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.
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.
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.
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 from 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.
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.