Out of all the established intellectual properties from Square Enix, it’s easy to see that the Drakengard series is the ugly duckling of them all. It’s not treated with the same AAA sheen and treatment that the likes of Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts receive. Even without that touch, though, it’s a series that has developed a small (but strong) cult following in the West, more so from its story than anything else.
It’s also very weird. No, really. Very, VERY weird.
A series of action role-playing games, Drakengard (otherwise known as Drag-on Dragoon in Japan) is a series that began in 2003. The roughness in the series I mentioned is most evident in the gameplay, which was first conceived of by Takamasa Shiba and Takuya Iwasaki, as a gameplay hybrid between Ace Combat and Dynasty Warriors 2. The combat in Drakengard is very much, akin to a second-rate Dynasty Warriors. It often feels sluggish, the encounters are too slow, and the combat is clearly secondary to the morbid, dark and twisted sensibility found in the narrative.
As for the influence of the story, it’s much harder to determine exactly what Drakengard is inspired by. It has many allusions to tales from European folklore, but it has all of the eccentricity and bizarreness found in anime. Perhaps this is why the Drakengard series has such a strangely alluring appeal to some. The fusion of North European dark fantasy and distinctively Japanese surrealism is partly why the Drakengard series possesses a genuinely unique identity. The games have great fun playfully eschewing tropes and idioms found in many JRPGs. And this is why I love the Drakengard series so much.
Take, for instance, the characters. In each game of the series, the Drakengard series focuses on the fortunes and personalities of a small group of protagonists, which are either directly or indirectly connected to, and affected by, events of the story. Whereas most of the characters in JRPGs are clearly defined by certain traits, such as being optimistic, pessimistic, or whiny, the characters in Drakengard are mostly, morally ambiguous.
Initially, the characters appear truly irrepressible. At the beginning of the first game, Caim, the main lead, is seen slaughtering thousands of soldiers, and almost kills a dragon wounded from torture. However, an extra chapter in the game reveals hidden details about Caim, through a flashback section where it reveals Caim’s past. He had a deep love for his parents, and is seen as generally cheerful. Then, after the death of his parents during a battle, Caim soon develops a darkened demeanour.
This juxtaposition, among other contrasts in the story and character development, is why the Drakengard series is so weirdly fascinating. It encourages the player to decide whether these characters are truly disturbed, or whether they are complex characters haunted by their own past. To make things even more interesting, each game in the series pulls a clever trick on the player. Drakengard casts a warped spell on you the minute you start following the journey of these screwed-up individuals. Very few games hold your attention just from the characters alone, but these games do. Surprisingly, the storytelling in the series demonstrates a very different side to Square Enix – it’s a darker, more mature side, where they can craft characters that have no clear-cut personalities, and tell a story with a more sombre, melancholic touch.
At first, both Caim in the first two games, and Zero in the third instalment, seem like villains. Although, as you keep playing the first one, two sides of Caim’s personality are shown. During battle, Caim shows a lust for blood, generally showing little empathy and mercy, such as having no hesitance to take many lives. It’s also clear that Caim has a great love for battle and slaughter, as he wears a sadistic grin when in the midst of combat. Later on though, his grim persona briefly wanes when he shows compassion towards his sister, Furiae, and he frequently puts her safety above his own penchant for revenge. Similarly, Zero, in the recently released Drakengard 3, seems like the main antagonist of her own story. Her often apathetic and bitter behaviour, along with her violent disposition displayed in the game, suggests she has no tolerance for others. Then, as the story progresses, Zero begins to develop a mild fondness for her comrades, and her initial emotional detachment towards her dragon, Mikhail, eventually grows into maternal endearment.
It is this ability to explore more non-traditional game narrative, and a willingness to tackle very taboo subject matter, that allows the Drakengard series to reach a high point of story depth. The first game takes many surprising plot developments, leading to a story that deals with incest, child abuse, paedophilia, sadism and cannibalism. Not all of the themes are handled gracefully; the incestuous relationship, for instance, creates a very uneven shift in tone, but the exceptional writing and extremely well-written dialogue makes the macabre story in the Drakengard series engaging nonetheless.
Very few games can be classed as ‘allegorical;’ this is mainly because not many video games present a story which can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning. Drakengard, however, is one of the few that comes close to telling its own deep spiritual allegories, and much of each game is steeped in allegory, if you’re willing to think about them in that way. In fact, you could argue that the entire narrative of Drakengard 3 is an allegory to John Bunyan’s classic novel The Pilgrim’s Progress. Similarly to the Pilgrim, Zero follows a path that takes her through a series of themed “tests”, where the goal is the ultimate truth.
Where so many games today are afraid to commit to their own identity, and chase the trends of today, only to be turned into tomorrow’s embarrassments, the Drakengard series wholeheartedly commits to its own odyssey. Honestly, that’s why the series leaves such an impression on players. The first two Drakengard games have a presentation and delivery that is almost akin to a survival horror game like Resident Evil or Silent Hill. It obviously lacks in scares and thrills, but the disturbing imagery enhances the unapologetically unusual atmosphere of the games.
The visual aspect of the narrative is ripe with some of the creepiest imagery you will ever see, such as an army of giant, red-eyed infants that rain destruction on the world, and tear people to pieces. The narratives start off slowly, but once they get going, they end up being some of the most intense and original stories you’ll ever experience. The game’s refreshingly morbid, dark humour gives the Drakengard series a unique energy, rarely seen in JRPGs today.
For many, the Drakengard series may be too inconsistent as an action RPG, despite the superb story and sumptuously dark tone, which I can understand. The ground-based combat is a mixed bag, with melee combat feeling loose, somewhat repetitive, and not nearly as refined as Dynasty Warriors. The player is given a generic set of melee attacks, which can be switched with alternating weapons, but it does little to offset the fatigue of fighting hundreds, if not thousands, of enemies on a very desolate battlefield. After awhile, fighting them gets increasingly tiring.
Even though the limited combat and other glaring flaws of the Drakengard games can make it very difficult to recommend, the story it weaves where the strangeness is its greatest asset, its’ odd but intriguing cast of characters, and the genuinely evocative soundtrack make me think that there is an audience for this wonderful mess of a series, myself included.
Overall, the Drakengard series is an extremely strange oddity, but it really begs to be played, despite its’ laundry list of glaring problems. If anything else, the Drakengard series provides a compelling argument as to whether story can surpass gameplay. It aims to blur the line between JRPGs and action games, which it achieves with varying levels of success, but the attempt at trying a new formula itself deserves merit. Whether you hate Drakengard or love it, it’ll at least be something you will never have experienced before.
If you’re even moderately tantalized by this enigma, give it a shot. If you’re not, avoid it. Who knows? You may end up liking it.