Drakengard

Year Released in US: 2004
System: Playstation2

I had heard a few things about Drakengard before I picked it up; mainly that it worked like a bizarre hybrid between Dynasty Warriors and Panzer Dragoon and as a result did neither of the two game modes justice. But it was billed as an action/RPG and it did have the ability to fly a dragon in it, so I picked it up when the game eventually dropped in price to the point I felt it would be an acceptance purchase even if I didn't like it much.

And it's worth the $18 I paid for it. People are right in that there are certain flawed aspects to the game, but the game's atmsophere is different from the majority of medieval fantasy games out there and that makes it stand out in the crowd. Drakengard (known as the more awkward Drag-On Dragoon in Japan) is a very gritty game, almost too gritty for me. You know how some games will have a devastating attack that turns part of the world into a wasteland? Well, imagine being at ground zero of that attack when all hell breaks loose, the solders you just killed are rising up from the dead stronger than before, and throughout the entire mission you're fighting under a blood red sky. This is a game where enemy soldiers die by the thousands and characters recognize and wonder why they are so willing, and the answer is something far more sinister than expected. If Drakengard gives the player a moment of hope, where victory seems just over the horizon, forget it. It's going to be shredded just when it seems almost in reach.

Far from being a tale of heroic fantasy, this game has as its main hero an extremely hateful ex-prince who lost his parents and his kingdom to an attack by the Empire. Caim has few things left to him. It seems he has a keep and some soldiers, but all that really matters is his sister, who is the sacrificial lamb known the goddess. Three seals and the goddess, as a fourth seal, are what prevents the Seeds of Resurrection from being sown on the world, ending the old and beginning a new, and it appears that for one reason or another the Empire has decided that it wants the seeds. It used to be that the Union, a coalition of smaller countries, was equally balanced with the Empire, but the Empire has in recent days become much stronger, and the game begins when the Empire lays siege to Caim's castle.

Despite the fact this game is commerically labeled as an action/RPG, and there is some modicum of leveling-up to be done, don't let that fool you. Button-mashing will only get you so far, as I found out when I died on the very first mission of the game. There are buttons for blocking and dodging, and by all means, use them. Caim can obtain up to 65 different weapons in the game, divided into eight categories (swords, axes, spears, etc.) based on how they handle, and there are definitely situations where different weapons are better than others. Due to the different weapon magics and finishing moves, and even differences in weapon reach, there's variety even within a particular category. In the typical action/RPG, weapon switching is done to get different magical properties or just an increase in attack power, not because axes punch through armor better, or because a dagger gets in more attack chains faster and for less damage than a long sword (thus generating healing orbs much more quickly and without killing the enemies and ending the whole process). Sometimes the type of weapon matters more than the attack power, and the game knows that weapon switching is critical, so it gives the player a "weapon wheel" with which to take up to eight of the different weapons into battle with them, all of them switchable on the fly. This is more than enough room to keep a few favorite weapon types, a few to level up (weapons can gain levels as well), and a few maxed out for boss battles and the like.

Despite being almost purely an action game, the leveling up part is nice though because theoretically no matter how difficult anything ever gets, it's possible to just go kill more stuff to increase either Caim's HP or the dragon's attack power. I'm quite sure I had sick amounts of attack power and HP by the end of the game due to the fact I replayed several levels to unlock hidden weapons and do extra side quests. One thing nice about the game is that given all the extras (65 weapons is a lot, and most of them are unlocks)it's easy to feel constructive while doing the otherwise mindless task of replaying an area. I've yet to level up without striving to get another weapon, and for completists, getting all 65 weapons is necessary for unlocking the path to the fifth ending.

So... Drakengard's flaws... They really struck me pretty badly when I first started playing. Ground combat is rather unimaginative given that every single button on the controller (even the rarely used L3 and R3 buttons) have a use. Melee combat really only has two buttons for attacking; one to do the regular attack, and another for executing finishing moves and magic (which one is triggered is situation dependant). This means that the majority of combat is just pushing the same button over and over again; no special button combos to do special attacks. After a certain amount of hacking away, Caim's weapon magic meter will fill up and it's possible to do magic, and attacks can be chained together to extra experience or perform finish moves, but that's about it. Rolling is a great way to dodge because it throws Caim well clear of just about any attack, but on the other hand it tends to fling him so far off to the right or left that the enemy he was fighting is no longer visible. That by itself might not be such a pain if it wasn't for the fact the camera is not easy to control. Generally the best thing to do is just stand still for a second so the camera will re-align itself behind Caim (or if in a hurry, holding down the block button will do this and while also protecting Caim from frontal and side attacks).

Then there are other minor things like enemies can be pushed around just by running into them (even the ones on horseback), that the enemies tend to have patrol spots so they'll give up chasing Caim if he runs too far away, and that enemy battalions tend to attack no more than two at a time (with the annoying exception of archers) so the player doesn't get swamped with twenty enemies at a time.

The strictly aerial combat sequences fair better, though I occasionally found the 180 turn unresponsive. L1 and R1 by themselves will dodge left or right, but when pressed together do an extremely handy 180 pivot (though in a nifty nod to physics, the dragon's momentum will continue going in the direction it was originally flying unless the player expends some effort to rectify that). Sometimes though, I would try pivoting and I'd dodge instead, and by the time I could pivot, I'd be hit. Though there are some obviously moving enemies (other dragons, griffons, etc.), there are a number of enemies that appear to be standing still in mid-air. Aside from looking silly (even if it is an airship and arguably slow-moving), this creates problems when trying to attack it as the dragon. The dragon will keep moving forward and as a result will bump into the airship if the player gets too close. Without the 180 pivot, it's really hard to turn around, and meanwhile the airship's guns will be firing away. Also, it just looks silly seeing the dragon plastered on the side of the airship. This situation is avoidable just because it's healthier to stay a certain distance away, but when it happens on accident it gets pretty annoying, especially when trying to unlock a weapon in a certain amount of time or with a certain amount of health leftover.

But the funny thing is, though the gameplay was ticking me off left and right during the first few missions, I got used to them and by the time I got to the end they were barely an issue anymore.

As far as the aerial missions go, anyone who's played Panzer Dragoon will probably adapt to them easily. There's no rail shooting, but the dragon has lock-on attacks and a magic meter that executes much like a beserk attack. The lock-on attacks feel rather out of place in this kind of setting, but from a gameplay perspective make the same much easier. It's not required to lock on, and regular unlocked shots generally do more damage, but it makes certain fights a heck of a lot easier. Once the player gets the hang of controlling the dragon's movements, it's a surprisingly robust playing style, with the player able to control altitude, flying almost straight up or down, and distance and orientation relative to the selected target(s).

And in what is arguably the most appealing part of the game, it's possible to having Caim fighting in a ground mission and then summon the dragon in that same mission. Having trouble wiping out the imperial guards at the gates? Summon the dragon and ride on its back, pelting the poor imperial guards with dragonfire until they die without being able to do a lick of damage. Sadly, the ability to do this is drastically reduced the further in the game the player gets. Obviously the dragon can't be used on any indoor missions, but the chapters serving as the final chapters of a particular ending tend to have magic-immune enemies, which cannot be killed by the dragon, which takes a lot of the fun out of the game. It does feel a bit cheap resorting to using the dragon sometimes, but generally such missions require Caim to do some footwork (and he can be shot off the dragon by archers and catapults), so the gameplay is still balanced. Resorting to magic-immune enemies by the end takes away an element of gameplay without really giving anything back.

As I mentioned earlier, Drakengard is an extremely gritty world and Caim is not the typical RPG hero. Even by heroic badass standards, Caim's on the low end of the scale. In any other setting he might well be considered a psychopath. Even his dragon pact-partner, who loathes humanity, is put off by his insatiable need to slay the minions of the Empire. Though outwardly Caim is fighting for the Union and for his sister, in reality he fights just as much to calm his own inner rage. When confronted with news that a village has been attacked by the Empire, Caim makes ready to depart, and the dragon shrewdly asks "Do you go to save lives, or to take them?" With any other hero, the answer would be a foregone conclusion. With Caim, you don't really know.

In what is perhaps a weird bit of role-playing (for a console game), the player is encouraged to play out Caim's personality. He lost his voice when he made his pact with the dragon, so for the majority of the game Caim doesn't speak, but unlike most mute heroes, there's a definite sense of what Caim is like. Mute in his case does not mean no personality. His gestures (and the many times he kicks people, even allies) in the real-time cut scenes make it very clear who he is and what he's like. Slaughtering hundreds of enemies each mission (my average seemed to be around 200-300) is commonplace. Caim levels up by experience points, but his weapons only level up by number of kills. Thus when leveling up weapons it's beneficial to mow down tons of faceless minions, particularly the weaker ones since that makes the leveling process more time-efficient. And since chaining a certain number of attacks will general healing orbs, the best way to heal is find a crowed of weaklings who aren't good at counterattacking and then whale away. Many of the aerial missions require not just taking out appointed targets, but every single opponent in the sky. By arranging the player's chosen targets and encouraging a particular playing style, the game makes it that much more realistic when the dragon and other characters get on Caim's case for not showing any mercy or going overboard in his quest to destroy the Empire.

In what is probably the most morally objectionable part of the game (and, I should mention, completely optional), but a good illustration of the kind of character Caim is, Caim discovers a band of child conscripts from the Empire setting fire to the Forest of the Seal, and in a show of just how deep his hatred runs, the mission is--yep--kill all the child conscripts. During this mission, one of Caim's allies, Leonard, is begging for Caim to spare the children (and Leonard's annoying pact partner, a more traditional variety of fairy, is busy egging Caim on to kill some more). The children are actually possessed by an evil power no one in the party is capable of exorcising, and they do pack a whallop on the battlefield, so they're not entirely helpless when Caim goes about his business, but the question is, is Caim killing them because he believes there's no other choice in order to protect the seal, or does he really not care that the people he kills are children as long as they're from the Empire? One of the later missions in this same area gives a bonus weapon if the player kills all the child conscripts even when it's not required to complete the mission.

In another nod to our ethically-challenged hero and just how many thousands he and his dragon will slaughter by the end of the game, each mission has a kill tally that runs in the bottom right corner of the screen, and the status screen will keep track of the number of kills overall for the entire game (for me that was somewhere between 22,000-23,000 after getting all five endings).

Character development on Caim's part is difficult to see since he's mute, it's really only visible through his expressions and gestures in the cutscenes and some of the text narration between verses, but there's also precious few ways for him to grow. The driving force behind his actions (other than the whole slaughtfest/revenge motivation) is to protect his sister, who is killed 3/4s of the way through the game, leaving avenging her the remainder of the story. There's definitely no happy ending for this guy. The dragon, being his pact partner (and brilliantly voiced as well) is the most common insight into what Caim may or may not be thinking, and the two partners, who put aside their mutual hatred of each other's kind in order to survive, are easily the most compelling characters in the game. Eventually the dragon grudgingly loses her hatred of humanity and marvels at the power she has achieved through her bond with Caim. Since Caim doesn't speak, we can only assume the feeling is mutual.

If there's any real good reason to play through Drakengard, it's following the fate of the characters, which really gets moving in the second half, to the point where I didn't want to stop except for the fact my lack of skills made it too difficult sometimes. The first ending (which must be seen in order to get the others) continues the theme of sacrifice throughout the story, and yet it's still more upbeat than I expected, and it shows just how far the dragon and Caim have come together. For all that Caim is, whatever motivations he had, he was still doing the right thing as far as the world's concerned. He lost his kingdom and his parents before the game even began, he lost his army when the Empire rained death from the sky, he lost his sister when the Empire sacrificed her to bring down the Seeds of Ressurection, and he lost his childhood friend to madness, but he kept fighting. The only thing he had left by the end of the game was himself and his dragon, and in the end he loses the dragon too. Even when he discovers his sister Furiae has been sacrificed and he's too late, we don't see him cry, but he does for the dragon when she gives herself up for the sake of humanity to become the next seal. Because she's more powerful than any human ever will be, with the dragon's sacrifice no more human women will have to become the goddess. It's still a happier ending than I expected, at least the world is safe and he's still alive (I'd thought there was a fair chance Caim would die in the ending--and he does in two of the alternate versions), but he ends up losing just about everything else.

One thing I think is worth addressing as far as character relationships go is the topic of incest, which is a rumor it seems a fair number of people have heard. "Drakengard? Doesn't that game have incest in it?" I know I heard that too at some point or another before picking it up.

I think it's possibly there, if the player wants it to be. There's no smoking gun. Caim and Furiae don't kiss, hop in the sack, or anything nearly so blatant. There's not a single "I love you" said, even in a potentially loving sibling manner. What there is are a few clues that can be read multiple ways if the player is so inclined, and it largely depends on whether or not the player believes the priestess Manah is reading Furiae's mind or suggesting what might be in it, and, whether or not the player thinks Furiae's dark secret is that she's in love with Caim or that she feels she's selfish and unworthy of being the goddess. The words are vague enough that it could go either way and I probably would not have even considered the possibility of Furiae being in love with Caim if I hadn't heard the rumor ahead of time.

There also is the matter that Inuart, Caim's childhood friend and Furiae's ex-fiance (prior to being declared the goddess), is hideously jealous of Caim. He's corrupted by the Empire on the basis that he's afraid of losing Furiae to his friend, never mind that 1) he can't marry her anymore since she's the goddess and 2) Caim is Furiae's brother! It's possible Inuart is able to see something Caim is blind to (whichever way the player interprets Furiae's secret, Caim is shocked by it and turns away), or Inuart is just overly jealous of anyone being close to Furiae other than himself. Given that Inuart is still crazy even after the spell cast over him ends, I'm inclined to think he just has issues.

As one might gather from reading this, Drakengard is extremely story-heavy for an action game. The game is divided up into chapters based on location and story points, and further subdivided into verses. Each verse is either a ground mission, an aerial mission, a movie, or an event, with the events being real time cut scenes with occasional playable elements. For instance, while running to save Furiae Caim might charge down the final hallway just like he would in an FMV, except the player gets to cut down all the enemies in one or two hits just like in a cut scene (they're much harder in the actual missions). It's an interesting way to set up a plot point and speeds up certain tasks that would be too taxing or boring to do as a full-length mission (searching an empty village for clues, for example), while still giving the player the payoff of having done it. Generally a chapter's verses are 60% ground or aerial missions, but this starts dropping later in the same as more and of the verses become story material. As a result, the later chapters potentially go by faster than the earlier ones.

Even within the ground and aerial missions, there is still character development and setup for the event and movie cut scenes to follow. The different characters of the game will sporadically talk during a mission, and the triggers are subtle enough that it's not always possible to tell what's doing them, which lends an organic feel to the battle. It might work out that the dragon's warning not to die occurs because the player is low on life (since if Caim dies, she will die too), but sometimes she makes a comment not nearly so easy to place. Some dialogue might be triggered by location, others by the amount of time that has passed into the mission.

Normally I dislike it when a game leaves too many unanswered questions, and Drakengard is the rare game that pretty much requires you to read the prologue in the instruction manual if you want to hit the ground running as far as the plot goes, but because of the way the game is handled I find the lack of explanation more forgiving. Even though Drakengard does become about saving the world (or trying to, depending on the ending), it's a very personal story, and in this gritty world, much as in real life, answers are not always forthcoming and events don't wrap up cleanly into a neat and tidy package. We don't know how or why Manah became the priestess of the Cult of the Watchers, but to Caim (and therefore the player) does it really matter? It would be nice, but the game doesn't suffer for it. Similarly, we don't know at what point the Empire and the Cult of the Watchers became one and the same, we don't know who or what the Watchers are or what power has possessed Manah, who would otherwise be a neglected six-year-old child. When that other voice speaks from her mouth, is it a Watcher, a god, or another entity entirely? And just what is that two-faced, three-eyed carving in the opening movie and on the loading screen that never appears in the game itself? We don't even know why Manah called down the Seeds of Resurrection or what she hoped to accomplish. A new world is the easy answer, but what kind of world? Given her age, it could hardly be an idea she came up with on her own. It seems Manah's desire for a new world is connected to her neglect by her mother and her desire to be loved, so it's possible to say the world is being brought to end by an insane six-year-old's desire for her mother's love. Who would have installed said six-year-old as the head of a cult I haven't the foggiest idea. The Empire itself is portrayed as a faceless menace, where every soldier, even the child conscripts, is possessed by the same red-eyed madness.

What we do see though is all Caim needs to know, that there is something sinister possessing the Empire and that he needs to save his sister, and when that fails, he must avenge her. To some degree though, it's possible to get extra answers by playing the alternate storylines. Rather than making the player play through the game all over again for each ending (thankfully), it's possible to pick any previously completed verse in any chapter and replay it to fulfill the conditions to unlock new verses or even new chapters, and the game is very forthright about what those requirements are, so the player isn't forced to jump through any more hoops than necessary, and for the most part the reasons for the paths existing are logical (defeating a boss fast enough to stop something or having recruited an ally who is able to sense something Caim and the dragon cannot).

The second and third endings can be found by unlocking Chapter 9, which is more or less an alternate version of Chapter 8 (which is the last chapter of the main story path). They go a little more into why the Seeds of Resurrection are a thing to be feared, since given their names they don't sound entirely like a bad thing, and also reveal that Manah doesn't actually understand what she's doing. Since they take place instead of Chapter 8, they also follow a "what-if" line of thinking and result in what feels like legitimate (albeit bleak) alternate endings.

The fourth ending requires a bit more extra work, and can be a little confusing since the requirement for starting Chapter 10 involves beating the end of Chapter 5 and Chapter 8 as well as having a particular ally. Why Chapter 5? Chapter 10 jumps back and takes place instead of Chapter 6. Furiae dies at the end of Chapter 6, so Chapters 10 and 11 give the player a chance to go back and save her. If the player doesn't meet certain requires in both Chapters 10 and 11 the player will get some story events (one of which is the potential incest revelation) and then go back to Chapter 7. If the player kills Manah before she can begin the final ritual to sacrifice Furiae though, then the path to the fourth ending is unlocked.

And if a player values this game solely for its story, this would be a good stopping point. Even though Inuart is proclaiming that he will remake the world, just pretend Caim smacks him down before he even leaves the sky fortress, that Furiae is rescued (if not from being a goddess, at least from being sacrificed in the immediate future), and that the world is saved, because Chapter 12 leads on to what I called the WTF ending. Despite a lot happening, several movie clips, and a good deal of death, any leftover plot threads from previous Chapters are not dealt with here. Well, except that Manah's death somehow caused all this, but there's nothing that relates to the main story here.

Or, if you like the thought of fighting creepy, giant, cannabalistic babies, then maybe you do want to keep playing. Words do not do the wrongness of this chapter justice. The worst part is that the giant babies make crying sounds like real babies, but they're among the deadliest enemies in the game... and the way they take people out in the FMVs is pure freaky. One of the characters makes the guess that they are the Watchers, but I really don't see how since there does not appear to be a particular intelligence that guides them. Manah's insane ramblings about the Watchers do mention that the Watchers should not be released or woken (which is an odd mantra for a Cult of the Watchers), but the giant babies could hardly be the voice possessing her since they lack anything other than a mammoth hunger. Though the world is saved in the fourth ending, it's only at incredible cost and I'm still not exactly sure how they triggered it since it involved some weirdness involving stopping time, which somehow looks like cubes of black crystal.

I was going to quit playing the game at that point, because I knew that Chapter 13 was a branch off of Chapter 12 from the walkthroughs I'd been using, and I wasn't in the mood for any more of that weirdness, but I found myself feeling unsatisfied. I wanted to play the game some more--just not against giant babies. So I did some asking around on GameFAQs and decided to peek ahead at Chapter 13. I figured if I wasn't going to play Chapter 13 there was no reason not to spoil myself, and if the chapter looked okay I'd go ahead and play it. By now the alternate endings were so far removed from the core story that when I read the fifth ending resulted in Caim and the dragon going to Tokyo and getting shot down by a fighter jet, I thought it was funny so I picked up the game again and finished off the last ending.

For some bizarre reason, collecting all the weapons makes the giant babies' queen-beast escape through a time rift and so Caim and the dragon chase after it, leaving everyone else behind in the world being eaten by giant babies... >_< But anyway, gameplay-wise Chapter 13 is just a last boss fight reminiscient of Dragon's Lair in that you're given a visual cue and you have to respond to it. It's so freakishly hard though that cheating is just about the only way to do it. I tried honestly the first couple of times, then I started the cheat method. Since the cues stack up and you can see them coming, it's possible to pause the game, memorize the next few cues, unpause, and then execute them before pausing again for the next round. It sounds very cheap, but I seriously doubt anyone can do that honestly without memorizing the entire attack pattern from start to finish, and most of us don't have time for that.

The reward is, well, watching the dragon exult in their victory just before two missiles slam into her and a couple of fighter jets swing by. The game even rubs it in a bit by letting the player watch Caim and the dragon's falling carcasses as the VO of a pilot reports that the unidentified threat has been neutralized. Usually the credits roll on a black screen and fade out at the end. Instead this time the credits stay on the grey-colored sky (the real world is portrayed in black and white) and after they're done the screen scrolls down to show the dragon impaled on the Tokyo Tower. And woohoo... that's the end of the game.

So was it worth it? Well, considering what I paid for it and the enjoyment I got out of most of the game, it was worth it. I'm already missing it, since there are no more missions left. (I even did the bonus Tokyo one, where it's possible to fight back against the fighter jets, and sadly they fly much faster than a dragon.) Despite its flaws, it was one of the better action games I've played, particularly because it was so story-based and mixed the two so well. Weapon collecting and leveling was also appealing, thanks to each weapon having a history that would gradually be revealed upon leveling up. Hopefully some of the flaws in this game are fixed in Drakengard 2 which takes place eighteen years after this one. Given the time that has passed between games, perhaps we'll see some answers to remaining questions, particularly in regards to Manah, who returns in the next game, and her history with the Cult of the Watchers.