When asked to describe Square Enix's latest action role-playing game (RPG), Drakengard, most people talk about how it's a combination of Koei's Dynasty Warriors series and Sega's Panzer Dragoon games. This is an accurate assessment-but an even better one would be to say it's Square's version of Drakan: The Ancients' Gates, a sleeper PlayStation 2 title that was criminally overlooked.
Like Drakan, Drakengard (see, even the names are similar) is an action game with some minute RPG elements. Players will alternate between slashing through hordes of enemies and engaging in aerial dogfights while on the back of their trusty dragon. All of this is done in a quest to save the world from evil—in Drakengard's case, an Empire bent on world domination.
What sets the two titles apart is that Drakan is a really fun game that manages to overcome the limitations of the hack-and-slash genre (e.g., repetitive gameplay) while Drakengard falls prey to them at every turn.
The game's story isn't exactly groundbreaking—players take on the role of Caim, a young prince filled with a hatred for the Empire. The Empire, it seems, was responsible for the death of his parents and now wants to kill his sister, the Goddess Furiae, as well. As the game opens, Caim must rush to the castle to save his sister from an attacking horde of Empire soldiers. After reaching the castle, he's near death—but he finds a captured dragon, and the two form a blood pact, allowing both to live. Caim's price for striking such a deal with the beast is his voice—he can no longer speak, making him yet another in a long line of silent Square protagonists.
What makes Drakengard's story interesting is the characterization. Caim isn't your typical RPG hero, the misunderstood loner. Instead, he's a young man fueled by an intense hatred of the Empire and will stop at nothing to destroy it. That his friends are harmed by the giant force only serves to add fuel to the fire of his hatred. Much like Arc the Lad: Twilight of the Spirits, Drakengard attempts to explore some weighty issues that few console games would even think of touching. Also like Arc, the game is only partially successful.
The problem with Drakengard is that Caim is silent. He may feel an intense hatred that consumes him entirely, but the audience never really knows that. Sure, Verdelet and the rest of the supporting cast mention Caim's penchant for bloodlust at every turn, but hearing the words from the lead character's own mouth would have given them far more weight. After all, this is hardly the first game that asks one man to slaughter tens of thousands of enemies; in other games, those actions are considered heroic—not barbaric. In this instance, the game earns points for effort, but the execution needs work.
Gameplay is exactly what you'd expect from a game described as a Dynasty Warriors/Panzer Dragoon hybrid. On the ground, Caim faces hordes of enemies that he must hack his way through with any of a number of weapons he'll earn as the game progresses. If things get too hairy, he can summon his dragon, who can then blast fireballs at the enemies below, clearing out large groups in short order. Finally, several missions are "dogfight" in style, meaning that Caim and his dragon take to the air and engage other monsters, shooting towers, and so on.
The dogfight mode is the game's best—it captures the feel of both Panzer Dragoon and Drakan perfectly. Maneuvering this giant beast through the air and blasting fiery death at distant targets just never gets old.
It's a shame the same can't be said for the ground combat. Putting Caim on the ground, or even using the dragon to take out foot soldiers, is never very engaging. The gameplay here is repetitive at best, with the game showing all its tricks well before chapter four—and when one considers that there are 13 chapters in all, this is definitely not a good thing. Developers Cavia have added a combo system to the combat in hopes of spicing it up a bit, but it just doesn't work. The problem is that the game's mobs tend to stand around doing nothing until the player engages them—therefore, setting up big combos involves attacking a horde, then slashing away at them so that they wind up dying near the next horde in order to keep the combo going. It's frustrating and totally unrealistic.
Worse still is that each group of enemies moves in perfect unison-thereby shattering any illusion they're real beings instead of polygon creations. Dynasty Warriors has never had this issue, so why is this game suffering from it?
As is to be expected, the cutscenes are beautiful. Square never skimps on the CGI, and this is no exception. My only complaint is that I wanted more of the cutscenes in the game since they served as a nice break from the bland in-game graphics. Drakengard is a drab game, filled with lots of muted browns, dull greens, and other tones that fail to breathe any sort of life into the fantasy world. When I play games I want to see stylized worlds—I can look out of my front window for drab colors.
Compounding the graphical problems are a draw distance that seems to be measured in inches, some draw-in, more fog than a misty Scottish moor, and the occasional bit of clipping and slowdown. Of these things, the draw distance is the biggest offender—to actually see anything, Caim has to be practically on top of it. To cover this deficiency, the developers have bathed everything in a nice drab gray fog—so enemies just sort of pop up as you wander into them. Trust me, I know the PlayStation 2 has some hardware limitations, but they're not this bad.
The game does at least feature some good voice-acting, although the score is just as repetitious as the gameplay. In other words, turn up the volume for the story interludes, and mute it and play a CD while engaged in one of the game's countless battles.
If nothing else, Drakengard proves that taking two beloved series and merging them into one game isn't always a recipe for success. While developer Cavia has done a fine job of aping what makes Panzer Dragoon so much fun, the Dynasty Warriors elements of the game are sorely lacking. If this game hopes to become yet another franchise for Square-Enix, then the developers need to address the numerous technical issues that mar it and do some serious tweaking to the gameplay. As it stands now, I'd rather play Drakan than spend another minute with Drakengard.
Parents: According to ESRB, this game contains: Blood and Gore, Violence. Those concerned about blood and violence will want steer their children away from Drakengard. While the game isn't an all out gorefest, it is bloody and the lead character chops his way through thousands of other humans. Add in some cursing, and the game earns every bit of its mature rating.
Hardcore gamers will find the title to be a love it or hate it experience. Drakengard starts out promising, but then becomes rather tedious as the meat of the gameplay isn't enough to sustain the game's length.
Casual gamers will want to rent this first—it's an average game, and even at the $40 price point, it's not really worth owning.
Deaf and Hard of Hearing: You have nothing to fear—the game features subtitles for all of the voiced segments.
A film critic by trade, specializing in Euro-horror, cult exploitation, and Asian action cinema, Mike has written reviews for a diverse group of print and online publications. He covers horror news, movies, books, and games at TheHorrorGeek.com and Horrorsquad.com and spent two seasons as The Horror Geek on Comedy Central's pop-culture game show, Beat the Geeks.
Mike's childhood was spent playing videogames any time he got a chance. His parents had a Pong console and his grandmother had an Atari 2600, where Mike cultivated his skills by playing hour upon hour of games like Space Invaders, Berserk, and Asteroids. From those early experiences Mike learned one thing: he loved games.
In 1999, Mike became a staff reviewer at Cinescape Magazine's website where he spent a year learning the craft of game criticism. After internal changes led to Mike leaving Cinescape in late 2000, he joined up with RPGFan in 2001 and spent several years writing reviews for them. Happy, but looking for an opportunity to expound on a wider variety of titles, Mike joined GameCritics.com and hopes to help Chi, Dale, and the rest of the GC staff bring a higher level of respect to the field of game criticism.