Drakengard 3

I’ve been biding my time on writing about this.  I’ve been a long time Drakengard fan, and another game directed by Yoko Taro which ties back into the universe of Drakengard: Nier.  These games are often twisted stories that feel no obligation to provide you with a happy ending for the work you put into them.  In the first game, each additional ending you unlock seems to get progressively more twisted and bizarre.  The final ending requires you to collect over 60 weapons and complete a radically different gameplay task.  And … well, it comes out of left field in a game that was already full of the unexpected.  See it for yourself.  In one scenario for Nier, the game will hold an ending hostage until you allow it to destroy your game data.  They are games that are not constrained by design conventions that put the player ahead of all else (though they are often constrained by smaller budgets.)  The approach lends itself to a sincerity that you don’t find in many games, and an authenticity to the director’s vision that is typically suppressed in the AAA games industry.  Drakengard 3 follows suit, but it is still far from being predictable.  And it seems to revel in making itself contrary to many trends in gaming today.

The announcement trailer offered the first curve ball.  Previous entries place you in the shoes young men who are part of some military unit in the game’s world.  Drakengard 3’s protagonist finds much more in common with Nier supporting character, Kainé.  Mainly, they are both fair-haired, blood-thirsty, swordswomen who get the job done wearing lingerie and heels.  Okay.  I wasn’t expecting this to be Bayonetta, but Yoko Taro had already demonstrated with Kainé that a character like this doesn’t signal that her purpose in the game is to provide fan service or that there would any lack of depth to the character.  Zero (protagonist of Drakengard 3) takes this to the next level.  Called an intoner, she has super-human combat abilities and innate magic capabilities that makes her a demi-god in the eyes of humans.  She also has 5 sisters and a dragon named Mikhail.  From the outset, Zero frames her motivation as simply to kill all of her sisters, who are also intoners.  This provides a flow for how the game progresses.  It is broken up into chapters, each one focused on an intoner.  They are further broken down into missions which see you fighting monsters, soldiers, and ultimately reaching one of Zero’s sisters.

The next curve ball the game throws at you is its approach to humor.  Drakengard was a caustic experience, devoid of humor for the most part.  Drakengard 2 offered more of an emotional range.  Nier had some great, spontaneously funner moments as well.  But Drakengard 3 really offers a strong sense of humor.  It is one of the funniest games I’ve played since Saints Row 4.  It has a sense of just how confounding it is, even if you’ve played previous games in the series, and it tries not to take itself too seriously.  The banter between missions and characters is a welcome retreat from an often times baffling plot – one that I was curious to untangle but would make me tear my hair out if I considered it in ernest.  The story of the intoners wasn’t one where mankind had fallen (or is in the process of falling.)  But, slowly, the plot reveals the truth of Zero’s ambition.  And through her character, and what she is willing to sacrifice, I was able to feel the weight of what was at stake.  Drakengard 3’s balance between humor and drama is interesting and difficult to anticipate.

One unexpected aspect of the game’s storytelling was its depiction of sex and sexuality.  Here, Yoko Taro seems to almost make a point of flipping gender roles on their head, but without drawing a great deal of attention to it.  You could be forgiven if Zero’s appearance led you to believe this was DOA Xtreme Beach Volleyball with dragons.  Zero and her sisters certainly look the part.  But Drakengard 3 may be the only game I can name where women are the only characters that exert any power.  There are no clear instances where men are shown holding power over women.  Human men revere the intoners and serve as emphatic soldiers.  And the closest any come to an intoner are their disciples: man servants that are heralds to individual intoners and who can summon the intoner’s song – a very powerful magic.

Yoko Taro holds little back in depicting these disciples as sexual beings (in as far as an ESRB M rating allows) but they are clearly on submissive side of the relationship.  Zero acquires them as you eliminate her sisters and describes her philosophy toward them as: “I welcome men to my side and then I bed them.”  Where other games dance around the concept of sex, in favor of elaborate, male-driven, mechanical courtships, Drakengard 3 depicts it as just a fact of human nature.  It discusses it as casually as any game discusses violence.  For a game with this level sex-oriented dialogue, it’s impressive that sex doesn’t define the game, or trail off into sexist territory.  It is simply part of the game, without just taking it over.

The last surprise, for me anyway, was the layering of the plot within its meta-plot.  The Drakengard series and Nier have both made a point of providing a succession of “endings” that are unlocked as you play the game.  It’s never left clear which ending is the game’s true ending, and it can leave a great deal to interpretation while exploring their worlds and characters.  This is explicitly woven into the plot structure of Drakengard 3.  The game “ends” before resolving its central plot around the intoners, but instead has you continue through deviations of the game’s story which deconstruct the architecture of the plot.  Eventually, Yoko Taro practically inserts himself into the game as a character to comment on his own game and interact with its characters.  It’s not the most practical way to tell a story, and not the most satisfying way to tell it.  But it is consistently engaging and curious.  It exhibits the sincerity mentioned earlier that makes Drakengard 3 feel more like an expression of the director than a product designed to sell copies of the game.

As for the gameplay itself, Drakengard 3 provides a solid 3rd person melee combat experience.  The aforementioned small budget probably contributes to issues with the camera and other rough edges with production values.  The depth of combat is engaging enough to keep you playing from start to finish.  You’re given the choice of four weapons, each with distinct attributes that lend themselves to different combat styles required to complete portions of each mission.  I found that levels call for a satisfying variation and mastering of play styles.  But it was lacking the depth of blocking mechanics that were present in Drakengard 2.  I’ve completed most of the game and have decided to stop before finishing the game’s final confrontation.  It’s an exercise that’s far more challenging than the rest of the game, and one in which your level or equipment will provide no advantage.  I can accept that when considering it to be part of a larger game where the player’s experience is second to the expression of the designer of the game.  There is just no way I’m completing it anytime soon.  But I respect the fact that it ties back into the underlying theme of song, and forces you to rely on your ability to master rhythm in accordance to meter rather than hand-eye coordination (a la Guitar Hero.)

It’s not a game for everyone, and I can entirely understand if it is just not the sort of experience that someone would want to get invested in.  But it’s a fascinating experience that stands apart from most other games.  Yoko Taro is nothing else than a thoughtful director overshadowed by the likes of Hideo Kojima, who’s sense of significance has only led to increasingly loud and thoughtless games.  And Drakengard 3 makes a meaningful contribution to the Drakengard universe.

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