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 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.

pact

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.

 

 

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Year of the… Dragon?

This year’s off to an interesting start: I have a new job (kinda – new company, tech, and projects, but same old faces and spaces), I’ve made a fairly consistent effort to pick up drawing and painting again, completed a short spell on jury duty back in January, I’ve been warming up to start running again in the spring, and now I’m writing here – something I intended to do a month ago.

The way things went at the end of last year left me with a lot of time on my hands. Besides a few job interviews, some scraps of work, brushing up on some technical areas that’d been left at the wayside, and a lot of tabletop roleplaying games, I was finally able to fiddle with a few long-standing ideas for personal projects. Between dabbling in Unity and Unreal I put together a bunch of weird game prototypes and experiments which I’d like to show off and muse upon here – I’ve been intending to since Christmas, but y’know – life.

There are other things I’d like to put into writing too, but writing takes a lot of time for someone as self-concious as me. Still, I’ve had the bug for it lately – strangely I’ve missed all of the essay writing and documentation that comes along with university projects. I think that writing can do a lot to help you put your thoughts in order, to take a step back and think about things more logically, and maybe even cement things in your memory. Moreover, I have a constant glut of ideas in my head – things I want to do and express but don’t have the time or skill to follow up on. It might be worthwhile putting those ideas into writing I suppose, however irregularly I manage it. And I might as well keep that record somewhere public, just in case it peaks someone else’s interests.

But it’s the Year of the Horse!

I’ve also gone off the deep end this year – gone off the deep end for a series of videogames in a way that I think I’ve only done once before. The first time I remember doing this was for Ys, a rather niche series of action/role-playing games by Japanese developer Nihon Falcom Corporation, dating back to the late 80s. After picking up Ys: Origin on Steam sometime in 2012 I struggled my way through its ‘Nightmare’ difficulty three times – once for each playable character. I fell so in love with that game that I proceeded to pick up every previous entry in the series, and a number of vaguely similar Falcom titles; I began with the games that played similarly to Origins – Oath in Felghana and Ark of Napishtim, then Ys I & II Chronicles+, Ys 7, Xanadu: Next, and the latest in the series that I’ve played, Memories of Celceta.

I loved Ys for its unusual mix of platforming, bullet hell, roleplaying, and hack-and-slash gameplay, for its tight controls, hardcore difficulty, and generally firm emphasis of gameplay over graphics and narrative. The characters and story in Ys games is typically cliche, simple, bright, colourful, and all you really need to support great gameplay. Only as I write this I’m remembering how the first gameplay footage I saw from NieR: Automata reminded me of Ys and its strange hybrid of genres – bullet hell, action, platformer, rpg – but that’s one aspect that’s not reflected in the majority of its lineage, the series I’m currently obsessed with.

My Current Obsession: Drakengard

Since Christmas I have played and completed (with some caveats) all three games in the Drakengard series, which likely has garnered a lot of attention of late through its frankly bizarre relation to the successful and brilliant NieR: Automata.

This bears some explanation for those who, like myself, weren’t paying attention until just recently: NieR: Automata released in 2017, developed by renowned Japanese game studio studio Platinum Games,  and is a sequel to the 2010 release NieR, set many thousands of years in the future, ostensibly (I haven’t played NieR yet) following from its Ending E. Likewise, NieR itself was a spin-off or sequel to Ending E of a the original 2003 release, Drakengard, set about a thousand years later on. Multiple ‘endings’ are a staple of the series, and their implementation is one of its most interesting facets. Drakengard saw two other ‘sequels’ in Drakengard 2 (2005) and Drakengard 3 (2013).

Unlike NieR: Automata, NieR and the three Drakengard games were not developed by a studio so respected for their stellar combat systems, and were not, by all accounts, well regarded either technically or from a gameplay perspective, even at the time of their release. Certainly, unlike the Ys series, the gameplay takes a back seat here, and that’s not the only difference. In every NieR and Drakengard game the characters are deeply flawed, damaged, difficult to read, and the story is a dark, complex mess that barely manages to make sense even when its not dabbling in social commentary or well-restrained fourth wall breaking. It’s not even the story necessarily that’s had me so captivated, but rather the manner of its delivery.

Despite all their rough edges (some would say near-unplayability by modern standards) I believe there is a lot worth discussing in these old games – as a game designer, as a storyteller, and as a human. I’ve been taking notes and thinking thoughts as I’ve played, and hope to write some of that chaos up into something palatable in the coming weeks – or perhaps a series of rambling articles like this one.

I still haven’t played Nier, and I’m going to take a break from the series as I ruminate on the journey so far, so it’ll be conspicuously absent from anything I write initially. I had considered continuing to play games focussed on dragons for the rest of the year, hence the title, but quickly realised that there are surprisingly few, and the obvious choices – the likes of Skyrim and Dragon Age – would eat up a lot of my time. I am going to dabble in some other games in the meantime though; I just started up Shadow of the Colossus this weekend, on the PS3, because I live in the past and the PS2 version is too expensive.

There’ll probably also be a conspicuous lack of an article dedicated to NieR: Automata, for a multitude of reasons: Nier: Automata is likely to get plenty of mentions as I cover the other games in the series, and desperately struggle to avoid mentioning any connections which might be considered spoilers for it. I’m happy to discuss the Drakengard series in depth not only because its age and flawed nature will likely prevent many people from experiencing it first-hand anyway, but because I simply don’t think ithat the nteresting parts of the other games is tied to the personal experience in the same way it is with NieR: Automata. It’s entirely possible, however, that I simply played NieR: Automata at a time when I was feeling particularly sentimental, and so was affected by it to a greater extent than is usual, but I know I’m not alone in having strong feelings about that game. And besides, lots of people are already over-hyping NieR: Automata; while I love it, I don’t want to contribute to that. Just go play it, and don’t stop till Ending E.

What a Pitch!

If you’ve dabbled in games development  at all, chances are you’ve come across Game Maker. Depending on the circles you run in you may have heard good or bad things about it – you may even have tried it yourself and formed your own opinion. Personally, like anyone else I ever remember talking to about it, my opinion on Game Maker is largely negative, and while I could see it being viable prototyping tool, I would always prefer to use something like XNA or LWJGL with a simple, ready-implemented framework.

I’ve also seen many a terrible Mario clone and other poor Game Maker game – probably a result of the application’s ease of use making it attractive to young or unskilled creatives. But I’m not spending my time typing this just to beat a dead horse, no. I’m here to introduce you to a shining example of what any tool can produce in the right hands.

Hyper Princess Pitch Review
Daughter of the Goddess of Explosions, cannon in hand and an unending supply of explosive bricks as ammunition, Pitch sets off to the North Pole with her flying, legless companion Cat Strike to give the good Mecha Santa and his robotic elves what for. What for? For not giving her any presents, that’s what.

Hyper Princess Pitch is a top-down arcade shoot-em-up in the vein of Smash TV and Operation Carnage, created by Daniel Remar and distributed for free alongside his other work, including Iji, and the fantastic Hero Core. It, like most of his games, was created using Game Maker, but you’ll see no shabby handiwork here.

As you probably guessed a paragraph ago (unless you’re skip-reading) the setting, and general wackiness of the characters play a big part in making the game so entertaining. Pitch is a likable anti-hero – even if her motivation is somewhat disagreeable – and her mother, who resides in a secret place, is an absolute riot. Pitch makes vocal remarks during gameplay of just the right frequency and variety to be entertaining rather than annoying, while her mother… uh – things explode when she talks. Mecha Santa is also pretty rad.

The graphics portray everything aptly with a bright, pixely style and no visible flaws. They’re not ground breaking by any means but they’re certainly attractive, and never bland. Explosions are very nicely drawn and animated, which is good since they’re a central feature. I don’t think I really want to play a game ever again unless re-spawning after death causes an explosion. There are rainbows, sparks, varied projectiles, colourful props and different tile-sets per level. Overall there’s a lot going on; over-the-top is the name of the game, but it never seems out-of-place

Enemies are also colourful, varied, and a little more creative than might be expected from a Christmas-themed game: shiny baubles, trains, UFOs, gun-turrets, tanks, sleds and insane, metal doppelgangers to name but a few. In some rooms you are assaulted by swarms of elves, while others contain only three or four larger enemies. Bosses are especially impressive; they’re the standard, room-filling fare, but their attack patterns are well-refined, inventive, and very interesting – more-so when final attacks are enabled for the hardest two difficulty settings. The third boss – whatever the hell it is – makes good use of the environment, advancing on you constantly and occasionally blasting the central platform with a massive laser, forcing you onto the sidelines.

That is, unless you make use of a special trick. Pitch may be all for explosions and general, long-ranged carnage, but she’s not above wrestling moves when the situation calls for them. Your main arsenal consists of an explosive-brick machine-gun, an ice-thrower (which also destroys yellow projectiles), and a slow-firing gun that fires little, bouncing bits of rainbow. These are all useful under different circumstances, but if you get in a pinch you can also hit up-down-left-right or up-down-right-left quickly to execute a block. Projectiles that hit you during a block won’t hurt, but large enemies will. Interestingly though, if a smaller enemy touches you, you’ll execute a pile-driver on it, culminating in a powerful explosion when you and your foe impact the ground. Various power-ups will aid you along the way, including obvious candidates such as power, triple and speed, hyper, and the super-rare x, y,z power-ups. Some of these override your main weapon completely, while others differ based on what weapon you have equipped. All of this can lead to a very tactical form of play, or just a whole lot of awesome-looking fun.

At this point I’d like to say that Pitch even controls well, but that’d be pushing it. Instead I’ll emphasize that she doesn’t control badly. You move her using the arrow keys on your keyboard, fire with x and cycle weapons with z. Your weapons fire in the direction you last walked in, but by switching direction while firing you can continue to fire while back-pedaling or side-stepping. This is a bit strange at first, but something I’m familiar with from some older games (don’t ask me to name any). Although it takes a while, this actually feels quite natural once you get used to it, but I still haven’t gotten the hang of the key combination for a pile-driver. Up-down-left-right, up-down-left-right. I actually like the fact that it’s difficult to execute this powerful move, but it is endlessly frustrating when you fail, especially since you have to be right next to enemies already in order for it to be effective. Wielding a hyper power-up actually enables you to perform a pile-driver at the touch of a button, but it isn’t often useful once you have a golden bricks or a rainbow laser.

Actually, that’s my only minor gripe with Hyper Princess Pitch, and it hasn’t hindered my enjoyment of the game past the first five minutes or so. There’s enough variety, challenge, humour and content here to keep you busy for quite a long time, and it’s all delivered for free, not even requiring an installation. Level design is solid, and non-linear, as you usually have two doors to choose from at the end of each room. The difficulty curve is perfect, and the game comes with a large selection of difficulty settings, each of which unlocks a new pro tip upon completion. I can almost complete the last regular difficulty setting, and I’ll probably still draw enjoyment from the game until I can complete it fully. There is a hidden difficulty setting harder than that, but you need to have some pretty l337 skills to even get through the front door.

I highly recommend Hyper Princess Pitch. It’s hard not to recommend free games, I know, but if you remember Smash TV, enjoy retro arcade shoot-em-ups, or just want to cause a lot of cool explosions without any complicated premise, you should check this out. If you want a simple, challenging arcade experience, and have fond memories of limited lives and real GAME OVERs, you have to check this out.