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.
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.
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.
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?