Drakengard 1 Review: Insanity, Depression, Taboos, and Awful Gameplay

Drakengard is akin to Marmite – you’ll love it, hate it, or just be confused by its existence.

After playing through and reviewing Nier I decided to go back to Drakengard (the first game Taro Yoko directed, and Nier’s “spiritual” predecessor) to see if the vague memories from a playthrough in my early teens held up.

Suffice to say they do.

Although I would still recommend Drakengard to anyone with an interest in dark fantasy, its flaws are so great that I’d struggle to promote it outside of that niche. As the title of this Drakengard review suggests, it very much is a case of story vs gameplay, and even the story has some elements which don’t quite work.

However, one thing I believe saves the game as a whole (or at least warrants preserving in some way) is that it stands out. Probably moreso than any of Taro Yoko’s other work (although I haven’t yet completed Nier: Automata), Drakengard is far from afraid to explore strange and often horrific plot points. It treads ground where almost all fear to tread, and it does so in such a matter-of-fact manner that you can’t help but take it seriously.

Although it can be an arse to play sometimes, it’s certainly memorable, which I think in an often overblown and forgettable market is something damn worth keeping hold of.

Drakengard Review general image

Also, since the good points of Drakengard are so closely linked to the story, I’ll have to go into some pretty major spoilers – you’ve been warned.

I repeat: this article will contain huge spoilers for Drakengard

Drakengard review: a summary

As Taro Yoko’s directorial debut, Drakengard shows both his ambition and inexperience. The scope of the game is massive, and the topics raised are pretty rarely seen (especially for when it was released in 2003), but the implementation and practical aspects are incredibly rough to deal with.

Drakengard is unwieldy even by PS2 standards, has incredibly basic gameplay, frustrating enemy design, and is practically impossible to get all endings for if you don’t use a walkthrough. On the other hand, it has an intriguing story and characters, clever ways of tying its themes to the core gameplay loop, and aside from one instance of censorship is allowed to get away with a surprising amount in its runtime.

Drakengard Review Inuart and Furiae

Set in a fantasy world during a massive conflict between the Union and the Empire, Drakengard has you slaughtering armies both on the ground and in the air by controlling both Caim (a human) and Angelus (a red dragon). I’ve already said that the gameplay is sub-par (one combo and magic attack per each of the game’s 65 weapons on foot, and three different attacks in the air), but honestly I quite enjoyed my time with the game.

Speaking of which, I spent around 30 hours with Drakengard to 100% complete it, which is a little longer than most. If you’re just looking to beat the game with a few extra endings and no real grinding you’re looking at closer to 20 hours, but if you have the patience I’d highly recommend going the whole hog.

That’s because, much like Nier, Drakengard is a game which gets better as it goes on. The first playthrough only really gets going (read: “insteresting”) after around the halfway mark, and the juicy stuff only happens in the following playthroughs and expanded story branches.

Drakengard Review ground foot

In short, if you have a good chunk of time and don’t mind a little grindy gameplay, buckle your seatbelt and dive into yet another dark fantasy epic.

Plot

Holy crap, the plot of Drakengard. Where do I begin?

Well, as I’ve already said, the game is set in the dark fantasy (faeries, dragons, the whole shebang) world of Midgard, in which the Union and the Empire are at war. The Empire aims to kill the “Goddess Seal” – a woman named Furiae who is enchanted with a magical seal said to hold the world in balance.

You play as Furiae’s brother Caim – a deposed Union prince and one of the leaders of its army. During the opening battle Caim is severely injured and stumbles across a red dragon, which has been tortured and chained to the floor by the Empire. To save their own lives, they enter a “pact”, healing each other and sharing immense power.

Joined by them at various points are Furiae’s former fiance Inuart (upon becoming the Goddess she was forced to break the engagement), and the Goddess’ high priest Verdelet.

Rather than with Nier where I was actively avoiding spoilers, Drakengard is difficult to describe because of the incredibly varied branches its story takes through the various playthroughs. To take it chronologically, however, you first go through the world searching for the three seals which serve as buffers for the Goddess.

The Forest, Desert, and Ocean seals all hold some of the burden of the weight of the seal to stop the Goddess from having to endure it all. If all three were destroyed the Goddess would all but die from the strain of the seal lying solely on her shoulders.

Obviously Caim and his party don’t want that to happen, and with his dragon pact partner they are able to utterly decimate countless of the Empire’s forces. The army is so great, however, that all three seals are broken no matter how many soldiers are slain.

Drakengard Review Caim and Inuart

Over the course of the game you learn that the Empire isn’t so much of an army as a cult; The Cult of the Watchers, specifically. Eventually it’s revealed that the cult is led by a young girl named Manah, who is seemingly possessed by the Watchers (her voice alternates between a little girl’s and that of an emotionless, gruff, middle-aged man).

In the first ending, Furiae is found dead after being captured by Manah and a brainwashed Inuart. The world gets plunged into chaos briefly until Caim defeats Manah and Angelus (the red dragon) volunteers to become the new Goddess Seal. The party deems it more cruel to leave Manah alive once she is defeated, letting her know that she will be despised by the world for the rest of her days.

I know that was one hell of a summary, but every single element of that is important to understand the branches and depths Drakengard reaches for in its subsequent endings.

Drakengard Review seed of resurrection

From insanity and loss, to highlighting the senseless slaughter you commit, cannibals, child abuse, and even (although these are rather heavily censored) incest and pedophilia, the plot goes to some incredibly dark places. I’m not saying that it always works, or that it doesn’t sometimes feel like Taro Yoko tried to cram as many taboos into one game as possible, but the fact that it works as well as it does while consistently finding new depths to sink to is fascinating.

Nothing in this game is happy, and almost nobody is without serious flaws. The world is collapsing no matter how you try to stop it, and you play as probably one of the worst (flawed) characters in the roster. It’s not to everyone’s palette, but Christ is it refreshing after a sea of generic and forgettable characters in many modern games.

The world

I’ve already covered a lot of what the world of Drakengard entails, but much like Nier the game goes largely for shock value in how quickly everything spirals downwards.

Drakengard Review Verdelet

For example, between half and two thirds of the way through the game you’re fighting the biggest battle in the entire runtime, and the mission requires you to slaughter more troops than any other before or after. Until this point that’s all you’ve been doing though, so this just feels like a large-scale version of the rest of the game, with the same dull colour palette of brown, grey and green.

Then, after the mission ends, a nuke goes off.

In the middle of a medieval fantasy battle a barrage so powerful it creates a mushroom cloud is rained down by a previously unseen flying fortress in the sky. The sky goes red with dust and debris, and it stays that way for the entire following mission, where you’re running around the crater-strewn battlefield fighting undead Empire soldiers who’ve clawed their way out of hell.

Or perhaps you’d like to see Manah in action as she brainwashes Inuart to capture his ex-fiance?

That’s not even mentioning what the Watchers are, and how goddamn depressing the entire game is in general. There’s absolutely no letup from the bleak and hopeless atmosphere – the world is being destroyed, and the only person powerful enough to have a hope of saving it is as monstrous as the Watchers themselves.

One final note of worth about the world is the idea of pacts, which I think is utterly genius.

“Pacts” are a ritual by which a being joins their life force with another, resulting in a massive boost in power for both. Pacts are almost exclusively between humans (although in one case an elf makes one instead) and mythical creatures such as golems, dragons, faeries, and so on. All pact partners are also able to telepathically communicate.

In exchange for this power, however, the human partner pays a price. This usually comes in the form of something they treasure, such as Caim losing his voice, Inuart losing his ability to sing, and Leonard (a post-game ally) losing his eyesight – a symbol is also branded onto the area of the body where the price was taken. The more powerful the creature, the greater the price paid.

Drakengard Review pact

Although the human mainly benefits from increased power, both parties are healed and some pact partners even seem to feed off their human’s negative emotions (such as Leonard and Faerie). However, if one partner dies then so does the other. There’s also some weird and incredibly vague circumstances where partners can break the pact to become separate again (losing power but gaining back the price they paid), but it’s never explained.

It’s yet another way in which Drakengard shows just how extreme the main characters are – they’re almost comical portrayals of the extremes of humanity, as every single one enters a pact either for power or to save their own life. They trade a treasured portion of their very being for the ability to live and/or kill.

Characters

The characters in Drakengard are mostly awful, which is yet another novelty in gaming – most of the time any “bad” main characters are antiheroes. Off the top of my head I can barely name any which are genuinely deplorable and not some kind of reluctant savior (and when one of the list is “that twat from Hatred”, you know it’s not a good list).

Drakengard Review Caim insane

Caim is driven by a desire to kill and that’s it. His parents were killed by an Empire dragon (which makes a pact with Inuart post-brainwashing), and since then he’s done nothing but slaughter any and every Empire troop in his path. This is reflected in the gameplay, where literally the only way you can interact with the world is to move or hack away at the nearest body.

You’re encouraged to kill as often as possible to level up Caim (increase your health) and Angelus (her attack power) with experience, and your weapons with a set amount of kills, all while your companions proclaim how distasteful your brutality is. Being mute, Caim ignores then and simply continues the slaughter.

Angelus is an incredibly old, brutal, vicious, and cold-hearted red dragon. Viewing humans as fools and constantly chastising the decisions of both her pact partner and his allies, she provides both the voice of reason and an air of ancient condescension as she burns her enemies to a cinder. She does, however, eventually gain a respect for Caim and his strength.

Inuart is an old friend of Caim who is secretly jealous of the attention Furiae gives him (despite them being siblings). After being brainwashed by Manah he forms a pact with a black dragon, beats the hell out of Caim, and delivers Furiae to Manah to be ritually sacrificed. Following her death his mind completely breaks. His pact price was his songs.

Drakengard Review Inuart pact

Verdelet is pretty much a coward. Serving as the high priest and sworn to protect the Goddess and the other seals, Verdelet is pact partner to a petrified dragon. Although he holds magical powers and is able to seal away magical entities, his cowardice and lack of combat expertise prevent him from being useful in any way, other than to tell you where the seals are and spout prayers. Verdelet’s pact price was his hair.

Leonard is a pacifist who returned from the forest around his home to find his brothers murdered and house aflame. After failing to commit suicide, he is badgered into a pact with a faerie who wishes to torment him and feed off his negative emotions. Leonard’s price was his eyesight, although his other senses were boosted to the point where he can function as most others do.

Arioch’s husband and children were slaughtered by the Imperial army, driving her insane. Her focus on her loss eventually drove her to the idea that she could only protect children if they were inside her, driving her to kill and eat any child she could. After being imprisoned by the Empire for her crimes, she escaped after the jail was destroyed by her future pact partners (yes, plural) Salamander and Undine. The price she paid was her womb.

Drakengard Review Arioch cannibal

Hey, I told you this was a weird and dark game – Arioch is your ally.

Seere is a child whose parents (surprise surprise) were killed by the Empire, following which he made a pact with a sympathetic golem. Seere gave up his ability to age – he will forever be stuck as a child. Seere is probably the most “normal” of the main characters.

Manah is a young girl who leads of the Cult of the Watchers and, although she has no pact partner, is imbued with their power. It turns out that she is Seere’s sister, who was abused by their parents while Seere was showered with praise and love. Her desire to earn her mother’s love eventually drove her to madness, which in turn left her weak to the Watchers’ influence, who use her as a vessel.

Furiae is Caim’s sister, and is for the most part softly spoken and a pretty typical damsel in distress (except, you know, she has the weight of the world on her shoulders). That is, until one of the post-game story branches reveals that she has romantic feelings for Caim. After that reveal Caim reacts disgustedly, and Furiae kills herself in grief.

Drakengard Review Seere

Again, I apologise for the long summary, but to point out the lengths that Drakengard goes to I have to turn over quite a few stones. After starting out with a relatively balanced tone, over the course of 30 hours it does nothing but keep getting worse, and at the moment you expect things to improve, it takes yet another nose dive.

There is, however, one element which was too far for even Drakengard to delve into. The evidence of it is still there, but Taro Yoko was vetoed on one choice in particular…

Censorship

In Drakengard there are vague allusions by the Faerie as to a “secret” held by Leonard. The game largely portrays him as racked with guilt for the death of his brothers while he was away, and his story missions largely revolve around killing Empire child soldiers who remind him of his brothers. Later, Seere also reminds him of his family, and so he swears to protect him.

Drakengard Review Leonard

However, several cut scenes (including why he was away from home in the first place) show that he was intended to be a pedophile. Nothing which would be shown in the main game, mind, or even something which Leonard had ever acted upon in the past, but something which served as a backdrop for his crushing guilt.

Now, while I love the darker elements of Drakengard’s story, and while I’m not particularly surprised to have learned that this was intended to be in the game, I’m glad that it didn’t make it past the initial design phase. I can handle many things, and I enjoy being challenged by media, but that could well have spoiled the entire thing, and made it feel like some kind of teen-angst-riddled experiment to break as many taboos as possible in one game.

Maybe I’m just squeamish, but although I can understand what he was going for, that’s just a little too far.

Gameplay

Drakengard Review air combat

Gameplay in Drakengard is very basic. There are four kinds of missions – on the ground with Caim, in the air with Angelus, on the ground but also able to use Angleus, and a kind of watered-down top-down version of ground missions. In each of these missions you’ll have a few objectives to achieve to complete it. Usually you’ll have to kill certain enemies, run to a specific location, or a mix of both.

Beyond the lack of mission variety you have a core gameplay loop which you’ll either find incredibly boring or a decent little grind. You have three attacks on the ground and three in the air. On the ground you perform combos by hitting square, and can end your hits with a finishing move (one of four or five main variants) by pressing triangle at the right time. As your weapons level up they deal more damage and gain more hits in their combo. You can also cast magic once you’ve dealt enough damage with a weapon.

In the air you can breathe a large fireball, several smaller homing fireballs, or let loose a giant magic/flamethrower attack. Angelus is typically incredibly powerful for clearing out ground enemies, but if she gets hit twice in a row then you’ll be automatically dismounted (making archers a nightmare, and also red enemies which reflect magic and fire).

Drakengard Review ground air

Again, it’s an incredibly simple affair of mashing square and then pressing triangle at the right time, but the weapon variety, unique spells, and hit counter (with rewards for longer combos) makes it engaging enough to keep you playing through the story.

Problems

For all of Drakengard’s outlandish and weird charm, it has some hefty problems which will put off the vast majority of players. For example, I’ve already mentioned the combat being basic, but aside from being a little boring it only becomes an active problem when facing some of the later game and more aggressive enemies.

To put it bluntly, I feel like there was a balancing issue.

Caim is ludicrously overpowered, which is fair enough considering the storyline and the game being a hack-and-slash. However, despite their being swathes of enemies you need them to pose at least a minor threat to the player, otherwise fighting them will become boring.

Drakengard Review air red sky

The same goes for the larger enemies – when you have powerful weapons and magic, how the hell do you balance the big guys to take the swathes of smaller foes into account as well as an overpowered player character?

Well, Drakengard went the route of giving enemies (and I mean all enemies, including the large, slow moving ones) incredibly fast attacks, any and all of which will stagger the player slightly, leaving them open to further punishment. Not only that, but if you chain attack (again, all of your attacks stagger enemies) an enemy too quickly for too long, they will perform a blisteringly fast counter attack which can’t be interrupted.

This means that almost every hit you take doesn’t feel avoidable – even the slow, lumbering, heavily armoured knights with swords bigger than themselves can attack quicker than a good 3/4 of your weapons can.

Fast attacks wouldn’t be too bad, but enemies can also snap to your position if you get too close as you run past. In other words, an enemy can glide right up next to you and pretty much clothesline you to a standstill, with Caim having absolutely no counter.

Drakengard Review map

Aside from that, the game has also aged pretty badly in terms of presentation. Although there are just enough enemy types and location variation to keep you interested, the pop-in for enemies is truly insane. I understand that the PS2 had limited processing power, and you couldn’t show too many enemies at a time, but combined with the clunky camera (another PS2 staple) it can make seeing your surrounding threats a nightmare.

Finally, the story can be pretty hard to digest if you’re not paying attention and even filling some of the gaps yourself. I don’t know if some lines were lost in translation, but certain concepts are never properly explained, and other core details are kept hidden for far longer than they should. For example, you only really piece together what the seals are by the time the last one has broken.

In one way this makes some of the dialogue feel more authentic, as the characters aren’t constantly explaining basic concepts to each other. However, when your biggest selling point is the story and characters, it pays to be able to get the most out of it and actually understand what the hell’s going on.

Drakengard Review Arioch

Now, these aren’t deal breakers – I’d much rather have these and an immensely memorable game to go with them than something bland and forgettable – but God can they get annoying at times.

A one sentence Drakengard review

While flawed, Drakengard is a fascinating look into the worst case scenarios of dark fantasy.

Let me know what you think of Drakengard in the comments – it’d be nice to know that I’m not the only one who’s played this goddamn series.

Gaming nerd and movie over-analyzer. Has credits on Appcues, Usability Geek, and Process Street, but comes to Secret Cave to unwind and spit the shit.