Sunday, March 2, 2008

Drakengard's Story, Structure, and Multiple Endings

Some of the biggest things about the two Drakengard games that I did not touch on in my last two posts were their stories and the game systems relevant to advancing the plot and determining which ending you see (since both games have multiple endings).

First, I will repeat my claim that Drakengard 2 has a better story than the original Drakengard. The first Drakengard has great character development built around the interactions between the (mostly) silent hero Caim and the fierce and proud red dragon he rides into battle, and it has a few good secondary characters, but other than that the story is fairly straightforward, relies a lot on the simplistic "Alliance of Good Nations versus the Evil Empire" cliche, and has very few unusual or unpredictable plot turns (on the main story path, at least). Drakengard 2 also has a few cliches, but the greater number of central characters, the more complex villains, and equally good character development when compared to the original makes it a lot more interesting of a game. In fact, certain events in Drakengard 2 help explain a few things left overly vague in the original game, which I think is a benefit to both. However, while I will hold to this claim, I will qualify it by saying that this is only true if you look at the games as linear stories with a single ending, which is not quite the case.

Both Drakengard games have multiple endings that are unlocked by playing through the game more after seeing the first ending. However, this is the only real point of similarity between these two games, because there is a massive difference between them otherwise: old missions are unlocked to be played again whenever you like in Drakengard, but not in Drakengard 2. In the sequel, you have to play through the entire game from start to finish in order to play the main story chapters again or see a new ending, which is the game's largest flaw. It both makes it impossible to go back to a story mission just because it would be fun or because it is a good mission for building up weapon levels, and makes seeing new endings extremely tedious. This is aggravated further by having very little variation between playthroughs (only the final chapter changes with each ending), and by having each ending only be decided by which playthrough it happens to be, rather than through the actions of the player. This is an unfortunate case of a sequel removing an important and fun part of its predecessor's game design.

In the first Drakengard, there are many optional side-paths, and you unlock new endings by opening up alternate routes and fulfilling hidden conditions. Each of the ally characters is recruited on an optional route (one of which is unlocked only after you see the first ending). In one of the more unusual choices of the game design, you can also unlock an optional route with each character by bringing that character backwards in time to a story scene you saw before you could recruit that character. Endings Two and Three are found by reaching an optional objective in a certain mission, which unlocks an alternative final chapter. If you complete all of the optional paths related to your allies, you can unlock a rather long and complicated alternate path through the last third of the game, and if you accomplish a hidden objective within that path, you reach a very different (and bizarre) alternate final chapter, where you can see the Endings Four and Five. It is extremely convoluted, and the end result does not make a lot of sense, but the game keeps things clear by making the conditions for unlocking new routes known to the player, and it is a lot of fun seeing different ways the game's story could have played out. One thing I like in particular is how the largest optional path is portrayed as a desperate attempt to avoid the greatest tragedy of the main plot, but at the same time makes circumventing that tragedy extremely difficult. This is one of the best examples I know for a good implementation of altering paths in an action game with a story.

Despite Drakengard's good system of unlocking endings, the endings themselves actually leave a lot to be desired. The first ending is a good, solid ending that is carried on well to make a great story in the sequel, but other than that things are problematic. Drakengard casts aside all of the usual rules of rewarding the player's effort by making the enjoyability of an ending inversely proportional to the difficulty in reaching the ending. The second and third endings are good, but depressing, the fourth ending is a capstone to a really bizarre and morbid final chapter, and the fifth ending combines the most illogical and anticlimactic final "battle" I have ever seen with a short and depressingly unrewarding final ending. I think endings two through three be "bad" endings is actually a pretty good idea on the designers' part. It reinforces the dark story of the game, and makes the player hungry for the "ideal route" that will lead to a hoped for "good ending". However, the designers don't follow it up by actually providing a good ending for following the most difficult route, which leaves the player severely unsatisfied (at least, it did so for me). The designers could have at least provided an exciting and fun final battle for that path...

In terms of the actual endings, Drakengard 2 is very different from its predecessor, but if anything the endings are worse in that game, especially if you consider how difficult it is to reach each ending. Each of the endings requires the characters to make severe changes in attitude with extremely little justification, which results in the endings having severe shifts in tone and focus compared to the rest of the game. Namely (please forgive the spoiler), having Legna be the final boss of the first ending did not make much sense, the twist that results in the second ending is inexplicable, and having Legna be the final boss again for the third and final ending is depressing and unsatisfying. At no point do you get to fight the real villains of the game, and instead you just end up fighting characters who are likable and endearing, over silly reasons, and then you watch the heroes pat themselves on the back and claim that the real villains have been defeated, without ever getting to fight them properly. What is more, the third final sequence is just a variation of the first final sequence that has been modified to make a little more sense and with a contradictory outcome, even though you have to play through the game three whole times in order to see it. It just is not worth it.

I think I should probably stop before this post turns even more into a rant about Drakengard 2's ending... Anyways, I think I still have one more post regarding the Drakengard games before I am done.

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