gameplay – probably titled ‘Finding the Fun’ again because… well, every Drakengard game is a diamond in very rough shape. If you’re looking for a review, this is not that.

Taken As a Whole

When I first started to investigate the Drakengard series – shortly after completing NieR: Automata, remembering its connection to Drakengard and that I had unwittingly picked up the first game in the series 6 months prior – I saw one resounding sentiment repeated on forums: Drakengard 2 was not helmed by the original director, Yoko Taro; it follows on from the first ending of the original game rather than the final ending – from which Taro’s own NeiR and NieR: Automata follow; it was therefore to be considered bad, non-canon, and to be ignored. Honestly, I don’t wholly disagree, but I tend not to take such a hard-line stance on fiction, and I’ve spent a good deal of time playing and pondering each of the Drakengard games, so humour me as I dig in and milk Drakengard 2 for what I can.

Without getting into gameplay too much in this article, I will say this: ground and air combat is largely an improvement over that found in the first game, with increased depth, enemy variety, and better bosses. The draw distance for enemies is still as awful as the camera controls, and the graphics haven’t improved any either, but we do have a far more traditional, and actually rather good, soundtrack for this outing. There’s arguably more to the traditional narrative here than the first time around, and you could be forgiven for considering Drakengard 2’s expanded cast of characters more charismatic than Caim’s party.  This is all to say that in Drakengard’s sequel there are fewer obstacles in the way of your short term enjoyment of the game.

In looking for depths and meanings beyond that there is something to be said for the handling of the returning cast, and the subtle morality of our protagonist, Nowe’s character – though the message is unclear and the jury’s out on whether it was as deliberate as what the first game offered up. Ultimately what we get is a middling JRPG fantasy tale with a typically haphazard and confusing conclusion.

Better Branching?

I would be remiss were I not to promptly address perhaps the greatest loss from the groundwork laid down by the original Drakengard – more important even than its offbeat tone and unhinged characters, and imperative to the impact of its incoherent narrative. I expounded upon the first game’s unusual implementation of a branching narrative in the first piece of this series, writing about how it streamlines the steps to reaching its five endings (except, arguably, the fifth), and touching on the way that each branch shows a different possible outcome that contributes to a fuller understanding of your futile struggle.

Sadly, the branching mechanics of Drakengard are gone in its sequel, as is any chance of chance of gaining a better understanding of its characters or narrative by struggling through its three endings. Here, you can’t even replay story chapters at will, let alone go back to access different branches, and unlock further chapters. Instead, each ending beyond the first is apparently reached by replaying the entire game at an increased difficulty, from the same save file. I say apparently because, despite carrying over all unlocked characters, weapons, and character levels, the game itself is simply not good enough in my view to warrant dragging myself through it three whole times, just for a couple of extra bosses, and slightly different cutscenes right at the end. Therefore what I know of endings B and C comes from reading and watching walkthroughs of the game’s final chapters.

If you’ve read and understood what I wrote about this in the first article (forgive my optimism), you should already understand the impact of this: instead of the outcome of the game being swayed somewhat naturally by the party you’ve collected, the path you’ve taken, and your completion time at important junctures, events in the final chapters of Drakengard 2 change for… no discernable reason. I won’t go into great detail, but ending A is fairly bittersweet, being very reminiscent of the first ending of the original game; ending B is darker, seeing Manah once again become a giant for a boss fight in the sky, and the remaining characters riding off into battle for the final cutscene, facing off against the returning giant-demon-baby incarnation of the Watchers. The final ending, C, provides an inexplicably sugar-coated resolution, which stands in total opposition to what I felt the original game achieved – specifically, subverting the trope of rewarding higher-percentage completion with a more traditionally ‘happy’ ending. I don’t think I’m unjustified in calling that out, since it’s an idea that Taro reiterates and almost directly puts a spot light on, many years later, in NieR: Automata, but if you read on you might agree with me that, deliberately or not, it does stand as an interesting contrast to the first game.

A Little History

What I know of Drakengard 2’s development is pieced together entirely from what articles and comments I could find online, many sources of which are translations from Japanese interview transcripts, or webpages that have since vanished.

There are suggestions that director Akira Yasui aimed to create something that was the ‘opposite’ of the original in many ways: more colourful and without the mature themes – and in fact this appears to have been a mandate from Square Enix to make the game more ‘mainstream’.

Scattered sources say that Yoko Taro was brought on towards the end of the project only as ‘Video Editor’; I can’t find any quite original source for that claim but I think the evidence can be seen clearly in the style of the game’s trailer and menu videos – they have the same dramatic pacing, eerie and emotional voice sampling, and mix cinematic and gameplay clips to create an atmosphere of chaos and desperation.

The quality of the CG cutscenes themselves also warrants mention: here a game from 2005 far outshines certain 3D animated media from as late as 2016 – a comparison which is pertinent because Caim’s portrayal in this game is so clearly inspired by Berserk. The cutscene where Caim first appears before Manah is actually incredibly good in how it portrays his power and the impact his mere presence has upon her due to their previous interactions.

I’m actually surprised they decided to do a straight sequel at all, rather than just another unconnected game in the same franchise, Final Fantasy style. I won’t pretend the narrative made complete sense even immediately after playing Drakengard 1, but I can’t imagine how confusing it might be for a newcomer.

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Surprisingly Faithful

In fact, for a sequel with no need to do so – one actively striving to differentiate itself – Drakengard 2 seems to go out of its way to integrate with the first game. Set 18 years later, the returning cast includes: An older Manah, psychologically scarred by events not thoroughly retold, playing sidekick to a brand new protagonist; The old and new Hierachs overseeing the seal, Verdelet and Seere; And even our previous protagonist, Caim, presented in a grim, villainous manner, as he might indeed deserve.

Perhaps since Yasui aimed to change the tone of the game to a much lighter one he thought he would do well to hold on to the characters as a connection to the first game, else it might appear entirely too different. But there are even aspects of the original tone set by Taro seeping through here and there. The game does a great job of hyping up Caim and the Red Dragon, Angelus, with these creepy little segments after each seal is broken – a black screen with a portrait of Caim’s pained, silent expressions, and voiced lines by the Red Dragon’s original actor, demonstrating her deteriorating mental state. Characters losing their minds to rage, fear and hysteria like this is something which is very common in the series’s other entries. The Ancient Tomb of the Holy Dragons is also appropriately creepy and weird, though I’m not sure how much sense it makes, lore-wise. Its external boxiness and the alien-yet-ancient appearance of its internals matches certain designs from NieR and NieR: Autaomata, though I suppose that any relation there is owing to those later games salvaging this as a desirable aesthetic. Legna, dragon-mount and father-figure to our protagonist Nowe, even has some dialog on approach to the Tomb which references distorted time and the motif of cycles – something which is recurrent in Drakengard 3, Automata, and NieR too from what I’ve heard: “The Ancient Tomb holds the knowledge and the wisdom of the Holy Dragons, who have survived countless crises such as this.”

There’s also a boss fight worthy of mention more for its tone than for mechanical reasons: Manah has a severe breakdown owing to her abusive parentage and possibly ongoing possession by the Watchers, somehow forcing Nowe into her mindscape for some very strong callbacks to ending A of Drakengard 1 and some convincingly crazed voice acting. The fight itself involves slicing through hordes of young, demonic semblances of Manah. It’s quite frantic, and plays with modifying the environment at key points during the fight and its intro sequence in a way which is both unsettling and rather disorientating – it really doesn’t feel like something you’d deliberately include while trying to tone down the insanity of Taro’s previous entry in the series. It’d be a chore to describe the fight in full, but thankfully somebody has uploaded a video of it, which I’ll link below.

Morals and Maturity

You know, the more I look back at the early chapters of the story, the less I’m convinced that the team were successful in toning down the mature themes of the game, so much as sugar-coating them. No longer are put behind the reigns of wild Caim, bloodthirsty, battle-hardened, scarred by the violent death of his parents and chomping at the bit for any opportunity to murder; Now we control Nowe who, fitting with the game’s lighter, more typically JRPG aesthetic, is an archetypal goody-two-shoes, meek and at first obedient, dragon-raised, trained by the Knights of the Seal for the protection of all that is good and holy. He’s every bit the stereotypical hero – a bland cliche – but perhaps there’s a little more depth here than I’ve been giving credit for.

See, within the first two chapters of the game we’re already tripping over some fairly heavy material, barely hiding behind the skirts of its rudimentary graphics and generic JRPG fantasy set dressing to hold on to that 12+ rating. We begin with districts occupied by prisoners of war from a conflict 18 years past, there, it seems, to feed the seals with their very lifeforce as reconciliation for their ‘crimes’. Throw in a pretty girl supporting the cause of these prisoners and you have the eventual impetus for Nowe’s defection from his order of knights. This doesn’t feel too out of place when measured against the subject matter of similar worlds, some of the Final Fantasy settings for example, but it feels a lot more personal when numerous early gameplay sections involve Nowe, Eris, and the righteous knights slaughtering their way through poorly-armed rebels. Then we get to the attempted execution of Manah, which plays out with quite the degree of malice and sadism on the part of Eris, a character I guess we’re supposed to see as goodly and sympathetic.

Nowe is driven to defection in part due to a difference of opinion regarding the methods of his order, and in part due to the hidden motives of certain superiors. It’s his escape sequence at this point that really drew me to question his morals. No more are we slaying the possessed, red-eyed goons of the Empire in Drakengard 1 – the soldiers you fight during the escape from the order’s headquarters, and in many later chapters, are human beings fighting to apprehend a ‘criminal’, fighting to protect what they believe is right – an idea we see reiterated in Drakengard 3. On re-examination it turns out that Nowe’s outcries during this sequence are not selfish pleas of “I’m innocent!”, “This is so unfair”, as I had recalled them, but rather fall along the lines of “Let me through”, “I don’t want to fight”, “Put away your swords” – in fact these are the same kind of lines he’s given when fighting the rebels earlier on.

It might be fair to say that there’s actually some unexpected depth to our golden child’s character here: He understands what he is doing in fighting and killing these innocent soldiers, but he has deemed the cause for which he fights to be of greater importance, and has the strength of will to do what must be done. I might not be so charitable as to credit this to good writing rather than a happy accident were it not for a couple of other details that initially escaped me. First, the words of Legna during this escape sequence, in response to Nowe’s desire not to fight innocent soldiers, directly tie into the conflict of principles between Nowe and Legna which the game’s endings pivot upon. From the beginning Legna encourages Nowe to kill remorselessly, here saying: “Don’t be a fool. Look at them. They certainly think that YOU’RE an enemy. Just deal with them and let’s get out of here”. Second, strange detail though it is to bring up, the game’s cover art is actually quite interesting: here we see Nowe, sword and shield raised, his blade, clothes and face blood-soaked. His shield obscures his mouth, but we can read enough of his expression from his eyes: he looks broken, tired – willing and able to fight, though he might prefer not to.

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Violence Solves Some Things?

I could attempt at this point to spin this as a work of meaningful, very deliberate art, as I did with Drakengard 1 – to declare that Yasiu and his team were successful many times over in creating a game that is the opposite of its predecessor. Drakengard 1 gives us a bloodthirsty protagonist, a grown man, eager to fight, thrilling to kill for no particular reason, then tells us that violence is not the answer by presenting us with ever grimmer endings in return for our continuing efforts. Drakengard 2 gives us an idealistic protagonist, a young man, willing to fight if it will further a cause in which he believes, and awards you a happier ending if you really do fight for it. Am I to believe that this message is purposefully perpendicular to the first entry in the series, or is it merely naive and pandering, in the the very way that Drakengard 1 so successfully subverts?

 

 

 

 

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Drakengard – Finding the Fun

In a previous post here I explained my plan for a series of articles exploring each of the games in the NieR/Drakengard series. If you’re looking for a review of the first game in the series, Drakengard, then you may want to look elsewhere, but if you’d rather read a rambling over-analysis of its narrative structure and mechanics, then this is part two of that.

While part one explored the unusual delivery and nature of Drakengard’s narrative, this article aims to be an examination of its awkward, dated gameplay – what merit can be found therein and why I ended up enjoying what truly is a remarkably repetitive experience.

Credit for all images included goes to the game’s manual.

A Game of Three Modes

Primarily, Drakengard is a hack-and-slash affair most immediately reminiscent of the Dynasty Warriors series. The big gimmick, however, and probably the main thing that brought players to it before it became infamous for its bizarre final chapters, is that for almost the entire game the anti-hero, Caim, is accompanied by a red dragon. Players take the reigns of this dragon in aerial combat missions, and can even summon and ride it in ground missions – a third mode of gameplay that the manual calls ‘strafe mode’.

It may seem strange then, for me to say that this article is going to focus almost exclusively on the ground-based combat – by a great margin the least conspicuous component of the entire game. While each mode of gameplay is serviceable, often even fun, all lack a certain level of polish and refinement. For all that I came to enjoy the ground combat, it remains incredibly repetitive, so the air battles were never an unwelcome diversion, and the ability to jump into strafe mode to zip across the battlefield, roasting enemies from above, contributed greatly to the game’s playability. That said, beside their intrinsic novelty and utilisation for most of the game’s boss fights, the two modes which see you piloting the dragon don’t really offer much else to make up for their lack of polish.

To quote my earlier article on Drakengard’s narrative, “there are a lot of obstacles in the way of actually enjoying Drakengard,” but nowhere are these obstacles more apparent than in its ground combat: Before you even make it into a fight you’ll have to wrest control of the game’s archaic camera, then locate some enemies on the minimap because their render distance is dreadful. There are hundreds of enemies even in the first level, they flank you relentlessly, and working around the slow steering permitted during weapon swings to keep them all at bay can be a chore. Levels are long, typically structured around eliminating specific targets marked yellow on the minimap. There’s no immediately apparent way of recovering health, and there are no mid-mission checkpoints.

Simply charging headlong into the hordes and trying to do your best is likely to be a frustrating experience; I reckon you’d quickly get tired of retreading the same ground after every loss. But the road to getting good isn’t well signposted – it’s unorthodox, involving a small set of mechanics which, properly understood and exploited, layer together to give a monotonous experience rhythm, to give a frantic experience an unexpectedly tense and tactical feel, which I’m not entirely sure was intentional.

We need to make a quick stop to explain the basic combat mechanics before we can get to the heart of it though.

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Weapons And What They’re Worth

Drakengard features no less than 65 weapons in the form of swords, longswords, spears, staves, axes, poleaxes, maces, and hammers, each received as a reward for mission completion or found in chests throughout the game. Players may assign up to eight of these weapons to the ‘weapon wheel’ before entering a mission, and are then able to switch between those weapons on the fly.

Each weapon has only a singular combo – a chain of attacks executed by repeatedly pressing the attack button. Weapons of each type tend to have a similar combo, though the speed, range, and damage of their attacks varies significantly. To each weapon is attached a unique spell which can be activated at the cost of magic points (MP) – these range from fireballs, to ground waves, to swarms of guided projectiles, and more. By pressing the magic button at specific points during a combo, signified by a glowing halo emitted from the weapon, players can also perform a ‘finishing blow’. These are less varied than magic but differ from weapon to weapon, and typically take the form of a shock wave which damages and knocks most enemies prone, either in a radius around the player, or a line projecting forward.

In tense combat situations the longer-ranged finishing blows, such as the forward shockwaves, can form a critical part of your approach to combat. Available on some of the quickest weapons after only a couple of attacks, these can allow you to disable groups of enemies at range, and maintain your combo count when moving between bouts of combat. And maintaining your combo count is something you’ll want to be very conscious of.

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Combos Are Everything

Your current combo count, displayed prominently on screen, increases with every enemy struck by the swing of a weapon, or the shockwave of a finishing blow, and resets to zero only when a generous number of seconds elapse between such hits. Magic does not increase your combo count, and typically has a long enough casting time to break any ongoing combo.

I mentioned earlier that there was no immediately apparent way of recovering health – sure there are boxes here and there containing glowing green spheres that restore a chunk of health when collected, but they’re finite and there’s never one around when you really need it. Thankfully though, with a little extra effort there’s a much more reliable source of those green orbs constantly near at hand. You see, those same orbs, of varying sizes, along with other coloured orbs with different effects, are dropped from enemies when striking them raises your current combo count to particular values. The first orb drops at the 17th hit, the second at the 36th, and so on. While other colours of orbs certainly add a satisfying sense of accomplishment when you’re doing well, what’s important is that when you’re missing any health at all, the orbs which appear at lower combo counts are guaranteed to be health orbs.

This sets up a very obvious risk-reward system where carefully ministered aggression is rewarded with sustainability in the form of health. This in itself is not unusual from the perspective of the modern gamer, as different mechanics exist for a similar purpose in the likes of Metal Gear Rising, DOOM 2016, and even in the skillsets of some ARPG or MOBA characters. What stands out to me in Drakengard, however, is the transformative impact this has on combat. Arguably, combos become too much the focus of the player in Drakengard. In DOOM or Metal Gear Rising, glory kills and zandatsu are just something you do here and there to top up your health, and look cool doing it. In Drakengard the drive to achieve even a 16-hit combo chain for a small health orb can affect everything from your choice of weapons, to the way you move across the whole battlefield.

In any given mission you’ll find yourself deliberately drawing the attention of multiple enemy groups in order to bring them closer together, or simply juggling one poor sod between ranks in order to sustain a long combo. It doesn’t even matter if the soldiers you hit are alive, as upon death they remain valid targets long enough for two or three more strikes prior to de-spawning, so you’ll sometimes find yourself wailing on a man as he goes down, or chasing after a body you sent flying, only to tap it once on your way to a new group of enemies. This is actually pretty in line with Caim’s character, and the wider themes of the game. Because objective enemies can be quite tough and missions don’t typically feature any kind of re-spawning mobs, it can also be helpful to think of the rank and file as resources – as something to avoid killing, only to return to when you need to top up your health.

Perhaps most significantly though, combos will influence your choice of weapon. Large, slow weapons don’t make a lot of sense when they leave you open to more attacks, and typically kill enemies in fewer blows, making building combos near impossible. Short swords, on the other hand, hit fast and do little damage, especially when they’re still at low levels. This makes short swords ideal for building combos even with only a limited number of enemies at hand, but not ideal for advancing through long, overpopulated areas at much speed. So while long swords and other weapons will likely be your mainstay through the game, short swords become a kind of bizarre healing tool you whip out when your health gets dangerously low – that’s right, when your health is low your best chance of survival might be to bring out a weapon that will take as long as possible to kill your enemies.

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Questionable Comparisons

Exploiting the mechanics described above made my time with Drakengard a lot easier, but also a lot more enjoyable. It doesn’t feel good to do in the way that combat in something like the Devil May Cry series feels good, but it does engage your brain in a certain way. I always found myself thinking about Dark Souls while I played, but that comparison would be massively misleading taken out of context.

The Dark Souls comparison comes not just the tension of being deep into a level, low on health and with no way to go but forward, but from the way that the game forces you to concentrate, use very deliberate timing and positioning, make very deliberate decisions. It’s a lot more frantic and less punishing, but you also need to understand the speed, arc, and range of each swing of your weapons – to keep enemies at bay and rely on interrupting their attacks with your own. Dodging is very important, but mostly for escaping encircling enemies rather than avoiding individual attacks, and blocking is pretty much useless. This changes fairly dramatically in Drakengard 2 with a focus on shielded enemies, blocking, counters, and very clearly telegraphed enemy attacks, but that’s a subject for another article.

One thing that playing Drakengard did for me, and this is an entirely personal observation, is clarify what it is that I enjoy in a combat system. What seems to be a majority of modern ‘tripple-A’ titles – Shadow of Mordor, Assassin’s Creed, and basically any western third-person action game since the invention of the combat style usually attributed to the Arkham series – take a lot of control away from the player: Positioning of attacks at the correct range and angle is not a thing because your character happily zips across the screen to engage with whatever you target; tactics, timing, setup  – none of this matters because a single button press in a generous window is usually all it takes to block or counter an attack from any angle.

While developers lavish astonishing graphics and animation upon such titles, for me it quickly falls into the same kind of tedium as Drakengard, but without much sense of depth to keep me engaged. I’ve always known where my preferences laid – that’s why I gravitate the the likes of Dark Souls and Devil May cry instead of more ‘mainstream’ AAA titles – but it was curious to see that preference extend to something so clearly janky and dated as Drakengard.

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Your Mileage

Despite being very clear about this not being a review, this kind of conclusion seems appropriate: At the end of the day, would I recommend you actually play Drakengard? Simply put, I don’t know.

It’s not going to be for everyone. For some, figuring out how to work with these mechanics will be too much like hard work, and the reward is small unless you’re perusing the series out of wider curiosity as I was. I couldn’t possibly recommend Drakengard for its gameplay alone, but if you’re in it for the experience, then there’s at least some hope that you’ll find a way to enjoy your time with it.

 

 

Drakengard – A Futile Struggle

In a previous post here I explained my plan for a series of articles exploring each of the games in the NieR/Drakengard series. If you’re looking for a review of the first game in the series, Drakengard, then you may want to look elsewhere, but if you’d rather read a rambling, self-indulgent over-analysis of its mechanics and narrative structure, then this is the start of that.

Originally I intended to write only one piece per game, but working through my notes for the first game I found that there are just too many disparate parts deserving discussion to easily organise into something digestible. So, the aim now is to divide Drakengard into two meandering incoherent walls of text: the first, this one, exploring the unusual delivery and nature of its narrative, and a second examining what’s remarkable about its dated and awkward gameplay.

Taken As a Whole

There are a lot of obstacles in the way of actually enjoying Drakengard. First, you’ll have to get over the archaic camera controls, locate some enemies using the minimap because their draw distance is terrible, and then persevere with the ground combat long enough to find its virtues (tune in next time). You’ll also need to be okay with it looking like a PS2 game – and an ugly, bland one at that, despite some very interesting quirks here and there. If you stick it out for long enough you’ll likely notice that the music is cacophonous, repetitive, and unpleasant, but hopefully come to appreciate the frantic, violent atmosphere it creates. Then you’ll have to come to terms with the cast of characters offered up, which includes a mute, psychopathic protagonist, a feeble goddess, a cynical, human-hating dragon, a paedophile, a cannibalistic elf, and a fatalistic, cowardly priest.

So what’s the deal then? Why is Drakengard still worth playing – worth writing about, even? Well for one thing, whether by fluke or deliberate design, I do think that there’s a lot of depth and enjoyment to be found in the game’s ground and aerial combat mechanics. But Drakengard also offers up surprisingly offbeat narrative and world-building for a Japanese RPG, with compelling voice acting throughout (a minor miracle for an English-dub), and hints of the kind of social commentary and philosophy which becomes far more blatant by the time we get to Drakengard 3 and NieR: Automata. But by far the main reason I want to write about the original Drakengard is the innovative ways in which its narrative delivery exploits the interactive medium – something I’m not aware has been replicated in the decade and a half since its release.

World-building

Although narratively connected the Drakengard games take place in a whole other world to that where the NieR games are set – though not a different fictional ‘universe’. We’ll call this other world the ‘Dragon Sphere’ henceforth, since that’s what the ultimate ending of the first game calls it.

Despite a fairly generic high-fantasy foundation with knights and dragons, swords and sorcery, goblins, ogres, golems and fairies, Drakengard does a lot with its tone and laser focus to distinguish itself from contemporary Japanese RPGs. On the surface we see the old tropes: warring Union and Empire forces, the mortal goddess Furiae who is no only kidnapped, but is also one of the ‘Seals’ of the world, which, of course, the enemy is trying to break for… reasons? But the game doesn’t dwell on lore at all – instead it puts us behind the blade of bloodthirsty Caim, to whom the Empire soldiers are nothing more than enemies to be cut down, and the Goddess merely his sister – perhaps even just an excuse him to go on a rampage. Caim doesn’t give a damn about history, religion, or anything else, and I for one appreciate that being reflected in what we’re shown.

The majority of the game is a grim trudge through fields, forests, ruins, and thousands of human soldiers, brightened somewhat by the voice-acted musings of your grim companions playing out during gameplay – primarily spoken by the aforementioned misanthropic dragon and the fatalistic priest, Verdelet. It’s only in the final chapters that things become suddenly hellish and bizarre. Somehow the Dragon Sphere manages to be a high-magic fantasy setting with the tone of a low-magic one: It feels more akin to Berserk (the Golden Age arc of the 1997 anime) than, say Warhammer, despite having human factions operating squadrons of airships, wyverns (stupid wyverns!), and ‘gargoyle cubes’ that fire lasers at you. Verdelet and the rest of the cast help in that regard because they don’t even seem to understand anything about the ‘Watchers’, the ‘Seals’, or the ‘Seeds of Resurrection’. The dragon even indicates that the legends passed down by man are incorrect: “These are not the Seeds of Resurrection. They are the Seeds of Destruction.” “Man bends the truth for any convenience.”

Also noteworthy is the strangely modern-looking, ruined imperial capital, with its tall, square buildings resembling modern skyscrapers. I could try and break down why that may be based on what I know from the other games in the series, but it’s not worth dwelling on right now.

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Better Branching

Describing NieR: Automata as having numerous ‘endings’ is inaccurate – explaining to people that they need to get at least five of them to see the big picture is discouraging, and trying to explain why it shouldn’t be without spoiling the experience is a difficult task. In the case of some games with branching narratives it isn’t only the repetition of gameplay that’s off-putting, but the need to uncover often obtuse and illogical branching points.  While unlocking the final chapters of NieR: Automata does indeed involve playing the prior part of the game through twice – kind of – it doesn’t really require the player to figure out how to reach different endings, instead guiding them effortlessly from one to the next, and this lead-by-the-hand approach is something that the series hit upon in its first entry.

Reaching endings B to D in Drakengard requires only that you replay missions where the story branches, meet the objective for that branch, and complete the additional missions unlocked as a result. You can skip ahead through the story, playing only the additional missions unlocked rather than retreading unaltered ground. Tooltips on locked missions tell you exactly what is required in order to unlock them, but not the reason, and though many such requirements are a simple matter of ‘complete mission n in less than x seconds’, usually a narrative reason for this becomes clear after the fact. For example, reaching Drakengard’s ending C requires that you beat ending B’s penultimate boss so quickly as to trigger a change of heart in one particular character, preventing the creation of B’s final boss, which otherwise keeps our anti-hero so preoccupied that he doesn’t notice the world falling apart around him.

In another example, after having satisfied all the other conditions to unlock Drakengard’s penultimate ending, the game still lets you fail if you don’t manage to defeat an enemy armada quickly enough at a critical moment. Not only that, but it does so subtly, and even goes so far as to insert two additional, pointless missions, before (presumably) branching back to a previous ending where you arrive too late to save Furiae. The second of these missions is a truly disconcerting trek through a level devoid of enemies, who have already evacuated while you were outside fending off a wave of reinforcements. Here we see that even when you’ve fought hard for a reward, the game is not only happy to let you fail, but also to taunt and toy with you for it. While we’re not dealing with procedural or emergent storytelling here, and the mechanics by which the story branches may not be interesting taken out of context, these examples should begin to illustrate how they might integrate meaningfully with the narrative and the interactive experience.

Most early branching leads to the acquisition of new companion characters that are useful in gameplay, and side missions which do little to flesh out the world or events within it – though the last companion’s, Seere’s, does give a good insight into the backstory of his twin sister Manah, high priestess of the Cult of the Watchers, and main antagonist of the game. It’s only in the final chapters of the game where the branches become truly significant.

With the exception of endings B and C, I believe, endings A to E of Drakengard must be unlocked in alphabetic order. A standard trope followed by many games would see these endings, each unlocked by extra work, by extra % completion of the game’s content, grow steadily more positive or crowd-pleasing, to varying levels of actual narrative significance. In most cases we’re simply treated to a little bit of extra dialogue or a different cutscene, and you can count on some players working through a whole, near-identical game multiple times just to see that difference. Not only does it take less work to unlock the alternative endings of Drakengard, but in doing so you unlock whole chapters – new places and events which give the player fleeting glimpses into the minds of characters who might otherwise seem fully one-dimensional, and a growing understanding of just what is unfolding as their continued effort results in increasingly calamitous conclusions.

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Every End’s a Bad End

Ending A, which you’ll see on first completion of Drakengard, is bittersweet: the seals are broken and the goddess sacrificed to plunge the world into chaos; Caim and the dragon fight through a menagerie of monsters, legions of fanatic soldiers, and a giant infant girl to save the Dragon Sphere; Caim even redeems some of his humanity as he refuses to give Manah the mercy of death, and weeps for a dragon – a creature he once despised with good reason  – as his partner sacrifices herself to become the new seal.

Reaching Ending B will net you a few more hours of hack-and-slash fun, a pretty horrific cutscene, and an conclusion which is essentially apocalyptic. Ending C is no brighter, really. This joke is carried right through to ending E, where it seems that events culminate in the wholesale termination of the Dragon Sphere and, as we learn from the continuity of the game in NieR and NieR: Automata, a magical blight upon our own universe, leading to the ruin of the Earth, and the downfall of humanity here.

If you were hoping to at least succeed in saving Furiae in one of these eventualities, you’ll be disappointed, and mocked for you naivety: In the branches where you do eventually manage to reach her before she is ritually sacrificed, her romantic feelings towards her brother are tauntingly revealed by the by mind-reading high-priestess, Manah. Our player character, Caim, proves too emotionally inert to even appear sympathetic – a facet of his character reflected in the blood of the thousands of soldiers he slew to get here, ostensibly to save her – so she plunges a dagger into her breast, this time instigating the apocalypse by her own hand.

Having progressively more miserable conclusions, although unique and interesting, isn’t especially meritorious on its own. Punishing players for their hard work and time investment with bad endings, whether you really see them as less desirable or not, seems like a strange decision at best. In a video released on YouTube through official channels, director Taro Yoko commented on his thought process during the creation of the original Drakengard:

“I was looking at a lot of games back then, and I saw these messages like ‘You’ve defeated 100 enemies!’ or ‘Eradicated 100 enemy soldiers!’ in an almost gloating manner. But when I thought about it in an extremely calm state of mind, it hit me that gloating about killing a hundred people is strange. I mean, you’re a serial killer if you killed a hundred people. It just struck me as insane. That’s why I decided to have the army of the protagonist in Drakengard be one where everyone’s insane.”

From the director’s comments, and the more direct approach of later games in the series, it seems clear that his philosophy runs thick in the blood of Drakengard, and that its quirks deserve closer inspection. At the very least we can be sure that the growing unpleasantness of each ending was a very deliberate choice; in another interview, Taro reportedly comments: “any game that centres on slaughtering hundreds in war shouldn’t deserve a happy ending.”

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Mechanics Matter

Structuring the characters and the conclusion of the game game around this philosophy may be interesting, but the integration into the game’s mechanics is what’s exceptional. While the obvious approach may be to provide a pacifistic or non-lethal option, as a number of more recent games have done, Drakengard embraces violence in order to critique it within the framework of a what is strictly a hack-and-slash action game.

Caim and the dragon each has a character level which, as in many videogames, is tied to the number of enemies they have killed. Not only that, but weapons in Drakengard also level up based on the number of enemies that have been killed with them, and new weapons are often found in hidden chests which appear only when all of the enemies in an area are dead. In this way the game’s systems encourage you to kill as many soldiers as you possibly can, rather than just the marked objectives, then to return and kill them all over again in search of hidden loot. Need some friends to help you slaughter all those soldiers, and to unlock the last two endings of the game? Well, finding those companion characters will mean killing more, killing faster, and completing additional missions based around killing. One of these missions sees you hacking apart hundreds of child soldiers while listening to the protests of a particular companion (the paedophile).

The important fact is that all of this killing is ultimately pointless. Endings B and C see the world plunged into Armageddon even after the trauma of fighting bastardised versions of Caim’s nearest and dearest. After going to the trouble of finding all the companion characters to unlock ending D, they prove to be too weak-willed or deranged to be of any help – with the exception perhaps of Seere, who is appropriately the most sympathetic of the crooked bunch. But the real gut punch comes in the fifth and final ending, E, for which you must acquire every last one of the game’s 65 weapons.

Ending E branches off of the same part of the narrative as ending D, wherein all your companions but Seere and the dragon have proven worthless in the face giant demon sky babies. It is the most important, and perhaps the most divisive part of the entire experience. Some have accused the unlock condition of this ending of being just a cheap way to lengthen the game, which seems like a strange criticism given that the game is already long enough and developers of that era had no micro-transactions or DLC with which to profit from your extended playtime. More importantly, the extra gameplay unlocked for ending E, the final boss, uses wholly different mechanics from the rest of the game. This is a pet peeve of mine – a thing that the likes of Lost Planet, Dark Void, and the entire Sonic the Hedgehog series are guilty of; its unfair, unfun, disregards everything that the you have learned in the playing the rest of the game, and in doing so, is uniquely appropriate for Drakengard.

The final boss fight takes place in the sky above modern-day Tokyo (don’t ask), which means you’ll be riding the dragon, which means that all of those weapons you grinded for are worthless. What’s more, because the final boss takes the form of a rhythm game (don’t ask), all the offensive and defensive modifiers gained by levelling up the dragon are also worthless. All that is left at your disposal is patience and perseverance – you’ve at least demonstrated those in coming this far. But even if you grit your teeth and overcome what is by all accounts an unreasonable challenge, or if you do what I did and find ending E on YouTube rather than even bother to collect the weapons, then what you’re rewarded with is the annihilation of the two remaining characters by a pair of fighter jets, the implication that the Dragon Sphere is destroyed outright, and a roll of credits over the sounds of city traffic.

Violence Solves Nothing

What happens in each of Drakengard’s endings is, to some extent, Caim’s fault, and the player’s fault; it happens because the only way that Caim knows of interacting with the world is through violence, because the player only came for that violence, and because of these two things, violence was the only means of interaction we were provided. With that approach, Ending A was the best we could have hoped for. With only violence Caim is unable to reconcile with his wayward friend, is unable to attract worthwhile allies, and in being unable to console his sister, is unable to save her and thereby the world, even when doing so is inches from his grasp.

Thus, Drakengard adheres to one the virtues you might expect a protagonist in a typical video game to espouse, but thereafter completely disregard because gameplay: Violence solves nothing.  To put words in the game’s mouth: “What? Did you really think murdering more soldiers, gathering a party of nut jobs, and collecting weapons would make things turn out better? How?”