Developer: Access Games
Release Date: May 20, 2014
ESRB: M for Mature
In the PS2 era, Drakengard 1 and 2 were almost unanimously regarded as games that were mediocre at best and horrible at worst. Still, for the very few stubborn players that stuck with those titles, they were treated to some rather dark and mature storytelling that was very unlike most games at the time. Long after their debut, an indirect spin-off to the series by the name of Nier managed to garner quite a cult following despite receiving both a poor critical and commercial reception. Seemingly not discouraged by this concept in the slightest, a lot of the former staff from the original Drakengard as well as Nier, including director Yoko Taro, decide to rekindle the former PS2 relic with Drakengard 3 on PS3.
The world of Drakengard 3 relies on the five Intoners (magical songstresses) who are heralded as goddesses because of the supposed peace that they brought after calming a global conflict as well as mending the land. To disrupt the self-proclaimed peace of the world stands the main character Zero and her dragon companion. Zero sets forth to systematically kill her five other Intoner sisters (conveniently and numerically named One, Two, Three, Four, and Five). With her ruthless approach to slaughter any who stand in her way, Zero makes it quite clear that she fully intends to follow through with the sororicide of her siblings by any means necessary.
Despite being the third release in the series the story is, for the most part, an independent prequel to the previous games. So, oddly enough, the primary aspect that may throw people off the most is not so much continuity of the storytelling but rather the inherent absurdity of the setting. The storytelling is fairly dark and goes through several very interesting and different narrative branches and endings that seem progressively more messed-up. Not only is the setting fairly grim in tone, with brutal murders abound, but it plays with other adult themes a lot—like sexuality. Intoners, for example, have much stronger sexual urges caused by maintaining their musical power and they need their male disciples (servants that help amplify an Intoner's song magic) to help satiate that need regularly.
If that wasn't weird enough, most of the main characters in Zero's company are not respectable by any means. The main characters mainly conceive of extreme sociopaths or deviants of some sort, with the exception of Zero's dragon, Mikhail, who is naive and kind-hearted in sharp contrast to Zero and her company. Much like in Nier, however, the game knows to not take itself too seriously and there is a surprising amount of comic relief and interesting banter between the cast, even in the midst of combat. While the extremes of the characters' personalities are often times overplayed—like Dito's sadism, Decadus's masochism, and Octa's penchant for sex—the interactions do usually manage to be entertaining more often than not because of the amusing writing. However, the relationship that develops between the cold Zero and her mostly lovable dragon, Mikhail, definitely stands out the most during the storytelling and interactions.
What is less noteworthy is the actual gameplay. Combat progression is a standard, albeit strictly linear, hack & slash affair as you wade through batches of faceless soldiers. It is sort of akin to Musou-styled games, but with a faster flow and far less enemies on-screen at once. Initially, the gameplay starts out semi-promising with a steady progression of new weapons, foes to square off against, to even more unique flight sequences when controlling Mikhail, but that tapers off quickly. The on-foot combat fairs the best since Zero is a fairly fast and responsive character and her attacks are satisfying in a brutal, sadistic way, but an awkward visual presentation, shallow moveset, and scare variety in enemies/environments prevent it from being anything other than mindless, although occasionally fun at times, button-mashing.
The on-foot combat in general may be unrefined, but it's clear that even less attention was paid to the parts where you control Mikhail. Ideally, the sequences where you control Mikhail are supposed to serve as a contrast in scale to Zero since he can easily trample standard foes for her like ants and even goes into Star Fox-esque flight segments. How it actually turns out is that these Mikhail-controlling situations become a chore to play because the framerate easily acts at its worst and it seems like both the aiming reticle as well as the camera prove to be bigger foes than the opposition you face.
For as clumsy as the flight portions may be, what is the most devious and awkwardly designed sequence in the entire game is the final boss battle. I won't go into specifics, but I'm mentioning this primarily because I wouldn't be surprised if most players find it nearly impossible to beat. Seriously. Though it is presented very creatively, it requires a very specific skillset that doesn't follow the mechanics established in the game at all. The final fight is incredibly unforgiving and infuriating for reasons that I can't even begin to describe in this review, because of how it is presented, or rather, how important stuff is NOT presented.
I'm harping a lot on the presentation, but honestly, that is probably the main reason why Drakengard 3 is bogged down in general for what would be mostly serviceable as a game. I“m really not one to normally bring up, or even care about production values just for the sake of it, but this game just reeks of a shoe-string budget that clearly goes against its intended design. Constant visual oddities abound with huge framerate hitches in random moments of combat. It also has a technical prowess that would only really feel at home in the PS2 era with its extremely unimpressive character models and lifeless 3D environments for most sequences. This is one of the few games where I strongly feel like one could've had a dramatically different (and a far more positive) impression of the game if its vast amount of technical quirks were simply fixed or optimized with a bigger budget.
For as easy as it is to nitpick or be disappointed by the aspects that Drakengard 3 doesn't do particularly well, every now and then the title has its really pleasant surprises. The soundtrack is great and is mostly composed from none other than Keiichi Okabe, known for his fantastic work for Nier. I don't think the soundtrack here is as consistent as that game's was, which stuck to more memorable and serene vocal themes, but it is also way more eclectic in its style. It certainly utilizes familiar elements from Nier like calm, orchestral pieces with vocal accompaniment, although, it just as easily goes crazy in other moments like the boss themes that go from Heavy Metal to Trance musical styles.
I think the most creative use of the soundtrack is when it shifts the score in battles to complement the Zero's Intoner mode. Normally this mode makes Zero temporarily invincible and also increases her offensive capabilities/mobility as a game mechanic, but it also adds a vocal layer to what may have originally been a classical styled piece to a far more beautiful, yet haunting, vocal composition that is unique to each theme. Actually, in general, the audio is fairly well-done. Some poorly done audio mixing in cutscenes aside (which is surprisingly significant), both the English and Japanese dub hold up rather well, which, for a fairly character interaction-heavy game, goes a pretty long way in conveying the engaging storytelling.
Similar to both Nier, and to a lesser extent Deadly Premonition (ironically made by the developers behind both), Drakengard 3 rides on mostly less-than-serviceable gameplay to tell a much more interesting story. Unfortunately, its poor presentation, absolutely glaring repetition to the gameplay, and questionable mannerism is likely to push away most would-be onlookers of the title. That said, much like a certain lovable baby dragon that likes to roll around the mire, it is easy to become very frustrated with Drakengard 3 when constant filth is stuck to its exterior and design, but you know that, deep-down, it may be worth putting up with the fella in the long haul—that is, if he doesn't make you rage-quit near the end and you happen to also be very forgiving to its many faults.
+ Intriguing, albeit weird, dark storytelling with multiple endings
+ Great, eclectic soundtrack and solid English/Japanese dub
+ Entertaining character interactions
+ On-foot combat can be fun at times
- Overall combat is shallow and there is a ton of glaring repetition to the enemies and stages
- Airborne dragon sequences control extremely rough
- Poor presentation with really significant framerate problems
- Infuriating final boss
Overall Score: 6.5 (out of 10)
Drakengard 3 is likely to leave most players with a wide-range of mixed emotions due to its hugely significant flaws as a game. But, for those who are curious about its setting may find just enough intrigue to its dark storytelling and bizarre overall style to warrant putting up with its many substandard quirks.
Disclosure: PS3 downloadable code was provided by the publisher for this review