Drakengard II Import Hands-On

We try out the import sequel to Square Enix's PlayStation 2 action shooter.

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Drakengard II is the latest entry in Square Enix's fledgling Drakengard series, known as Drag-On Dragoon in Japan. The first game blended together Dynasty Warriors-style ground-based melee fighting against hordes of enemies with Panzer Dragoon-style sky-based shooting and tied it together with a twisted story. Following the original game's success in Japan, Square Enix and developer Cavia have teamed up again to offer fans a sequel that expands on many of the original ideas seen the first time around. We had the chance to try out the recently released import to see just where the unique series is heading.

The original Drakengard depicted the story of Caim, a young warrior who fought as a member of a union that opposed a powerful threat known as the Empire. The Empire was out to get Kaim's sister, who was the key to all hell breaking loose throughout the world. To save his sister, Caim formed a pact with a red dragon, but, unfortunately, the Empire succeeded in using her to bring about doom to the world. In the end, Caim's red dragon sacrificed itself to seal off the apocalypse, and the world was finally able to return to peace. Drakengard II takes place 18 years after those events. You'll play as Nowe, a warrior who fights as a member of a legion that guards the red dragon in order to make sure that the world stays at peace. Despite his youth, Nowe is considered to be special among the legion because of his ability to ride on a blue dragon, and he's therefore referred to as "the savior."

The beginning of Drakengard II is surprisingly straightforward and downright conventional. However, considering how dark the storyline of the original Drakengard was, we're expecting to see some major turns as the game progresses. One aspect of the original that gives us hope for this one is a cast of unique but disturbing characters. One such example from the original Drakengard was the widow elf Arioch, who lost her mind after the death of her family and turned into a serial killer that preys on children (and she was a player character, not an enemy). While we've yet to see anyone carrying on her fine tradition of insanity and baby-eating, there are some quirky folks on display even now, like Commander Zhangpo, who's a bulky-looking short guy with an unmatching high-pitched voice. Zhangpo had to sacrifice the act of eating when he signed his pact with Ifrit, the spirit of fire. As a result, he's constantly complaining about his hunger, and his selfish attitude makes him an annoying character. There's also a commander named Hanch, who sacrificed her appeal for her pact with a spirit. As a result, she looks like a sinister witch with purple bags under her eyes. Both of these characters are members of the legion that Nowe belongs in--a fun bunch of folks to be sure. As far as the main character, Nowe, goes, he has the ability to ride on a blue dragon, but there hasn't been any mention of whether he had to sign a pact to do so, and if he had to sacrifice anything in the process. The original Drakengard's Caim had to sacrifice his voice in order to form his pact with the red dragon.

In terms of actual gameplay, Drakengard II follows the same formula from the original installment, albeit with improvements in its field battles. There are stages that have two parts: an aerial battle phase that plays as a 3D shooter, and a field battle phase that plays something like Dynasty Warriors. Once you beat a stage, you can return to it as a "free mission," and beat enemies to level up your characters and weapons.

The 3D shooting phase in Drakengard II is pretty much the same as what was in the original installment. Nowe will ride on his dragon and shoot away at enemies on the screen that range from giant bats to floating square objects. The shooting stage can basically be played with just the analog stick and two buttons: the square button for shooting, and the triangle button to lock onto a nearby enemy. You can zero in on enemies by holding down the shooting button before letting go. The circle button lets you use a special "breath" attack, though you'll need to beat an enemy that has an item in order to execute it. The L1 and R1 buttons let you dodge left and right, and pushing them together performs a 180-degree turn. You can use the X button to fly faster, which comes in handy if an enemy is too far away, or if you've passed by one and need enough distance to make a good 180-degree turn to go back.

Much like the original Drakengard, your dragon evolves into different forms as the storyline goes on. You'll be able to simultaneously target more enemies as your dragon becomes more powerful. Your dragon can also level up in Drakengard II, which lets you build up various stats.

The controls in the field phase are more complicated than those in the air, but most of the basics are still the same as in the original Drakengard: you'll be hacking and slashing enemies to reach a goal, or to beat enough of them for the story to advance. You can basically go through the game as long as you know how to hammer the square button. But you can also do different combination attacks by pressing the square and the triangle buttons in a different order. You'll be rewarded with new combination attacks as you defeat enemies and your weapon levels up. When pressed alone, the triangle button lets you do a powerful attack that can thrust the enemy into the air. You can also jump at them right afterward and do some extra damage while they're floating in the air. Pressing the circle button will let you pull off a powerful magic attack when you've stocked enough magic points, which build up when you defeat enemies or get attacked by them. The kind of magic that you can use will depend on your weapon. As your weapon levels up, you'll be able to hold onto the circle button to execute stronger magic attacks, though it'll also require more magic points.

Flyin' 'n Killin', Square Enix Style

The enemies so far have shown off more variety than those in the original Drakengard. This time, we found ourselves fighting against trolls and other monsters instead of human enemies. The game implements a new "mission meter" on the side of the screen, and you can advance through the stages by defeating enough enemies to deplete the meter, rather than having to massacre all of them in the field. If it's a stage where you need to do something within a given time limit, the meter will act as the time bar instead.

As in the original Drakengard, you can switch between different kinds of weapons during the battle by using the R2 button. However, changing your weapon in Drakengard II will also change your player character. By default, you'll be controlling the main character, Nowe, who uses a sword as his weapon. If you change your weapon to a spear or an axe, Nowe will disappear and switch to another character, such as the female Knight Eris, or the masked fighter Urick. As expected, each weapon type has its ups and downs: swords are fast and have an all-around purpose, while spears and axes have a wider range and stronger power, although they take more time to attack. In addition, each of the characters is further distinguished by the types of enemies with whom that character possesses the most strength. For example, Nowe can do good damage to human characters, but he's not good at inflicting damage to the undead. Eris, on the other hand, is good against the undead, but she can't do as much damage to human enemies.

Each of your characters has its own life bar, so if one character is about to die, you can switch to another one to try to beat the stage. It's important not to let any of your characters die, since that leads to an instant game over rather than an automatic switch to another team member. Fortunately, Drakengard II lets you keep your experience points on a game over, so if you die and start from the beginning of the stage again, you'll be stronger than before. It should be noted that the game lets your characters level up in the middle of your battle, rather than at the end of the stage like in the original Drakengard. Drakengard II also features the addition of items that you can map to the R2 button, which lets you replenish your life or magic points during your battles. Aside from finding the items during your battles, you can also purchase them in towns. The defense in Drakengard II has been improved over the original installment. Guarding against enemy attacks in the original Drakengard was one of the meaningless things to do in the game, since it forced the player to stand still in one spot while the foes would close in. The act of guarding was convenient in terms of fixing the camera angle in the original Drakengard (it had horrible camera work), but it didn't have much of a practical use in terms of actual gameplay. The developers must have figured out the irony in the system, as Drakengard II lets you walk around with your guard up, albeit at a slower speed than usual. You can also roll to the sides with the L1 and R1 buttons like in the original. In addition, you can slide backward by pressing the two buttons together, which might come in handy during some of the later battles.

If you're playing as Nowe, you can call out for your dragon with the Select button and fight from the air, spitting shots at the enemies down on the ground that look miniscule and weak from the sky. The controls for the dragon are identical to those in the aerial battle phase, except the circle button is used to pull off a special move called "dragon overdrive," which makes your dragon perform a devastating attack on enemies on the ground, such as a whirlwind or a claw attack. The dragon overdrive requires magic points to be executed. But similar to the magic attacks, the overdrive can be powered up by holding down the circle button. You'll acquire more dragon overdrive attacks as your dragon evolves through the storyline.

The camera work in Drakengard II has been massively improved, and it doesn't end up being as big of a problem when you're playing as it was in the original Drakengard. It seems plausible that the artificial intelligence in Drakengard II has been adjusted so that the enemies won't attack from awkward angles, since the camera's swaying speed doesn't seem to be too different from before. Another major improvement that makes the gameplay less of a chore is the minimap on the upper right-hand side of the screen. The original Drakengard adopted a small radar map that only displayed the enemy locations, and the player was required to pause the game and switch to a full-screen map if they wanted to figure out where exactly they were on the field. Drakengard II gives the player the option to switch between the classic enemy radar minimap and a new field minimap.

Drakengard II's graphics are similar to the quality of those in the original, which is understandable when considering the limitations of the PS2 hardware and the volume of enemies that are simultaneously displayed on the screen. However, Drakengard II covers up for that part by massively improving on its drama. When you get dispatched to the war zone in the beginning of the game, you'll find that there are actually soldiers from Nowe's side that are already taking on the monsters in the field. Though the soldiers aren't too strong, they build up on the atmosphere of the game and their existence makes the experience feel more realistic, unlike the original Drakengard where you felt you were taking on the whole empire by yourself. So far, it seems to be a pretty solid sequel to the original installment. If you're sold on importing it, be forewarned that it's heavy on the Japanese text. If you're a regular importer you should be able to get through well enough; you'll just miss out on the story. Square Enix has not announced a release schedule for the game in America yet, so stay tuned.

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