As one of the few original RPG titles published by Square-Enix at its release, Drakengard took flight with a roar, anticipation riding high on its wings. Today, interest seems to have faded with barely a whimper. Now its sequel has swept onto the stage. Will it be love ? or will it be ambivalence?
Drag-On Dragoon 2: Love Red, Ambivalence Black, shortened to Drakengard 2 for English-speaking audiences, is a direct sequel to cavia?s ambiguous original. The previous game was hyped like crazy, but soon there were numerous complaints about titles like Panzer Dragoon having done the whole ?flying dragon aerial assault!!!? thing better. But it was a strong game in its own right, featuring startlingly good voice acting in a world with a unique look and dark story.
To tell the truth, my first impression of Drakengard 2 was ?Drakengard Lite? ? but that isn?t necessarily a bad thing. The overall feel is brighter and closer to that of a conventional RPG, which may make it more acceptable to many people. Where Drakengard was a stripped-down, tightly action-focused game almost paranoid in its repetitiveness, its successor has taken up familiar trappings like money, accessories, items, and visiting villages, taking on a somewhat less obsessive air without severely compromising its grittier origins.
Fight or fly? ? Gameplay
You have to give props to cavia: it seems like they really listened to the complaints about the gameplay. As Drakengard 2 maintains much of the original?s system, it is admittedly still rather repetitive in nature. But there are some excellent refinements, allowing you to burninate the countryside with more style and ease.
You begin the game with two options: Standard (Easy) and Challenge (Normal). The story is once again split into chapters, further broken up into verses/missions. Free expeditions continue in this game, serving as both distractions and levelling up opportunities.
Similar to Drakengard, there are alternative story sequences that progress to each of the game?s three endings ? but unlike the original, you can?t replay previous sequences to your heart?s content, and you must access new story scenes by creating a clear save file and replaying the game completely to open them up. As with many titles nowadays, the clear file will maintain your collection of weapons and experience, as well as some extras ? a good thing, considering replays are set to increasing levels of difficulty!
Battles are divided between two main modes ? ground and aerial, with crossovers between the two where you can switch between fighting on foot and calling your dragon to unleash heck from the sky. Veterans will notice that, for the most part, missions have no time limits, giving you much more breathing room. A new combo system is in place that utilizes squares and triangles to perform different special attacks. It?s a commendable attempt at putting some variety into the fight, but it?s still all-too easy to stick with the basic hack-and-slash for most battles.
Taking and receiving damage allows you to gain MP for spells. Additionally, successfully damaging opponents builds up a chain of hits, and longer chains reward you with more experience points, as well as HP and MP-restoring spheres. Whacking enemies can also land you a windfall of coins, useful for purchasing healing items and weapons which are now available from village stores (what?ll they think of next?).
A handy ?radar? or map is provided that can be toggled through different views, revealing the location of monsters and targets (enemies and obstacles to be destroyed to advance to the next stage of the fight), as well as some important treasure chests. This time, you can also see fellow soldiers assisting with the fight, and they also attack enemies and deal damage. The damage is rather pitiful, though, so for the most part you?re on your own.
There?s no need to worry about accidentally killing your own people, particularly while sweeping the fields on dragonback, because you can't hurt them even if you fry them at point-blank (although it is sadistically amusing to see them bounce on the ground like the rest of the monsters). On the other hand, while you can?t hurt them, individual NPCs do have HP bars ? and for some missions, protecting them from the monsters is critical, and if an important NPC dies the game is over.
The Grand Wheel ? a slotted wheel for equipment to access during battle ? makes a return, and this time it can be toggled between two layers, one for healing items and another for the weapons. There are five weapon classes to choose from, and selecting a different one changes your active character on the battlefield. Long and short swords are Nowe?s domain, Eris fights with spears, Manah uses rods/staves, and axes are Urick?s weapon of choice. Each class has its own general strengths and weaknesses, while individual weapons also possess their own attributes in terms of speed, reach, combos and magic. With use, weapons can also level up, improving in attributes and also providing access to more combo attacks.
Those who cried whenever they had to take to the skies in the original Drakengard will be relieved. Again, the controls for aerial battles are largely the same, but alongside the added ability to heal, the dragon is also much more manoeuvrable. During ground battles, for instance, it?s now possible to hover in place, and not worry about overshooting while flying, and having to awkwardly turn yourself around to sweep the field multiple times. There are still a few things to work out, though, as getting stuck between rocks and flying in a herky-jerky motion around mountainous terrain occurs a little too often for my taste (or is it my poor steering?).
As before, you can lock onto multiple enemies to fire self-targeting blasts of dragonfire. This lack of need for aiming is balanced by the fact that locked shots are weaker. Meanwhile, dragon magic has changed. In ground battles, the dragon can build up MP from damage dealt and received and also launch some spectacular (and bloody) special attacks. In aerial combat, however, you must take down enemies without locked shots to reveal breath spheres. Hitting a sphere changes its colour and magic. There?s an assortment of magic available, from a basic firestorm shower similar to Angelus? in the original, to a gatling-gun-like water sphere.
All in all, the vast majority of changes are for the better, creating additional dimensions of user-friendliness, complemented by a push for a little more strategic thinking.
The world of the dragon sphere ? Story
Summarized spoilers for the first ending of Drakengard follows.
18 years ago, a vicious war raged against the Empire and the Union. Led by its priestess Manah ? a mere child forsaken by her own mother ? the Empire sought to destroy the five Seals that protected the world, including the human Goddess Furiae. Her brother Caim, a Union soldier, formed a pact with a Red Dragon, trading his voice in exchange for the dragon?s power. But they were no match for the Empire?s might as all Seals fell, one by one. In the end, the Red Dragon sacrificed herself to become the single new Seal, bearing the weight of the entire world. ?You are the first and the last to know my name,? she said to the human who could not speak. The world was saved ? and the human wept.
As with all things, timed passed, and the Knights of the Seal were created to prevent the past from ever repeating. Nowe, abandoned in the wild and raised by the blue dragon Legna, was adopted by Oror, General of the Knights, who brought him up as his own son. Hailed ?the saviour? for reasons unknown to him, Nowe is inducted into the order despite the reluctance of the other warriors in fighting alongside this ?dragon child?. Of course, he soon discovers there is more to this Knighthood ? and to the so-called peace blanketing the land ? than meets the eye. He encounters a mysterious woman named Manah who claims to be protecting the people from the Knights she calls corrupt. She is only the beginning of many unsettling discoveries ?
As mentioned earlier, Drakengard 2 is a direct sequel in every sense, and the events that unfold are heavily dependent on what happened in the previous game. Past characters play crucial roles, and cavia should be lauded for doing such a swell job in developing its world. For the uninitiated, it?s not necessary to have played Drakengard to be able to enjoy the story (though of course previous experience will have provided a more detailed knowledge of the background events, and some advantages in foreshadowing).
This might be a good time to mention that blood and gore are not the only reasons this game qualifies for a Mature rating. Drakengard dealt subtly (and in a few instances, not-so subtly) with topics as controversial as incest, and its successor is also unafraid to touch on themes of a similar, uh, provocativeness. To the creators? credit, it?s never presented in a gratuitous or excessively overt fashion, so if you?re open-minded and just want a good story, it shouldn?t really bother you. But it is there.
Watching me, watching you ? Graphics and Sound
Drakengard 2, while attractive enough, isn?t much of a jump graphically from the original. The cinematics are lovely, but compared to some other titles out there, the in-game sequences are a bit lacking in detail, and much of the non-FMV story action is played out with talking heads ? which, while gorgeously-drawn, remain gorgeously-drawn talking heads. Some portions of the battlefield, particularly when you?re running about in caverns, are also ridiculously dark, and I could barely make out anything on my old telly.
In terms of sound, for most people, RPGs and dubbing have never seemed to get along well. Like many RPG fans, I know first-hand how some ?vocal talents? can practically turn you off a game for life. For a title like Drakengard 2, which features full voice acting, from FMV to battle to even the chapter opening narratives, translating over to a complete English dub is quite risky. Many fans including myself were pretty worried about how Drakengard 2 would fare in this department, especially in the footsteps of the original, which featured some exceptional voicework.
I?m almost relieved to be able to say that yes, it admirably continues the original?s tradition of quality. The voices in this game are well-matched, with excellent inflection. One thing I loved about the original was the neo-British/Celtic accents, which really added a distinct flavour to the game compared to typical dubs. It feels fresh in a vocal landscape that starts to sound a bit colourless and bland after a while. I was very pleased to hear this sound being maintained, even if the consistency may be questionable at times (some characters sound almost Scottish or Australian!).
My only very minor quibble is that the cast of the original Drakengard seemed more willing to do crazy things with their voices, which were spine-chillingly amazing when you had instances like Caim screaming for blood or Arioch shrieking and cackling madly. In comparison, the cast of the sequel sounds more subdued, and a bit too smooth and composed. But mind you, I'm being very picky here; the acting is in no way poor ? in terms of quality it?s truly superior to the majority of other titles.
The soundtrack of the previous game, aside from a couple of completely original pieces, was largely experimentation. Most tracks were remixed portions of various classical compositions. Their intense repetition certainly set the mood of Caim's mad killing spree perfectly ? but also did waaaay too much to help your brain reach an implosion point from the ungodly cacophony.
On the contrary, the musical environment of Drakengard 2 can be described as very symphonic. Composed by Yoshiki Aoi (who also worked on the previous game?s music) there?s a distinctly classic and operatic feel to some of the tracks, like the opening Forbidden Prelude, with echoes of some of the unique sound present in Drakengard?s music. Despite having a smaller repertoire than most other RPGs, the pieces do a good job of not becoming incessantly repetitive, and convey the necessary moods well.
Love me, I want you to love me
The hack-and-slash-oriented system may still not be everyone?s cup of tea, but cavia has certainly tried hard to please. The series has been reworked into something a bit more accessible to a ?mainstream? RPG-loving audience. Though the series hasn?t improved too much visually, it definitely sounds better, and the story still manages to stand out in a saturated field of save-the-world epics. It will probably be overlooked considering the visibility, popularity and pedigree of certain other RPGs entering the market at the same time, but if any game deserves a chance, Drakengard 2 would be the one. If you love laying the smack-down and are looking for something a little different, try it. You might like it.
Title: Drakengard 2
Developer: cavia inc.
Producer: Square-Enix, Ubisoft
Platform: Playstation 2