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.
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.
The second mission type launches you into the air on the back of the dragon, and becomes almost an on-rails shooter. Again, the idea is to kill pretty much everything you see. The standard fireball attack remains, but the magic attack is beefed-up and will automatically seek out multiple targets to assist you. As with the ground missions you are free to explore the scenery, but the environments suffer from the same lack of variety and colour as the ground missions, as does the assortment of enemy types. Sure, you can fly around a little, but your next target is always marked and there is nothing to be gained or seen from straying from the beaten airway. The final mission type, events, are really the same as the other mission types. The only difference being that the goal is to talk to someone at the end of it. There will usually be a few enemies to dispatch before reaching your target, but no where near the number you face in a normal mission. Think of these as brief interludes rather than full-blown missions.
Essentially the genre revolves around button mashing, and there is ample opportunity to exercise this here. During each ground mission in particular you will encounter hundreds of enemies to dispose of; in one of the later missions it is possible to rack-up well over 1500 kills. Whilst this ridiculous amount of carnage is not necessary (as the only requirement in a mission is to kill marked targets), there are benefits to killing as many as you can. For each kill Caim or the dragon registers, they will earn experience points, and grow - RPG-lite style - increasing health and power. In addition to character growth, each weapon has a kill meter. Upon attaining the required number of kills with a weapon it will also level-up, with each upgrade granting higher attack power and stronger magic. With the ability to hold up to eight weapons per mission (which can be changed on the fly), you can sometimes gain levels for more than one weapon on a single mission.
Whilst the graphics on both the ground and in the sky are merely average, Drakengard sounds pretty good. The weapons clang, Caim's armour chinks, the dragon's wings beat with purpose, and magic attacks boom, and feel powerful. Enemies cry out and there are mutterings from the dragon or a supporting cast member - but not Caim (as part of the pact he becomes mute). The cutscenes are also well-voiced, and accompanied by a haunting soundtrack which helps create a suitably dark atmosphere. The dragon's lines, though, are spoken by somebody who is practising their croaky â€I'm not well today boss, honestâ€ voice, and does grate after a while.
With plenty of scope to maim and incinerate, Drakengard is a good game and an enjoyable romp. The depth provided by weapon and character level-ups provides an incentive to press on and hit the next level, as will the hunt for all 64 weapons scattered throughout the land (which all need to be collected to see the game's final ending), but there are problems that stop it from being a great game. Superficially, the graphics needed to be better, both in colour and variety. And whilst the fogging and blandness of the landscape are probably required to allow more enemies to be rendered on screen, suffering from pop-up as well, is an. There are other problems; the nature of the genre means that the action is repetitive, and whilst the different mission types help to mix things up, with only one goal (kill everything), it is not enough to keep things feeling fresh. There are also occasional camera issues with the auto-targeting in the flying missions, which robs you of a forward view. Perhaps one of the most annoying though is the lack of a save-anytime option - especially if you have racked up hundreds of kills, only to be shot at and killed by hordes of archers.
Gripes aside, what it does, it does well, and with polished presentation and production values. Drakengard is easy to pick-up-play, providing a decent mix of hack-and-slash and shoot-'em-up action in a fantasy world. Casual gamers can approach this with little regard for the optional side-quests, or maxing out the weapons, but the very same tasks will keep more hardened folk happy. Of course, any game in the genre will have to be compared to the mighty Dynasty Warriors series, and Drakengard is no exception. And comparatively speaking it holds its ground well; having a more engaging storyline and variety of mission types means that those who are feeling a little jaded by Koei's current offerings will lap this up, and should applaud Square-Enix for trying something a little bit different. With that in mind, Dynasty Warriors devotees should seriously consider a purchase. For the rest, try before you buy. Drakengard is not the next evolutionary leap some may have hoped for - but it is no dodo, either.