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Game Review

by Todd Ciolek,

Drakengard 3

PlayStation 3

Drakengard 3
In a dark stretch of history, six Intoner goddesses arrive and rule over once-blighted lands. Their seemingly benevolent reign is shattered when Zero, eldest of the Intoners, sets out to slay her divine sisters. Accompanied by a young dragon named Mikhail, Zero spares no one in her gruesome conquest.

Drakengard 3 is a sick joke.

But that's what everyone expected. The original Drakengard made a mockery of itself, heaping unspeakable horrors upon its characters until the whole thing became absurd comedy. It was the work of Taro Yoko, who tellingly named his recent Game Developers Conference seminar “Making Weird Games for Weird People.” Those weird people didn't much care for Drakengard 2, a milder, more polished game that showed far less of Yoko's touch. Drakengard 3 finds him back in charge of a tale fueled by relentless bloodshed and cruelty, and it doesn't wear the first Drakengard's straight face. Yoko knows exactly what's happening.

The same goes for Drakengard 3's all-too-aware protagonist, Zero. She's murderous, foul-mouthed, impulsive, abusive, and all but impossible to like. She's also an Intoner, one of six goddesses currently ruling a warped version of medieval Europe. While her sisters are content to divide up the continent amongst themselves, Zero hops aboard a dragon and sets out to kill the rest of her family, consequences be damned. Four of her sisters have Disciples, male sidekicks who aid them both magically and carnally. They're a bonus for Zero, who carves through her sisters' armies and bends their Disciples to her own desires.

Of course, one can't expect decorum from a woman who powers-up by drenching herself in the bloodsprays of her enemies. Drakengard 3 forsakes the repetitive open-field Dynasty Warriors combat of its predecessors, instead funneling Zero through linear stages stocked with armored soldiers, lumbering monsters, and a few minor jumping puzzles. Zero weaves about like any modern action heroine inspired by Devil May Cry; she jumps, slashes, dodges, air-dashes, and triggers a powered-up Intoner mode when she's sufficiently blood-soaked. Her most useful skill is swapping between swords, spears, gauntlets, and chakrams in the thick of battle, and each weapon brings out a enjoyably different playstyle. She also rides her pet dragon Mikhail to bombard the enemy or simply soar above them.

Nothing in Drakengard 3 goes smoothly. The game suffers frequent and irksome slowdown, the player's viewpoint grows messy in tight confines, and bits of scenery pop into view like something out of a first-round Sega Saturn game. The scenery itself shows some nice architecture, but never anything to cause such visual breakup. Everything gets worse when Zero climbs aboard Mikhail for air-to-ground battles and the game grinds along miserably. The purely aerial segments come off better, letting Mikhail target enemies and weave around in an acceptable imitation of Panzer Dragoon.

Perhaps Drakengard 3 doesn't want you to enjoy it, at least not the same way you'd enjoy a Resident Evil, a Final Fantasy, or a God of War. It's evident the first time the soldiers before you start shrieking pointless orders and gibbering in fear and steeling themselves for Zero's inevitable slaughter. Different versions of those troops show up in every stage. Sometimes they'll wield poleaxes. Sometimes they'll shoot arrows. And they'll often give a horrified yelp or valiantly deluded war cry, reminding you that Zero isn't cutting down faceless drones.

It's far easier to sympathize with the poor doomed soldiers than with Zero herself, as she's among the most hilariously appalling leads ever forced into a game. She mercilessly slays her foes, threatens her alleged allies, bullies her puppyish pet dragon, and shows only the vaguest glimmer of humanity. She even seems apathetic toward her own quest to be the only goddess left standing. As she boredly tells one of her more naïve sisters, “I don't hate you. I just want to kill you.”

Sometimes Zero is the lesser evil. Her sisters range from vile despots to helpless victims, and her ill-recruited Disciples are hardly paragons of virtue. The barely closeted masochist Decadus and filthy old man Octa remain hung up on their sexual proclivities, and they're the nice ones next to the vain, annoying Cent and a sadistic brat named Dito. There are no grand heroes in Drakengard 3.

But there is Mikhail, an enormous dragon with the mind of an eight-year-old. A bizarre contrast to the rest of Drakengard 3, Mikhail watches all of the butchery with a childish innocence that's both adorable and subtly horrifying (to say nothing of his prejudice against wyverns). He's the only ally who Zero shows any real affection toward, and the only one devoted to her for unselfish reasons. Even after helping Zero fry dozens of screaming soldiers, he still wonders why she just doesn't work things out by talking to her sisters.

Drakengard 3 aims for comedy often, though it's dark, vicious comedy fully aware that it's also a video game. Mikhail squeaks about having to pee before the title screen even appears, a gruesome stabbing switches to a “this content has been deemed inappropriate” cutaway (complete with cute blob versions of the combatants), a fake ending is teased, and Zero and her companions banter and bicker throughout the stages. The humor typically spans the disciples' various kinks and annoying habits, Zero's violent temper, or Mikhail's oblivious enthusiasm—and his need to relieve himself. It's all amusing in a twisted way.

Less tolerable are their complaints about the game itself. Zero and her harem occasionally remark on the repetitive battles and stage layouts, as though the developers, influenced by too many YouTube celebrities, wanted Drakengard 3 to have its own insufferable commentary right out of the box. Yet it doesn't really excuse anything. Trekking back and forth across a desert to destroy magical ice spheres is somehow even duller when the game mocks it. If Drakengard 3 is self-aware, then it should know better.

Drakengard 3 might pique interest among fans of Nier, Taro Yoko and Cavia's off-shoot action game. But don't confuse them. Nier dabbled in other genres and cloaked likeable characters in tragedy. Drakengard 3 is the opposite: a ceaselessly violent prank where the characters create misery and mostly deserve it. From its blood-splattered combat to the accompanying gags about sex and death and dragon shit, Drakengard 3 is a nasty little creation.

And that makes it fascinating.

In fact, this glorified accident is one of the most intriguing games in recent memory. This stuttering, hateful ten-car pileup of a game has something grotesque and wondrous deep down. Drakengard 3's world is a secret-filled mishmash of bleak fantasy and authentic medieval strife, and the storyline surprises as often as it insults. A stupid twist ending awaits on the first playthrough, but it leads to alternate plotlines and more interesting places—oh, and at least one very mean boss battle. It's crass and discordant and somehow highly absorbing.

It's hard to put down Drakengard 3 even as it's heaping another slog of carnage upon you. Combat has a solid foundation despite the technical hiccups, and the game's very good at delivering a visceral satisfaction while making you question just whether or not you should enjoy slashing through some unfortunate archer or cannoneer who's just trying to protect his Intoner. And that contrast is all the more captivating when accompanied by a mess of garish sexuality, Mikhail's cute remarks, and constant reminders that Zero's the villain here.

Even Zero's killing sprees serve a purpose: mocking the very idea of a violent-but-redeemable hero. Without so much as a halfway rationalized vengeance on her mind, Zero just fills the screen with chaos and screams and bloodstains. And as she does so, Drakengard 3 spits in the face of Nathan Drake, Bayonetta, Kratos, and every other brooding antihero and bad-girl heroine who killed dozens of people and came out of it with a charismatic stride or some tragic justification. Even when the game uncovers her deeper motives, there's no excuse for what Zero does. She's a psychopath because…well, who other than a psychopath would do what she does?

If Zero and her companions aren't appealing in any traditional sense, they're at least not boring. From Decadus' self-punishing obsessions to Cent's idiotic trivia to Zero's resigned bloodlust, they're all damaged misfits more complex than their gimmicks first suggest. There's a warped camaraderie in their jokes and rivalries, and it grows stronger as the game itself gets crazier. Zero's Intoner sisters are much the same: blunt stereotypes at a glance (Four and Five's virgin/whore deal couldn't be more obvious), but there's more to the story.

That story gets a localization that's clever more often than not, and even its modern-day slang seems appropriate for a game where characters mock their own play mechanics. The performances all fit the tone of the story, though Zero's actress struggles a bit at first and no one quite equals the breakout roles of Nier. As for Keiichi Okabe's soundtrack, it's definitely not Nier, but it's a great set with some downright spectacular boss-battle themes.

Drakengard 3 also revives the best idea of its predecessors: weapon stories. Upgrading a sword, gauntlet, spear, or chakram reveals new chapters in that weapon's background, and they're all good reasons to try out all of the armaments and forging materials. It's a shame you can't uncover the stories simply by taking multiple weapons into battle as in Drakengard 2, but no one said Drakengard 3 was nice.

And so Drakengard 3 rises above its clumsy workmanship. It's not for anyone who wants a smooth and pleasant game, but it's perfect for those in search of something strange, challenging, and more than a touch spiteful.

Yes, Drakengard 3 is a sick joke. It might not even be a good one. But it's one that sticks with you, one that makes you rethink your entire sense of humor, and one that you'll repeat to other people if they're of similarly depraved capacity. Drakengard 3 thrusts its own ugliness in your face like a double handful of dead mice and live maggots, and it laughs at you if you can't laugh along with it.

You win, Drakengard 3. I'm laughing.

This review is based on a copy of the game provided by Square Enix.

Overall : B
Graphics : C-
Sound/Music : A
Gameplay : C+
Presentation : B

+ Captivating mixture of bizarre storylines and chaotic battles
Awful slowdown, repetitive stage design, and it probably hates you

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