With the abundance of ‘must have’ titles to appear for the PS2 over the past holiday season, it’s inevitable that some smaller titles will be overlooked while everyone buys (and plays) the most heavily hyped games. Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance seems to have suffered this fate, being a great game a lot of people haven’t played. It also seems to be happening to Surreal Software’s Drakan: The Ancients’ Gates. Although, Drakan does seem to be garnering some attention through word of mouth, many have skipped over this game—and that’s unfortunate, because Drakan is an excellent action game with some RPG elements.
Drakan: The Ancients’ Gates is a sequel to Psygnosis’ PC RPG of a few years back. Because of this, Drakan for the PS2 often plays quite a bit like a PC RPG as opposed to a more traditional console Role Playing Game. And while most console gamers don’t tend to like PC-styled games (and vice versa), Surreal has done a nice job bridging the gaps in gameplay with this title.
Awaken the Ancient Dragons and Save the World from Darkness
In Drakan, you take the role of Rynn, a female warrior who’s bonded with an ancient dragon named Arokh. In centuries past, humans and dragons ruled together through an organization called The Order of the Flame. In the Order, noble humans and dragons bonded their souls together and protected the world from evil.
Unfortunately, some of the Order weren’t as noble as they were supposed to be, and a war for power erupted. When it was over, the Order was in ruins and the Elder Breed of Dragons returned to their hiding places and slept for hundreds of years.
Because of this, the land of Drakan was one where lawlessness reigned.
Through a strange twist of fate, Rynn awoke Arokh, a dragon of the Elder Breed, and the two bonded. Now, a new evil—in the form of Jasaad and the Desert Lords—seeks to lock the citizens of Drakan into a life of slavery. Only the return of the dragons from the Order of the Flame can stop this from happening. Only Rynn and Arokh are strong enough to bring the dragons back.
While the story in Drakan: The Ancients’ Gates doesn’t break new ground, narratively speaking, the quest to re-awaken the ancient dragons is an interesting one. Where the game really shines is in the rich writing. The main plot is a relatively simple one, but the details of the land and its mythology are deep and engrossing. Drakan seems like a real world, filled with real people instead of simply a bunch of NPCs. Obviously a great deal of thought went into the game—and it’s stronger because of it.
One of the highlights of Drakan is the gameplay. The game is an action-RPG (or an adventure game with quite a few RPG elements in the mix) wherein Rynn must explore both the land and the skies.
The world of Drakan is huge, and exploring all of it will find you wandering through caves and dungeons, flying high in the sky, and exploring numerous regions each with its own weather and geography.
While on the ground, you’ll control Rynn, who has the ability fight with melee weapons, use a bow and arrow, or cast magic. Going through the game and battling enemies earns you experience points—and when the experience gauge is filled, you will be allotted one experience point to put in any of the three categories you choose (melee, archery, or magic). As your rank increases, you’ll be able to use stronger weapons, more powerful armor, or gain access to stronger spells. Unfortunately, you can only reach level 12 in the game—meaning you won’t have enough experience points to max out all of the categories.
This can lead to problems, because trying to create a balanced character (which is what I’d assume most people would do) leaves you with a character that can do everything, but none of it very well. Instead, it seems far more logical to pick one area and concentrate on it, while diverting four or five points to one of the secondary traits. Of course, the fact that you can’t max out all of the categories seems to add a bit of replay value to the title—you can go through once concentrating on being a warrior, another time as an archer, and a third as a wizard.
At any rate, you’ll maneuver Rynn through a multitude of caves, dungeons, and other places. While doing this, you’ll invariably encounter enemies who you’ll need to destroy. Fighting is relatively simple—the R2 shoulder button locks you on to the closest enemy (which is very reminiscent of the Z-targeting system from the Zelda games), and another button causes you to swing your sword/fire your arrow/cast your spell. For more challenge, you can forego the auto-targeting and just fight. This makes the game a little more challenging since the auto-targeting allows you to target an opponent and continually strafe him until he dies.
Much like Diablo, the game has a multitude of weapons and armor. You can find them in treasure chests or buy them in stores. Also like Diablo, your weapons and armor wear down with use, meaning you’ll have to repair them regularly—and each repair makes them a little weaker than they were originally.
The game also mirrors Diablo with its inventory system, which is comprised of a set number of blocks. Different items take up a different number of blocks. Because of this, you won’t be able to load up on weapons or other items.
When moving around the world of Drakan, you’ll do so by hopping on Arokh’s back and taking to the sky. While most games would undoubtedly make the Arokh segments more of a filler than an integral part of the game, that’s not the case here. While in the air with Arokh, the game resembles Panzer Dragoon in a number of ways. You’ll not only use your dragon to get you to places that would be inaccessible otherwise, but you’ll also use him to fight enemies in the air and on the ground. It’s much easier to take out a camp full of Wartok’s with Arokh’s breath attacks from the air than it is to fight them hand-to-hand on the ground.
In another move that shows the game’s PC origins, Drakan is filled with a multitude of quests. There are numerous main quest objectives—things that must be done in order to advance the plot—as well as side quests that can be completed or ignored. The side quests run the gamut from finding a lost woman to finding four items so a wizard can break a magical barrier. While most games would have a variety of simple fetch quests, the side quests in Drakan never feel like timewasters. Because of that, you’ll find yourself wanting to complete them all just to see where they lead you and what rare items you might find.
About the only real downside to the gameplay is the enemy AI. There are numerous holes in the AI that you can exploit to your advantage, which hurts the overall difficulty of the game a bit. Monsters will often forget about you if you duck behind a crate or turn a corner. Or, if they don’t forget about you, they won’t be able to figure out how to get around the object and continue the attack. It’s not a major flaw, but it would have been nice had the enemies been a little smarter.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the game has a few bugs and glitches in it as well (yet another reminder of PC games, eh?). The most glaring bug can be a game killer. If you enter certain caves on foot without riding Arokh into them, when you emerge on the other side, the dragon is gone for good—meaning you’ll have to go back to an earlier save, or if you don’t have one, you’ll be starting the game over. I’m not sure how the game testers missed this bug—it’s a pretty big one. The simple solution is to save before entering any cave and use more than one file on your memory card (no small task since each save file takes up 1500k of space). The good thing is that you can save anywhere at any time.
So, while there are a few bugs and weak enemy AI, Drakan’s overall gameplay is strong enough to overcome the flaws. I can’t say enough about the way the game seamlessly blends traditional hack-and-slash action with the dragon flying elements of Panzer Dragoon.
Featuring some nicely detailed character models and a load of textures, the graphics in Drakan are pleasing on the whole. While the game isn’t as pretty as Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance, the graphics are good overall.
The world of Drakan is massive, with a variety of different geographical regions. The designers have done an excellent job making each region look unique in comparison to the others. Whether it’s the dark and dank swamps, the snowy northlands, or the lush green valleys surrounded by mountains, the game makes each section look beautiful. You’ll find yourself simply flying around on Arokh and marveling at the graphics on numerous occasions.
There is a little pop-up and draw-in at different spots, but when considering how huge the world is, it’s forgivable. There’s also some clipping in a few spots, but like the draw-in and pop-up, it’s minor and won’t detract from your enjoyment of the game.
Drakan’s character models are all nicely rendered (although a little more variety in the NPC’s faces would have been nice) and relatively well animated. Some of the NPCs look a little stiff in their movements, but Rynn moves well with the fluid grace you’d expect from a female warrior.
Perhaps the most impressive character is Arokh the dragon, who looks fantastic. His flying is something beautiful to watch, wings flapping as he hovers or moves through the air. Should you choose to dive down to the ground for a closer look, Arokh extends his wings like a gliding eagle and swoops down through the sky.
Spell effects and combat animations are just as impressive, with lots of frames of animation. While the attack combos get a little repetitive as you get later in the game, you can vary them up a bit by adding in some thrusts instead of just hacking away.
For the first hour or so, the controls of Drakan were quite annoying to me. I’m not sure what it is exactly, but they just don’t seem natural. Perhaps it’s the fact that the game requires you to use not only almost every button on the controller (including the shoulder ones), but also both analog sticks and the D pad as well. That can make things confusing and a bit cumbersome when you’re in the heat of battle.
However, after an hour or so, the controls become a lot more fluid and natural. They’re still not flawless, but you get used to them.
The left analog stick maneuvers Rynn (or Arokh), one button attacks, another jumps, one blocks, etc. The right analog stick can rotate the camera a bit so you can see your surroundings outside of the 3rd person behind-the-back perspective.
You can put items in the ‘hot slot’ menu, which is sort of like the belt in Diablo. Pressing R1 will bring up the hot slot menu, and you can spin the choices around until you find what you want, push a button and equip or use it. Unfortunately, the interface is a little cumbersome, which is even more problematic when you realize that pulling up the menu doesn’t pause the game. You will die numerous times while trying to find a healing potion in your hot slot menu—there just seems to be no way around it. While I can certainly appreciate the implied realism of the system (because, after all, in real life you wouldn’t be able to freeze your attackers while you got a better weapon or healed), I wish it would have worked a little more fluidly overall.
Aside from that, the control is solid. It’ll take you a while to get used to it, but once you do, it’s like second nature.
Drakan’s music is pretty much what you’d expect—majestic fantasy music in most scenes, with some darker pieces for the more serious parts of the game. It’s more like background accompaniment for the majority of the game, but it’s good.
The game is entirely voice-acted, and much like Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance, it’s some of the best voice acting I’ve heard in a game. Rynn has a British accent, while Arokh has the kind of deep voice you’d expect to hear from a dragon. The rest of the voice actors are all quite good as well. Particularly interesting is the way some of the people from different regions have different accents. This adds quite a bit to the game in terms of realism.
The other major plus in this category is the sound effects work. When Rynn walks on snow, it sounds like someone walking on snow. Each surface has its own unique sound.
On that same topic, hitting your sword into different objects makes different sounds. There’s a sharp clang when you strike metal or shields, a wooden thump when you hit a crate, and the sound of wood splintering when you break open barrels. Needless to say, the sound work is one of the game’s strongest points.
Ultimately, Drakan: The Ancients’ Gates is a great action-RPG. The engrossing storyline (with its rich detail), a solid battle system, lush graphics, and excellent sound all work together to make a game that works on nearly every level. While there are some flaws (the few bugs in the game and the weak AI being the most glaring), the positives with this title far outweigh the negative. If you liked Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance, you’ll want to check out Drakan as well. Let’s hope Surreal makes a sequel to this one.