Drakengard Impressions

We take an updated look at Square Enix's upcoming PS2 action game.

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Drakengard is a level-based 3D action shooter game from Square Enix. The game was actually in production at Enix before the two companies merged, which explains why third-party developers are credited for the game (Enix had traditionally avoided in-house development). Still, the game has the kind of high-quality graphics you might expect from a Square game, and it seems to play well, too.

Drakengard takes place in a fantasy world where two powers, the Empire and the Confederates, fight to gain possession of a goddess, who, as it turns out, is the younger sister of the main character, Kyme. You take the role of Kyme in the game and battle the Empire in order to save your sister. This is a good thing for everyone, since the Empire is a threat to the entire world.

Drakengard consists of 13 chapters, each with a number of subchapters. The subchapters usually consist of a shooting stage to secure the air, followed by a field stage to complete a mission objective, like defeating a number of target enemies or reaching a particular goal. There are events and high-quality movie sequences in between the stages that portray the game's storyline, but the characters have several monologues in-game, which gives them more personality.

In terms of gameplay, both the shooting stages and the field battle stages in Drakengard will make use of almost all the buttons on the PlayStation 2 controller, including the rarely used L3 and R3 buttons. The learning curve for the basic controls isn't too steep, since the analog stick and three or four buttons are sufficient enough to go through most of the game. If you're having trouble with the difficulty of the later levels, you can also replay previous stages of the game to gain more experience points and to uncover hidden weapons you may have missed the first time around. There are two replay modes in Drakengard: The scenario mode lets you continue the game from any point in the past, and the mission mode lets you go through some of the core stages, with all your partners and dragons intact.

The 3D shooting stages in Drakengard don't seem too difficult. Kyme rides on his dragon, shooting away at any moving target on the screen, which range from airships to giant babies. The shooting stage can basically be played with just the analog stick and three buttons: one for shooting, one for the bomb/supershot, and one to automatically lock onto a nearby enemy. Other buttons can be used to give you more control over your dragon, such as to evade shots, make a 180-degree turn, or to glide faster. Even if your aim isn't very good, you can still use auto-lock to acquire your targets. You can also set missiles to home in on the enemies by holding on the fire button briefly before letting go.

The field stages in Drakengard are a bit more complex than the aerial combat, but they're still manageable using only the analog stick and two or three buttons. But like with the aerial battles, if you're familiar enough with the controls to use the extra buttons, you'll have more control over your character in the field. In the field stages, Kyme can either slash away at his opponents on the ground, or he can ride on his dragon and breathe fire at his enemies. You can also summon the dragon onto the field and fly around to attack enemies. The controls while using the dragon in field battles are the same as those used for the aerial stages. However, the dragon can't be used in some of the field stages like the inner castle, since it's too big.

On foot, your main attacks are weapons and magic. You can equip yourself with up to eight weapons before the start of the battle. Different weapons have different uses. For instance, you can swing hammers around and strike nearby enemies, while spears can be used to pierce right through your opponents. You can also use combos and finishing moves by pressing certain button combinations, which comes in handy when fighting multiple enemies at once. You can also use different magic attacks, depending on which weapon you have equipped. Magic is useful in the game, but it requires you to build up your magic meter by attacking with your weapon. Other actions that you can take on the ground include rolling to the side, jumping, and guarding.

You can also summon a partner to fight in place of Kyme for a limited number of times per stage in the field, and these partner characters seem to play more or less the same (though they can't ride the dragon). Unlike Kyme, partners gradually lose health over time. Once a partner's health runs out, you'll switch control back to Kyme, but you can call the partner again as long as you haven't reached the limit on how many times you can call partners. Partners can't gain levels, and their weapons are fixed, but they are useful, since they can soak up damage on Kyme's behalf while they're around so that he can continue to fight unscathed.

Drakengard's gameplay certainly seems user-friendly. Magic spells and dragon breath seem to have generous hit detection on them (they'll affect enemies that are slightly out of the range of the visual effects). This helps keep Drakengard's combat exciting, and it also helps move it along, since the game throws lots and lots of weak enemies at you. In fact, some of the field missions sometimes seem like they require as much endurance as they do reflexes (maybe more), since they keep sending huge crowds of enemies at you that gradually chip away at your health meter.

These battles also seem to affect Drakengard's camera, which doesn't automatically fix itself in the direction that you're currently facing. It follows your direction gradually, though this seems occasionally problematic in the game's fast-paced battles. Fortunately, using the guard button fixes the camera in the direction you're facing, though rolling to the side seems like a better defensive maneuver, especially since guarding immediately causes your character to stop running.

Drakengard has high production values, but its most distinctive feature seems to be how much personality its characters possess. Specifically, everyone in Drakengard seems to have some kind of a personality problem, either big or small. Kyme isn't a bad guy, but he doesn't seem especially concerned with other people's welfare. In one scene Kyme repeatedly stabs a soldier's corpse with his sword while his sister looks on. In another scene, he kicks away a man who kneels in front of him and begs him to save a village. Another unusual character is Arioch, an elf widow who lost her mind after her family was murdered by the Empire. She apparently also lost the ability to bear children in exchange for receiving spiritual powers, which has resulted in certain mental issues pertaining to maternity and children.

Drakengard has four different standard endings, as well as a hidden bonus ending. The game is scheduled for release in the US next year.

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