Review: Drakengard (PS2)

Drakengard
Japanese Title: Drag On Dragoon
Genre: Action “RPG”/Shooter
Platform: Playstation 2
ESRB Rating: Mature (Blood and Gore)
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: 03/02/04

When originally announced in Japan, the title “Drag On Dragoon” simply sounded lame. Like many, I didn’t know what to expect. Would the game itself be lame? Would the name alone set the tone of the game? Thankfully, it was renamed to “Drakengard”, which may sound more generic than the off the wall original title, but it’s cooler. Still, I didn’t know much about the game.

As more and more information was released, I couldn’t get past the fact that the game sounded too much like Panzer Dragoon. Sure, there was more to it than that, but the fact that it had shooting elements whilst flying a dragon made me wonder what they were thinking when designing the game.

The question then became: would Square Enix be able to pull off something like this, something outside of their comfort zone of traditional (and occasionally, strategy) RPGs? Past efforts of being different have either been really good or really bad. Where does Drakengard fall? Read on to find out.

Story
Our protagonist is Caim, the prince and leader of the Union army. Caim actually is more of an anti-hero, because earlier on in the long lasting war with the Empire (why is it the bad guys are always the Empire?), Caim’s father and mother, the king and queen, were killed in battle by an Imperial Black Dragon. So now, Caim is out for blood.

As leader of the Union army, it’s up to Caim to coordinate attacks, while at the same time, make sure his sister is safe. Her name is Furiae, and she is the goddess. Her job is to simply keep the seals of the world intact, because should they all be broken, the world will unravel. She herself is a seal, and this means that the Empire is after her of course, because the bad guys ALWAYS want to destroy the world.

Furiae’s other protector is Inuart, who is also her fiancé. But Inuart is instable, and considers himself to be weak and unable to appropriately protect Furiae, all the while being envious of Caim since he is much stronger. Inuart is captured and brainwashed and goes over to the Dark Side, and gives up that which Furiae loves most about him: his ability of song.

So in the beginning of the game, the Emperial forces are attacking the Union castle, where Furiae is. The enemies surround the castle and are everywhere. So of course, it’s up to Caim to save everyone by rushing through the enemy forces and making it to the castle. As he is fighting, he is attacked from behind and mortally wounded, yet he continues to fight. Revenge is all that matters.

He arrives at the castle, bleeding very badly, and finds a dragon tied up with chains, in a similarly poor condition. And the two make a pact. Though neither trust one another, they bind their lives together, therefore healing both and making them stronger, yet causing them to be forever linked, where if one dies, they both do. In addition, Caim gives up his ability to speak in the process. Together they attack the enemy without remorse, and save the castle. But can this unlikely union save the world?

I’ll admit, elements of the story are cliché. You have the Empire who is out to either take over and destroy the world. You have the helpless princess who must be saved. And you have the good friend who turns evil because of a girl. What, is this Final Fantasy IV? Still, it’s not bad. They do a good job of fleshing out the story as it progresses, and it truly feels like a storybook at times. And I really can’t complain because they didn’t do a bad job at all.
Rating: 7.0

Graphics
Honestly, since it’s Square Enix, I find it hard to believe that they could possibly produce graphics this awful! I’ve seen better graphics in my toilet!

JUST KIDDING!

Seriously, Squeenix does one thing well every single time, and that’s graphics. Any game that didn’t have superb graphics would likely either be REALLY good, or REALLY bad. No inbetweens. But this game is about the best you can expect on the PS2. The cinematics, though not that frequent, are excellent. And the regular in game shots are fantastic as well. The spell animations are simply beautiful at times. In addition, the character designs are all very good as well. Especially the dragon, which looks really cool. But I’m a dragon buff. What can I say?

The only reason this game didn’t get a perfect score in the graphics department is because they overdid it at times. The drawback of having really flashy spells is that it bogs down the weak PS2 graphics chip and processor, and causes massive frame rate drops. It’s not with every spell, but it was often enough to be annoying. Despite that, the graphics in this game are probably the best the PS2 has to offer at this point, and I don’t forsee anyone being able to top it anytime soon.
Rating: 9.5

Sound
The music in this game is perfect for what it is. It’s not supposed to be a huge orchestral score, and that’s exactly what it’s not. It’s there, it’s in the background, and it can be easily ignored, or you can pay attention to it. And all of it is very appropriate to the game. It’s all epic sounding without being too overbearing, and orchestral without sounding like it is a big orchestra. It’s just there, and it does what it does well.

Another thing that was pulled off pretty well was the voice acting. I’m not sure if it was a professional dub studio or people from Square Enix, but I don’t really have any real complaints. I was able to pick out a couple of familiar voices (Wendee Lee and Mona Marshall, to name a few) but I can’t confirm that it was them. Thus is the problem with video games and the difficulties getting actual VA credits. As for the rest of the voices, some were slightly off kilter with their European accents, but passable.
Rating: 8.5

Control
The control schemes are relatively simple, but they differ for the different modes of play, so I’ll go over them individually.

Most of your battles will be fought on foot. Though considered an action RPG, the game is a lot more action than RPG. The only real RPG aspects come in to play by leveling up, but more on that in a minute. While you’re on foot, you can attack, do a magic attack, jump, or tag team with an ally so they can help clear out enemies.

And there will be a lot of enemies. Each ground map will have an upwards of 200 enemies on the small ones, and above 1000 on some of the particularly nasty ones. You don’t have to kill all of them though, just the leaders. But if you’re like me and LIKE to kill all of them, get ready for a painful thumb, because that Square button (attack) will get used a lot. Sure you can use magic, and if you time it right during a combo, it will do a super attack, but for the most part, it’s super button mashing. Turbo would not be a bad thing here.

I should also talk about weapons. There are 60+ weapons that you can get in the game, each with special abilities. Weapons have differing lengths, attack strength, magic, and chains, which is basically how many attacks you can chain together in succession. They also have levels, and as the levels increase, so does the chains and power, as well as the effectiveness of the spells. 60+ weapons at 4 levels each means killin time! Because kills is how they level. Most take over 1000 kills total to fully level up, and that’s easy to get to with most. The hardest part is finding a weapon that combines a strong enough attack with a high amount of chains, yet is quick enough to be effective AND have a decent magic attack. Oddly enough, the best one I’ve encountered is the starting weapon. Others are either too weak or too slow.

Other than ground battles, there is of course the air battles, where you mount your trusty dragon and torch enemies. Unfortunately, these battles are much harder than land battles, because it plays like a totally different game. It’s pretty much what you’d expect from a dragon shooter. You fly around and breathe fire and try to dodge enemy shots. If you do enough regular attacks, you can do a super magic attack that blows lots of stuff up. Unfortunately, I found many of these missions very hard, primarily because there is little room for error. There is just too much shit coming after you at once. But I suck at shooters, so what can I say. They do have the nice ability to hold down the Square button and highlight multiple enemies to attack, but that only does like 1/4 to 1/2 the damage of a regular fireball.

As I said before, the only real RPG aspect of the game is the leveling up. As I mentioned, weapons level up depending on how many kills you get. Likewise, Caim levels up depending on how many kills he gets, which raises his life only. And the dragon gets levels in the same manner, which raises the strength of the fire breathing attacks. That’s the extent of RPG here.

What it boils down to is a hodgepodge of different gameplay types that adds up to a unique experience. I enjoy the fighting endless numbers of enemy soldiers, but I didn’t really enjoy the dragon shooting levels. What I LOVED though is the fact that on many ground levels, you can hop on your dragon and make some roast soldier for dinner. Trogdor ain’t got nothing on this dragon. You’ll be burninating motherf*ckers left and right. Just be careful of red enemies, because they’re protected by magic that hurts you if you hurt them with magic. And crossbowmen are a pain as well. So you can hop off, cut them up, and get back on the dragon. That’s a lot of fun.
Rating: 8.0

Replayability
It depends on what you consider replayability. Multiple endings? Got em. New scenes and unlockable stuff? Yea, once you complete a chapter, go back and chances are, there’s a scene that you can unlock later on. Leveling up stuff? Well, mainly just weapons, but it’s there too. The question is would you want to replay it? Because really, almost all the levels are the same. Either you’re blowing up enemies in the air, or you’re cutting them up on the ground. That’s why it’s a hard judgment call.
Rating: 7.0

Balance
The game isn’t very balanced to me. Sometimes, it’s really easy, like most of the ground missions. Just cut up most of the enemies and burn the rest. But sky missions were very difficult until I turned it down to Easy. Yea, I’m lame. But depending on the enemies, there were some missions that were downright nasty, even on easy. There are enemies that will, if they get a hit in, beat the living hell out of you. And there are some missions where health is few and far between, unless you can get some good chains going. And there are no health pickups in the sky, so you best get REAL good at dodging. Overall, I think that the difficulty could have ramped better, but that ramp was the bumpiest I’ve ever seen!
Rating: 5.0

Originality
As I said before, there isn’t much that hasn’t been done before, but at least it doesn’t feel like the whole game is ripped off. The story itself is pretty different, and the weapons are fun, but all in all, it’s all something that has been done before. At least they did it in a manner that was enjoyable and unique, even if the ideas themselves weren’t.
Rating: 5.0

Addictiveness
Again, it depends on the situation. On a ground mission, flying around on the dragon and occasionally cutting someone to pieces? FUN. In a sky mission getting shot to hell every 2 minutes? Not fun. And sometimes the endless waves of soldiers get old. You know how they tell you to take breaks every hour or two when playing a game? That’s sound advice for this game. Your thumb will need a break anyway.
Rating: 5.0

Appeal Factor
I can’t see people waiting in line at a store for 5 hours to buy the game, but likewise, I can’t see anyone urinating on it because of how it looks. What I’m trying to say is that this isn’t a big game. It won’t sell an ungodly amount of copies. Yes, the commercials look good, and the gameplay is intriguing, but it’s just not the type of game people would pick up on merit alone. I think the mish-mash of several genres really hurt it here, because they could have marketed it to the people that like games like Dynasty Warriors, or they could have licensed it to the fans of Panzer Dragoon. But fans of one will be turned off by the other aspects of the game.
Rating: 5.0

Miscellaneous
Some games don’t give you enough information. They just throw you to the dogs and expect you to survive. This game starts out similarly, but they give you enough information to survive until you can make it on your own. What’s really nice though is when games give you back-story on things that aren’t necessary. This game, for example, gives you a nice history for each of your weapons. But you have to unlock it first. Each weapon has 4 levels total. At the start, each weapon gives you a little bit of its story, and with each level, you unlock a little bit more. It’s really neat how they do it and it makes the weapons more interesting in the process. It also gives you incentive to try and level up all of them, just so you can learn about them.
Rating: 9.0

Ratings Summary

Story: 7.0
Graphics: 9.5
Sound: 8.5
Control: 8.0
Replayability: 7.0
Balance: 5.0
Originality: 5.0
Addictiveness: 5.0
Appeal Factor: 5.0
Miscellaneous: 9.0

Average: 6.9

Short Attention Span Summary
This is a good game, but not a great game. It was an admirable attempt at something different. It would have been more enjoyable if the sky missions were retooled, but that just may be a personal thing. I would suggest to anyone who wants to cut people up to give it a rent, because I can’t see myself buying it, even though I liked it. It’s fun in short bursts, but that’s about it.