Drakengard 3, the prequel to the former 'Drakengard' PS2 series is a campaign oriented Hack & Slash platforming adventure that takes in account a variety of known gameplay mechanics. It is brought to us not directly by Square Enix themselves, but by 'Access Games', and a patchwork team comprised of former Cavia members including Yoko Taro (a freelancer), and the brilliant composer Keiichi Okabe. Even with it's low budget development this game is crafted in such a way that it's more than just an indie RPG, and is more along the lines of the retail game release that it has aimed to be. With a brilliant collaboration of developers, and contributors involved the game both shines, and glistens with it's added humor, fantastical music score, and applied adult themes.
As I briefly mentioned in the intro paragraph of this review you will be playing the game as a violently outspoken female Intoner named 'Zero' who uses her dragon assistant (Michael & Mikhail), and gained disciples to fulfill her murderous plot against her Intoner sisters. As you progress through the story via the "Chapters" that are divided into "Verses", and further into "Parts" you will face off against minor foes, larger enemy types, larger than life bosses, and the Intoner sisters you set out to destroy. Murder is your motivation, and you will commit the act with, or without the aid of others. There is no doubt there will be plenty of bloodletting involved as you tread in the guise of the murderous Intoner Zero, and fulfill her devilish desires.
Each chapter of Zero's story comes to life with beautifully rendered cutscenes featuring Zero, her faithful dragon companions, and an odd assortment of other curious characters. While the included cinematic cutscenes are the true eye candy of each chapter the levels that are included within also bear a current-gen visual quality. As you engage each chapter playthrough you will find that it is your goal as Zero to make it from one end of the path oriented level to the other while killing off all enemies, and hunting for treasure chests that are hidden just out of sight. Once you've made it to certain areas within the landscapes the pathways will become blocked off until all enemies in that area are killed. These segmented, and gated battles often times include fights against sub-bosses, and bosses. There's also loot to be collected from destructible crates, and enemies during each chapter playthrough. Such bobbles come in the form of books, fabric, and gems that will be tallied into your end mission monetary gain. The enemies that you'll encounter within each level's landscape often times vary in appearance, attack patterns, and attacks. Some enemy types will shoot at you from a distance via cannons, or bows. Other character types will rush at you aggressively in groups while some will even defend heavily against your barrage of attacks.
While Zero has the inherent ability to regenerate from mortal wounds in this fantastical tale you will find that she can still die in the game. Since mortality is an issue you will find in place some potions, weapons, maneuvers, defenses, and disciple characters during your playthrough that will help you fight off any enemy threats, and allow you to avoid any life ending damage. In this game Zero not only has healing items, and defenses (CIRCLE) available, but that she also has a select group of weapons to choose from each of which are gained as you progress through the main campaign, and as you fulfill the shopkeeper, "Accord's" requests. Initially you are gifted Zero's sword, but as you continue to murder those before you will eventually amass a collection of four different types of upgradeable weapons. These weapon types include swords, lances, martial arts weapons, and chakran (bladed ring shaped weapons). While some weapons can be found in some of the levels that have hidden chests some weapons must be obtained by defeating bosses, and by buying them via the shopkeeper. The weapon types beyond Zero's swords, and beyond such sources as the shopkeeper (including the Lance, Martial Arts Weapons, and Chakran) can only be obtained through disciples who have been won over during your quest to kill off your Intoner sisters. Once the disciples are gained after defeating their Intoner master you can have the disciple/s join you in your quest of murder.
When it comes down to combat this game is all about that combo based damage (Think "Devil May Cry"). Each weapon you gain has a specific combo pattern that can be applied in order to dish out maximum damage, or to deal quick attacks for enemy encounters that require "in & out" tactics. The controls for each weapon type are basically the same, and use the (SQUARE), and (TRIANGLE) buttons to hammer out the combo strings. In order to switch between weapon types you will first need to have obtained the different weapon type/s themselves. Once you have obtained the necessary weapons you simply have to hold (R2), and press either (SQUARE), (TRIANGLE), (CIRCLE), or (X) in order to switch between them. The cool thing about switching between weapons in mid-combo is that if it's done properly you can extend the combo significantly. On important thing to keep in mind while dealing damage of any kind is that each enemy has a life bar, and until that life bar is fully depleted the battle is not yet over. It should also be noted that Zero can jump (X), and perform aeriel attacks/combos with each weapon type.
Weapon, upgrades, weapon size, and weapon strength also play a huge role in Zero's combat scenarios. Each weapon you obtain has a certain size (Small, Medium, or Large), and a certain strength/damage output. Small weapons allow for quicker attacks while larger weapons slowdown the attack combos being dealt. By adding "Base Materials (Bronze, Silver ...)" you've collected from treasure chests, or from the in-game shop you can upgrade each weapon to a certain point physically altering it's appearance, and increasing it's size as well as it's damage output. In order to do this though you must have the right amount of in-game currency to go along with the collected "Base Material". The higher the upgrade level of the weapon becomes the more in-game currency it will take to further upgrade. Once it gets to a certain point you may even be asked to use a more rare "Base Material" instead of the "Base Material" that was used for the earlier upgrades. Once a weapon is fully upgraded you will be able to witness it's full potential. Fully upgraded weapons often have a visible aura about them, and will cause special attacks to occur during certain combo strings. These special attacks will deal more damage than usual, and are greatly effective against certain enemy types, respectfully.
Aside from the core "Chapter" gameplay 'Drakengard 3' also has some interesting side quests for the players to take on. These side quests are basically requests from the shopkeeper (Accord) that will have you facing off against a set time limit, enemies, and specific goals. The requests include item recovery missions, treasure chest oriented missions, survival missions, and coin based missions. During the item requests all you have to do is beat the time limit, remain alive (without the use of heal items, or boosts), and collect the set amount of items requested of you. If you complete the mission on the first try you will be rewarded with a special item (Base Metal for weapon upgrades), or an additional perk such as an extra slot for healing items. Another Accord's requests will have Zero breaking open chained treasure chests within a set time limit. This seemingly easy task is offset by attacking enemies, and distances between each chest. In order to complete this type of request you must break open all item containing treasure chests within the set time limit. Should you complete the request your reward will be both monetary, and prize oriented like every other Accord request in the game.
If you are looking for an even steeper challenge among Accord's requests you will be glad to know that there is also a "Survival" request which is more, or less a multiple round gladiator battle. In the "Survival" requests it is your duty to stay alive without the aid of healing potions as you kill off each set of enemies that are contained within the arena-like stages. You can choose to end the "Survival" request after each victorious round, but by doing so you will only gain in-game currency, and not the first time prize that would be awarded to you if you complete the entire request. Lastly, there's a simple "Request" that comes around ever so often that will pit Zero up against a boss enemy for the sake of earning coins. By attacking the giant repeatedly you will cause coins to fall from it so long as the mammoth beast remains alive, and so long as the timer is still ticking. Like every other request type this one also has a time limit. The amount of coins earned depends solely on your performance, and whether or not your able to collect the falling coins that bounce along the ground. In the end every coin you collect will be rewarded to you as in-game currency for use within the game's shop. In each, and every request you will have the chance to earn a "First Time" prize as well as some substantial in-game currency.
In the way of extras you'll find that 'Drakengard 3' has a "Database" option at the main menu when you reach a certain part of your playthrough. The "Database", in essence is a game encyclopedia, and bestiary that contains 3D animated models of the weapons, and characters along with their respective stories, and bios. As you encounter characters they will be added to the "Database" for your viewing pleasure. The weapon's stories on the other hand only become available after the weapon is obtained, and after each weapon upgrade. The "Weapon Stories" which are unlocked in order are mostly nonsensical ramblings about the previous owner, and it's origins. During each upgrade the weapon's story will change slightly until coming to a conclusion at it's final transformation.
About the graphics & soundtrack ...
Graphically 'Drakengard 3' is a stunning game that looks good both during the cinematic cutscenes, and in the actual gameplay scenarios. With these impressive visuals though also comes an overbearing frame rate issue that causes spastic gameplay slowdowns that are anything but pleasant. These graphical slowdowns often occur at the most inopportune times. These said occurrences usually happen when the screen is filled with massive amounts of enemies, and action. Even with this issue though I was still able to play through most of the game with little to no frustration. The only real frustration came with the camera system that allowed for lock-on targeting, or over-the-shoulder stiff as it gets camera movement. Often times I found certain platforming elements to be a pain in the arse due to the stiff camera movement, and included range as well as the poorly crafted in-game terrains. With all visual complaints accounted for I still felt the game was decently designed regarding it's low budget development. Nothing was too obstructive when it came to advancing the plot, or the gameplay.
When it comes down to the soundtrack 'Drakengard 3' easily has one of the best game in-game soundtracks to date. It features orchestrated music accented by haunting female vocals. Both the in-game music, and menu system music come together quite nicely to enhance the action, and events being shown onscreen. It has a Dolby Digital build that will make any gamer with an HDTV proud. Sadly for voice-over fans though there is no Japanese voice-over setting to turn to (unless you buy the additional DLC). Every spoken word you'll hear will be in English otherwise. With that being said I personally found that the English voice-actors included were brilliant, each in their own way. Mikhail which is a resurrection version of the grown-up Michael has a childish voice that is altered in such a way as to make him seem less than human. I loved hearing Mikhail talk throughout the cutscenes as he provided the child-like voice of reason, and humble humor. Not only did the voice-actor behind Mikhail do the character justice, but Zero (The game's protagonist) also had an impressive voice-actor who was able to easily reflect that "Devil May Care" attitude which made Zero, Zero. Other voice-actors such as the ones behind the five Intoners, and their disciples also helped to enrich the characters, and the story being told through their dialogue based interactions.
Now for the verdict ...
Unless you stick it through to the very end with this game you will not gain the appreciation for it that I have gained. At first sight the forced intro chapter, and the following first chapter will more than likely seem shallow, or poor in design to you. Chapter "0", for example sheds little to no light on the controls, and expects you to win against an insurmountable odds regardless of your lack of in-game knowledge. If you are able to muscle your way through the intro level though the following chapters will continue to shed more light on the controls, and Zero's situation. As you encounter Chapter 0's, and Chapter 1's levels you may also come to the conclusion that the game is less than RPG in design, and that it does not fit in with past JRPG/RPG releases. While this would be accurate the game does pick up in detail, and offerings gradually. As you make further progress more of the plot, character backgrounds, and gameplay will be revealed unto you. The initial straightforward levels will begin to have multiple paths, and the characters will begin to seem less "Two Dimensional" than they initially were. You'll even encounter new enemy types as you go along as well as a brand of perverse humor not seen before in the history of games developed under the Square Enix label.
Graphically the game isn't all that bad, and sound-wise it is rather brilliant regardless of the initial absence of Japanese vocals. As simple as the revenge plot is, and as copycat as the game may be it still has it's good points. It's a nice departure from traditional Square Enix releases, and has a "Grindhouse" nature about it that's somewhat like Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill" series. Added effects such as that of the bloodying of Zero's weapons, and her white garments really emphasize the carnal nature of the game. The various character stereotypes combine to make an interesting clash that is both perverse, and humorous at the same time. Zero's trash talk will most certainly make you laugh as will Mikhail's naivety, and the disciples own twisted demeanor. While 'Hack & 'Slash' action is the core focus of 'Drakengard 3' a lot of the enjoyment to be had lies with character interactions that occur in the actual gameplay, and during the cinematic cutscenes. Nothing in the game is ever really dull, and as repetitive as it may seem at times the constant character to character dialogue makes the low budget gameplay a pleasant experience, if slightly so. Factor in the brilliant soundtrack, and the game is even more noteworthy.
With everything weighed, regardless of my favoritism, I still find myself struggling to reach a definitive verdict. The game is definitely playable, but seeing such noticeable flaws kind of turns me away from a "Must Have!" recommendation. I'm not saying the game is horrible. I'm merely stating it could have been better. The unfortunate flaws that come hand-in-hand with this game including that of the camera angles, and the dropped frame rate could possibly be patched if the developers involved were willing to do so. In fact upon getting my copy, and installing it I found that the game had already been issued a day one patch that was mandatory in order to be able to play it. If it can be patched then this game would obviously be worlds better, and would definitely be worth the asking price in my personal opinion. As it stands though the game is flawed to a point that I can't see it being worth the current asking price, or a "Must Have!" rating. Should the developer issue a game fixing patch then I'd definitely say go for it. Until that time I'm gonna have to say rent this one via Gamefly, or wait for a price drop.
*NOTE*: US is the only region that will be able to buy a retail copy, and/or a PSN digital copy. EU is getting a digital only PSN version.
*NOTE*: Square Enix provided me a free copy of 'Drakengard 3' for review purposes. In no way did they pay me off for my opinion. My opinion in this review is my own.