Monday, July 26, 2010

PS2 Look - Drakengard

In a perfect world I would have had no reason to play Drakengard. I already read the "let's play" that covered the entirety of the game and I've heard enough people say that the game itself isn't any good. To me however perfection isn't very compelling and all it usually means is that what is perfect today will just be considered mediocre tomorrow. So despite everything I bought and played through Drakengard and somehow it is to me one of the more worthwhile experiences of the last or any other generation.

Drakengard is not a game that can be properly reviewed on its own merits. In other words this is one of those games where its enjoyable qualities are more reflective of the player than of the content of the game itself. With that in mind let's talk about this player of the game, myself. My motto has always been "play anything" and it simply means being open-minded. Otherwise I would probably have played nothing but arcade games and my gamer-life would have been sufficient but incredibly dull. The macabre is also interesting to me and if it can be used to tell different stories in the videogames I play well then it's all the better.

I already know the story right? Heck I even played a demo of the game several years ago and even then I considered it repetitive and boring. What I really should be focusing on is why I still went through this game despite going into it knowing that it isn't worth the time. Well that's a tough one and it's made even tougher by the fact that I actually enjoyed the entirety of the game. This isn't Deadly Premonition. This isn't the kind of game where though there are a number of issues it was designed with good intentions. This is Cavia at their highest level of "Screw everybody! We'll do whatever we want!" and by default I should hate this game and everything it stands for. To tolerate this game is to defy the standards we as gamers have grown to accept, to love this game is to defy logic itself. It's just as well then that I admit that I love this game.

The main character is a young man named Caim whose few lines are taunts and roars. He suffers a mortal wound so he makes a pact with a dying dragon so that they both can live. Humans who make pacts give up a part of them and for Caim it's his voice. What makes this an effective story-telling element is that Caim essentially becomes the player. The mute-protagonist is an RPG device older than time itself and since Caim only speaks in swordenese all of the expressions of frustration and anger are left to the player. He is eventually joined by a child who gave up aging, a pedophile who gave up his vision, and a cannibal elf whose favorite food is children. The overarching goal of this crew is to try and fail to stop a possessed child from releasing all of the seals placed upon their world. This leads to a climatic finale that involves giant demon babies that eat everyone, time travel, and everything goes to hell. Everything going to hell is a bit of a recurring theme to this game as even though there are multiple endings all of them can be construed as bad and things essentially get worse as the player makes progress.

Despite the contents of the story this isn't about shock value. The writer is a big fan of the more thematic elements like yin-yang, the balance between order and chaos, and though he comes off as a bit of a pessimist there is a method and an understanding to everything that happens in the story. It is through this understanding that the player is able to accept all of the things that happen to them in the game itself.

To start with the levels are a mix of air and ground-based missions. In the air the player controls a dragon and must shoot down scores of enemies until the level ends. On the ground Caim must slash so many mission targets as well as anyone in the way. Both sides of the game are very basic and despite the similarities Drakengard is not Dynasty Warriors. There are no real battles, there's no morale meter, officers to interact with, and no mission objective aside from "kill so-and-so" and "don't run out of time or die". The environments are as plain as one could imagine and though enemies try to attack if the player gets close they are just as content waiting around until somebody shows up to pick a fight.

Aside from the very rare boss fight the entirety of this game can be summarized in minutes. What keeps people like myself playing are the curious who wish to see just how far down the rabbit hole goes. However Wonderland rewarded the curious with the strange and mysterious, all curiosity gets the average Drakengard-player is monotony and frustration. Though it's fair to say the most anyone will take from this review is the fact that I love the game it's still worth noting just how flawed it is. The camera is expectedly quite terrible, the game never really gets past hacking through legions of foes, there's minimal strategy, and the weapons tend to have absurd unlocking requirements. Drakengard goes a bit further than that however and creates some truly outlandish flaws. The most amazing one to me is the lack of proper weapon animation and mechanics. There are over fifty weapons to find in this game and for the most part they're pretty unbalanced which by this point I've come to accept. What continues to amaze me however is that a lot of the weapons have such inexplicable animations that they're completely useless in actual fights. Furthermore some of them don't register a hit until the player has completed swinging them. This stuff is so basic the only reason it wasn't accounted for is because it was done on purpose.

Bad games are usually noted for having a series of issues that if fixed could potentially lead to a good game. Drakengard does its best to turn this notion on its head as much as possible by creating issues that shouldn't exist in any conceivable fashion. The rhythm-game finale for example is something of a legend. It's like playing Final Fantasy, getting all of the ultimate weapons, getting to the final boss, and then it turns into a fighting game. Actually strike that, let's take it a step further by making this battle into one with a boss from a SNK fighting game. Drakengard essentially made less than twenty seconds of the game harder than not only its own game but most other games as well.

In a way though it's not exactly surprising. This game provides negative feedback almost constantly and whatever progress is made whether it's through story or leveling up the weapons rewards the player with the happenings of bad things. The weapon stories typically involve people dying and/or dying horribly and the game's story...well you already know how that turns out. With all that said however I still haven't explained exactly why I bothered to play through this game.

It's a game that takes pride in its chaos. It shuns the standards I've grown to accept from games and forces me to drop all pretensions and lose myself in a twisted world where all I can do is swing a sword in rage and frustration. As a result it puts me in the shoes of Caim better than all other mute-protagonist games I've ever played. The difficulty level most of the time is set to in-offensive and sometimes it just feels good to slash people for awhile cause at times that's all I can really do. This game also features quite a bit of bar-filling and experience gaining which appeals to my most basic of gaming interests. I respect Drakengard for bucking tradition at every opportunity and defying my expectations at every turn. Even when I thought I knew everything going in I was still surprised and impressed with how it all came together. The game is at least playable as well, it's certainly an improvement over some of the truly terrible games I've played over the years.

Drakengard was most likely written as a response to all of the RPGs and similar titles produced in Japan. The storyline of the average JRPG tended to revolve around young characters that changed the world for the better. Drakengard gives the impression that similar efforts are futile and those that buy into the notion of saving the world are not only ignorant but are also the first to lose hope when things change for the worse. Maybe I just appreciate Drakengard because no matter how much I work and how much money I make I can't even help those closest to me. It's a cynical outlook but I guess that's the point of the game. After completing Nier I thought of it as the counterpoint to Drakengard, a depiction of hope in a lost world. However it seems more to me that the author just didn't have the heart to admit that everything that occurs in that game was also a lost cause.

Game Rating - 1.5 stars out of 5
It's pretty clear that the expectations are all on the gamer when it comes to enjoying this game. As mentioned before there's quite a list of flaws that keep this game from approaching good. I'm not sure what the .5 in the score is supposed to represent in all honesty. Maybe it's a half a star for that this game created such unique and interesting flaws. Still on these merits I can't exactly recommend the game. The dragon-based levels are pretty enjoyable though I gotta admit, then again maybe it's because that style of game is kind of rare.

My Rating - 5 stars out of 5
As I said before I love this game so it's obvious my score will reflect that. Its appeal is more due to the kind of person I am and the kinds of games I play however. It could be that I enjoyed this game as much as I did due to the games I played around the same time. Sure those may have been decent and even great but they were also bland and predictable. Drakengard might have just come around at the right time to fill a particular hole that was open only at that particular moment. Still for now at least I guess this rating suits my view of the game just fine.

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