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.


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.


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.


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.”


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?”