We recently had a chance to hop on a dragon and take to the skies in a final build of Drakengard 2. We played through the first few chapters to get an idea of what the new game will bring to the series. So far it looks like no drastic changes have been made to the basic Drakengard formula, but the sequel does feel a bit more refined than its predecessor.
The events in Drakengard 2 begin 18 years after the events in the original game. The hero of the game is a young man named Nowe, who was raised by a dragon named Legna. Some people regard Nowe as something of a savior, due to his unique bond with the dragon and his mysterious past. When he was still young, Nowe was taken in by Oror, leader of the Knights of the Seal. The Knights of the Seal are an elite group of powerful warriors whose duty is to protect the five sacred seals that hold the red dragon and bring peace to the world.
The game begins just as Nowe is preparing for a duel to prove his strength as a member of the Knights of the Seal. Apparently, Oror, the man who found Nowe, was killed three years earlier in some sort of devastating event. The current leader of the Knights is General Gismor. After a brief tutorial about ground combat, Nowe enters a duel with Gismor. Nowe, of course, excels in combat and impresses the general and all of the other officers, including his close companion and mentor, Eris. Soon after the duel, news arrives of a monster attack in the District of Shining Light, and Nowe is ordered to get on his dragon and scout out the area. Conveniently, this gives Nowe a chance for a quick lesson about aerial combat.
The story is divided into chapters, each of which contains a number of multifaceted missions. There are 12 chapters in all, with a supposed 90 missions to complete. As far as the story goes, it's revealed pretty quickly that Nowe doesn't approve of the way the Knights of the Seal conduct their business.
In an early mission a mysterious girl named Manah shows up, and if you played the first game you'll recognize her as a powerful mage whose philosophy about protecting the world doesn't quite jibe with the Knights'. After she breaks one of the seals and kills one of the Knights' guardian lieutenants, Manah is captured and sentenced to death but manages to escape, and Nowe and Eris are ordered to give chase. During this time Nowe begins to question his own motives as well as those of his comrades, and he wants to know more about the mysterious girl he's pursuing. Eventually Nowe's curiosity and defiance of orders land him in hot water with the general; without spoiling too much, we can say that Nowe is expelled from the Knights for his insubordination and has to set out with his dragon on a quest to discover the truth about the seals and save the world from utter annihilation.
The gameplay in Drakengard 2 hasn't changed much from the first one. You still hack and slash your way through hordes of enemies on the ground, and occasionally take to the skies on the back of your dragon for some aerial combat. There are also a few puzzles to tackle, but they aren't especially challenging. Most of the early missions are on foot, although when you're out in an open area you can press the select button to call in your dragon for some added firepower and mobility.
The flying combat in Drakengard 2 is similar to the previous game in that you can fly around, shoot fireballs, target enemies, and use special breath attacks. The dragon is fairly nimble as well, and you can quickly dodge left and right by pressing the L1 and R1 buttons, speed up by pressing X, or turn around completely by pressing L1 and R1 at the same time. There are quite a few different types of attacks at your disposal while you're in the air. You can fire a normal fireball by pressing square, and if you hold square you can target enemies and fire weaker homing fireballs. You can lock on to an enemy target by pressing triangle, but it isn't as firm a lock as you might be used to in other aerial combat games. The target lock keeps you generally oriented in the direction of your target, but it still requires you to aim. While on your dragon you can also pick up special breath attacks by killing enemies. There are three different types of breath attacks, each with a different firing pattern. You can use a breath attack by pressing the circle button, and they're a great way to quickly clear out a large group of enemies. While flying over land you can hold the L2 button to hover over one area, which is handy when you need to rain fireballs down on groups of enemies below.
Occasionally, a mission will require you to fight on the ground, the old-fashioned way. Sometimes you have to fight enemies that are impervious to dragon attacks, and other times you have to enter confined areas where the dragon simply can't fit. The ground combat in Drakengard 2 is extremely simple, and it involves a lot of repetitive button mashing. It isn't much different from the first game, and if you liked the combat there you'll be happy to find plenty more of the same here. You can press the square button for a standard attack and the triangle button for an uppercut attack that knocks enemies into the air. Depending on the order of your attacks, you can string together combos and execute guard-breaking attacks. You can also press L1 and R1 to dodge right or left, and you can press them both together to do a backward handspring. You can block by pressing L2, and you can parry an enemy's strike by blocking and hitting the square button at the right time.
Each character also has a magic attack, which changes depending on the weapon he or she has equipped. Nowe's Valkyrie claw spell fires several sharp projectiles that home in on enemies. Manah is a mage, so she of course has particularly strong magic attacks. The one we saw is called divine blood, and it looks like an ice spell that has a wide area of effect and inflicts massive damage. Magic attacks can be charged up for extra damage, and Manah has the ability to regenerate her magic when not in battle.
You can use items and switch characters in the middle of combat using the grand wheel, which you can call up using the R2 button. Before embarking on a mission you can equip a variety of weapons, items, and accessories on slots in the wheel. Then, while in battle, you can call up the wheel to quickly select the item you want to use or the weapon you want to equip. Certain types of weapons can only be used by specific characters. For example, Nowe uses swords, so you can equip several swords to the wheel and switch them around during battle. Weapons all level up and get stronger as you use them, and each weapon has unique strengths, so it makes sense to have several of the same type of weapon on hand at all times. If you equip a weapon that your current character can't use, it will automatically summon into battle the character who can. For example, if you're using Nowe with a sword and you equip a spear, Eris will be called in to fight. Different characters have different strengths and weaknesses, and they all level up independently as they fight, so it's to your benefit to change characters often. Eris is slow and harder to use than Nowe, but she's especially powerful against undead creatures, unlike Nowe. We've seen three playable characters so far, but there are five different weapon types in the game, so it seems logical that there will be roughly that many characters to choose from.
While Drakengard 2 is focused almost entirely on action, there are a few role-playing conventions thrown in for good measure. Weapons, characters, and your dragon can all level up by gaining experience from combat. Characters get stronger and tougher, as you might expect. Weapons can level up four times, and each time, the weapon becomes stronger and new combos are unlocked. Your dragon can also level up, and in fact, the dragon will evolve at certain points in the story. The evolved version of the dragon is stronger and has a slightly different look and attack.
Drakengard 2 is visually quite similar to its predecessor. The graphics do look a bit dated, but the game at least runs smoothly, even with a screen full of enemies. The draw distance is short when you're on the dragon, so you can't see groups of enemies until you're right on top of them. Luckily, the radar in the top right corner of the screen tells you exactly where you need to go. One thing the game does a particularly good job of is creating a sense of scale when you switch between ground and air combat. When you're on the ground, some of the enemies will look huge; but when you call your dragon and take to the skies, all the enemies look tiny. The effect is a bit exaggerated, but it still makes the air-to-ground combat that much more satisfying. There are still plenty of rendered cutscenes that pop up every once in a while, and as you might expect, they're always flashy and dramatic. The soundtrack varies from epic war chants to sinister and suspenseful tunes. The characters are all fully voiced once again, and the each voice fits well with its respective character.
This game probably won't convert any new fans to the Drakengard series, but the slight refinements and brand-new story should appease fans of the first game. Drakengard 2 is set to be released February 14, so be sure to check back then for our full review.