By Tom Tolios / April 11th, 2015
|Release Date||May 20 2014|
Drakengard 3 is one of the most courageous video games I’ve ever played. Having been an avid gamer since the arcade boom of the late 70s, that’s not an insignificant claim. I’ve seen a lot of games that pushed the envelope, but never one that was quite so brazen and subtle at the same time. Both the story of Zero and the gameplay are metaphors for human excess; ironic when you consider that the human characters act inhumanely and the dragon Mikhail shoulders the burden of being the only member of the cast players can relate to. Surprisingly, the hapless dragon pulled it off well enough to be voted most popular in the game by Japanese fans.
Between completing the multiple storyline branches and all of the DLC, I spent over 30 hours in Drakengard 3’s shattered cities and haunted forests and found the gameplay to be unpolished. But what the game lacked in technical prowess it more than makes up for in a narrative so twisted, so off-the-wall, so weird and deliciously dysfunctional that its initially-off putting characters and nebulous plot grew on me. Suffering builds character, or so it’s been said, and everything about the world of Drakengard 3 is in such dystopian decline that, after a few hours, you see how charming it all is in its unapologetic, demented glory. But don’t expect Drakengard 3 to coddle you or provide much in the way of positive reinforcement. Like its antihero protagonist, it just doesn’t have time for your hang-ups.
Drakengard 3 is the story of six sisters named Zero, One, Two, Three, Four and Five. You play as Zero in the main campaign and, for reasons that are gradually revealed with each chapter, you’d like nothing so much as to terminate your siblings with extreme prejudice. And even that’s putting it lightly. Zero’s defining trait is intolerance. She’s brash, impatient and highly temperamental from the very beginning. This lady is one of the most foulmouthed protagonists I’ve ever had the perverse pleasure of controlling in a video game, and she’s bloodthirsty to boot. Likewise, each of her sisters possess specific character traits in the extreme. One is disciplined, Two is innocent, Three is deranged, Four is chaste and Five is lustful.
Given that Zero wants to kill her sisters, it’s convenient that they’re gathered for her to get them all in one fell swoop. She and her dragon, the mighty Michael, spend the prologue chapter flying through Cathedral City laying waste to their enemy’s defenses, after which they encounter an even larger dragon named Gabriel. After dealing with this obstacle, it’s on to the family showdown. But things don’t go Zero’s way, and she and Michael both end up failing and dying. Zero is reborn through the power of a mysterious flower with regenerative capabilities. When Zero returns, there is a miniature version of the flower growing out of her right eye. It’s unsettling imagery for obvious reasons, foreshadowing a more complex story ahead than some simple assassination quest, and a grim reminder of her circumstances.
This is where the game really begins, and your journey starts to truly take shape. When she emerges from her home ready to give it another shot, she finds her new dragon, a childlike reincarnation of Michael (both in physical and mental capacities) whom she has named Mikhail, rolling around in the mud and… other liquids (you have to see it to believe it.) Unlike Zero, Mikhail is not dependent on the flower’s regenerative properties to live again — it’s simply part of a dragon’s life cycle to be reborn. Despite Mikhail’s obvious motherly fixation on Zero, she treats him as anything but a son, instead insulting him and using various colorful metaphors when addressing him. Zero seemingly possesses no maternal instincts whatsoever, and you can’t help but feel for the little guy. He instantly becomes a sympathetic character as a result.
The context for Zero’s attitude becomes the foundation for the narrative at this point, and the story is as much about what has made her like this as it is about killing her sisters. The world and the cast is so twisted and colorful that, by the end of Drakengard 3, you might find Zero, with her antihero mannerisms, bloodthirsty and filthy sailor verbiage, to be the game’s most sane and well-grounded character.
The gameplay and controls are Drakengard 3’s weakest asset, unfortunately. It’s a hack-and-slasher of the most pedestrian sort, with simple strings of combinations that are unlocked as you level up the various weapons you can equip. I found the combat to be unimaginative and flat. Enemies sponge damage until they decide it’s time for them to do their unblockable maneuver, at which point you have to either dodge out of the way or eat big damage. In certain areas, you can summon Mikhail to come down and help you pound on the enemies, but it’s not as cool or exciting as it sounds. Personally, I’ve often found the enemy invincibility window mechanic of beat ‘em ups rather frustrating, as good games of this type reward players for getting the drop on their enemies while, at the same time, challenging them with other threats in their proximity (such as circling foes readying abilities you have to be looking out for, counterstriking and parrying.) If the game had a more hardcore fighting engine, I might have bothered getting good at it, but it was clear that Access Games was only so interested in, or perhaps capable of, making the experience a robust one. The technical shortcomings even show in the graphics; Zero, her sisters and the NPC companions are all extremely fluid and well rendered, but everything else looks neglected. It feels like there weren’t enough resources to go around, so they chose to make the things you would spend the most time with look better. Frame rate issues also abounded, a sometimes-crippling flaw for an action game.
It’s hard to even say it’s a good effort by the devs, as there aren’t really that many enemy types. Ranged foes, teleporting wizards and larger enemies often deal cheap, punishing damage and can spam hits while you are down or recovering. These are not the hallmarks of good hack-and-slash game design and the whole thing feels rather untested. Methodical approaches to combat, such as in From Software’s Souls series, fare little better, as enemies can take a long time to expose their weaknesses, and the whole process just becomes a chore. The fighting isn’t technical enough to entice aggressive play and it isn’t deliberate enough to invite a more patient style. Combat is dull and unrewarding overall, and no sense of accomplishment is achieved by winning an encounter.
There is one engaging element of the combat engine derived from the narrative and that is Intoner Mode, an enhanced state where Zero is faster, regenerates health and deals more damage. Zero and her sisters are Intoners, meaning that they have the ability to sing songs that grant the power to alter reality. The way Zero builds the meter to use this ability is by getting the blood of her enemies on her. As you hack your way through a stage, copious amounts of gore will splatter forth and cover you. These crimson stain effects remain for the entire level and, when the meter is full, you can trigger Intoner Mode. You still take damage, but you also recover health while in this state. The coolest aspect of Intoner Mode is the song Zero sings while she cuts down her enemies, as it adds a heightened sense of tension to the bloodletting. It’s very empowering and is the brightest spot on an otherwise mundane combat engine.
There are ways you can improve your combat abilities and you’ll need to take advantage of them to see things through to the end. There is a camp hub where you can level up your gear and take side missions to earn more money to buy new weapons and gather the raw materials for the necessary upgrades. Establishing synergy with the various NPCs by taking them with you on missions also grants you special weapons that would otherwise be inaccessible. You can repeat the side missions as many times as you like, with any pair of NPCs you prefer, in order to build up experience, currency and materials. As many of the stages are tedious and filled with annoying enemies, your best bet is to find a good grinding balance so you aren’t spending too much time slogging your way through the more frustrating zones over and over. Finally, you can interact with NPCs between missions at the camp and I strongly recommended you view every conversation available in the game. They are a wonderfully weird cast of characters.
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