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.”