Drakengard 3 – Virtue in Violence

This is the fifth – fifth! article in my series exploring the NieR/Drakengard series, and perhaps the penultimate one before I break to go and play NieR itself. I was going to roll the narrative and mechanical talk into one this time around, because I think the combat warrants less examination than the previous games, but in the end that section did nothing for the rest of the discussion here, so I’ll defer that for it’s own, very short article later. There’s a decent amount to say about the narrative though, especially as it compares to that of the original game previously explored in article one.

Taken As a Whole

“Carnage has never looked so beautiful”. That’s the text on the back of Drakengard 3’s box. The image over which that text is superimposed is more akin to realtime graphics just reaching the market today than to anything you might reasonably expect from Unreal Engine 3 in 2013. Drakengard 3 certainly has some aesthetic merit but as a late PS3 title its graphics, from a technical perspective, could hardly be called state of the art. Character designs are sharp, with bright colours accenting the game’s predominantly low saturation – they look pretty good even during in-engine cutscenes, but the detail is scaled back a lot during gameplay, and the environments are muddy and sparse.

This is all to say: why does a PlayStation exclusive title with dated graphics, released at the end of the PS3’s console generation, in an established game engine, struggle to run at even 20 frames per second? The performance of Drakengard 3 on the only platform upon which it was ever released is so poor that a modern PC can almost run it as well through an emulator! It runs so poorly that I’m almost surprised it was even released.

So like every game in the series before it there are significant obstacles in the way of enjoying Drakengard 3. Those obstacles again extend beyond it’s graphics and technical aspects, but fortunately the combat shouldn’t be one of them: basic gameplay is probably the most easily enjoyable action, least drawn-out and repetitive of any Drakengard game, though the performance means that it is often somehow less pleasant to play.

We have a whole new cast of characters for this game, including our protagonist Zero, the first of the female ‘Intoners’, who are revered almost like gods, the dragon Mikhail, Zero’s four perverted party members gathered over the course of the game, and her five numerically-named sisters, who she is trying to murder. These all get a bit more screen time and personality than previous games might have afforded them, including some fun fireside banter. The script is full of crass humour which may irritate or delight you, but the outcome in any case is, I think, a more intimate feeling narrative.

Drakengard 3 also saw the return of director Yoko Taro to the helm, so the narrative and general content of the game is of the unorthodox variety the original is infamous for, rather than the tamer, traditional JRPG style of Drakengard 2. I can’t speak for everyone, but I certainly didn’t go in hoping for a ‘traditional’ game, and I wasn’t disappointed. The third Drakengard game, technically the fourth in the series, wraps a thematically nuanced narrative in an unusual branching structure much like the first game, if less cohesive.

Design Differences

For all the differences, despite the dragons and dragon-riding, a casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that Drakengard 1 and 3 were from completely different game series, which I suppose isn’t all that unusual for sequels spread over such a wide time-span. Putting aside the differences in gameplay, enemy variety, level design, and the fact that there are no returning characters, the game simply has a different vibe.

While Drakengard maintained a grim-dark, low-magic fantasy, almost Berserk-like quality, with simple monstrous enemies like goblins and ogres, only eventually opening up to hellish monstrosities and esoteric goings on near the end, the third entry steers even further towards what might be considered ‘anime’ style than even Drakengard 2 did, while retaining the dark heart of the original. Character designs are cleaner, sexier, less grounded – environments likewise. More outlandish monsters like the shadow-headed Titans and neon Cerberus are common.  The result is more reminicent of NieR: Automata than of Drakengard, as is the new OST by Keiichi Okabe and some of the humorous elements we’ll explore shortly.

There are certainly callbacks to the first game though: the clothing of Zero’s sister One, and another character introduced at Ending A, is very similar to that worn by Manah in the first game – especially the headband. Further, the way in which that clothing is prominently stained red during a cutscene is surely a callback to the way Furiae’s blood saturates her clothing upon her death in Drakengard. The design of the Mikhail also carries that distinctive Drakengard flare: overlarge horns, hind legs, and tail. Then there’s the ruined cities, which are far more overt and lavishly rendered than in the first game, though that tends to lift it even further from the traditional fantasy aesthetic. They’re not the only weirdly anachronistic thing in the game though, as cutscenes repeatedly expose us to the android  recorder Accord. There’s also a final boss very reminiscent visually and mechanically to that of the original game, again played out in greyscale. More on that later.

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Questionable Content

Direct humour, though not found in previous Drakengard games, could be considered the backbone of its third entry, and its crass comedy may carry you through its less enjoyable aspects, or may be further off-putting. The writing and directing here is often absurdist and every kind of colourful you could desire or detest: sweary, shocking, violent, gory, lewd, dumb, anachronistic, and fourth-wall-breaking. This is established as early as Zero’s introduction when she violently murders the narrator of the opening cutscene. Gameplay and cutscene alike revel in bloodshed; some of the funniest moments come from Zero’s ruthless slaughter of her sisters as we cut-away from the violence to a cutesy ‘stand by’ screen, or fake-out such a cliche plot device as a split-personality only to get close enough for the killing blow.

Speaking of  personality, Zero has a cold, ‘over it’ vibe that I found very endearing – though others might hate it. With total contempt for traditional narratives she crushes the faerie king to death in her palm rather than deal with his capricious nonsense.  In one gameplay sequence the ‘gargoyle cubes’ seen in previous games are used for mock puzzles. When the first one is ‘solved’ a very arcadey sound effect plays, followed by a fanfare, and then XP is awarded to which Zero, dryly, perfectly voice-acted, comments “Why the hell do I get experience for that?”. A few rooms later on, in response to another character’s dialogue during a ‘puzzle’, she groans “Oh, what the sweet crispy fuck is that”. I laughed at that for a week, but I had to pause to think on how much of that was owed to localisation. YouTuber ValkyrieAurora, who has created numerous videos examining this series, has a video all about how localisation affects Zero’s percived personality, which I’ll let you go watch if you’re interested – for our purposes suffice it to say that much of what is discussed here may have been altered in translation.

Perhaps the most surprising  aspect of Drakengard 3’s writing and humour is all the overt references to sex, which is quite unusual for a video game. You’re going to hear constant sex talk in campfire conversation – sexuality is a defining personality trait for most characters, they love to talk about their genitals and what they’d like to do to each other or have done to themselves. I’m not actually sure if there’s any point to this, but it comes off exactly as weird and inappropriate, funny by dint of its absurdity, as I expect it is intended to, and maybe that’s enough. The hordes of enemy soldiers Zero murders  her way through also constantly comment about how one woman couldn’t possibly kill all of them, alone, or how hot she might be if she weren’t trying to kill them, which actually feels exactly like the kind of cultural commentary I’d expect from Yoko Taro.

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Is This Branching?

Having played four of the five games in this series I’m still convinced that the first did it best, laying down a near-perfect template for a branching narrative. I want to say that Drakengard 3 handles it better than the second game in the series, and worse than the first in perhaps every regard other than the polish in its presentation, but to be truthful I don’t even know if it’s correct to describe it as ‘branching’ so much as uhm… ‘confusing, actually.

The original Drakengard’s narrative was sparse, and Drakengard 3, for better or for worse, is more compellingly presented, and more complex. The game this time plays out completely linearly, with leaping back to explore timelines branching from previous missions handled automatically when you reach certain points – usually endings, starting with Ending A. At Ending A, we learn that Zero is not trying to kill her sisters out of spite or malice – though she may attempt to keep up that pretence – but in an effort to remove all intoners from the world, including herself. It would seem that she has succeeded, but apparently this isn’t good enough for the android recorder Accord (though she never says why) so we move on to branch B.

Accord interrupts to take care of branch transitions in cutscenes where we usually see a very tightly zoomed-in diagram of the narrative branches while she dictates notes and findings professionally. It’s never quite clear from the visual or auditory information when you’re going back to, and this only gets more confusing when you transition to a much earlier point in Zero’s journey only to discover that some characters who shouldn’t have been encountered yet are already hanging around the campfire discussing their dicks, or sometimes discussing events that shouldn’t have happened yet. Is this a quirk of Accord’s meddling, or is the implication that we’re already part way along a branch that diverged much earlier?

With control taken out of the player’s hands, endings and jumps to other timelines feel sporadic. Changes to the narrative along each branch are more significant and complex than those seen in the original game, and its never clear what the reason is for these changes – eventualities feel disconnected, and less interesting as a result. Worse still, the biggest revelations for the player in experiencing these alternative timelines are not inferred by observing the differences in the final outcome as they were in the original game, but from whatever exposition the game chooses to deliver on the lead up to each ending. In the tangled mess between Ending A and the final ending, D, we learn more about Zero, about the flower that occupies her right eye socket which grows a copy of her when she dies, and about the origin of the intoners, but all of this comes about through exposition in dialogue rather than through player observation and inference. By the end it’s nowhere near as clear as in the first game why any of this branch-hopping has mattered.

It is interesting at least that through Accord the exploration of different timelines is tied into the game world; I’ve been told that time travel is explored in some sense in NieR too, so perhaps this makes a bit more sense if you’re familiar with this game’s most contemporary entry in the series. It could be assumed that she were merely a figure in the future observing events of the past, except for two facts: First, she directly interacts with Zero and interferes with events, and second, at one point Zero says to her “Tell the Old World I said hi”, suggesting a connection between the androids and the ruined cities. I suppose it makes more sense that people from the past might be capable of observing and interfering with possible futures, than that people from the future might be capable of interfering with alternative pasts.

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Ending Exposition

On the lead-up to Ending D we learn that Zero died at some point in her past – presumably she was human until then – and awoke infected with the flower which occupies her right eye socket. She believes, for unstated reasons, that the flower will feed off of her and grow until it consumes the world. Her attempts to free herself of it spawned her sisters – clones which, like herself, she considers nothing more than walking corpses. These intoners wield magic belonging to the flower. Zero believes that she must eliminate all of the intoners in order to eliminate the flower, and to do so requires the power of a dragon – either an actual dragon or a weapon made from one. This all makes sense, and is easily enough followed. It lends emotional weight to the final chapters as Zero fights through the flower-twisted remnants of her ‘sisters’, and relates her final wishes to Mikhail: That he must finish what she started once she is the last intoner standing.

So it is a bit of a shock when at Ending D, upon once-again defeating One and following a teary parting with Mikhail, we cut to an overhead view of the ruined city, where an enormous white flower blooms, and from its centre comes a the giant white body of Zero. This is the final boss, and in many ways a re-take of the first game’s: aesthetically similar though far more polished, and again a rhythm game. I actually really love the visuals here, and the music accompanying it this time is incredible – it’s a haunting, dramatic experience, which feels esoteric and meaningful even if it’s difficult to understand why it’s happening. My best guess is that it’s the flower’s last line of defence – it’s final attempt to defend itself when all its hosts are dead and it faces the immediate threat of a dragon.

The ‘fight’ itself is around eight minutes long, during which there are five musical changeups where each of Zero’s intoner sisters emerge from the petals of the flower. The camera performs numerous tricks to obscure your view of incoming notes during this time, which you cannot miss a single one of. I don’t know if the camera’s tricks here are just Yoko Taro screwing with the player; my best explanation might be that it’s an attempt to emphasise the struggle that Mikhail now faces going up against six intoners, for the first time lacking the support of Zero. The final two notes come in after the screen fades to black, as the final heartbreaking lines of dialogue between Zero and Mikhail play before he seals away the intoners and the flower.

Meaning in Madness

Accessing this final branch requires that you gather all the weapons in the game even though they are of no worth whatsoever during final boss. I was almost inclined to suggest that this is a better presentation of the lesson taught in the first game – that violence solves nothing – if only because the acquisition of those weapons is a far more reasonable prospect in Drakengard 3, and actually entertaining to do: You get them mostly by doing challenge missions this time around, which is where I really learned to use the combat system to its fullest, and enjoyed doing so quite a lot. The rest of the game doesn’t at all support that lesson, however, most notably because you can use those weapons for the chapters of branch D which precede the final boss itself, leaving me mostly confused and far less certain about my interpretation of this game than I was with the original.

To try and explain the possible meaning behind all this, I’ll be referring again to the words of Yoko Taro himself, from the same video as the words which I quoted in my article on the first game, and closely following them.

It’s not really clear whether Ending D is a ‘good’ ending. Certainly it’s not a bad ending – Zero achieves her goal in the end, makes a noble sacrifice after doing horrific things, and the world is saved. This would seem to suggest that violence, even in the extreme case of Zero’s slaughter of her own kin and thousands besides, can indeed be a solution to your problems, which is in direct opposition to the first game’s lesson. Enter Yoko Taro:

“After the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the war in Iraq, we were being bombarded with updates on terrorist organizations and activities. The vibe I was getting from society was: you don’t have to be insane to kill someone. You just have to think you’re right. So that’s why I made Nier a game revolving around this concept of ‘being able to kill others if you think you’re right'”.

This aligns perfectly with the portrayal of Zero in Drakengard 3: Not insane, though certainly very cold-hearted, she fights with a single goal in mind which most people would agree was worthwhile. Perhaps this is why she is allowed to succeed where Caim failed – because Caim was more interested in the violence enabled by his goal, whereas to Zero the violence is a means to an end – or perhaps this merely reflects the change in Yoko Taro’s perspective on violence.

It could be said that it is a good end for the world at large, but not for those involved with the violence – even for Mikhail who is left all alone in the world, and probably traumatised by his part in all this. Perhaps that is the cost of fighting and killing for what you think is right: Violence is a solution with a price attached.

I might also suggest that there is some symbolism in the requirement of the final hurdle: that you cast away your weapons before the passing of the torch to the next generation, the young Mikhail, and leave the world in peace. I could – I might be reaching, but again, Yoko Taro:

“That’s really just how I personally felt. I truly believe that games are a medium that allows the player to find their own answers to these questions. The thoughts and beliefs of the game creators are separate and often quite vague.”

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?

 

 

 

 

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?”

Year of the… Dragon?

This year’s off to an interesting start: I have a new job (kinda – new company, tech, and projects, but same old faces and spaces), I’ve made a fairly consistent effort to pick up drawing and painting again, completed a short spell on jury duty back in January, I’ve been warming up to start running again in the spring, and now I’m writing here – something I intended to do a month ago.

The way things went at the end of last year left me with a lot of time on my hands. Besides a few job interviews, some scraps of work, brushing up on some technical areas that’d been left at the wayside, and a lot of tabletop roleplaying games, I was finally able to fiddle with a few long-standing ideas for personal projects. Between dabbling in Unity and Unreal I put together a bunch of weird game prototypes and experiments which I’d like to show off and muse upon here – I’ve been intending to since Christmas, but y’know – life.

There are other things I’d like to put into writing too, but writing takes a lot of time for someone as self-concious as me. Still, I’ve had the bug for it lately – strangely I’ve missed all of the essay writing and documentation that comes along with university projects. I think that writing can do a lot to help you put your thoughts in order, to take a step back and think about things more logically, and maybe even cement things in your memory. Moreover, I have a constant glut of ideas in my head – things I want to do and express but don’t have the time or skill to follow up on. It might be worthwhile putting those ideas into writing I suppose, however irregularly I manage it. And I might as well keep that record somewhere public, just in case it peaks someone else’s interests.

But it’s the Year of the Horse!

I’ve also gone off the deep end this year – gone off the deep end for a series of videogames in a way that I think I’ve only done once before. The first time I remember doing this was for Ys, a rather niche series of action/role-playing games by Japanese developer Nihon Falcom Corporation, dating back to the late 80s. After picking up Ys: Origin on Steam sometime in 2012 I struggled my way through its ‘Nightmare’ difficulty three times – once for each playable character. I fell so in love with that game that I proceeded to pick up every previous entry in the series, and a number of vaguely similar Falcom titles; I began with the games that played similarly to Origins – Oath in Felghana and Ark of Napishtim, then Ys I & II Chronicles+, Ys 7, Xanadu: Next, and the latest in the series that I’ve played, Memories of Celceta.

I loved Ys for its unusual mix of platforming, bullet hell, roleplaying, and hack-and-slash gameplay, for its tight controls, hardcore difficulty, and generally firm emphasis of gameplay over graphics and narrative. The characters and story in Ys games is typically cliche, simple, bright, colourful, and all you really need to support great gameplay. Only as I write this I’m remembering how the first gameplay footage I saw from NieR: Automata reminded me of Ys and its strange hybrid of genres – bullet hell, action, platformer, rpg – but that’s one aspect that’s not reflected in the majority of its lineage, the series I’m currently obsessed with.

My Current Obsession: Drakengard

Since Christmas I have played and completed (with some caveats) all three games in the Drakengard series, which likely has garnered a lot of attention of late through its frankly bizarre relation to the successful and brilliant NieR: Automata.

This bears some explanation for those who, like myself, weren’t paying attention until just recently: NieR: Automata released in 2017, developed by renowned Japanese game studio studio Platinum Games,  and is a sequel to the 2010 release NieR, set many thousands of years in the future, ostensibly (I haven’t played NieR yet) following from its Ending E. Likewise, NieR itself was a spin-off or sequel to Ending E of a the original 2003 release, Drakengard, set about a thousand years later on. Multiple ‘endings’ are a staple of the series, and their implementation is one of its most interesting facets. Drakengard saw two other ‘sequels’ in Drakengard 2 (2005) and Drakengard 3 (2013).

Unlike NieR: Automata, NieR and the three Drakengard games were not developed by a studio so respected for their stellar combat systems, and were not, by all accounts, well regarded either technically or from a gameplay perspective, even at the time of their release. Certainly, unlike the Ys series, the gameplay takes a back seat here, and that’s not the only difference. In every NieR and Drakengard game the characters are deeply flawed, damaged, difficult to read, and the story is a dark, complex mess that barely manages to make sense even when its not dabbling in social commentary or well-restrained fourth wall breaking. It’s not even the story necessarily that’s had me so captivated, but rather the manner of its delivery.

Despite all their rough edges (some would say near-unplayability by modern standards) I believe there is a lot worth discussing in these old games – as a game designer, as a storyteller, and as a human. I’ve been taking notes and thinking thoughts as I’ve played, and hope to write some of that chaos up into something palatable in the coming weeks – or perhaps a series of rambling articles like this one.

I still haven’t played Nier, and I’m going to take a break from the series as I ruminate on the journey so far, so it’ll be conspicuously absent from anything I write initially. I had considered continuing to play games focussed on dragons for the rest of the year, hence the title, but quickly realised that there are surprisingly few, and the obvious choices – the likes of Skyrim and Dragon Age – would eat up a lot of my time. I am going to dabble in some other games in the meantime though; I just started up Shadow of the Colossus this weekend, on the PS3, because I live in the past and the PS2 version is too expensive.

There’ll probably also be a conspicuous lack of an article dedicated to NieR: Automata, for a multitude of reasons: Nier: Automata is likely to get plenty of mentions as I cover the other games in the series, and desperately struggle to avoid mentioning any connections which might be considered spoilers for it. I’m happy to discuss the Drakengard series in depth not only because its age and flawed nature will likely prevent many people from experiencing it first-hand anyway, but because I simply don’t think ithat the nteresting parts of the other games is tied to the personal experience in the same way it is with NieR: Automata. It’s entirely possible, however, that I simply played NieR: Automata at a time when I was feeling particularly sentimental, and so was affected by it to a greater extent than is usual, but I know I’m not alone in having strong feelings about that game. And besides, lots of people are already over-hyping NieR: Automata; while I love it, I don’t want to contribute to that. Just go play it, and don’t stop till Ending E.