Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Old Favorites: Drakengard

Square-Enix's PS2 action game Drakengard is one of those odd games that make blogging interesting for me. It is far from being perfect, but it has enough raw entertainment value that I kept with it until the end (no matter how insane things became by that point).

There are two main game modes in Drakengard: ground missions and aerial missions. Gameplay in the ground missions consists of either chopping your way through hundreds of enemies with weapons and magic, or flying over the battlefield on the back of a dragon, burning the enemies from above. Aerial missions are battles on dragon-back against all kinds of flying monsters, built like classic aerial dogfight games (they are supposedly inspired by the Ace Combat series, from what I have read). Neither game mode implements any individual element in a particularly novel manner, but the combination is unique and implemented fairly well.

One thing the designers of this game understood very well when designing the ground missions was that defeating whole armies with blasts of dragonfire is a lot of fun. Starting with some of the earliest missions, they present chapters which have many hundreds more enemies than is really necessary. In fact, even the very first mission has incredibly huge areas filled with enemies far too powerful to be defeated by the hero himself at the beginning of the game, even though these areas are not even touched upon by the actual mission objectives At the same time, the game is very clear about mission objectives, and makes it so that you can clear a mission by simply defeating a fairly small fraction of the total number of enemies. The level design supports both the player who wants to take his time having fun by defeating many opponents and building up weapons, and the player who just wants to clear through a mission quickly.

The only problematic part of the ground mission design is the fact that there is a time limit on missions. The time limit is usually absurdly generous, so that it is almost never an issue, so it really doesn't seem to exist to encourage clearing maps quickly or be a challenge. If you use your dragon to defeat enemies, you will pretty much never run into a problem with the timer. It is only if the player wants to defeat every last soldier on foot in a large map that the timer will ever be an issue, but in that case it is purely a choice on the part of the player, so I wonder why the game designers would want to punish such behavior.

An important problem regarding the game concept that the designers tried to overcome was the question "how can the game be challenging if you can always just climb on the dragon and burn everything from the sky?" If you never need to land, then the entire system of fighting on foot becomes meaningless. This is partially solved through the existence of indoor missions where you can't use the dragon, but even in outdoor missions it is mitigated through two effects: enemies who can't be hurt by dragonfire (the red armored soldiers) and the way the hero is dismounted from the dragon if the dragon is hit multiple times in succession (mostly by archers). Both solutions are fairly good, but they both also have some problems.

I think most of the aspects of fighting archers in this game are handled well. The effect of archers knocking the hero off of the dragon after consecutive hits works well. It means that you can't just defeat every archer by soaking up damage and burning them all, but at the same time you are not guaranteed to be knocked off of the dragon. It means fighting archers from dragon-back is difficult, but not impossible. The problem, though, is that fighting archers on foot is too tricky and annoying. I think trying to fight archers on foot lead to more deaths early in the game then fighting the strongest enemies of the late game, which is not an ideal situation.

I really like fighting the red-armored soldiers in the game. I like having an excuse to get off of the dragon and fight. I still wonder how the designers justify the strange red armor which negates dragonfire and shoot back green energy bolts when hit by fire, but that is a minor issue. The major issue is that a type of enemy which is designed to encourage the hero to fight on foot is also totally immune to all of the magical attacks the hero can use only on foot. These spells are both a good way to avoid tediously long fights and are a lot of fun, so being unable to use them means the red armored soldiers can only be defeated through repeated weapon attacks, which can get tiresome. Also, the logic of the red armor breaks down with this, because while the hero's magic is useless against these guys, the magical attacks of his summoned allies can devastate red armored soldiers very easily. Thus, fighting red armored soldiers is mostly a case of either tedious sword-fighting or summoning an ally to destroy them effortlessly.

I guess I should mention more clearly that I don't like the implementation of the ally characters in this game. Their magical abilities are incredibly powerful, can be used against any enemy, and can be used without any cost. You can only use an ally two or three times in a map, and only or a limited time each use, but within that time they can simply wipe out every enemy in their path. Their fully charged magical abilities are so powerful and easy to use their weak physical attacks and uncharged spells are a complete waste of time. These characters are something of a "Get Out of Jail Free" card you are almost guaranteed to have, which I think cheapens some of the difficulty and mood of the game too much.

Anyways, enough about the ground mission, it is time to talk about the aerial missions. Of course, I am not sure what to say about Drakengard's aerial mission, since they are fairly simple. You breathe either direct fire attacks or homing shots, evade with side-dashing, and use powerful magic attacks when the magic gauge fills. Almost every aerial mission takes place in an empty sky while en route to a new area, and few aerial missions are at all memorable. The missions are fun, but they can feel more like a minigame added onto a robust ground combat game than an important element in of themselves. The most important thing about these missions is that, with one exception, every boss battle is an aerial mission, which is something of an odd choice. These aerial boss battles tend to be a lot of fun, particularly the battles against the hero's rival and his black dragon, but I think it is still unusual to have so few ground boss battles. I suppose it was a bid to make the aerial combat system more important to the game.

If I have any overall criticism of the game mechanics, I think it would be the integration between ground missions and aerial missions. I think the game would have been a lot better if objects on the ground were important to aerial missions and things in the air were important to ground mission, and you could smoothly switch between air-to-air, air-to-ground, and ground-to-ground combat. I understand that the division is probably rooted in technical limitations of the hardware, and what I want would have been difficult or impossible to achieve with Playstation 2 hardware, but it still seems that it is an important thing to achieve for a game like Drakengard in which freely switching between fighting on foot and riding a dragon is central to the game concept.

Before I forget, I think I will mention how much I like the weapon collection and improvement system in this game. Searching for hidden weapons is fun, and it is just as fun to try new weapons out and level them up. Having each weapon have a unique spell, unique fighting style, a distinct appearance for each of its four levels, and its own backstory that is revealed as you level it up is a great concept.

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