Drakengard is a weird series. The first game was essentially Dynasty Warriors with a darker atmosphere, unconventional but compelling characters and the ability to ride dragons. The second, largely made without the involvement of Taro Yoko, a major creative force in the series and the director of Drakengard, and was the thematic opposite, opting for a main mainstream approach that favored a lighter tone and brighter color palette. The third game, Nier, a spin-off that featured Yoko’s involvement, was more like the original, and has gone on to become something of a cult classic.
Unfortunately, Nier’s developer, Cavia, was shut down following the game’s release, and absorbed back into AQ Interactive, its parent company. But that hasn’t stopped the Drakengard team, who reunited at Access Games, from making Drakengard 3. And man, is this game something.
Drakengard 3 takes place in a dark fantasy world ruled by five sisters whose songs have the power to alter reality, an ability they use to bring peace to the world around them. Everything’s fine and dandy until Zero, the oldest sister, shows up to murder the rest of her kin for reasons that aren’t initially clear. Thing don’t go well. Zero is seriously wounded, as is her dragon companion, Michael. Zero recovers, but not without cost. When she returns, she’s sporting a prosthetic arm and a strange flower where her right eye should be, and Michael has been reincarnated as an inept pacifist named Mikhail who has no bladder control and acts more like a five year old than a dragon.
For all that, though, the mission hasn’t changed: Zero’s sisters need to die, and she has to kill them. The game plays like a hack n’ slash, but it’s really an action RPG. Zero has access to four different weapon types – swords, spears, combat bracers and chakrams (think the circular throwy thing of death from Xena) – each of which has normal and special attacks as well as built-in combos, and can be upgraded between missions with gold you’ll acquire from defeating enemies and finding chests. She can also block, parry (with a perfectly timed block), and dodge, as well, which makes Drakengard 3 pretty standard as far as hack n’ slash games go.
The wrinkle is that Zero has the ability to switch weapons on the fly. Switching weapons mid-combo causes you to enter a slow-motion state for a couple seconds, which means that you can pull off a full combo, switch weapons, and continue that same combo with another weapon before your enemy has time to react. This is exceptionally useful against larger foes and can lead to some truly ridiculous numbers on the combo counter (I’m talking about the low hundreds here) as many of your foes have no choice but to sit there and take the continuous punishment that Zero dishes out.
Wasting enemies will fill up a flower-shaped meter, and after you hit a certain threshold, Zero can enter the incredibly powerful mode, which boosts her speed and damage considerably, in addition to making her nearly invincible. In a nice touch, the meter doesn’t have to be full for Zero to enter this mode, and you can leave it at any time, making it ideal for large foes and groups of weaker enemies, too. It’s these little things – the upgrade system, parrying, and the weapon change combos – that keep Drakengard’s combat interesting in the long run. It’s not a particularly deep experience like, say Devil May Cry, or Ninja Gaiden, and there’s a lot of fun to be had in acquiring, mastering, and upgrading the games thirty plus weapons.
But Zero doesn’t just hack n’ slash. Every now and then, she’ll mount her dumb dragon and fly through the air, often taking on huge boss monsters or large groups of enemies in rail sequences that resemble the Panzer Dragoon series or in large, free-form encounters in open environments. Mikhail doesn’t always control as well as you want him to (for instance, it’s very difficult to land without hurling yourself at the ground with his dash attack), but the sections are great fun overall, mostly because they come right when you want them and don’t overstay their welcome, and that provides a nice change of pace from the hacking and the slashing. Also, roasting giant beasties and tiny soldiers as a dragon is a ton of fun, no matter how you spin it.
That’s about all there is to Drakengard 3 from a gameplay perspective. It’s not an incredible game, but it is a solid one that will keep you entertained, and the continual unlocks ensure that there’s always something new to learn and play with, and hey, you get to ride a dragon. Unfortunately, the game’s presentation doesn’t fare as well. The graphics are dated, most notably the environments, which are pretty low-res, but on the upside, you do travel to a lot of different places, from deserts to forests, and the variety makes each section play a little differently.
Unfortunately, the problems with the environment don’t stop with the visuals. Enemies are also prone to getting stuck in the environment, meaning they’ll sometimes find themselves inside of hills or atop places that there’s absolutely no way to get to. This never caused me any real problems, even when I had to kill an enemy to proceed, because I could usually find a way around the issue, such as a ranged attack or a weapon that was long enough to pierce through a wall just enough, but it’s still annoying when you have to stop what you’re doing and try to figure out how to break the game that’s already busy breaking itself.
The characters fare a little better, especially in the cutscenes, where they actually look quite good. They aren’t as appealing in-game, but the game is carried by a visually distinctive art style, and the strength of the designs themselves often makes up for any technical failings in the visual department. The main visual issue, however, is the framerate, which drops any time there are a lot of enemies on screen. It’s never really a problem, because the framerate never dips to the point where the game becomes unplayable or actively interferes with the gameplay, but it can be a bit grating in bigger engagements.
But you don’t come to a game like Drakengard 3 for the graphics, or really, even for gameplay. You come to a game like this for the other aspects: the story, the characters, the art style, the dark world, and yes, the ridiculously crude (and funny) jokes. In that regard, Drakengard 3 is amazing. The juicy center to Drakengard 3’s orange is Zero, and as you may have guessed by now, she’s not a very nice person. She mocks or murders pretty much every character she comes into contact with, and constantly belittles her companions, be they Mikhail or one of her disciples, often in a sexual fashion. When Zero kills one of her sisters, she takes her Disciple, literally and figuratively.
Pretty despicable, right? And yet, Zero is oddly sympathetic, and only becomes more so as the game goes on. Her reactions to the things around her – the other characters, who are almost universally terrible people outside of Mikhail, the ridiculous plot twists, and silly game segments – will often mirror your own, and you’ll find yourself relating to her more and more as the progresses. Her disciples are much the same way, though nearly all of them are sexual deviants who are into some really weird stuff. Seriously, one’s a sadist, another is a masochist, the third is a perennially horny old man with, in the game’s on words “a massive member,” and the fourth is a insufferable narcissist who constantly spouts false trivia as fact.
It would be really, really easy to dislike all of these characters, but the interparty chatter between both the disciples themselves, and each party member and Zero, is frequently well-written and voice acted, and it’s easy to like almost all of them despite their many flaws. Serious praise must be lavished on the localization team, because this is a game that doesn’t sound like it was written in Japanese and then translated. It sounds like it was a game written in English, and that’s a rare feat.
The story bounces between darkly serious and joyously irreverent, and the game takes a lot of joy in skewering itself as it makes fun of game design tropes, the player’s expectations, leveling systems, and Japanese character design. It’s the little things, like when Zero questions why she got experience for solving a simple puzzle or when she speaks directly to the game (and the player) when it has the audacity to end without her permission. Everything wraps up in a bizarre and fairly disappointing ending, but Drakengard 3 doesn’t actually end there.
The game has multiple endings, or branches, each with a different take on the story, and the further down the rabbit hole you go, the more you’ll learn about the characters, the story, and the world. Each ending adds something significant, and a full understanding of the game isn’t possible without having seen every ending all the way through, so when the final ending asks you to unlock and upgrade every single weapon in the game to attain it, which will require a significant amount of grinding in the game’s side missions, you’ll probably want to do it to see things through because you’ve become so invested in the game’s world.
Drakengard 3’s odd like that. It’s a game that makes you think: about game design, about the way games portray violence, about characterization and how characters that start off as horrible people can become incredibly sympathetic. It’s a game that isn’t afraid to use its content to make a point about video games, and one that constantly subverts your expectations. Zero may be hyper-sexualized, but she owns it. The only sex that takes place in the game happens on her terms, and most of the time her conversations with her disciples about sex end in her either denying them outright and telling them to shut up or taking them down a peg by mocking their performance.
And when the game starts using multiple endings to make points about the nature of game narrative and design… man. Yeah, Drakengard 3 is that kind of game. It’s not perfect; in fact, it’s got a lot of flaws. But I can think of very few games that have engaged me on the same level, or made me laugh as much, or made me think as much, or constantly surprised me as much, and I loved it for that. It won’t appeal to everyone. Some people will be turned off by the game’s intense violence, crude humor, and graphical issues. But if it sounds interesting to you at all, I urge you to play it. It’s not what I expected, and I love it. It’s flawed, and beautiful, stupid and deep, all at the same time.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 3.