In this day and age of story-driven gameplay and the expectation of at least five-hours plus playtime to justify the expense of a purchase, the humble old-school beat-'em-up never stood a chance. With little-to-no plot and completion time normally clocking-in at a few hours, the genre was never going to impress upon this new breed of gamer unless the formula changed. So in order to survive, the genre had to adhere to Darwinian principles and evolve from the metaphorical ape it once was. And so can Drakengard, from Square-Enix, continue the evolution of the genre, or does it remain with the apes?
Drakengard sticks to a formula you may be aware of if you've ever heard of Dynasty Warriors 2. Released for the Playstation 2 in November 2000, Dynasty Warriors 2 took the idea of a simple beat-'em-up and added pseudo-strategy aspects, character growth and the reliance upon weapons, rather than fists, to inflict damage. As if to signify Joe Public's acceptance and approval of the new direction, Dynasty Warriors 2 has since spawned numerous sequels. That said, although using some artistic licence, the Dynasty Warriors games are all based on the same period of Chinese history (the Three Kingdoms era), and so the scenarios are somewhat limited because of it. Good for Drakengard then; by not being restricted to a retelling of an old story we have a brand new world for our destructive pleasure.
'Drakengard allows you to rain fire from the sky'
Square-Enix, best known for role-playing games, have taken the basic gameplay mechanics of a title in the genre and added a few bells and whistles. Whilst the game will involve simply killing lots and lots of enemies, Drakengard offers you not only the ability to maim with a sword, axe or dagger, but also allows you to rain fire from the sky, courtesy of your very own dragon. RPG-lite elements are added too - you and your dragon will level-up, as will your weapons (of which there are 64 to collect). To complete the goodness, multiple endings, side-quests and support characters are all on offer.
You play a soldier in the Union army named Caim, an angry young man on a mission. Your sister is a goddess, who unfortunately the evil Empire want dead. Not content with one evil plan, they also want to destroy the four sacred seals, which would be a very bad thing - end of the world stuff. During the course of an attempted rescue of said sister, Caim suffers a mortal wound. Fuelled only by rage and revenge, Caim makes his way to the courtyard of the castle in which his sister is held, and stumbles upon a dragon, chained to the floor and also dying. Lucky for them both, there is a way to be saved; by forming a 'pact', they will both share the same life-force. And so the goals of Caim and the dragon become one; rescue Caim's sister, and thwart the Empire's dastardly plans. The plot has a few twists and turns, and offers optional side chapters that link into the mainline story, and in true Square-Enix style is full of beautiful cut-scenes and dialogue. Although the story becomes a little bogged down at various points, it is deep enough to keep your interest throughout the game.
And what of the missions? Well, they come in three flavours: ground, aerial and events. The ground missions involve killing certain marked targets on the map. To achieve this you can either run around and maim using Caim, or take to the air and call upon your servant of the sky to burn the insurgents. Whichever method you choose, you'll find your combat options are fairly limited; with Caim, you have a sword strike, a magic attack and a running dash attack. The dragon has only a fireball attack and a rather-nifty area-effect magic attack (although both attacks hit multiple of targets at once), and also grants you a quicker mode of transport over the maps, which are fairly expansive. Whilst you are free to survey your surroundings and kill at your leisure (although there is a 60-minute time limit for each level), you will certainly not be spending too much time staring at the land you inhabit, as everything suffers from being both too dark and restricted by fogging. Nor will the design diversity of the enemies burn a lasting image on your retina. Caim and the main supporting cast look well crafted, and the animation of all characters is fluid, but compared to a Final Fantasy game (where the range of enemies is the norm), the lack of graphical sparkle is disappointing. Everything is just so grey.