Combining genres, especially Role-Playing Games, isn’t a new concept in gaming. There have been strategy/rpgs, driving/rpgs and even sports/rpgs. However, the most popular blend is the action/RPG, which appeals to just about every gamer. So it’s no real surprise that Square Enix, masters of the RPG, have decided to try their hand at this well-trod format with Drakengard, their latest title. But much more than your average hack and slash, Drakengard is a dark story of two beings set against an entire empire for the fate of the world.
Actually, that’s a grand oversimplification of the plotline, because the actual story is much more complex. The background of Drakengard centers on the Empire and the Union, two armies that have been locked in a massive war. Once evenly matched, the Empire has suddenly amassed a large army of monsters, dragons and other creatures, and threatens to overwhelm the Union forces. As this war rages on, it threatens civilians and royalty alike. Engaged on the front lines to defend his lands, a prince named Caim learns that his castle, and more importantly, his younger sister is threatened by hordes of Empire soldiers. Returning as quickly as he can, Caim fights his way through the enemy lines, only to be mortally wounded as he reaches the front gate of his stronghold. As he stumbles into his courtyard, he comes across a red dragon that’s been captured and staked to the ground. Also fatally injured, the dragon and Caim realize that their only chance for survival lies in bonding their souls together. Doing so restores their battered bodies, but at a price: Caim loses the ability to speak forever. His new mount takes on the role of being his voice as the two set out to wreak havoc against their enemies.
The game is sectioned up into 13 chapters, each of which has a varying number of verses, or missions that Caim and his dragon will travel through. These missions basically take two different forms. There are ground stages where Caim will be forced to strike out alone without his dragon to provide cover or help. This is essentially a “man against the world” set up a la Koei’s Dynasty Warriors, as he slashes his way through hundreds of enemies to get to his goal. The other format is an aerial assault, where Caim and the dragon soar above the ground, burning targets with fireballs. The dragon can also track and fire homing blasts at multiple objects. Resembling Panzer Dragoon in some ways, Caim and his mount aren’t stuck on a linear, rail based path. Instead, both of them can fly in any direction to take out their targets. There is also a slight variation on the two, where Caim can leap off the dragon and into squads of soldiers, but considering they’re essentially a combination of the ground and air, it’s not really worth a distinction.
What are original are Caim’s attacks, which are primarily based on the weapon he wields at the time. There are more than 60 unique weapons to be found within the game, most of which are hidden or scattered throughout the 13 chapters. Players should not expect to be able to acquire all of them playing through the game once. Caim can actually take a number of weapons into battle and switch between them at will to maximize his damage. Ranging from swords and staves to axes and hammers, each weapon can be upgraded a number of times based on the amount of use they receive. This experience system imparts new abilities and attack combos to Caim, allowing him to strike his opponents multiple times. Once he’s successfully hit his foes enough times, he can trigger an elemental strike that can clear whole swaths of soldiers from the battlefield. Later on, Caim will also be able to call allies in to help attack opponents or summon the dragon to hurl a curtain of flame from the sky to clear a path.
At first glance, Drakengard looks like an incredibly impressive title. If there’s one thing that Square Enix knows how to do, it’s creating engaging, beautiful cutscenes that draws you into the action and the storyline. Unlike Final Fantasy characters, many of the main characters in Drakengard have a darker, almost gothic edge to their look, which comes across well in the cutscenes that you’ll see scattered through the game. This also extends somewhat to in-game character models up to a point, although many of the soldiers and other creatures you’ll be going up against are pretty nondescript. With a few variations on armor color or type, you’ll basically run into a few enemies virtually photocopied and arranged into a number of squads and groups. Even odder, some characters aren’t even completely finished. For instance, when killed, the units on horseback don’t even have a texture under their battle armor, resulting in a large black polygon on the battle field for a carcass before fading into the nondescript ground.
While the camera is pretty solid, it’s easy to get turned around in the heavy fog of war, which covers just about the entire map and covers up a very limited draw distance for the game engine. Slowdown is quite frequently found, especially when you’re going up against more than 10 opponents (which regularly happens). What’s worse are the strange animations found for all characters. There aren’t many attack animations for your opponents, which makes them seem rather wooden and stationary at times. Caim is much better with his attacks, which look great, but he looks goofier than just about any character seen in gaming when he runs across the fields. The closest thing I’ve seen to this awkward movement is the alien that tries to sneak into the White House in Mars Attacks!
Sound fares somewhat better, although not by much. The orchestral score is pretty decent, and does an adequate job of conveying a moody atmosphere throughout the battle. However, the tracks seem to be way too short to accurately cover most of the missions you’ll go through, meaning that you’ll hear the music loop itself over and over again. Ten minutes into searching for weapons on a large map and you’ll be playing the rest of the level in relative silence, because you would’ve hit the mute button a while ago. You’re not really going to miss too much, because there really isn’t a lot of noise going on across the battlefield, which is odd, considering that it’s SUPPOSED to be a battle raging around you. Aside from some clangs of swords or shouts, you’re not going to hear a lot at times. Fortunately, the voice acting for the dragon and secondary characters is rather solid and varied from understated performances to large emotional outbursts.
If the gameplay had actually taken a page from the voice acting, Drakengard would definitely be on better footing. As it stands now, the single greatest weakness of the gameplay is the flawed ground combat, which a majority of the game is based around. Players simply need to pound on the attack key to kill just about anything Caim comes across with relative ease. He’s more than strong enough to take anything the Empire can throw at him. There may be one or two enemies scattered around the map that will be more powerful than your typical grunt, but for the most part, there isn’t much standing between you and slaughtering everyone in the level. If you choose to exploit the special attacks, these practically come across more as variations on the “hack and slash” theme that quickly sets in after cutting your way through thousands of opponents. The AI of the computer isn’t particularly intelligent, and many of them will actively stand around or perform a token attack that can be easily be countered. The true danger of these thugs comes in massive numbers, where they can practically juggle Caim if they manage to land a solid hit. However, since triggering a special attack can quickly free him from this dilemma, you may find yourself not even dreading being surrounded. After a while, combat degenerates into either killing soldiers for experience or quickly bypassing all but the main checkpoints to pass a mission. Even simply slaughtering opponents isn’t that exciting, considering that the experience points you receive merely go towards increasing your health bar instead of providing new skills. In fact, the biggest reason to continually play the game is to see much more of plot, which is pretty creative, collecting as many weapons and endings as you can along the way.
Overall, Drakengard is a title that showed promise, but was hampered from soaring primarily because of its static, somewhat limited combat and graphical issues. This is a pity considering the solid storyline, numerous weapons and multiple endings lend themselves to a large amount of replayability. To experience it, however, players will have to get over the tedium of killing tens of thousands of soldiers. If you’re an action adventure fan or Dynasty Warriors fan, this is probably a game you’ll have in your collection, but for others, you may want to rent it to see if Drakengard is for you.