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SummaryMuch, much more than Tomb Raider with a Dragon.
The GoodDrakan is a nifty little 3d action/adventure title that brings to the table it's own breed of original features while conforming to the guidelines set by the Tomb Raider formula. Basically you take on the role of Rynn, a hot yet kind babe who lives a happy life with her brother until her village suffers a raid from a band of marauding Warthoks. These baddies burn and pillage everything and take with them the village's youth as slaves, thus a surviving Rynn desperately goes out in search of her brother and decides to awaken a long dormant dragon belonging to a long-forgotten order of dragon-riding knights as a desperate last resort (alternatively, she might have thought Dragons were cool and this was as good an excuse as any other to get to ride one). Being now bonded to her dragon and rising as the newest knight in ages in the order, Rynn sets out to explore the fantasy world of Drakan, and lays down fiery death upon her unsuspecting foes from high above.
The best way to describe the experience would be as a sort of helicopter simulator with the added coolness of, uhm... you know, not being a helicopter but instead a fire-breathing dragon, the simple flight model means you don't have to fiddle much with smalltime considerations such as drag or lift and instead your focus is on enjoying the ability to glide around vast landscapes as Arokh (the dragon) tilts and turns smoothly across the skies. It may not sound like much, and there's really not much more to it than flying around and setting things on fire, but the dragon riding gimmick is successfully executed and effectively puts the game out of the pack of generic 3D action games.
Of course, it's not all dragon riding, as there are some locations such as caves and dungeons were your dragon is unable to assist you and which force you to dismount and go at it on your own. These sequences reward the player with some of the most enjoyable early 3D action sequences to be spawned from the Tomb Raider mold. Rynn moves and jumps around just like Lara, except she doesn't have to jump around so much (she even lacks the ability to grab ledges) which eliminates most of the annoying jumping puzzles, and gains an expanded arsenal of melee weapons and fighting mechanics that put the emphasis on action gaming. Collecting swords, bows, hatchets and other assorted weapons Rynn goes around hacking away at the many enemies she faces, unfortunately for her these weapons aren't perfect and blend different speed/range/damage stats that give each weapon it's unique pros and cons, furthermore limited inventory space means you can't take everything you see, and since weapons wear out with use it's a safe bet you are going to need replacements. Added features like armor piercing damage and other magic weapons deepen the gameplay some more for a much more interesting experience than your average Deathtrap Dungeon-like game. All with interesting locations such as gigantic caverns, magical grooves and other assorted dungeons populated by a collection of interesting monsters that are actually a challenge to fight, as they effectively time their attacks and successfully parry and dodge your attacks! Dungeon crawls can be quite a daunting experience in Drakan, as you face off against giant monsters and dark knights that have little or no relation to the dimwitted fodder that gets thrown your way in these types of games. Plus, it's PC-origination means it makes use of the always superior mouselook/wasd combo control scheme, something which these types of games almost always leave out and which gives Drakan a much tighter and effective control scheme.
The graphics while now dated clearly work in the game's favor. As I mentioned the game allows you to smoothly fly around with your dragon across rather large areas, areas upon which you can seamlessly set foot and continue as Rynn, clear out dungeons with dozens of critters and continue on your way without having to load even once! The quality of the graphics themselves are firmly etched in the days of first-generation polygonal games (remember when characters didn't move their lips when they talked?) with simple textures and a notable fog used to mask the terrain pop-up whenever atop your dragon. However a distinct style and look was achieved that gives you sometimes inspired level and character design like the flying islands area or the sultry succubus (who share witchblade's sense of fashion and wear nothing except a small bunch of tendrils).
Additionally, while the game follows the basic medieval/fantasy mood, it also incorporates it's own quirky amount of dry humor that really helps give the game a unique personality, all based on small details such as the PA-system in the bad guy's lair that calls everyone to a meeting in an almost corporate-like way, or the jabs and teases Rynn and Arokh share whenever you call him or rejoin after an extenuating dungeon crawl, even Rynn herself contributes to the mix. You may partially recognize her as a Lara-clone from the get-go thanks to her immense cleavage and boobs, however it would be more accurate to consider her as Lara's younger sister. Yeah the genetics are there, so they share the same *ahum* "realistic" body proportions, moves and tight fetish clothing, however she knows she's in Lara's shadow no matter what, so her character plays out in a more humble manner with much less of that gun-toting "Bad Grrrl" attitude and arrogance. One might say that the developers managed to portray a low-profile version of Lara that allowed them to basically set her free in the game and have fun without having to worry about marketing campaigns and stuff like that.
The BadThe story is remarkably dull and only avoids being laced with plot-holes because of it's extreme simplicity, with a dull premise that develops into an even more stupid quest which abruptly ends with one of the lamest endings ever which is about as long and fulfilling as one of those "Congratulations!!" screens from an early NES game.
As previous reviewers noted, the flight model of the dragon while cool enough, has it's clear flaws. Crashing into anything doesn't even make the dragon flinch and instead bumps him along the path it was on, and the lack of flight limitations means the dogfights you have against other dragons and assorted flying pests turn into nothing more than glorified circle-strafing exercises which not only take it's toll on the singleplayer game, but pretty much destroy the multiplayer mode, as it quickly becomes a boring fireball-hurling affair. Mind you, I happen to like what Drakan did with dragon riding, but there's no denying there's still a lot of problems with it.
The melee fighting, while challenging and fun is still prone to AI problems and every now and then you can quickly finish off a troublesome fight by messing up with the AI's pathfinding and funneling the goons here or there, or by simply exploiting a "blind spot" from were you can attack them and they can't respond.
Finally, while the game's visual design has it's brilliant moments it also balances itself with some downright pathetic ones, such as the introductory "valley at night" (with "night" meaning a black environmental texture map) that is probably the game's lowest point, even featuring stupid statue-pushing puzzles stolen from other games that are thankfully left out for the rest of the game.
Oh! And the audio department is really shitty... The music you can do without, as it's much better to fly atop your dragon with Blind Guardian or Rhapsody thumping from your stereo anyway, but the grating SFX and amateurish voice acting is another problem entirely.
The Bottom LineWhile not a perfectly polished diamond, Drakan truly delivers a much more enjoyable and entertaining experience than most games of it's kind. While the untrained eye might dismiss it as a Dragon-riding clone of Tomb Raider, the truth is that there's much more depth and fun to be had here than from most other 3rd person action/adventure titles, with only such uber-cool titles as Soul Reaver, MDK, Spider-Man or Heretic 2 surpassing it for sheer 3rd person gameplay bliss. And considering this is Surreal's first big-time effort it's even more of an achievement.
Quite frankly the only reason I can think of to justify the lack of success Drakan had was that it had no Playstation version, which is like the official platform for these types of games and which still puzzles me. Specially if you consider that Psygnosis was behind it!!