The lone warrior “Caim” makes an immediate and impressive impact, cutting a bloody path across a field of flesh. Even after suffering a mortal wound, Caim slices through pockets of steel-clad soldiers, eventually stumbling upon the treasure they guard: a ruby red dragon, a proud beast lingering on the cusp of death. To survive, the pair forms a sacrificial pact — Caim gives up his voice, the dragon gives up its independence. Together, they shall take flight and slaughter all who oppose their path of vengeance.
It’s a truly invigorating opening. Unfortunately, Caim’s mute presence and the dragon’s awkward controls can’t sustain an entire adventure. One-sided conversations soon grow tiresome, slow combat speed and poor camera angles hinder the swordplay, and developer Cavia’s efforts to hide these weaknesses can’t quite compensate.
Manly brawlers rely on heavy population and exciting action. On occasion, Drakengard admirably succeeds at the former; unfortunately, enemies are just as often spread across the map in easily-eliminated pockets of four or five. As far as exciting action, Caim’s speed — and that of his opponents — is just too slow. If the ancient Dynasty Warriors 3 represents natural movement, then Drakengard flows like a battle fought underwater. Furthermore, since it lacks in battle techniques, Drakengard compares even less favorably to its rugged PS2 brothers Chaos Legion and Berserk.
To mask the action’s simplicity, the developers included an experience system by which weapons increase in size and power. Locating the dozens of hidden weapons is challenging and enjoyable, but replaying previously-conquered missions to earn the huge amounts of experience necessary to hone those weapons is a pain. Keep in mind that experience is lost whenever the player continues. That’s fine when playing for progress — victory feels like more of an accomplishment when it’s hard-earned — but replaying stages and losing experience due to death is annoying when grinding to gain levels. Drakengard shouldn’t have expected players to grind in the first place, but it does, so “problems” that don’t hurt other games do hurt Drakengard.
During battle, Caim can leap atop his dragon and drown enemy armies with a rain of fire. Although it sounds impressive, this mechanic draws immediate comparisons to the far superior Panzer Dragoon. The dragon is quite slow. If hit by two arrows — two arrows — Caim falls back to the ground. Does being knocked off the dragon make the game hard? Not really. Does it make the game annoying? Yes.
That’s the real issue with Drakengard: it’s annoying. Killing stuff just isn’t fun. If it were, I’d be able to look past such faults and thrive in the moment. Alas, a poor camera and a lack of impact (weapon blows feel like they’re striking sacks of wheat, not people) further hamper the action.
Others will attest that Drakengard is better-known for its story than for its action.
I disagree! Drakengard is best known for its imagery, which is often mislabeled as a “story”. Black dragons duel amidst sunset skies, spewing fire across fields stuffed full of soldiers; warriors soar past cyclopean giants as they smash towers to pieces; a psychotic hero watches a grief-stricken villain clutch the lifeless body of the woman he loved . . . these are powerful images. The story that accompanies those images is simplistic. The storytelling is pathetic. But damn, those are some powerful images.
Consider Arioch. Per the instruction manual, she’s a crazy lady who eats children. And she’s one of the heroes. That’s pretty messed up — in a cool way. People love to talk about Arioch and tell stories about Drakengard’s avant-garde approach. But here’s how “Arioch the child-eating heroine” really works. In the third chapter, the third chapter of nine, this crazy lady who supposedly eats children joined my party. For the remainder of the game’s nine chapters, she never spoke or appeared onscreen again. I spent hours and hours of playtime asking myself: “Why doesn’t this lady ever speak? Why isn’t she on my television screen? When is this child-eating freak going to do something?” The unfortunate answer was . . . “never”. I’ve played for hours and achieved three endings. Three times, I’ve heard the end music play and seen the credits roll. Never did the crazed elf Arioch slaver over a child’s bloody corpse. It’s not just Arioch, either; other party members were also mysteriously silent. Never did the “grotesqueries” I’ve read about descend from the sky, never did I fight some supposedly awe-inspiring pregnant demoness.
Friends tell me that the game doesn’t get cool until I achieve the fourth and final “true” ending (I’m told that the fifth alternate ending is a bit of a joke). Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by dozens of other titles, but an action game shouldn’t require a twenty-hour warmup. If a maniacal child-eating elf travels beside me for twenty hours, I expect to see her act maniacal or eat a child within those twenty hours.
One of the extra characters does appear during a side mission, which I played after beating the game for a third time. During this special mission, Caim kills children, but these “children” are simply pint-sized versions of the same soldiers he’s been decimating for chapter after chapter. The only person who begs Caim to cease his slaughter is a battle-shy man named Leonard. Everyone else realizes the obvious; Caim has to kill the kids, or else he’ll die. They may be small, but they’re still enemy soldiers.
During that entire side mission, as corpses of children fell left and right, the maniacal child-eating elf somehow managed to never eat a single child.
I can sense the ambition in Drakengard’s imagery, I can sense the desire to create a unique product with dozens of hidden weapons, but I can’t sense the emotion. What did the developers want me to feel? Are these images just an appeal to chic, adolescent nihilism? Why won’t any of the secondary characters participate in the storyline?
Reading about Drakengard — reading how Caim slaughters children, reading how Arioch eats babies, reading tales of dementia and human sacrifice — is more exciting than actually playing the game and experiencing those events firsthand (or not experiencing them, as the case may be). This is not how games were meant to be.