Ever since the days of Double Dragon and Final Fight, beat'em ups have been evolving and adapting to modern gaming conventions. While the genre is one of the most often charged with being formulaic and uninspired, beat'em ups in particular have shown some of the most evolutionary leaps of any genre out there. It took 11 years for platformers to go beyond what Mario put on the table, and it took another Mario game to do it. It took ages of steady progression for RPGs to surpass Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. But almost since their inception, beat'em ups have been reinventing themselves from as early as the late 80s with games like River City Ransom, which introduced common RPG elements to a genre on the complete opposite end of the gaming spectrum. Even today with games that have garnered major critical acclaim like Devil May Cry, Ninja Gaiden, and God of War, which are essentially just glorified entries of the arcade-born genre, beat'em ups still show their clout as an evolving entity.
Yet still people discard these arcade-style action games whenever they appear. Somehow, beating up hordes of cannon-fodder enemies is okay in Devil May Cry or God of War so long as you occasionally have to find a key to unlock a door or step on a couple switches, but cut out those mild puzzle elements and you somehow have the epitome of mediocrity. One beat'em up in particular that has been cast aside in favor of its hype-driven cousins is cavia's Drakengard, which defies almost all common knowledge of what a beat'em up should be.
Drakengard was only the second game developed by cavia, a small company that definitely seems to have an appreciation of oldschool, arcade-style gaming. Drakengard's development began at around the same time cavia was developing Capcom's light-gun shooter, Resident Evil: Dead Aim. The game was originally set to be released by Enix, but the Square Enix merger occurred in April of that year, and thus, Drag-On-Dragoon was Square Enix's first published title, giving it some kind of sensational expectations as the new company's first game.
Drakengard is unique to the beat'em up genre in many ways. First, its theme and presentation. The game is a lot more story-heavy than every other beat'em up out there, and the story of Drakengard is surprisingly more original and refreshing than most of Square Enix's RPGs. Caim, the hero of Drakengard, at first seems like your average, anonymous badass out for bloody vengeance (in this case, for the death of his parents in the jaws of an imperial black dragon), the quintessential star of every modern beat'em up. But Caim is a much darker, deeper character with a much more intriguing tale than what is at first presented.
Caim is a soldier fighting for the Union army, which is currently engaged in a war with an empire of zombie-like humanoid creatures who take their orders from entities known as the "Watchers". The Watchers are determined to get their hands on a young girl selected to be the Goddess of the Seal, Furiae, who just so happens to be Caim's sister. It is not known exactly why the Watchers want her, but one thing the Union does know is that if anything were to happen to the Goddess, disaster would fall upon the world.
Caim fights the empire to protect his sister, but his hatred for the empire due to the death of his parents drives him into a furious bloodlust. He dives headlong into battles with hordes of imperial troops with no concern for his well-being, determined to kill every man, woman and child that associates themselves with the empire with sickening, almost villainous glee expressed in his face, making him unlike any other "hero" I've ever encountered. However, due to his recklessness, Caim is mortally wounded during the first battle of the game. As he stumbles through the battlefield on the verge of death, he comes across the creature he hates the most: a dragon. The dragon, tortured and mutilated by the sadistic empire, is also on the verge of death. Thus, the two, in spite of their hatred for one another, form a pact in which Caim must sacrifice his ability to speak, but will spare both of them from certain death.
The story of Drakengard is extremely dark and macabre, much more so than almost every other Japanese game I've ever played. The presentation and delivery is much more like that of a survival horror like Resident Evil or Silent Hill, but what Drakengard lacks in scares and thrills it makes up for with disturbing imagery and surprising plot developments which are made all the more pleasing by some exceptional writing and extremely well-delivered dialog. The story also deals with a lot of taboo themes, such as incest, child abuse, pedophilia, sadism and cannibalism. The plot starts off very linear, but eventually branches off into five different possible paths. But Caim will not journey through these branches alone, because Drakengard has a hearty cast of very unconventional and fascinating characters.
The "hero" of the tale. Caim is silenced early on when he forms a pact with a dragon. Pacts require a sacrifice not chosen by those entering the pact. In Caim's case, he loses his ability to speak, being branded with a pact symbol on his tongue. Caim is a very dark character and only a hero in the most tentative of senses. Throughout the game, he does many despicable things and his bloodlust is insatiable.
The red dragon with whom Caim forms his pact. Like all dragons, she despises humans and constantly criticizes Caim and the other humans she comes in contact with. Unlike the dragons in Panzer Dragoon, she's a very intelligent and vocal character and has some of the deepest, most profound lines in the game. Eventually, she warms up to Caim, and they develop a strong yet reluctant friendship.
Caim's sister whom was his only company throughout most of his early life after their parents were killed. Caim and Furiae are extremely close, and even have an incestuous love affair that's outright expressed in the Japanese version of the game, but only implied in the North American version. Furiae is selected as the Goddess of the Seal, and thus holds a great weight on her shoulders, a weight which seems too heavy for the ill-fated young Goddess to bare.
Inuart is a minstrel known all over the country for his beautiful, haunting songs. A childhood friend of Caim and Furiae, he and Furiae married shortly before she became the Goddess of the Seal. Inuart is unaware of Caim and Furiae's sexual relationship, and Caim's jealousy and tendency to be possessive of Furiae causes his relationship with Inuart to sour, which escalates into a full-scale war between the two. Despite joining the Union, Inuart is a weakling, and is a very passive and cowardly character. However, he eventually breaks through these barriers by sacrificing his ability to sing in order to form a pact with a black dragon, the same black dragon that killed Caim and Furiae's parents. This pact transforms him into a very threatening, but mentally unstable antagonist.
The Hierarch Verdelet is the spiritual leader of the Union army. However, he is not a warrior, merely a religious man and not suited for battle. To protect him, he formed a pact with a dragon long ago, but his dragon was turned to stone by the dark magic of the empire. Verdelet is a huge, annoying sissy that constantly complains about Caim's conduct, but is too afraid to leave the party.
Leonard watched as his brothers were murdered by the empire, but could do nothing. After a failed suicide attempt, Leonard forms a pact with a faerie (quite suiting for this wimp) at the cost of his sight. Leonard is a paladin-type character that fights with a mace. Other than that, there's not really much else to say about Leonard. He's the least interesting and original character in the game, and his pact partner is incredibly annoying.
Arioch, an elf, was a happy, loving mother and wife. But her family was killed by the empire. This drove her completely insane. Forming a pact with the elemental spirits Salamander and Undine by sacrificing her womb, Arioch goes on a killing spree, obsessed with torturing and slaughtering children and consuming their flesh. In battle, she uses a grizzly, jagged, sickle-shaped sword and calls on the spirits of fire and water to destroy her enemies. A very original character. This chick is COMPLETELY gone. You have to wonder what Caim and the others are thinking, bringing this twisted, dangerous character along on their adventures.
Seere is a little boy who has lost his parents and his sister. While looking for his sister, he encounters a giant stone golem who offers to help him if they form a pact. Seere's pact brands him all over his body, and his sacrifice is his "time", or rather, his ability to age. Thus, Seere is trapped in the body of a child for the rest of his drastically shortened life. Seere, though young, is extremely brave. Because he knows he will not live long anyway, he has no fear of death.
Manah is Seere's twin sister, whom disappeared somewhere in the mountains after the death of their mother. Not long after meeting Seere, he reveals to the party that their parents, who favored Seere and gave him all their love, physically and sexually abused Manah. Manah's parents despised her so much that their mother offered her to the empire for their unholy purposes. The empire uses Manah as a medium to communicate with the Watchers. Manah's hatred and resentment of her abusive parents allows her to be fully possessed by the evil deities, and she now directly governs the empire's campaign of terror.
Needless to say, Drakengard's M for Mature rating is well-deserved. Aside from the completely twisted cast of characters is a morbid, downright macabre plot ripe with cutscenes that contain some of the most disturbing imagery you will ever see, like an army of giant, red-eyed infants that rain destruction down on the world and tear people to pieces. It's slow to start, but once it gets going, it's one of the most intense and original narratives you'll ever experience. The game also has five very distinct endings, each one more messed up than the last.
It's hard to believe that underneath Drakengard's glorious presentation and story is the spirit of an oldschool beat'em up and shooter. Drakengard plays most similarly to KOEI's Dynasty Warriors series, inter-cut with segments of Panzer Dragoon-style, dragon-riding shooter segments.
The ground-based combat is a mixed bag of genius and mediocrity. The mediocrity lies in how melee combat is executed. It's loose, somewhat repetitive, and not nearly as refined as Dynasty Warriors. You're given a generic set of melee attacks that can be ended at certain points with a button switch that executes an area-clearing critical strike indicated by a gleam of light emanating from Caim's weapon. This is somewhat similar to the setup in Dynasty Warriors, but these strikes are always the same no matter when you use them, and there are only two real variations of them (a shockwave that spreads out in all directions or a forward-shooting projectile). If you can string enough attacks together, you may be occasionally rewarded with some health or a bomb attack that'll hit everything in your vicinity. With this one extremely limited combo string, you're pitted against hundreds, if not thousands of enemies in every desolate battlefield, and fighting them can get very tiring after awhile.
Fortunately, to keep things interesting are the weapons themselves. Drakengard has a whopping total of 65 very different weapons, each with their own EXP levels calculated by the number of enemies you've killed with them. As each weapon climbs the four-level ascension, it changes in both appearance and power. Each weapon also has a unique spell, which is quite a feat considering the number of weapons there are. The spells level up along with the weapons and change in various ways. Some spells grow stronger but cost more MP, others remain the same, but last longer, etc. On top of that, each weapon has its own four-part story, with each level revealing a little more of the weapon's history. These range from simple narratives, poems, and haiku's, to very profound, almost Confucian lessons of morality.
During the ground battles, most of the time, you can call upon Angelus and she will swoop you up so that you can rain fire upon your hapless foes. But in between the ground-based stages are completely aerial stages. These are played out a lot like the ones in Panzer Dragoon, but they're not on rails. You're free to fly about the stages. Because it's not on rails, you have a lot more maneuverability. Angelus can dash from side to side, forward, and make an instant, 180 degree flip. Much like in Panzer Dragoon, you can fire single shots or hold the button and target many enemies at once. Also, like Panzer Dragoon, Angelus builds up a meter as she takes and deals damage. Once this meter is full, she can unleash a devastating barrage of fireballs that'll wipe out just about anything on screen. There's also a few boss fights in the game, but these are extremely epic, and usually carried out while mounted on Angelus.
About the graphics, Drakengard was obviously scaled down a bit in order to encompass the dozens and dozens of characters that appear on screen at once. Considering this, it still looks really good. Caim and his friends in particular have extremely smooth polygonal models. Not as much attention was paid to the enemies, who are quite bit rougher looking, but they're just anonymous sword-fodder anyway. The special effects like dragon fire and spells are quite nice, although some of them bog the game down quite a bit. The environments are also very expansive and impressive. They're usually massive and highly detailed with great textures and very moody use of lighting. Lastly, the game's visuals are displayed through a slightly blurry, discoloring filter that gives the game a very slight aged, sickly twinge to it that's quite befitting of the game's atmosphere.
Even more atmospheric than the visuals, however, is the music. Drakengard has one of the most distinct soundtracks you'll ever hear in a game, and while you may not like it, there's no denying that it fits the game perfectly. Takayuki Aihara and Nobuyishi Sano have taken samples from orchestral pieces rich with discord and skipped and chopped them up to create something truly chaotic and disturbing. Every piece is chilling or haunting in some way.
Overall, Drakengard sums up to be a good beat'em up with fun shooting elements, with an uncharacteristically incredible presentation and one of the most refreshing stories I've encountered in many years. While merely looking at its core play mechanics, one can deduce that it is merely a slightly above average game, Drakengard definitely adds up to be worth far more than the sum of its parts.
Drakengard was also released on mobile phones in Europe. Like most mobile phone versions of games, it's a fairly minimal effort. As in the PS2 version, there are two modes of play. Ground combat is done in 2D, side-scrolling beat'em up fashion. The sprites are actually pretty nice, but these sequences are extremely repetitive, with you guiding Caim through completely featureless areas fighting the same three types of enemies until your mind turns to jelly. The combat system is boring, with only one combo string available to Caim, and terrible hit detection that allows enemies to walk through your attacks and dogpile you. The aerial stages are very much a Space Harrier-type rail shooter deal. These are also pretty featureless and bland.
The only interesting thing to note about the mobile version of Drakengard is that it provides you with hints for the PS2 game, acting as sort've a tie-in that interacts, though very minimally, with the console version of the game. This is actually pretty cool since it tips you off on a few things that are pretty obscure in the PS2 game. However, this also means you had to have played the mobile game before or while you're playing the console game, as GameFAQs and the like render these hints obsolete.
Drakengard 2 / Drag-On Dragoon 2: love red, ambivalence black (ドラッグ オン ドラグーン2 封印の紅、背徳の黒) - PlayStation 2 (2005)
Drakengard wasn't exactly a smash in Japan or in the States, but, for whatever reason, it seemed to develop quite a cult following in Europe (possibly due to the Europe-exclusive mobile phone tie-in, but since it was terrible, probably not). cavia was given the green light to give it another go. This time, however, Square Enix would distance themselves a bit from the project. While still publishing the game worldwide, Ubisoft was tasked with localizing the game outside of Japan, perhaps to exploit the game's popularity in Europe by utilizing a popular European brand. The game also had a substantially smaller budget, which was apparent in its lack of advertising and media attention prior to release.
Drakengard's ending(s) left things a bit open, and Drakengard 2's main purpose is to tie everything up. The game begins under the assumption that you got the game's first ending, where Angelus had been used to create the Seal. 18 years have passed, Caim's whereabouts are unknown, and we instead come to take the role of a young man named Nowe. Nowe is one of the Knights of the Seal, a force tasked with protecting the various keys that hold the Dragon Seal in place. As Nowe advances through the ranks, guided by his dragon companion, he meets a mysterious young woman named Manah, who seeks to rebel against the Knights and destroy the keys protecting the seal. Through Manah, Nowe learns of the corruption of the Knights of the Seal and their oppression of the people outside their aristocracy. Nowe decides to defect from the Knights and cut his own path. After that, all hell breaks loose (quite literally). Fortunately, Nowe is not alone.
Nowe (annoyingly pronounced "No Way!") is a plucky, young, optimistic hero, the antithesis of his predecessor, Caim. This also makes him much more boring and predictable. There really isn't much to say about Nowe, sadly. He's as typical as they come; orphaned at a young age, determined to right the wrongs of the world, and harboring a hidden power that will be the key to doing so. In combat, Nowe uses one-handed swords and larger, slower two-handed swords.
Legna is Nowe's dragon companion. Nowe shares a much different relationship with Legna than Caim did with Angelus in the first game. Having raised Nowe since he was orphaned, Legna is very close to him and watches out for him, constantly giving him advice and guiding him in the right direction. Or is he...?
Eris is one of the elite amongst the ranks of the Knights of the Seal and a long-time friend of Nowe's. You get to use her briefly in the beginning chapters of the game, but her faith in the Knights is not as easily shaken as Nowe's, so when he defects, they find themselves on opposite sides of a growing conflict. In battle, Eris uses lances.
Yes, the main antagonist from the first game is now the leading female and the love interest for the hero. In repentance for her horrific actions under the control of the Watchers in the first game, Manah now helps the now oppressed survivors of the war that occurred 18 years ago and leads a humanitarian rebellion against the Knights of the Seal. Manah is initially an enemy, but Nowe's faith in the Knights is shaken with her revelations and Nowe decides to join her cause. In battle, Manah uses a staff.
A mysterious, cloaked figure who goes around slaughtering the Knights and seeks to destroy the seal. The game doesn't exactly keep the fact that he's actually Caim a secret. Whatever hells twisted Caim into such a creature over the past 18 years are unknown. What is known is that he'll do anything to free Angelus from the burden of the seal.
Urick is an ex-Knight and a friend of Nowe's long-dead father. Nowe quickly develops a friendship with Urick and becomes a member of your party for awhile. However, it's revealed that Urick is in fact one of the key guardians of the seal. This puts him on Caim's hit list, and thus Nowe's group and Caim are destined to clash. In battle, Urick uses axes and scythes.
Seere is now the leader of the Knights of the Seal and essentially controls the free world. Having made a pact in the first game (unlike his sister, Manah), he has not aged at all in the past 18 years. Unfortunately, he doesn't seem to be fully aware of the atrocities being committed by his generals and the Knights of the Seal.
Gismor is the head honcho of the Knights and all the key guardians take their orders directly from him. He has always been at odds with Nowe and vehemently seeks to kill him when he defects. An all around douchebag.
One of the three crazies that form the key guardians, Drakengard 2's resident Omniscient Council of Vagueness, who take orders directly from General Gismor. Zhangpo is a burly, stupid berserker who seems to be motivated entirely by food.
Hanch is the game's obligatory goth, and looks like she was fired out of a cannon through a few clotheslines of Black Angel merchandise. Another one of the key guardians.
Drakengard 2 is, in every way that two things can be, the complete polar opposite of Drakengard. The first game had great, twisted characters, a bleak and macabre atmosphere, and an engaging, twist-laden story. On the flip side, the game was rather repetitive and the combat was somewhat clunky. In contrast, Drakengard 2 has an excellent combat system with lots of variety added to both ground and aerial battles. However, the story is a complete, cliché-ridden trainwreck that all but negates the potential the first game left for it.
Let's talk about the good, first. Drakengard 2's battles are infinitely more fun than the battles in the first game. In contrast to Caim's single, endless and universal moveset for all his weapons, Nowe and his comrades use a series of combo strings that are unique to each weapon type. Moreover, each weapon has its own assortment of combos that it takes from a pool, so no two weapons have the same set of combos. Different combos are more useful in different situations, whether you're going for crowd-clearing or a focused, singular onslaught, much like the similar Dynasty Warriors series. Nowe and his companions also have a lot more innate commands. You can now counter, recover in mid air, dodge, and do air combos.
Your characters can also now equip more than just weapons. Nowe and his team have a stock of consumable items that restore health and magic. The health potions can also be used in aerial combat, making them much more tolerable than some of the nearly impossible aerial stages in the first Drakengard. Also available to your characters are special stat-enhancing accessories. It should also be noted that these weapons and items are no longer simply found, as the game now has a more detailed map with towns to stop in with shops and such.
On top of that, Drakengard 2 has more enemies that provide more functions for the enemy ranks than simply "Run up to player and hit him". Now you'll go up against giant trolls, hulking gladiators that are nearly invincible, and tiny goblins that set up bombs all over the battlefield. The stages are also much more dynamic, with multiple sub areas, differing levels of height, and complete, indoor dungeons that connect directly to the battlefields without any loading in between. And most importantly of all, there are now a series of epic and challenging boss fights that break up the monotony of the mass scale battles.
In aerial combat, you have Legna, who has all the same functions as Angelus, but has various different types of ammo as well, able to shoot rapid, automatic bursts, large fireballs that create shockwaves, summon lightning strikes, or even create a powerful forcefield.
Unfortunately, all of this improvement to the game itself comes at the cost of the narrative. First of all, the presentation has a markedly budgeted look. Most of the cutscenes are now still-shots of ingame generated models with voice acting over them (the voice acting has also taken a big hit this time around). Particularly painful are the character designs, which have taken a more generic, anime feel. The main character is whiny, annoying, uninteresting, and generally unlikable, the complete opposite of the muted, bloodthirsty, nigh evil Caim we took the role of in the first game (it's no surprise that the best moments in Drakengard 2's story are the moments that involve characters from the first game). Don't get me wrong, there are some great twists and there's still quite a lot of dark imagery, but the eloquent writing and morbid irony of the first game is all but completely stripped away in favor of something more digestible for the average gamer.
Also, in spite of the combat system itself being more enjoyable, there's no longer the variety of magic that was in the first Drakengard. Each weapon has a spell, but they're not unique. Now, each weapon type has a pool of about 5 or 6 different spells. It's also worth noting that the weapons no longer change appearance as they level up. The weapons reappearing from Drakengard remain in their fully leveled forms. While that's acceptable, I guess, it just doesn't feel as rewarding. And there's less weapons than in the first game, to boot.
One thing that has maintained quality is the music. While Drakengard 2's soundtrack bares little resemblance to the disturbing, discordant melodies from the first game, the music that is here is absolutely fantastic, particularly the main theme, "Symphonic Poem ~Forbidden Prelude~".
In the end, Drakengard 2 is a step back in as many ways as it is a step forward. You once again have half an amazing game and half a bland one, only this time, the experience is polarized. Fans of the first game should approach Drakengard 2 with extreme caution.