Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A Look Back - Drakengard

Drakengard is one of those games where I'm going to gush about it for quite a few paragraphs here, but I need you to understand here and now that it is actually kind of a not good game.  In that the actual gameplay of it is like a Dynasty Warriors game (well, the ground portions), but 100x more stiff and wooden and just...not fun.  As a general statement of course, I had fun with it, but my enjoyment isn't a statement of fact and my warning that you will likely not have fun playing it should be enough.  So, how is it that I can sit here and claim that there is something to praise about this game, when in fact I have just said the game is not that good?  Easily.

You see, much like you don't go to an action movie expecting a deep, involved plot, you shouldn't go into Drakengard expecting good gameplay; instead, you should simply go into it expecting to have one of the most....unique story experiences any game around can offer.  It's hard to say much without spoiling the game, and I cannot promise that I won't do that, but if I'm going to, I will let you know first obviously.  But something that can be said for the game without spoiling too much is that it has five different endings, each one more insane than the last.  And the way it's handled is quite interesting, really.

Drakengard's story takes place over chapters and verses, not unlike a book, and once you clear the first ending, new verses open up that eventually lead into new chapters that take the game in entirely different directions.  Believe me, when I say entirely different directions, I mean entirely different directions.  Like, things that make you go "What the Christ?!" loudly and unapologetically.  But not in the traditional "Let's throw shit against a wall and see what sticks", but in a way that's....hard to explain, really.  It's very deliberate and while it doesn't make sense, it does.  Again, this is a lot of talking out of both sides of my mouth here, but short of spoiling the game, that's about all I can do.  I think I'll just do a section here in a few paragraphs about it.

On the same level of the story are the characters which, in stark contrast of 99% of the games out there, are in fact designed to be the absolute worst types of people.  And not in the campy sort of "Haha, he's a killer, but it's okay because he has a rogueish grin" or anything of that sort.  Just in the "These are the worst types of people in the world, yet they're trying to save it because they're not wimps" way.

Take our main character Caim, for example.  At the start of the game, Caim's goal is simply to protect his sister Furiae, who possesses (or rather, -is-) the Goddess Seal, one of the six seals that keeps the world together, from the "Empire" who has gone to war with, essentially, the rest of the world who bands together to form the "Union".  Seems fairly standard, right?  Well, it starts getting a little more involved when you realize (almost instantaneously) that Caim's parents were murdered by an Empire's Dragon, so his fighting against the Empire might not be, and in fact isn't, so altruistic.  He hates the Empire so much that, after being dealt an assuredly mortal wound in a battle with the Empire, he decides to enter into a Pact with a dragon that the Union had managed to capture during the battle. Being a non-Empire dragon doesn't make it any better, as Caim still hates Dragons as a whole (who could blame him), but his need for blood was greater than his hatred of the beasts.

This is where I need to stop and explain the principle behind "Pacts" since they are a central focus of the game.  A Pact, in Drakengard world, is when a human and a beast merge their life force into one for any number of reasons, whether they be that the two are friends or that they're both trying to avoid death.  The latter being Caim and the Red Dragon's reason.  Upon entering a pact, both become bound to one another in such a way that, should one perish, the other will as well.  They also gain the ability to speak to one another telepathically, and on occasion, hear the telepathic conversations of other pact-partners.  Of course, there's a downside (as if the whole 'one life' thing wasn't enough of one) where the Human in the deal pays what is known as a "Pact Price".  It's different for everyone, and varies by the person and the pact-beast, but some notable examples through the game are:  Caim loses his ability to speak, another party member loses his ability to see, and a third party member loses her ability to conceive.  (Also, possibly her sanity.)

As I stated, through the Pact, Caim loses his ability to speak (shown by the pact-mark on his tongue, every pact price has a mark) but gains strength, not only in being healed but in having a new Dragon ally, reluctant as she might be.  Now, able to take it to the Empire harder than ever before, that is exactly what Caim does.  Sure, you end up learning their true motives and the like, but the most important part to Caim is that he burns the Empire alive.  And does he ever.

One of the mainstays of the game is that you'll collect an entire arsenal of new weapons to stab, slice and otherwise maim any Empire soldier, beast or....thing that looks at you funny.  And while this is fairly standard, what makes it so nice in Drakengard is that each weapon has a story attached to it that you unlock as you power it up more and more.  Weapons in Drakengard "Level Up" so to speak, after set numbers of kills.  With the level up, the weapon A) Changes in appearance, B) Gets Stronger (usually), and C) Opens up a new paragraph of the story.  (Each weapon only has four levels, which is worth mentioning, so the stories are ~four paragraphs long.  Just enough to be a neat or, in some cases less neat tale.  And they get worse than that.)

The actual gameplay of the game, as I've mentioned a few times, is nothing really to write home about.  The weapons all have their own...'combos' which are, again, akin to Dynasty Warriors and other such hack-n-slash games, but is nowhere near fluid or, really, 'fun'.  At its best, it's tolerable, but at its worst it becomes what can be called with no exaggeration, "a slog", which is unfortunate really.  It does get slightly better, of course, with Dragon-back combat, which takes two forms.  In aerial missions, you have several flying targets and the Dragon controls more like it's in a Star Fox or Panzer Dragoon game than what you'd expect.  You have an aiming reticule, and the dragon has two forms of fireballs:  One standard that you can fire semi-normally, or you can charge that to lock-on to a target and launch several smaller fireballs at it.  The other form of Dragon-back combat is when you can simply jump on the dragon on a normal ground mission and burninate all your foes (provided they don't have a magical shield).  While fun, it does completely neglect your weapons and eventually just feels like you're cheapening yourself out of wholesale slaughter.

It's easy for someone to look at the game and come to the (wrong) conclusion that the game is just being Grim-dark for Grim-dark's sake.  It's not, though, not at all, and there's really not an easy way to say it to you so that you'll know it for true other than just trying to assure you that the game has actual, tangible depth in the story, and it's really not that heavy-handed or poorly done.  And I really mean this; it's easy for me to try and assure you that it's a worthy game since it's a game that is one of my favorites, but I already warned you away from playing it, so there's nothing for me to lose here.

Indeed, the best way, I think, so experience the depths of batshit crazy that Drakengard dips into is by reading the wonderful Screenshot Let's Play of the game by The Dark Id.  He's quick to point out the game's flaws, which are numerous, but he also does a fantastic job of letting the game speak for itself when necessary, even going so far as to let us know some of the details that are exceedingly toned down for the Non-Japan release of the game.  Interestingly enough, he then goes on to do Nier (which I advise you heavily against reading until you yourself have played the game, ironically enough) and Drakengard 2 (which he claimed he wasn't going to do, going so far as to do a whole update at the end of Drakengard to spoil everything about the ill-gotten sequel) which are equally entertaining in their own ways.

I have a lot of fond memories with the game, as well as a lot of not-so fond memories.  One of the latter being that I spent two years trying to beat the last boss of the game.  I don't mean that in the cutesy "Tee-hee, it too me forever" way, I mean that every now and then over the course of TWO YEARS, I put in Drakengard and tried to beat the very last boss, which was jarring not only in setting, but in the fact that it turned into an entirely different game.  Where Drakengard was a Hack-N-Slash, the final boss was....a rhythm game.  Yes, you read that right, and not only was it a rhythm game, but a rhythm game born from the deepest depths of Hell, intent on stomping you over and over until you were its bitch.

The result was possibly one of the most infamous "Trollings" a developer and/or a game has ever delivered unto a player, and again, I won't spoil it for you, but it is, in fact, hilarious.  Whether it was the fact that I had finally beaten it put me in a state of such advanced euphoria that I laughed it off, or because it's genuinely a goddamn good trolling, I could do nothing for ten minutes after finally completely beating Drakengard but laugh and laugh and laugh.

And the truly magnificent part of it, is that that ending is directly related to Nier, which as you may know is one of my other favorite games.  I can't say how, and you might know already, but it's an amazing feat that I can only applaud and appreciate, and it makes the whole experience of both games that much better.

So while Drakengard is definitely a flawed game, to me it's an important one, since it really actually does things with its story and goes places other games dare not go in a way that most games would do nowhere near as well as Drakengard managed.  And that's why I look back on it fondly.

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