Drakengard 3 – Finding the Fun

This is the last article in my series exploring the NieR/Drakengard series, and the absolute final one before I break to go and play NieR itself. I was going to roll the mechanical talk into the main narrative article this time because the combat warrants less examination than the previous games, but in the end this information did nothing for the rest of the narrative discussion, so it’s been broken off into its own minor article here.

For the previous games, especially the first, I went into some detail about the particular systems I thought were important, and the unique flow of gameplay they, perhaps unwittingly, encourage. This one’s pretty phoned-in I’m afraid. I’m just gonna give a brief description of what’s changed for this entry before I cut and run.

Gameplay, Briefly

As with its predecessors, Drakengard 3’s gameplay is mostly broken up between third-person action on foot, and some variety of combat from atop your dragon companion. This time around we’ve dropped the ability to summon the dragon, Mikhail, in ground missions in exchange for narrower, more structured missions which sometimes let you call him in for autonomous strafing runs at predefined locations. Primarily, you’ll mount and control Mikhail when taking on Drakengard 3’s more monstrous bosses, where he controls more like a flying character in a third-person action game than the flying mounts of previous games. He’s also used for several rail shooter style sections reminiscent of Panzer Dragoon, which were not present in previous Drakengard games, and in a final boss not dissimilar to Drakengard 1’s. Mikhail’s gameplay doesn’t really bear any closer scrutiny; it’s much simpler than the aerial dogfights of Drakengard 1 or 2, doesn’t feel great, and despite some tough bosses, doesn’t get any more interesting as the game progresses.

Combat on the ground is a big departure from the previous two games: though mired by poor performance, lacking the depth of the combo and orbs system outlined in my previous gameplay-focused articles, and generally pretty ordinary for its time, Drakengard 3 benefits from an increase in pace and player manoeuvrability. With an extremely quick dodge, rapid attacks, improved jumping and aerial attacks, an air dash, and more streamlined weapon switching, Drakengard 3 encourages breakneck hit-and-run gameplay rather than the rhythmic, methodical slashing of Drakengard 1 or 2. Where blocking and countering was emphasised in Drakengard 2, in 3 you have so many better tools for dealing with annoying ranged mobs and shields that I honestly can’t recall whether blocking is even a thing (I checked; it is). You’ll also frequently have to fend off waves of human enemies while fighting huge monsters that charge around like mini-bosses, unseen in previous games.

In harder areas or challenge missions and later levels dodging and weaving to take down enemy mobs and larger monsters was genuinely thrilling, even at the 20-ish fps this technically deficient late PS3 game struggles to maintain. Ground combat is the most straightforward fun that any Drakengard game has yet to offer, despite it’s abysmal performance. It doesn’t really bare the same amount of examination as the other games though, simply because it plays much more like a standard action game of its time – you even have a rage/berserk/devil trigger… ahem, ‘intoner’ mode.

That’s All

I wish I could say more but it’s been over a year since I finished Drakengard 3 at this point, and its combat does so little to be memorable (besides miraculously managing to be vaguely enjoyable at such an abominable framerate) that there’s really nothing more worth my writing or your reading.

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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 – 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.

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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.

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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 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?

 

 

 

 

Fahrenheit – Passion, Practice, and Iteration

This week past brought me the pleasure of completing Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, a short, terrifyingly prescient, and thoroughly enjoyable read. I could write tomes about the work itself – I’m sure others already have – but for what I might contribute you should instead read the novella itself as I nod and smile along. What spurred me to writing today though was not the work itself, but the afterword from its author. The thing I want to discuss is not the text itself, but the action of its creation.

In his afterword, written many years after the novella, Bradbury discusses how Fahrenheit 451 came to be: in leaps and bounds, an accumulation of ideas on similar themes around five short stories written over the course of years, finally brought together, ignited and burned by a spark of passion for nine days. I remember this was touched upon in the foreword, where I marvelled at the idea, knowing from his short stories the quality of writing I was to expect, that this entire book could have been composed in only nine days! But the foreword did not make so clear the extent to which this creation was informed by his previous works and experience – that this was the latest iteration and collation of ideas that had long been brewing.

I have been harried constantly in all aspects of my life by my own ambition and my own perfectionism – always aspiring to create great things, to create big things, always fearing failures, fearing missteps, fearing mediocrity. If I’m to write one thing on the actual content of Fahrenheit today it will be this: that for everything Bradbury feared and guessed correctly that technology would do to isolate us, it has done perhaps as much to connect us. That is to say, in our modern, fibre-optic world, a malcontent and recluse such as myself can say with surety that he is not alone in suffering these specific symptoms.

Here then, I will say stupid things, I will say obvious things such as “practice makes perfect” and “don’t try to run before you can walk”, but I will say them in far too many words, because the human mind is a stupid thing that often fails in understanding when given facts or common sense alone. Bradbury says “I am a passionate, not an intellectual writer”, and I realise, my palm affixed sorely to my forehead, the importance of that passion. The urge to withhold from creation, whether to preserve your reputation or to hold back what you deem your best ideas for fear you cannot do them justice, is an intellectual urge, often directly in conflict with the passion that churned up those ideas in the first place. That passion must be given a space to play, to grow and develop the idea, to graze its knee and bruise its lip and learn its place in the world.

My proposal to follow Bradbury’s example then, is this: Allow that passion to carry you for a spell – to shorter destinations at first than you might aspire to, but destinations none-the-less, not rest-stops. Write short stories, paint thumbnails, sketch studies, make maquettes not masterpieces. Do what you can do now and a little bit more. Then, when your passion has had its play engage your intellectual self: step to the side and look at what you’re done. Let it sink in. Appreciate and criticise it. Share it with the world if you wish, whether you’re proud of it or not.

Perhaps, as I, you fear that an idea, once used, cannot be reclaimed, repackaged and presented anew without mockery, in this fast-moving, all new, all now, modern world; this is proven false time and time again. Though my eyes were shut until a year or so ago I see it now in the works of writers, film-makers, musicians and more; in Bradbury and Tolkien and Carpenter, even in whole production teams and companies – especially in video games. Creators constantly reforge the same blade in the same old flame, each time learning the shape and temper of it, removing something, adding something new, presenting it in a new light informed by all their efforts before. The worst that comes of this is that perhaps the newer work is not so well received by those suffering from exposure to its predecessor, but if successful the work should stand on its own and find some new audience to surprise. Besides, you needn’t worry about that yet if, like I, you will tarry in obscurity for a time before producing anything that would garner much attention. Again, here, the internet is an unfortunately double-edged sword – on the one hand helping a burgeoning creator find their audience, on the other perhaps thrusting them too soon into the spotlight, undressed and clutching armfuls of unripe fruit. The choice of what to do with that fruit, as its gardener, is yours alone.

As I finish writing this, I sit here over a year since beginning the series of articles I promised on the NieR/Drakengard series of video games. I have completed only two of those articles, both concerning the first of five games, and have an extensive draft of the first article concerning the second game lingering somewhere in cyberspace. Those articles are considerably longer and more complicated things than this, and as such require numerous sessions and revisions to complete. I lead a relatively uneventful life and yet, for the reasons here discussed, it hasn’t been easy to find the time, energy, or self-assuredness for that. So given the subject of this post I am pleased to have succeeded in my effort to complete and publish this shorter work in a single, undisturbed sitting, with minimal revision. I hope that somebody finds it an interesting read and not overly flawed, but I make no apologies. Perhaps I’ll find a way to say it again, better, in a few years.

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.

 

 

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?”