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Drakengard review | Ace Combat but with Dragons, Dynasty Warriors, and Depression | Classic™ Yoko Taro™ Shenanigans™
How do ya do fellow gamers? It’s-a me, Doctor M., recently upgraded to the status of uncle-hood, and finally getting around to talking about a game I personally haven’t played yet (but I did play enough of Drakengard III, both the NieR games and watched enough let’s play and lore retrospective videos on this topic to be considered thoroughly aware of this game’s legacy). Today I’ll be talking about the first Drakengard game, truly the Evangelion of video games in terms of the fact that all discussions revolving around eccentric video game director Yoko Taro will inevitably lead to even remotely mentioning the Drag-On Dragoon series, as it is known as in Japan. What follows is a story of an ambitious project pushed out under tight budgetary restraints and reshaped to compete with what was at the time an emerging trend in popular action games. Keep in mind the fact that Drakengard’s North American release was published in the same year as Half-Life 2, Metal Gear Solid 3, Halo 2, God of War, Spider-Man 2 for PlayStation 2, World of Warcraft, Jak 3, Paper Mario The Thousand Year Door, and arguably the best Ratchet & Clank game and you’ll see exactly what caused Drakengard to attain a cult following despite modest yet underwhelming sales and predominantly mixed reviews at the time. You might also be asking: why? Well, let’s just start with explaining the plot of this crazy fever dream of a game and I’ll tell you why. It might take a while though, because hoo Nellie does this game have a crazy as heck plot! -Ahem!-
Plot - Going Down the Rabbit Hole that is the Plot of Drakengard
In Drakengard, you mostly play as Caim, a whiny bloodthirsty anime pretty boy with a big sword who’s in the middle of fighting an army of red-eyed zombified imperial knights terrorizing a castle under the jurisdiction of the Union who are safeguarding Caim’s sister Furiae, who happens to both serve as the de-facto Goddess in name only as well as one of four seals keeping the mysterious Watchers from entering the world of Midgard. Then, one of those zombified soldiers slashes Caim in the back during a pre-rendered cutscene, delivering pain so severe it takes our hero 45 minutes worth of tutorialized gameplay to even realized that somebody swung a sword right across his fucking back. It gets to the point in which Caim has to make a pact with some random red dragon voiced by the protagonist of Disgaea 1 all while they both pull out their weird amoeba things meant to represent them fusing their souls together as one would when making a pact with a powerful dragon, rendering Caim a silent protagonist as a result of their Faustian bargain in exchange for an implicitly romantic yet originally parasitic relationship. As soon as this happens, you immediately are thrusted into a dark and unusual plot about the typical evil Empire breaking the other seals, some dingus bard named Inuart being too creepy towards the main character’s sister to the point of trading his ability to sing for a pact with a bigger, blacker dragon to mask his personal insecurities, as well as a small kooky cast of other people who’ve made similar pacts that Yoko Taro probably thought would’ve been funny to see as a party of characters in an action RPG. These intrepid companions consisting of a boy who’s permanently stuck as a child after making a pact with a golem, a hot elf lady who eats children to compensate for the loss of her uterus, old man Verdelet who got the less severe consequence to his pact with the Ifrit not appearing in this game by merely having a bald head covered in tattoos and spouting exposition the entire time, and a blind pedophile. Don’t worry. It’ll all be explained later.
Keep in mind that this game also has five different endings, many of which could only have been reasonably achieved either through acquiring a madman’s level of soul-crushing obsession with every monotonous side-mission and hidden weapon in the game or through GameFAQs walkthroughs. Such endings include: the red dragon (who’s name is Angelus by the way) fading away into a ball of light in order to become the new seal, fighting a murderous angelic version of Furiae and then standing powerless against a swarm of similar mutant angel things, having to fight your dragon in one of the second hardest boss battles of the game while Caim decides to waste the first words he’d have said outside of the first mission by just reminding the player that he is Caim, and fighting a swarm of the Watchers (which are these giant stone baby things that eat people) and their leader (who is a giant pregnant stone woman) before Seere (that boy I mentioned who also has a sister being controlled by the Watchers by switching between creepy dancing and being randomly voiced by Daran Norris) decided to freeze the aforementioned giant stone pregnant woman in a time stasis field or some such bullshit. This all however doesn’t even compare to the most infamous ending of Drakengard, which canonically leads into the first NieR game. The final ending of this game is basically just a rehash of Ending D, except this time the giant pregnant Watcher Queen thing and Caim astride his dragon are teleported to an alternate world that is basically just modern day Tokyo to partake in the climactic insane rhythm game that has become so much of a staple to Drakengard that even its third game brought this mechanic back for its final ending as well. After pressing the right amount of buttons in time to keep away various black and yellow rings that instantly kill you upon touching, you’re then shot down by Japanese military jets as the pregnant stone lady turns into salt and Angelus the red dragon is pierced straight through Tokyo Tower, thus ending the entire game and giving Caim the unlockable ability to go on a piggy-back ride with a jet plane straight out of Ace Combat. I know I’ve skimmed through most of this game’s story, but trust me when I say that plenty of people have already discussed this game’s plot more frequently and much better than I can.
Gameplay - Or Drakengard’s Troubled Development Cycle
Before I must discuss what I’ve seen of its gameplay mechanics, I must address the elephant in the room and talk about interesting facts regarding Drakengard’s development history. Drakengard, or as stated before Drag-On Dragoon in Japan, had a very simple premise at first: to essentially be an Ace Combat style flight simulator but with dragons instead of airplanes. Then Square Enix told the small studio in charge of developing what was once called Project Dragon Sphere, Cavia, to implement ground-based Action RPG combat to compete with the emerging popularity of Dynasty Warriors 2 during Drakengard’s development, causing tumultuous difficulties regarding the PlayStation 2’s hardware. Then, after the original director was switched out and replaced with Yoko Taro, who was largely responsible for the darker tone of the game’s story. Taro was then so tired from all the adjustments they had to make to the game, he swore never to work on another Drakengard game again (until he was then brought back for the third game after NieR turned out to be slightly more successful) and was worried that its darker themes would render this game unreleasable. Lucky for him though, Sony was also tired from reviewing other game pitches the same day the game’s producer Yosuke Saito went to their offices to pitch Drakengard in Taro’s stead, so they basically approved Drakengard without looking at it whatsoever. Nonetheless, a lot of changes had to be made before the game finished its four year development cycle.
Those changes can also be evident within the game itself as the aerial combat missions involving piloting a dragon and shooting fireballs at various airborne and ground-based enemies feels much more polished in comparison to the evidently clunky, tacked-on ground combat sections where many times the only way to progress further is by either spamming the jumping light attack, using various spells, or switching to Arioch (the aforementioned hot cannibalistic elf lady) to instantly win the game. Furthermore, in a similar manner to when all mentions of the word “pope” and “papal” in the South Korean developed RTS/Action RPG hybrid Kingdom Under Fire: The Crusaders were replaced with hastily cut out bits of silence and subtitles replacing those words with some variation of “patriarch,” the Watchers were also originally called Angels in the Japanese version, and all instances of the word “God” were replaced with characters saying “the gods.” In addition, to slightly tone down the darker elements of Drakengard’s story and characters, Square Enix tried and subsequently failed to hide any reference to the fact that Furiae and Caim turned out to have an incestous romantic interest in each other which causes Inuart to be a jealous douce susceptible to demonic possession, and the fact that one of the party members you can summon, Leonard, is a pedophile who was masturbating in the woods off-screen shortly before his younger brothers died in a tragic forest fire accident, causing him to trade away his sight for a pact with the most annoying pixie in video game history since Navi from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Of course, the implications of both these instances still remain, albeit more up to player interpretation than it was in the Japanese version.
The point is, the gameplay isn’t very good outside of riding a bad-ass surprisingly sassy dragon with powerful fireball attacks and weighty responsive steering controls that’d made this game’s original concept seem like a spiritual successor to Panzer Dragoon. Outside of that, there’s a bunch of needlessly excessive grinding for experience points needed for either increasing Caim’s health bar which he also shares with his dragon or the dragon’s attack power upon leveling up depending on the mission, as well as increasing the experience levels of each weapon you come across up to a level cap of four, gaining new combos and abilities as a result. You can also switch between either of three different allies to summon temporarily before deciding that Arioch deals the most amount of DPS to various groups of enemies and thus is one of the only efficient ways of sifting through the tedious grind that is Drakengard’s side missions. Of course, those allies are only accessible through optional missions that you could easily miss on a less serious playthrough, causing you to lose access to not only a large portion of the game’s story, but also locking you out of certain endings and forcing you to try again.
Conclusion - A Flawed yet Unique Diamond in the Rough
Given the fact that I’ve yet to play this game at all and I still hadn’t even finished Drakengard III anyhow because of the tedious side-missions and choppy framerate issues despite having substantially more competent gameplay than the first game, I’ll only provide a more general score this time around based on what I’ve personally seen and how I’d personally imagine my reaction to playing it would be by comparing both those games combined. Sure, one of these games lets you play as a former prostitute who was made into one of six number-coded Madoka Magica parodizing demi-goddesses and has implied sexual relations with her party members while also babysitting a mentally challenged dragon who can’t pronounce the word “wyvern” correctly, only the first Drakengard would have an ending made to essentially be the End of Evangelion and the eclipse from Berserk but with giant floating cannibalistic babies set to the musical score consisting of various schizophrenic remixes of random classical music pieces that serves as this game’s entire soundtrack. Personally though, I still prefer NieR.
I give Drakengard the same kind of mixed reception that it was given upon release based in the early 2000’s. Sure, the gameplay itself is a mess that resulted in a company’s foolish decision of thinking “Ace Combat with dragons” was somehow not enough to make a decent game idea. However, the real meat and potatoes that people always talk about is the crazy dark storyline and its direct parallels to the NieR franchise, to which we all owe our gratitude to an equally crazy interesting game director who even went as far as making a game that was a sequel to a random stage play musical he wrote as well as a sequel to NieR, while also ending up becoming one of his most financially successful projects if not due to Platinum Games’ involvement with making NieR Automata one of the most beautiful action games with light RPG elements to grace the PlayStation 4’s line-up that Square Enix finally decided to basically remaster a previously Japan-exclusive version of NieR alongside a new ending and boatloads of new content and quality of life improvements. Maybe one day the possibility of a Drakengard remake might not be very far off after all? Maybe once Square Enix starts focusing less on suckling the teat of Disney/Marvel’s corporate stooge shenanigans and start focusing on making RPGs their fans actually want, perhaps it could happen. I doubt it though. Still, more unbelievable things had occurred before. It’s still hard to imagine that such a rushed first project would later pave the way for Yoko Taro’s more successful interpretations of his thought-provoking, unique, and darkly humorous stories of all the other games he’d go on to make.
Drakengard - Final Score
Unique, dark storyline
Kimihiko Fujisaka’s top tier character designs
Engaging dragon controls in aerial missions
Very experimental musical score
Not exactly the most polished game even back in 2004
Too much tedious grinding even for me
Those with a weak stomach for dark weird storylines might not like this
Don’t expect “NieR Automata” levels of polished combat
Visuals - ⛤⛤⛤
Story - ⛤⛤⛤⛤⛧
Voice-Acting - ⛤⛤⛤⛤
Music - ⛤⛤⛤
Gameplay - ⛤⛤
Final Score - 17 /25
Update: I had recently finished The Witcher 3 as well. I’ll probably not bother updating the score I had for my previous review since everything I said still applies to it even after completing it, but overall it was a decent game. I could’ve still gone for a romance option for Tomira though. Anyhow, I’ll be focusing more on drawings, homebrew tabletop RPG manuals and other projects I’ll work on, so don’t expect another review like this for a while, okay? I didn’t even play Drakengard. I just wanted a good excuse to talk about its troubled development history in some fashion, and I figured that this review would make more sense no matter how many times I said “giant stone pregnant woman” the whole time. Stay classy.