Every self-respecting fantasy game has dragons, and nine times out of ten it's your job to slay the evil things. But Drakan: Order of the Flame is one of those rarer occasions when the dragon actually does your bidding. Drakan first comes across as a third-person action game like any other in the quickly burgeoning genre, but you'll know this game is onto something early on, when lanky redheaded heroine Rynn releases the kindly old dragon Arokh and takes to the skies on his back. Add great graphics, mean monsters, deadly traps, and huge areas to explore both from the sky and on foot, and you'll see that Drakan is clearly one of the better games in its class, even if it doesn't seem especially original. After all, Rynn's just a medieval Lara Croft riding on your average dragon. You won't remember Drakan for its characters, but you'll have fun playing it.
If the world of Drakan weren't filled with ill-tempered eight-foot tall pig men, acid-spitting bird-beasts, and evil spirits, it would make a beautiful vacation spot. Rynn's adventures will take her from snowy mountains to tropical islands and from ancient catacombs to dormant volcanoes. All these settings are colorful and vividly detailed with realistic weather and lighting effects, and visibility remains high except when you soar way up to see mountains suddenly appear on the horizon as you fly by. Though most of them are your typical sword-and-sorcery fodder, the denizens that sully these otherwise attractive locations are distinctively designed, from the menacing but oafish trolls to the predictably seductive yet vaguely reptilian succubi. Rynn can literally hack them all to bits with a huge variety of mundane and magical medieval weapons, though the greatest difference among most of these is their appearance. And no matter how you slice your wicked foes, they die in a wide variety of ways whose graphic violence helps make up for the fact that you'll face those same bad guys again and again.
Surprisingly, it's Rynn herself who doesn't look so good compared with everything else, what with her absurd Barbie-doll figure and her poker face. You get a lot of close-ups of her during in-engine cinematics, but she doesn't come across as having much of a personality since her expression never changes and her mouth never moves. In contrast, her dragon companion, although typically red and reptilian, is more articulate and looks great from the tips of his leathery, semitransparent wings right on down to his assorted elemental breath attacks. However, Drakan doesn't sound quite as good as it looks, between its nondescript pseudo-symphonic soundtrack and its plain ambient effects. Weak voice acting doesn't help either, but at least the hack-and-slash swordplay sounds just right.
More importantly, the hacking and slashing feels right. There's nothing unnecessarily complicated about Drakan's control, which is best suited to a keyboard and mouse combination. You just run or fly about, oftentimes in circles in the interest of using your superior speed to flank the enemy and slash at or breathe on him. You can perform a few simple special moves on foot from rolls to triple-slash combos, and these are enough - but only just enough - to make combat fairly interesting rather than overly simplistic. Your enemies aren't especially bright and will occasionally get stuck or ignore you completely, but usually you can expect a serious fight; brutish Wartoks use their height and power to their advantage, while your smaller foes will duck and weave out of the way. Airborne enemies do an even better job avoiding your attacks, but because Arokh's breath weapons are so powerful, his flying foes don't pose much trouble except in large groups.
Combat in Drakan isn't especially remarkable either on land or in the sky, but the best thing about the game is how you're able to transition between the two. You can take off and land at will, and the game's open-ended level design often requires that you dismount in order to find a means for Arokh to squeeze into the next area. Drakan's huge levels also contain a fair amount of puzzles and traps, demanding that you think before you leap, or restore your saved game if you're reckless. It's a shame that a few of these puzzles really fall flat and require twice as much luck as ingenuity, though most of them provide an appropriate diversion from and contrast to all the fighting.
Drakan is challenging, fairly long, and enjoyable most of the way through. It relies a little too heavily on its shallow story; its overwrought and boring dialogue take up too much time in between the action. And the game has its share of technical problems, which are noticeable when Rynn occasionally clips right through a wall and are most apparent in the unpolished multiplayer game, which wouldn't be that much fun even if it worked since the action is so straightforward. The game's weak finale doesn't help either. Even so, it's to Drakan's credit that it holds together in spite of these issues. It's a great-looking game, it's easy and fun to play, and its levels are expansive and nonlinear but designed in such a way that you'll rarely feel lost and consistently be impressed. And if you think it's just a fancy Tomb Raider clone, then look no further than the dragon to understand why such a label would be unfair, though it won't seem entirely inappropriate after a glance back at Rynn.