Exploring the Insane in Drakengard

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By Mike DeVillar on October 28th, 2020

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Drakengard (Drag-On Dragoon in Japan) is a hard game to talk about. This is due largely in part to the fact that as a game, it’s terrible. It’s core gameplay loop wears out its welcome about a quarter of the way through the experience, and for people seeking to 100% the game, they’ll have to jump through hoops that are silly and arcane to achieve the necessary goals.

The Drakengard franchise is mostly remembered for its connections to the much more popular NieR franchise as none of its core sequels ever saw much in the way of success or fanfare. So why talk about it at all? 

Well, because the game is one of those experiences that worms its way into your thoughts. The kind of game that you think about long after you turn off the console and move on to other things. Anyone that plays the game and sticks to it finds it sitting in the back of their subconscious, gnawing away at them to push further. Despite being a bad game to play, it is an incredible game to experience that feels like a spiraling descent into madness to unravel. By the end, you’re left with a game and a story that while rough around the edges, is a master stroke of focus and design that would be the hallmark of Yoko Taro’s future projects.

In short, there’s nothing quite like the first Drakengard. 

Upending Expectations

Drakengard came out at a point in time where games like Dynasty Warriors, Ace Combat, and other action-focused games were achieving a great deal of popularity. In these games the swathes you cut through enemies and the acts of war committed are treated as heroic, and usually had some blistering butt rock to accompany. 

That’s something that for Drakengard’s director, Yoko Taro, never quite sat right. Anyone familiar with his other games, particularly NieR and NieR: Automata, know that Taro likes to play with conventions a lot. For him, a narrative is never quite what it seems, and the reasons why people do the things they do or are the way they are must be taken apart and looked at. So, looking at a game where the wholesale slaughter of hundreds, no, thousands of people is something that is going to have a lot of discussion surrounding it.

Let me get one thing clear before continuing. In Drakengard, you are not the hero. In this game there are no heroes. 

There are protagonists that you play as in this game, and there is certainly an antagonizing force. But there is nothing heroic about anyone in the core cast. Everyone in Drakengard is a deeply troubled person, with flaws that are magnified by the brutality they inflict upon the world, at times with an abandon that is unnerving in how simple the execution is. 

And that is where the genius in the game lies.

A Maddening Journey

Caim and his pact partner, the Dragon Angelus

The opening stages of Drakengard immediately put you in the position of a desperate struggle. In the world of Midgard you take the role of Caim, a prince of one of the many factions that make up The Union. You are fighting against the endless tide of The Empire, who seeks the living goddess Furiae to upend the world and throw it into chaos in accordance with their beliefs in The Cult of The Watchers. 

While this kind of setup is familiar to any with a passing interest in fantasy, there’s something immediately insidious about the game. In the opening cinematic, Caim is mortally wounded, and upon finding a dragon in a similar state dying in the courtyard of his own castle, he forms a pact with the beast. Pacts in Drakengard allow humans to gain great power, usually in the form of an allyship with a great beast, in exchange for something of themselves. Caim sacrifices his ability to speak to be able to use the dragon in war.

From there the story continues as a desperate struggle to keep Furiae out of the hands of The Empire to ensure the safety of Midgard, meeting new allies and enemies alike on the way.  

It is not that simple, of course. The protagonists fail at almost every turn. Nothing ever goes right, and the things that do go well for them are often at a bitter cost. On top of that the core cast of characters are all awful people that are either consumed by their flaws in some way, or are blissfully indulgent in their extreme vices. 

Caim for example is shown to be almost without enjoyment unless he is killing, being called out by multiple characters for his insatiable bloodlust. Meanwhile Arioch, and elf the party meets partway through the game, is a cannibal, one who takes a particular delight in the eating of children. Again, these are the protagonists, and these two examples aren’t even the worst of them.

By the end of your first playthrough, though the world is saved, many of your companions, including Caim’s sister, have fallen, and though there is victory, it’s hollow. Best to try again. Oh, that’s right! This game has multiple endings.

Twisting the Knife

Drakengard’s approach to having multiple endings is more asymmetrical than most games. Rather than having identifiable branching paths, the game tucks new ‘verses’ into chapters, and will have wildly bizarre secret objectives to check the necessary boxes to open the game’s multiple ending paths. One such objective is as simple as taking another hallway in a level’s final moments, which radically alters which path you find yourself on. 

Each of these endings are distinct, memorable, and drops things ever further into the game’s particular brand of weird with the game’s fifth and final ending taking things to a bizarre conclusion that feeds directly into the first NieR’s plotline. 

The Queen-Beast and her Grotesqueries, some of the weirder parts of Drakengard

Each of these endings is valid though. They are complete journeys unto themselves and while they are entirely bleak in one form or another, there is a beauty to the sincerity of how the game commits to its narrative. 

Exploring the Taboo

A lot of games like to turn the camera to the viewer and bring them into the experience. Oftentimes this is to condemn their involvement in the events, or for doing what the game told them to. While this has certainly been effective at points, it often feels like a cheap jab. The player couldn’t have gotten to that condemnation without engaging with the game, why are they being made to feel bad about it when there’s no alternative?

Drakengard, and Yoko Taro it seems, is not interested in admonishing the player. Rather the game focuses itself on the characters and their immorality. Everyone in Drakengard is horrible. As we covered with a few characters, there are murderers, cannibals, and others have taboos about them I won’t go into here. The game, and its characters comment on these things, condemning the actions (even when at points they have no right to do so), but it never feels directed at the player. The game knows they are not responsible for that. 

Rather the game seems to want to cast attention onto the unvarnished stench and messy parts of what being human is. These characters are extreme in how awful they are, but they’re still trying to do right, or at the very least prevent everything from going literally to hell. While the game goes to extremes, and its story to extreme places, there is never any judgment thrown at the player, just the actions the characters commit. You are an interactive observer innocent of their sins. In that sense, you are Dante, and Yoko Taro is Vergil, with Drakengard being The Inferno. 

The Sound of Insanity

A game’s soundtrack is usually there to enhance the atmosphere or create a memorable tune that is easily repeated and helps drive focus while not getting in the way of the gameplay. Drakengard’s soundtrack is an assault on the senses designed to make you anxious and unnerved. 

These aren’t songs, these are the hymns for the end of the world as we know it.

Sampling classic composers and then arranging, layering, and remixing these tracks into new ones, the game’s composers, Nobuyoshi Sano and Takayuki Aihara, create something that is maddening, brutal, and apocalyptic. The soundtrack in this game is vicious. Most tracks have a punch to them that is immediately jarring, and the hammering repetition of the loops are the kinds of things that are concussive and somehow infectiously memorable.

The dark fantasy atmosphere and violent insanity is fully realized in the game’s 47 song OST, and while it is not expressly enjoyable listening for the most part, it fits the game flawlessly and is something that any composer should at least study when creating games for music. It is expressive, experimental, and to this day stands as a unique part of the game that nothing has ever quite fully replicated.

Mindless Repetition

If madness is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results, then this game has that covered in spades. Any discussion of Drakengard is going to talk about how repetitive the gameplay is. And boy is it repetitive. 

It’s hard to tell if this was just the inexperience of the team at creating an action game of this sort or if it was intentional, but the effect is still the same. On the ground combat animations are slow and stiff, feeling like you are controlling a tank more than a person. Controlling the dragon is a bit more enjoyable as she has some heft to her, but even then, there isn’t enough variance in the gameplay to keep things interesting.

Where this becomes a problem is that, if you want to complete the game, you need to get every one of the game’s 65 weapons. Which means you are going to be playing, and replaying levels quite a bit.

This is the one part of the game that universally makes it hard to recommend, and why I stated at the beginning of this article that it is a terrible video game. Yet despite that, for the discerning person able to see a game past its flaws, I still think it’s worth experiencing.

Flawed Diamonds Shine Differently

If you’re still here, I imagine then that there might be some interest in experiencing Drakengard. While I cannot say it is something for everyone, Drakengard is a game that is wholly unto itself. In that sense, I think there is something truly worthwhile and worth exploring.

It’s messy and intentionally seems to try to make itself unappealing to engage with at every turn, but the end result is something that is unforgettable. If you like things that are flawed but ambitious, or are patient slogging through sub-par elements to experience the more proficient parts of a piece of media, then Drakengard is well worth the effort. 

Mike DeVillar is a writer/editor that's stumbled his way into the games industry, as well as a lot of places he shouldn't be getting into in general.

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