Drakengard 2 – Finding the Fun

Alright, let’s ditch the copy-paste introduction the previous three entries in this series have had. This is the fourth of the NieR/Drakengard series in which I’m exploring the narrative and mechanics of each game in turn. Following on from my examination of Drakengard 2’s narrative, I’m now going to take a look at it’s gameplay, as I did for the first game in article two.

As with the narrative, there’s probably less to say about Drakengard 2 than its predecessor; for the most part the combat and combo counter mechanics feel similar, but there are some significant differences in the way that weapons, attacks, and companion characters work, as well as changes to the handling of your dragon mount, and an overhaul of ‘strafe mode’. I’ll be referencing article two heavily in this to contrast and compare, so if you haven’t read that it might be worth a skim – it’s probably going to be the better of the two anyway.

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

A Game of… Two-ish Modes

As with the first, Drakengard 2 is primarily a hack-and-slash game reminiscent of the Dynasty Warriors series, though for this outing the scale of things is more frequently paired down to smaller-scale dungeon delving and duking it out with tankier enemies. Of course the dragon mount remains as the series gameplay gimmick as well.

This time around your dragon, Legna, controls almost identically in ground missions to aerial missions, allowing you to freely fly up and down rather than maintain a fixed height over the battlefield as we saw in the first game. He also has a hover button to allow him to hold position while dishing out damage, and ‘Dragon Overdrive’, which takes the place of Angelus’s magic meteor shower attack, but largely his purpose is the same as hers was: quick escapes, transportation, and dishing out heavy damage to vulnerable enemies.

Other changes to ground and aerial combat bear closer inspection, as does another late-game mechanical development. I won’t get too in-depth this time about certain aspects of gameplay already explored, but I will say that there’s probably a lot more to the mechanics here on the surface level, compared to the first game.

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Aerial Combat Changes

Let’s address aerial combat first, since there’s the least worth saying about it; there are two significant changes to aerial combat:

The first is the addition of ‘breath spheres’. These are glowing orbs of various colours dropped randomly by enemies killed with unguided fireballs. Their colour can be changed by additional fireball shots, which has a nice arcade feel to it, and each has an associated magic ability it can be expended in order to cast. It’s a good enough system but a little too awkward and situational for my preferences, most notably because you can only carry one type of orb at a time. There’s not a lot else to say about it.

The second is a general increase to your dragon’s speed and manoeuvrability: accelerating either forward or by strafing applies a much greater amount of momentum to your dragon than in the previous game, causing him to ‘drift’ when you steer. At first this felt very weird and nonsensical, but in later missions drifting becomes an almost necessary technique for avoiding enemy fire while making attack runs, and I grew to really enjoy it.

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Ground Combat Changes

While ground combat in Drakengard 2 has seen a great number of changes, it does retain the same feeling by and large – if perhaps somewhat slower and more methodical. This is most noticeable in the use of blocking and dodging; where dodging was more of a repositioning tool in Drakengard, and blocking only really useful for deflecting ranged attacks, here we frequently encounter smaller groups of enemies including some with sluggishly telegraphed attacks and heavy shields that encourage the use of counter attacks and more a more defensive approach. This is a change for the better in my opinion, breaking up the monotony of whirring blades that otherwise carries over from the first game, since the rest of the changes are more straightforward extensions of the existing mechanics.

Weapons level up as before, based on their total number of enemies slain, but rather than simply improving the magic attack performed by the weapon, each level unlocks an extra notch on your magic bar to which magic can be charged by holding the button, adding some welcome nuance to its application

Finishing blows make a return, but this time each is triggered automatically at the end of a two-button attack sequence.  Each weapon has several different attack sequences which are unlocked as it is levelled up, rather than a single one-button string that we can exit into a finishing blow by pressing the magic button at particular intervals. This means that for any one given weapon you have a number of different finishing blows at your disposal, but you must choose at the start of the attack sequence which you want to use. Helpfully, the game has categorised finishing blows and given them icons this time around, so we have: Unblockable, Linear Sweep, Heavy Damage, and Ground Sweep finishing blows.

Honestly, I’m not certain how I feel about this – it’s good in theory, adding some variety and harried decision making to combat. However, the fact that each weapon has only a small subset of its type’s attack sequences available without any apparent rhyme or reason leaves me constantly interrupting gameplay to remind myself which ones the weapon I’m wielding has. In the first game I could just rely on the intuitive flashes during my single-button chain – in retrospect, quite a clever piece of design.

2Combinations

Additionally, the companion character system from the first game has been overhauled and merged with weapon switching – it sounds bizarre but I think it’s for the best. Rather than working like a limited-use, timed super mode, each companion character in your party is now assigned a unique weapon category. Switching to a weapon of their category during a mission will swap Nowe for the appropriate character, who has their own health and mana pool.

Finally, weapon types or characters (depending on how you want to look at it) now have distinct strengths and weaknesses against different enemy types – Manah’s rod is strong against magic users, for example, while Eris’s spear is strong against undead, and Urick’s axe against monsters. This can be a pain in the arse, but no more so than the general tedium of the original game. I think that applies to all of these changes really: a little rough around the edges, but at least you have a significant amount more to think about now.

Combos Today

Notice that I have deliberately avoided using the common language ‘combo’ to refer to attack sequences performed by alternating patterns of button presses. This is because the combo system from the first game makes a triumphant return, where a ‘combo’ or ‘chain’ means landing successive attacks, and scoring high numbers of hits causes glowing orbs to drop from your enemies. The numbers of hits at which orbs drop may be different from the first game – the first orb is higher if I remember rightly – but the principle is largely the same, and it works just as well here as it did in the first game. You’ll get mana orbs, health orbs, xp orbs, and more, including orbs that boost your attack speed if you get a really high chain.

This time around there are a few more things you can exploit to score high combos more easily, unlike the first game where you had to rely almost entirely on pulling enemy groups and using ranged finishing blows to bridge gaps. By utilising the new companion system you can deliberately switch to a character whose weapon does less damage to the enemies you’re facing, thereby increasing the number of hits an individual punching-bag can contribute to your chain before perishing. Alternatively, you can just switch to Urick, whose fast and weak – though also short-ranged – attacks make getting high combos a bit of a joke.

Level design is a bit more interesting and varied in this entry anyway, so you’ll less often find yourself mopping up bland fields of enemy mooks, trying to make your own fun by pulling them into groups and racking up big combos. That said, I do have fond strong and pleasant memories of my excitement at having racked up enormous combos in later missions, only to be rewarded with a boost in attack speed that let me keep pushing that number higher!

You can also purchase, carry, and use a stock of healing items in Drakengard 2, so the need for working up that combo is diminished. It’s almost a shame – I think the use of that combo system has real legs and could be emphasised to great effect, but I’m not going to pretend that it was deliberately or at all well implemented in the first game, so I won’t lament its de-emphasis here.

2Chain

Bosses

Finally, we can talk about bosses: We get proper boss battles this time around spaced fairly evenly throughout the game. They’re mostly forgettable, but more enjoyable than the original game’s repeated, frantic aerial dragon fights, or that one with Manah. One of them uses a combination of on-foot and flying gameplay, which is pretty cool. One of them is a surprisingly creepy and character-driven callback to the first game. Then there’s Caim, who was fun, but only really noteworthy for being Caim.

I talked at length in the first article of the series about the severe mechanical shift made for the final boss – something I like to call ‘Sonic Heroes Syndrome’ since that’s the first game I noticed it in, but have since seen in the likes of Lost Planet, Dark Void, and even pre-final boss in Final Fantasy XV and the original Devil May Cry! Drakengard 1, 3, and NieR: Automata remain the only examples I’ve seen that stick the landing on this, by at least being deliberate and meaningful, though not necessarily fair or enjoyable.

Whether in an attempt to ape the first game, or just by misguided design, Drakengard 2 also does this, and in a much more typical manner than its predecessor: there’s an aerial boss fight where you play as Nowe, but rather than riding Legna you sprout wings and wield a magic sword. The controls are sloppy, you aren’t familiar with them, it’s hard to tell where you are, it’s generally more difficult and more frustrating than it should be. In fact everything I’ve said in this paragraph could be repurposed to talk about cases of Sonic Heroes Syndrome in the games mentioned above, with the exception of those from the NieR/Drakengard series – for some reason it always seems that the protagonist is given a big power boost only to be thrown into an aerial fight, the mechanics of which have clearly been rushed and given not a fraction of the love and attention needed. The thing is, because it’s so drastically different from the rest of the game, often done for big, cinematic reasons, and usually at or near the end of the game, it sticks in your memory and etches a particular response whenever your mind wanders across that part of the record:

Sigh

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Your Mileage

So little of importance is there to say about Drakengard 2 in my opinion, that I’m actually writing this section before the majority of the article. If you’re a casual gamer in 2019 – even if you really enjoyed the most recent entry in this series, NieR: Automata – there’s really not very much to see here. As a generic Japanese action rpg it’s a fairly solid package – significantly more polished and accessible than its predecessor – so if you have a soft spot for that kind of thing you might enjoy it. But even for lovers of the NieR/Drakengard series trying to squeeze as much as they can out of it, the most likely draws would be a perverse preoccupation with the combat style shared by this and the first game, or the few faithful call-backs to the first game’s narrative which I previously explored.

Drakengard – Finding the Fun

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

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

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

A Game of Three Modes

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

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

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

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

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

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Weapons And What They’re Worth

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

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

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

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Combos Are Everything

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

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

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

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

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

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Questionable Comparisons

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

The Dark Souls comparison comes not just 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.

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Your Mileage

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

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