If combining Dynasty Warriors combat and the high powered flying majesty of dragons as found in Panzer Dragoon sounds interesting, Cavia’s Drakengard might be what you are looking for.
Drakengard was flown and fought on foot with the PS2.
Revenge is a Dish Best Served Burnt
In a world of swords and sorcery, dragons live. Legends say that four great Seals keep the world in check, although legends also say that when the Seals are broken the Seeds of Resurrection will fall on the land. One of those Seals is the Goddess…a normal girl who has been tasked to carry this burden. Unfortunately for her, there are others that want to see her dead.
Two powers, the Union and the Empire, are locked in a war. The Union seeks to protect the Goddess while the Empire wishes to seize her in order to bring the Seeds to the world. Caim, brother to the Goddess and prince-soldier in the Union, finds himself on the losing end of a battle to defend her and stumbles into the castle to where she is held to find a dragon pinned to the ground by the Empire.
Both bleeding and dying from wounds, they make a pact. Pacts with certain powerful beasts in the world of Drakengard bind the two together and grant both incredible power but at a terrible price. In Caim’s case, he loses his voice as both he and the dragon make a desperate pact, one that will give both the strength to seek revenge on their enemies. Caim will lay waste to them on both the ground and the sky as he pursues the Empire’s forces across the face of his world.
Dynasty Warriors + Panzer Dragoon = Button Mashing
The flow of the game itself is divided into several chapters, further subdivided into small ‘verses’ which are the actual missions. The story is told through the use of in-game cinematics as well as fully rendered ones as you progress through the game. This kind of styling is found throughout the title, giving it the impression of an epic story that is filled with the kind trappings that you would expect out from a Square-Enix backed title.
Drakengard attempts to outdo its rival by allowing the player to fight on the ground as Caim. While Panzer did on foot stuff in Saga, it was more around an RPG kind of setting in talking to others and basically exploring certain areas. Here, Caim gets to flex his steel against hundreds of enemies on the field of battle. Once you make your pact with the dragon in the game, you will also be able to fly through the skies and engage everything from flying fortresses to evil matryoshka-like statues that open up to reveal something else inside of them that wants to bring the pain.
The controls were pretty straightforward in both flying and on foot modes. On foot, the left analog stick is used to move Caim around and the square button allows him to swing whatever weapon he’s using. You can even unleash different magic attacks depending on what you’re armed with, summoning poisonous fields of death or rays of light that obliterate everything onscreen. There are over sixty or so weapons that can be discovered during play. Once you add them to your ‘weapon wheel’, a sort of inventory for your tools, you can equip them on the fly while fighting. Your weapons can also ‘level up’ to a max level of four depending on how many hapless soldiers you kill with them. While Caim earns extra HP when he levels, your weapons increase in damage and how potent their magic is as well as how long your combos can be when you mash your button.
Combos are really chained hits. The more that you can string together by simply hitting enemies, the better goodies that may drop from enemies such as healing and even explosive magics. Even though you may have powerful weapons, sometimes it’s good to use a weaker one if only to string together combos in order to get much needed healing. This adds a bit of tactical flavor to the otherwise bland combat engine. Don’t expect to pull off cool moves the kind seen in Koei’s Dynasty series to any great degree, unless you start using magic to spice up the scene.
Controlling your dragon is another story. While it isn’t not on rails like Panzer, how smoothly the controls play out while flying depends entirely on how much patience you are willing to spend in fighting the camera and how sluggish the aim cursor can feel. You fly the dragon from a third person perspective and use a floating cursor to aim at various enemies onscreen. Your dragon can also lock onto enemies and launch homing balls of fire at them, the number of foes that you can lock on depends on the level of your dragon. Your dragon will also earn experience based on how many corpses are left in its wake increasing the damage of its shots.
Your dragon is also capable of unleashing a devastating ‘special’. Foes you kill go towards filling up your ‘special’ meter so you can blow through hordes of flying targets in one go. As the story continues, your dragon will eventually graduate to other ‘levels’, morphing itself into more powerful versions. This will also add another ‘special’ meter that you can use.
For the most part, flying through the air and laying waste to DaVinci-like balloon fortresses and other strange creatures that come at you is a lot of fun. When you hit the ground missions and can also use your dragon, strafing enemy soldiers and watching them fly can be pretty satisfying. Your dragon can also do quick dodges to the left and right, avoiding most attacks, or turn 180 degrees to catch foes that fly past.
The right analog stick also controls the third person camera allowing you to tilt it to the left or right in either gameplay mode so you can see what else is around you. A small radar is also in the upper right corner, giving you an idea of where your enemies are in the immediate area. The problem is that both of these are relatively useless.
The camera will offend thee. Early on, it’s not so bad but I eventually realized that I was spending as much time fighting it as I was playing. Cheap hits and attacks from the edge of the screen or behind…especially with projectiles…are commonplace in later stages simply because I couldn’t see where they are coming from. As for the radar, it just shows red dots in proximity to where you are. In the sky, it’s actually pretty useful. It’s another story on the ground. Unlike Dynasty Warriors, it doesn’t show an approximation of the terrain other than a brown color with the silhouette of a dragon wrapped around it. It’s easier to just look at the screen than to depend on the radar. Fortunately, you can bring up a map of the area showing enemy forces so you can get an idea of where your objectives are, but that isn’t saying much.
As Caim bludgeons and slashes his way through the world, he will eventually make the company of several characters that have also made pacts with their own beasts. In battle, you can call upon them to take over for you if you’re not faring well although it’s a limited kind of help. They will only remain in battle for as long as they have life, and their lives slowly burn out. Once finished, you’re thrown back into the game. They’ll also give their unique insights into what is going on…or their disgusted disapproval of the others.
The Color of Fire in an Invisible Box
The graphics are a mixed bag. The dragon looks great and is animated well. Cavia’s artists spent quite a bit of time getting it right along with many of the bosses and key characters in the title. Each weapon is also individualized lending a certain As for everything else, don’t expect much. Vast, open and barren fields along with empty castle rooms devoid of anything other than foes are what you will be facing. As for the soldiers, you have a ton of generic soldiers in armor and small variants thereof…none of whom have any personality. Dynasty Warriors had at least infused some kind of personality into the officers that filled the battlefield making it seem as if you were decapitating the enemy ranks and that it mattered to the gameplay. Here, such foes are just more powerful versions tagged with “Target” over their heads, making them feel more as another chore that you have to accomplish. For the most part, the character design for most of the NPCs in the game and foes is pretty standard fare. Some of the monsters are pretty unique, especially the bosses and their attacks, but don’t expect an exciting menagerie.
The Empire also appears to employ very dense soldiers that tend to ‘pop up’ in the distance as you run at them. Most of their soldiers will just stand around until you come within ‘range’ of their attention and then will start walking towards you. This has the odd effect of seeing Caim lay into a group with a long string of devastating combinations while, some distance away, another group watches their friends get slaughtered. I found it easier to just lure groups together and then go at it, allowing for easier combos.
This did not help the fact that a lot of the combat in the game eventually felt terribly repetitive. Fly here, blow up these enemies, go here, blow up some more…next. On foot, go here, slaughter some foes, go there, slaughter some more…next. There’s not a whole of variety to mix things up with unless you count the occasional special attack. The objectives that pop up to try and make things interesting are just waymarkers for targets. You don’t do anything else in the game other than blow up lots of things with dragonfire or kill hundreds of soldiers in mindless mashing. It wouldn’t have been so bad if the enemy was a lot more interesting, or if you had more to do than keep running up to foes and mashing the square button. And while the animation for the most part was as sparse as the world, the dragon’s animations were wonderful. But Caim’s movements seemed stiff in comparison, showing little flair other than in what the weapons brought on the field against his foes.
In certain verses, you’re supposed to be fighting with the Union to either save their collective asses from death or to push their lines forward. But for some reason, Caim is the only person on the field of battle. Unlike the Dynasty Warriors series where you at least had two armies clashing with each other as the AI poked and prodded at itself from two sides, you are completely alone here. You only hear about the Union and its army, but you never see any of them fight alongside you. You see them in in-game cinemas and can chat up with survivors then, but after that, they disappear as if they know they’ll be killed and leave all of the slaughter to you. For the most part, they’re right, but come on. If this was to enforce a theme of grim determination against impossible odds, it worked but it left the world feeling really empty.
One flaw that stuck out like a broken claw was the number of invisible obstacles that are in your way on foot and in the air. Invisible walls and barricades are everywhere. On foot, although Caim can jump, its more effective as an attack than it is to jump over small boulders or even up gently sloping bumps of dirt in the way. Some slopes he can easily run up, others he can’t as invisible hands push him back. Huh?
Its worse when you are flying. The dragon has an upper and lower ceiling along with invisible barriers that keep the two of you within an enclosed ‘area’ which can tend to feel to be too small especially in boss battles. As you dive to avoid a spray of fire or bolts that come at you, you might suddenly hit one of these barriers allowing everything to find their mark. When you fly, you can’t heal up as Caim can when he pulls of combos in battle, so it can get annoying when you hit these ‘limits’ as some of your precious life bleeds away due to being hit as you collide with this unseen limitation.
There’s also an annoying ‘auto lock’ feature that the dragon has that can pull the camera towards a target as you’re flying by it. As you try to fly around it, the camera continues to track the target. But what if you just want to fly past it and ignore it? Sometimes it sticks and it can be annoying to deal with especially when you are trying to dodge and maneuver cannon shot and other enemies in the air with you.
The cinematics, however, are sweet eye candy helping to tell the story. Most of these are done very well and are fun to watch. The in-game cinematics are also fine with the 3D faces of the characters talking their subtitled lines. The presentation as a whole does a lot to push the idea that this is an epic and dark tale to be told.
Shakespeare on Sushi
If any colors can describe Drakengard’s story, it would have to be gray with streaks of blood and black ash mixed in with the palette because there are no happy people here. The grim tale told in the game is oppressively brutal and a few of the key characters don’t survive with their sanity intact. It’s pretty involved and there’s a ton of dialogue during the action, the in-game cinemas, the cinematics, and even during the boss battles that come up. Everyone loves talking and its fortunate that the voice acting is actually pretty good. A lot of this adds color to the game as a whole, although the story can tend to feel more than a little pretentiously melodramatic at certain points. In many ways, it feels a lot like a Western medieval epic with uniquely JRPG elements…creepy little godling girls possessed of unfathomable powers the requisite trademark.
There’s quite a bit of replayability in the title. Even when the game was ‘finished’, I had ended up with only around 60% completed. After the credits rolled, I was told that there were four more endings to the game. There are also additional verses that open up when certain conditions are met. You are able to repeat any of the verses that you have played through before if you’ve missed out on a weapon or if you want to accomplish your objectives under certain conditions to unlock other verses. There are also “Expeditions”…bonus missions outside of the main story that you can undertake to earn more experience for Caim, his weapons, or for your dragon.
As for the additional endings, they provide alternate outcomes and help to clear up some things in the story. Some of the endings are pretty strange while offering up more boss battle action, some others try and describe what went on with one or two of your companions. Even then, not all of the questions are answered and you’re still left with a few mysteries that may be answered in the sequel.
The music is pretty unique, offering an odd blend of classical music and discordant twists to the orchestration. It’s not perfect, though, as some tracks are recycled and some just seem to suddenly ‘cut off’ before starting back up again sounding more like a bad edit than as something that was intentional. In some ways, the soundtrack can be as twisted as some of the story, reflecting how strange the plot can get especially in one or two of the alternate endings.
The End of the First Chapter
Drakengard attempts to merge the flavors of Panzer Dragoon and Dynasty Warriors by taking away the rails and allowing players to create havoc on the ground in near endless carnage. Action fans, especially those that want to fly a dragon about and turn armies to ashes or blow through hundreds of faceless foes with steel and sorcery, may find something to like here if they are willing to have a little patience for some of the title’s more aggravating quirks. The presentation and the extras also help add to the overall package.
But while there may be nuggets of joy buried beneath all of those corpses, the interesting presentation and epic drive of the narrative underlie repetitive gameplay that didn’t quite turn out to be as exciting on the whole to really deserve it. I still had some fun with the game, but I had to build a mountain of corpses to reach it.
- World 1-1