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SummaryWas Square Enix behind this?!
The GoodThe story of Drakengard is about Caim, a young soldier fighting to protect a goddess from an army that seeks to kill her and cast the world into chaos. The reason for why I am shocked that Square is behind this, is because the story is actually not that hard to follow. I am a big lover of Kingdom Hearts, but the story in that series is so complex and full of spin-offs that only dedicated fans can keep up with it. Drakengard however contains a simple, but entertaining storyline which features around a core-group of interesting characters.
Another problem with Square Enix is that many people are turned off by the many cut-scenes that keep them out of the gameplay. This is also different in Drakengard, instead each mission starts with a briefing and then you are thrown right into gameplay. As you play support characters will sometimes talk to you, but this doesn't pause the fighting. Cut-scenes are rare, but when they do appear they are very well directed and don't drag on for too long.
The gameplay is separated into two different sections. You have flying missions on your dragon where you either take out enemy aircraft or ground-units on the battlefield and there is regular hack&slash gameplay on the ground with Caim. While air-battles have separate missions, you can switch between the dragon and Caim whenever you want, as long as the area is open enough for the dragon to descend. I found it to be very entertaining to fly into an enemy army and scorch the majority of them, before jumping off and finishing off the last remaining stragglers.
Flying your dragon around on the battlefield may sound like an easy way out, but it most certainly isn't. While regular infantry won't be able to hurt you and will just end up toasted, there are plenty of archers, mages and siege weapons that are capable of taking you down. If the dragon is hit enough times in a short time Caim will fall off. Another problem is that a lot of enemies have special armor that is immune to magic, forcing the player to switch to Caim anyway.
While the game can get very tough, especially when the units with immunity to magic show up in masses, it is possible to switch to the Free Expedition mode. In this mode the player can endlessly repeat old missions with different objectives without advancing the main story. This is an entertaining way to grind for experience and can really help you out of a tight situation if you neglected leveling Caim in favor of playing with the dragon, or the other way around.
I also like that weapons have their own experience-bar and if you fill it up, the weapon will upgrade itself automatically. Every Kingdom Hearts game (and I assume Final Fantasy too) has the player upgrading equipment through a complex system that requires resources. Personally I never managed to wrap my head around the workings of that system, so Drakengard's weapons came as a welcome surprise to me.
It has to be said that for a game about flying a dragon, the boss-battles are exactly what I hoped they would be. Drakengard rarely throws a boss-fight at you, but when it does, it calls upon all your skills to complete it. I won't give any spoilers, but just take my word on it.
The BadThe greatest mistake this game made was the exact same mistake that Kameo made: It simply falls flat when it comes to its own lore. Like Kameo, this game throws a whole lot of different races, factions and locations at you, but never takes the time to explain any of it. One of the most prominent questions that I had was HOW Caim's sister became a goddess and if that was common in the game's universe, yet this question was never answered. The same goes for many, many other questions that even casual players will probably bring up while playing. It's a shame because only a little explanation was needed to make the world of Drakengard come alive.
On the gameplay side of things it's probably the camera that annoyed me the most. Bad cameras are one of those arguments I hear reviewers bring up a lot and never did it bother me (Kingdom Hearts camera is functional for me), but here there is no denying it. The camera really has its own will, it aims wherever it wants and if you try to steer it with the right-analog stick it will turn too fast. There is also no targeting system, except for in aerial combat.
Every single mission is timed, which normally wouldn't be that bad, but here it doesn't make sense. First of all: it's literally the mission that is timed, not the objectives. You also don't get any extra time when completing an objective. Secondly: the time given to you is the same for EVERY mission. This means that you get the exact same amount of time to walk to somebody's house as you get for the final battle of the game.
Throughout the game Caim will meet several interesting characters, but where they went after I met them, I have no idea. By the end of the game I had assembled a troupe of five or six characters, but only two would ever be shown in the cut-scenes or talk to me during the missions. The others would literally disappear from the story. I found out that you could select an ally before a mission started, but even when I did that, he/she wouldn't show up.
Here is how you fight in this game: Play as Caim? Press square to use your sword and triangle to use magic. Play as the dragon? Press square to spit fire and triangle to spit even more fire. There is nothing to it, there aren't even any combos, heck you don't even need to hit square with any sort of timing. Just run of to enemies and start mashing that button, everything will be alright. The only tactic you need is using magic whenever stronger enemies show up or when you are surrounded.
The Bottom LineDrakengard is a very unique game and it feels a lot different to Square Enix' usual titles. Personally I had a lot of fun as I guided Caim through his quest, especially the flying stages and boss-fights were fun. There are a few annoyances spread across the game, some of which are genuinely the fault of poor game-design (camera, combat and timer), but most of the time I was able to see past these problems.
The problem however, is that I find it very hard to find somebody to recommend this game too. Drakengard is really different from the usual JRPG that Square Enix designs and this is especially apparent when looking at the style of the graphics. However, it's also not really a western-RPG and has some mechanics that fans of games like Skyrim and Two Worlds might find strange. If the premise of switching between flying on a dragon and ground-combat sounds interesting to you, then it's worth a look, but otherwise I give it a rental-only.