What drives a man to become that which he despises? Can the conflagration of passionate revenge become the only absolute truth for those who have lost everything, including themselves? Does boundless love transcend even that of the deepest madness? For Caim, the unwilling hero of Square Enix’s Drakengard, each of these burning questions comes to a point in an almost transfixing journey into the brink of chaos.
It is a time of darkness; the forces of the Union and the Empire are locked in a struggle that could wipe both of the kingdoms from the face of the world. On the battlefield, a warrior prince of the Union, Caim, fights to keep the Empire away from his most precious treasure, his sister: the goddess Furiae. But, what can one man do against a legion but fight until his last breath. Caim knows that if the castle falls, his country, as well as his beloved sister, is no more – so he fights on and his injuries worsen.
Tattered and torn, Caim makes his way into the castle to find the goddess. There he finds a red dragon, bound and bleeding, in the castle courtyard. Filled with loathing at the beast and remembering his own parent’s slain by its kind, Caim pulls his blade to end the creature’s life. The dragon, though fatally injured, mocks at Caim and his false bravery. Sensing his own life ebb as his wounds continued to weep, Caim realizes that the dragon is his only hope for survival. Through clenched teeth, the injured lord demands a pact from the beast, for only that bond can restore them both and a second chance at revenge at the Empire. The dragon senses the desperation of the situation, and against his better judgment, agrees to the pact. Now revived, the two make haste to the sanctuary of Furiae.
Upon clearing the troops of the enemy from the castle, Caim manages to find his sister’s betrothed, Inuart, protecting the goddess from the last vestiges of the Empire’s forces. Relieved to be reunited with her brother, the goddess Furiae discovers that Caim is mute. Branded on his tongue is the seal of the pact – his price to pay for the dragon and its power. Sensing the inevitable return of the Empire, Caim, Furiae and Inuart flee the castle for safe refuge from the Empire. Bound by the pact, the red dragon accompanies the trio, though dissatisfied with its forced association with humanity.
What does the Empire want with Furiae? As one of the great seals that protect the world, the mortal goddess must be kept safe, but surely the Empire knows that to disrupt the seals will welcome a cataclysm that could destroy them all. As Caim and the dragon fly from the castle, little would they realize their fight was far from over. Together they will meet others who share a similar fate, and together they will attempt to protect the great seals. Soon enough will they discover what darkness lies in the hearts of all men.
Drakengard sets the stage for an interesting tale, and while the storytelling suffers from fits and starts during the first few hours of the game, the destiny of Caim will have RPG fans gripping their controllers tightly throughout all of the game’s five (yes… that’s right…FIVE) endings. The development of Caim and the Red Dragon’s relationship in particular is well done, beginning as blind hatred that becomes a strong bond of comradery. Even the foppish Inuart undergoes a personal transformation that can only be described as shocking. While the plot follows an initially predictable path, the writers have placed enough twisted storyline revelations and dark imagery that even jaded RPG fans will be cracking sly smiles. Good stuff indeed, though players will have to be patient until the gears of Caim’s fate begin to turn several hours into the game.
While the game lacks the traditional NPC interaction of most RPGs, character interaction between the central players occurs frequently via story interludes and even during combat sequences. The story cinemas themselves aren’t visually aspiring, as they use the in-game engine with pre-rendered “talking heads”, but all dialogue is voiced by a surprisingly consistent and competent vocal cast. The CG however, is simply fabulous – doing a remarkable job of conveying the most dramatic and moving parts of the drama. Square Enix hired the talents of industry cinematic heavy-weights, Sasaharagumi, for the task. This Tokyo-based company is responsible for some of the most action-packed rendered cinemas in gaming. Some of their works include the CG sequences for Dino Crisis 2 and Resident Evil: Code Veronica.
Visually, Drakengard is a competent action/RPG hybrid, sporting jaw-dropping pre-generated cinema sequences, incredibly large playfields and a respectable frame-rate to accompany incredibly busy gameplay. The entire adventure is fully rendered in polygons, across two distinct types of game fields and a bevy of locations.
The character models of Caim and the Red Dragon are well done, as are most of the major actors. In fact, Caim himself bears more than a striking resemblance to Gutsu of the manga/anime Berserk. Not surprisingly, since they carry ridiculously oversized swords and share similar body counts. The monster menagerie, however, falls into the worst pit of redundancy I’ve ever encountered. Apart from boss creatures, the regular enemies enjoy a myriad of palette swaps; meaning the number of unique creature designs therein are roughly a dozen. Players will find themselves bashing the same troop types and beast models for almost the entire game, which gets tiresome quickly. If repetition wasn’t an issue, then certainly their inspiration is. The overly simple design of most of the in-game enemies is disheartening. Not until the very last stages do some of the more artistically detailed creatures, like the skeleton warriors and dark paladins, begin to appear.
The concept of using the same and/or similar enemy models to maintain frame rate in an environment where the enemy appears en masse is nothing new. This was how games like Dynasty Warriors managed to convey the sense of overwhelming odds without igniting the PS2’s GPU. Drakengard attempts to relate this sense of being outnumbered, but their engine doesn’t push quite as many enemies, nor anywhere close to the detail of the latest game in the Dynasty Warriors series. The game does a respectable attempt, but falls short of today’s mark.
Thankfully, Drakengard’s over-world offers more variety, but suffers from a functional blandness that makes almost every environment forgettable. From forest to tundra, the playfields are vast, open and for the most part, lifeless. While there are small touches like the errant building and stream, very few of the playfields stand out and could have used more refining in terms of construction. Even though Caim and the Red Dragon will venture across grassy knoll and frozen plateaus, no snow falls, no wind blows. No livestock tends the fields, nor do we find a single villager running for dear life from the invading army. In such enormous areas, the lack of environmental effects and attention to detail make many of the locations look like aseptic dioramas instead of an actual world.
Also, while Drakengard’s frame-rate is mostly consistent, mixing magic and melee on the battle field can be detrimental to your vision. The in-game graphics engine, despite the simplicity of most of the models and the spartan environments, chokes horribly when swords and sorcery are used together. On dragon-back, the special effects from dragon fire, along with the dragon’s special attack, in addition to the lightshow of incoming artillery and magic can grind your visuals to a slideshow.
Acoustically, Drakengard shines briefly thanks to superb orchestration, but suffers greatly from lack of variety. Between the clashing of steel-on-steel and the loud roar of dragon flame, most of the music in-game is lost in the fray, and thankfully so, as the same tunes replay again and again ad infinitum. Sadly, this is also the case with the music during most of the storyline interludes as the same melody spirals in and out in a never-ending cacophony. While there are notable melodies such as the orchestration and chorus from the introduction as well as the game’s singular vocal track, much of the music during gameplay is repetitive and monotonous.
Vocally, the cast of Drakengard works well, though the faux British accents on most of the major characters grew tiresome. From Inuart’s crooning over Furiae, to the Red Dragon’s constant scowling at his enemies, most of the cast did an impeccable job of capturing their in-game counterparts – if only they all didn’t sound like they were from Camelot. The voice actor for Leonard’s pact fairy, however, was so grating that I felt the urge to put an ice pick through my eardrum so I wouldn’t have to hear him again. All-in-all, the performances outshine most vocal attempts at an RPG and is worthy of commendation.
Drakengard’s gameplay could best be described as Panzer Dragoon meets Dynasty Warriors. The player will engage the enemy on foot as well as on dragon-back. When on the ground, Caim (or one of his allies) will cut a swath of death through literally hundreds of enemies to his predetermined objectives for each area. During these sequences, he can choose to mount his dragon to singe his enemies with dragon-fire or travel long distances across the area with haste.
The aerial missions are a page right out of Team Andromeda’s classic Panzer Dragoon, though unlike the adventures of their holy dragon, the Red Dragon isn’t quite on rails. Almost every notable aspect of dragon flight and combat in Drakengard is taken directly from Panzer Dragoon. The Red Dragon can lock onto several targets at once and unleash homing dragon fire on his enemies. When the dragon’s power is at its peak, he can unleash a deadly burst attack that sends out hundreds of burning tracers that will seek and destroy everything in the immediate area. In fact, over the course of the game, the Red Dragon will evolve ala Panzer Dragoon II, though only into 3 forms. Personally, I found these flying sequences to be the most enjoyable part of Drakengard’s gameplay, but I found myself more than a little annoyed at the lazy camera that just couldn’t keep up with the frantic aerobatics.
To state that Caim was well equipped for taking on the entire Empire army is an understatement. During the journey, players will find over sixty different kinds of weapons for the mute anti-hero to use and master. From blades to hammers, players will find themselves grinning at Caim being a human house of pain. With the touch of a button, the Weapon Wheel appears, allowing Caim to instantly switch to a more appropriate armament from a player-picked palette of eight. As each weapon achieves a certain amount of kills, the weapon will upgrade to a new, more powerful version. Likewise, as bodies fall, Caim and the Red Dragon will gain experience, giving them more strength and health with which to acheive their goal. Caim can also summon allies into combat for a brief time, though he must find them before he can use them in battle.
Magic is tied intrinsically to the weapons Caim wields. As the weapons grow stronger, he can use more of their elemental magic. Magic and health is restored as Caim builds consecutive weapon hits into combos, but be warned, certain enemies can reflect weapon magic back onto Caim if he chooses the wrong targets. The same goes for dragon fire, as one misplaced breath attack can leave Caim and the Red Dragon in pieces.
Drakengard itself is comprised of verses over eight chapters, of which only a select few are playable the first time through. The only way to see the game in its entirety is via multiple replays which lead to one of the five endings of the game. A handy percentage counter in the menu will keep players abreast about their completion. While is may seem like a linear exercise the first time through, players are given different options at key sequences during each proceeding attempt through the game. This opens up new verses in the chapters, including new weapons, plot and even more of those amazing CG cinemas.
Players will also unlock new areas to explore in Free Expedition mode as they play through each new verse. These areas are important for finding all of the game’s 65 weapons as well as training each one to maximum. As each weapon levels-up, damage will increase, as well as how many swings Caim can use them in a single combo. Simply put, training this arsenal takes a great deal of commitment, but provides hours of gory enjoyment if you can bear the repetition.
Taking control of Caim and the Red Dragon is simplicity itself, though much of the enjoyment of the sheer carnage of the game is spoiled by a terribly ineffective camera. The lack of a lock-on system during ground combat, an overactive lock-on system on dragon-back and a loose camera that doesn’t like to re-center itself can lead to many accidental enemy hits. For an otherwise sound experience, I find it hard to believe that more time wasn’t spent tweaking what is such an important part of the experience, especially in light of the fact that the formula for successful camera work has been illustrated in many games before this one.
In the end, there’s much to like about Drakengard. Though at first, I admittedly found the game to be overly repetitive and nauseatingly simplistic with an unbelievable predictable storyline. After spending more quality time with the game, I’ve found that the adventure holds so much more than initially meets the eye. The storyline is surprisingly impressive with a strong cast and takes a few dark twists that left me genuinely disturbed. The fact that players are given new weapons, more storyline and even greater power on each subsequent play-through is a great way to encourage replay. Having five different endings doesn’t hurt either.
While the game is fairly short, roughly 25-30 hours to reach 100% – by the fifth hour, I found myself enamored by the sheer girth of my weapons cache and was genuinely looking forward to the next storyline segment and dragon evolution. I do warn those who have a problem with repetitive gameplay, as Drakengard offers little more than army bashing and dragon-riding. Thankfully, each time through the game is fairly short at approximately 5-6 hours each.
In closing, Drakengard is an enjoyable romp through torn battlefields and crimson skies. Highlighted by an excellent storyline, top-notch CG cinemas and vast replayability, the game is surprisingly enjoyable. While the gameplay does have some definite problems, I think the overall package outweighs the shortcomings, assuming you can look past the repetitive nature of the game. While I doubt the game will ever be a nominee for Game of the Year, Caim’s adventure is fiendishly good fun for RPG fans who enjoy a heaping helping of blood lust, dragon fire and end of the world prophesy.