While Cavia’s back catalog of developed games didn’t exactly set the world on fire (with a portfolio consisting mostly of games based upon anime franchises), their last original work was a true diamond in the rough this generation if there ever was one. That game was Nier. It was a little rough around the edges to be sure, but it was a memorable experience, and it had one of the most appropriate and crafty endings I had ever seen in a video game. Perhaps even more interesting is that Nier is a spinoff of the Drakengard franchise and takes place in the same world as one of the original game’s endings.
Cavia is now defunct as a company, with many of its members swallowed up by AQ Interactive. However, director Yoko Taro and other key staff went on to begin development of Drakengard 3 under the directive of Access Games. Even though the first two games weren’t the most well received, there is a lot of anticipation of this title based on the reputation of Nier alone. Having finally experienced it for myself, I can tell you that this is not the second coming of Nier. Hell, it can hardly be called a Drakengard game. Instead, it takes elements from those games to forge an identity all its own, and it’s all the better for it.
Drakengard 3 is a prequel to the original game, and as such, no prior knowledge is required in order to understand what’s going on. That is, if you’re able to understand it at all. As someone who finished the first two Drakengard games AND Nier, I had no clue what was happening until after I finished the game and saw all of the endings. In fact, viewing the multiple endings is basically a requirement to make sense out of anything.
You play as Zero, a god-like being known as an Intoner, on a mission to slay her five Intoner sisters. Together with her dragon comrade, Michael, she storms the cathedral during the prologue and is soundly defeated, losing an arm in the process. One year later, Zero replaces her lost arm with a synthetic one, Michael reincarnates into the young dragon, Mikhail, and a mysterious flower sprouts from her eye that grants her regenerative powers. It is then that her killing spree begins anew.
This is all the information you have to go on for the duration of the game. You have no idea why Zero is trying to kill the other Intoners until after you beat the game multiple times and as such, it’s very hard to empathize with her mission. This becomes especially so when she composes herself in such a villainous manner that you feel as though YOU are actually the bad guy in the game. Zero is also disrespectful for her companions, especially Mikhail, and almost entirely focused on her own bloodlust.
Such a dark premise would be a tough pill to swallow if it wasn’t for the game’s humor, and this is what sets it apart in tone compared to its predecessors. The characters are so over the top that it felt like I was playing a Suda51 game, with Zero and Mikhail’s companions consisting of a sadist obsessed with killing, a masochist aroused from being tortured, an old man obsessed with sexual intercourse, and an arrogant young man obsessed with trivia and his own looks. And these characters inhabit a universe where men are used for sexual pleasure by the women and then promptly discarded, with some even expressing displeasure about this arrangement. As a result, much of the dialogue entails mocking the fetishes and sexuality of the other characters, with the occasional sequence of Mikhail defecating at awkward times. Bizarre doesn’t even begin to describe the antics that this game provides.
It isn’t just the tone of the game’s story that diverges greatly from the other games. The core gameplay has been shaken up as well. What was once a weird fusion of Dynasty Warriors and Panzer Dragoon is now something closer to Devil May Cry, which means that the combat has gotten a major overhaul. Zero has two basic attacks; a standard attack with square and a harder hitting blow that saps some of your stamina using triangle. Mixing and matching these attacks lead to some diverse combos that can be viewed at any time from the game’s start menu. Blocking utilizes your stamina meter as well and mitigates almost all damage depending on the attacks thrown your way. Other moves in Zero’s arsenal include jumping, dodging, and locking onto foes.
A major part of the Drakengard franchise is the selection of weapons at your disposal, and the third entry is no exception. New weapons can be found in chests during missions, awarded from side quests, or purchased in between each stage. Zero can carry four kinds of weapons at once, though she only starts with swords at the beginning. Eventually, she’ll gain access to spears for breaking through heavy defences, fist weapons for quick strikes, or chakrams for long range attacks. Even better, one weapon of each kind can be equipped simultaneously and one tap of the R2 button will allow you to switch between each type on the fly. Each weapon can even be upgraded using materials found on your journey.
Certain battles will unlock the use of a circle to be used to summon aid from Mikhail. His actions vary based on the situation, but summoning him will cause him to either drop down to ground level to help you fight, or send down a rain of fire from up above. Some missions will force you to mount up and take the battle to the skies. It’s at this point that the game starts to resemble a rail shooter as you have to line up your crosshairs and launch fiery blasts at your enemies. Mikhail can also charge into foes with a burst of speed while in the air or bathe them in flames while on the ground.
Slaying enemies is no clean job, so it isn’t long before Zero’s white clothing is covered in blood. The more bloodshed you manage to create, the longer Zero is able to maintain her Intoner form. This form, when activated, renders her practically invincible for a short duration of time and exponentially increases her damage output. The only downside is that the camera spins in circles every time this is activated which makes it incredibly disorienting to use in the midst of a hectic melee.
After every mission, your experience and money is added up and Zero may gain levels based on your performance. Acquired funds can then be used to purchase new weapons, healing items, and upgrading existing items. Completing certain story missions unlock side quests that can help build Zero’s strength and finances even further, as well as earn new materials and weapons. They mostly employ maps used for the story missions and task you with defeating a certain number of enemies, collecting so many items, or surviving a set number of rounds. Completed missions can be replayed at any time along with any available cutscenes, so any treasure chests missed can be obtained on the next go round. This means that there are effectively no “missables” in this game, which is always a relief. The less a game has to rely on a guide to avoid starting over from scratch, the better.
Progressing to a certain point in the game will unlock the use of Disciples. Two Disciples can accompany Zero at any given time to help fend off enemies in battle. Since they can’t be killed, they are incredibly useful as meat shields for enemies, as having them get slapped around has absolutely zero impact (see what I did there?) On the other hand, they’re practically useless for doing any meaningful damage and most of the time, they can’t even be used during boss battles.
You can only save your progress between missions, though there are mid-mission checkpoints that you can pass through that will allow you to restart from that point should you die. Although healing items are incredible helpful in keeping Zero alive for extended periods of time, some of the late game enemies can do massive amounts of damage and in quick succession. I’ve experienced a number of deaths on account of not keeping my health at an adequate level before charging into battle and no healing items can save you if an ogre saps the remainder of your health. This becomes problematic once you realize that checkpoints are very sparsely populated throughout each stage. Expect to redo ten to fifteen minutes at a time if you manage to eat it near the end of a mission.
The visuals have come a long way from its PS2-era brethren. The character designs are as outlandish as their personalities, giving them a unique appearance that animate rather well. Slashing foes spatters the screen in blood and over time, Zero herself will become soaked in crimson. Cutscenes are rendered using the in-game engine and they do an adequate job of communicating Drakengard 3‘s strange plotline. The engine tends to buckle when there’s a lot going on at once though, and there were a few occasions where I felt like I was watching a slideshow. I also encountered at least one game-breaking glitch that caused me to restart a mission on account of an enemy getting lodged into a wall. At least there’s not a heavy reliance on fog to disguise the lack of draw distance this time.
Drakengard 3 shares Nier’s composer, Keiichi Okabe. And true to his reputation, produced a memorable score for this title as well. The voice acting is also exceptional, with the English cast speaking their lines with such incredible delivery that every humorous line hits its mark. If you pre-ordered the game, you’ll also have access to the Japanese language track, though you’ll have to clear some room on your hard drive. The download size for the Japanese voices is somewhere in the neighborhood of ten gigabytes (!) in size.
While I miss the open battlefields of the original game and the ability to hop on a dragon at any time to scorch large swaths of enemies at once, the improved combat is more than enough to justify the radical changes in design. Attacks feel more fluid, the combos are satisfying, and the ability to swap weapons midst combat makes the game feel more modern. That said, Drakengard 3 could do with more polish in some areas, such as the frame rate issues and glitches as well as the inability to react to an enemy onslaught while in midst-combo. I went into the game with low expectations based on the reputation of its predecessors and walked away impressed, if not a bit baffled by the non-sensical plot. If you enjoy games such as Lollipop Chainsaw or No More Heroes, you’ll get a kick out of this too.
Short Attention Span Summary
Drakengard 3 is a far cry from anything resembling its predecessors, or even Nier. The large, open battlefields have been replaced with linear paths, and the combat system has gotten a much needed overhaul. The otherwise dark story has been livened up with humorous dialogue to ease some of the tension and helps swallow a plot that otherwise doesn’t make much sense until long after the credits roll for the first time. Multiple endings and side quests give enough excuses to play it again long after the initial run, not to mention completing Zero’s expansive weapons collection. The game also looks and sounds good for the most part, though the frame rate tends to tank if there’s too much going on at once. As a whole, it may be a bit too bizarre for most, but for those looking for a solid action title, Drakengard 3 delivers far more than I ever expected it to.