The first RPG that became available on the SNES, Drakkhen is utterly unlike any other RPG released on the system from then on. One minute it’s a first person fast-scrolling adventure game, and then it’s suddenly a graphic adventure in the style of King’s Quest or Secret of Monkey Island. It starts out seeming to be a pretty standard Western RPG, but then the story, monsters, and even the music takes a turn for the weird.
When you first begin a game of Drakkhen, you are assaulted with a menacing title screen featuring a dragon summoned via blood sacrifice! The music is eerie and epic, which pretty much characterizes most of the soundtrack. There’s not much in the way of plot, which is understandable given its age. Most of it is explained to you in a few text screens at the start of the game. Due to the ravages of war, the gods created separate lands for men and dragons. However, the world of man is about to end because the dragons have discovered a way to cross over and invade. It’s up to four weak and under-equipped nobodies to go to the land of the Drakkhen and somehow find out how to stop this all from happening.
You’ll first have to create a party of adventurers. Or you can just start the game and get handed a pre-made set of characters. There really isn’t a lot to the character creation system. There are only four classes: fighter/amazon, priest/priestess, magician, and scout. The only decision you have to make really is the gender of each character, as you are forced to create one character of each type. The heroes have no personality and act merely as means through which to interact with the environment. You are given a random set of abilities you can re-roll a limited number of times. Assign the rolls to the ability scores listed and you’re done! Having done this, you will find your party of adventurers standing in a field with a castle out on the distance. A helpful (optional) tutorial is available, which explains how to play the game and also offers a first hint: try to explore that castle in the distance!
As mentioned above, Drakkhen is a hodgepodge of several gameplay systems. Exploration is done from a smoothly scrolling first person perspective, with very sparse flat polygonal graphics. The land is not textured but there are objects such as bodies of water, roads, trees and rocks littering the landscape. (For a bit of sadistic amusement, try walking into a lake and watch as your heroes haplessly flounder about until they drown.) The scrolling can be jerky at times but it was an impressive effect back when the game was released, especially compared to the home ports of similar looking games, like the racing sim Hard Drivin’.
When you encounter an enemy or fellow traveler, all four characters will be called up on the screen. All battles are fought in real time, and if you don’t press anything, all four characters will be content to hack away at the monsters. You can control the characters one at a time, but all you can do is move them around. Each character can be given an overall combat strategy, but they are limited to simple instructions like “attack full force” or “don’t use magic.”
Pressing the “select” button will bring a map up on screen, with your current position, compass direction, and all of the buildings in the world. The world of Drakkhen is a flat rectangle split into four horizontal strips of land. A bizarre vertical strip of flashing arrows segments the first strip of land. Stepping into this strip will cause a dragon to literally fall from the sky, with a very slowly expanding shadow, before he plopps onto the screen and begins babbling about your next goals, all accompanied with some very jerky animation. It’s pretty disturbing the first time it happens. Walking into most buildings will present you with a static screen of the interior and any occupants that may dwell there. They typically give some kind of rambling vague hint or maybe some background info.
Finally, when you enter one of the castles you get a screen similar to a graphic adventure game. You now directly control the leader of the party (who can be changed at will) and interact with the environment by selecting from several icons on the right side of the screen. As you explore the castles, you encounter characters to talk to, monsters to defeat, tons of equipment to steal, buttons to press, and bizarre things all over the place. This is where the real meat of the game is. It can be pretty difficult. You’re free to wander all over the place in the game, but if you stray too far you’ll get easily wiped out. Luckily it’s very easy to gain levels, and the castles can be mined for impressive equipment, as they are restocked every time you leave. Progressing can still be difficult, because the game is quite vague. You’ll almost always know where to go at any given time, but a lot of the puzzles can get a bit nasty. For example, when you approach a certain castle, its drawbridge will immediately pull up. The solution? You need to level up until one of the characters gains the unlock spell. Use that spell and the drawbridge falls. It’s tricky because it’s early in the game, and you may not even realize there is an unlock spell until you’ve got it by accident.
The quest is long (especially on your first play through, when you have no idea what to do), the gameplay is interesting, and the atmosphere somewhat alien and eerie… mostly thanks to the very effective soundtrack and the very bizarre enemies. You’ll encounter giant shadow knights, land sharks, colossal black beings that climb out of spaces in the ground that don’t exist, shambling and shuddering things in fireplaces, giant laser shooting cat heads that live in tombstones, and every once in a while the stars in the sky start dancing, and then a super monster alien attacks!
The soundtrack is one of the better things about the game. It can go from peaceful and hopeful to quiet and thoughtful, then to eerie and disturbing in a matter of minutes. Each strip of land has a different musical theme, as does every encounter in the game. Most creatures have completely strange tracks that consist of mumbling noises, clanking, and various sound effects. It’s a bit like listening to Silent Hill at times.
Drakkhen was originally released on the Amiga and Atari ST. Infogrames ported it to IBM PCs shortly after, versions appeared for all the Japanese 16-bit computers, and Kemco brought the game to the SNES. Compared to the other versions, the SNES version is not as colorful or detailed but features a much better soundtrack. It’s a bit easier to play as well, with a redone interface to adapt to the controller.