What are the standards for today's video game world that make a game "bad?" Too often, games attached with that descriptor are highly competent ones which stride too far from the gelatinous mold that requires AAA video games to use the same trends and go about business in the exact same inoffensive way. Or, the exact opposite occurs and they stick too close to the tried and true mechanics and fail to find their own voice.
Either way, video games are "bad" for the wrong reasons these days. Unoriginal, uninspired, or just plain lazily falling in line with trendsetters so publishers can make a few bucks. Making a "bad" game more often than not means making a "forgettable" game not worthy of notice because established heavy hitters are doing its mechanics a lot better or the latest rising stars already have it supplanted.
Very rarely does a AAA video game studio like Square Enix crank out a game that is "bad" for all the right reasons anymore. Incompetent, broken, virtually unplayable to all but those who are willing to stomach horrible design and disastrous programming. Yet, those that survive are able to find a game that is anything but "forgettable."
This is Square Enix's Drakengard 3, one of the worst games of 2014 so far, and yet also one of my favorites.
Where to Begin?
Where do we even begin with how derailed this game really is? The combat, the dialogue, the technical performance, the level design? Everything about this game is just off and feels like the work of amateurs.
Take for instance the use of the Unreal Engine 3. I wouldn't have even noticed that Square Enix employed one of the most popular engines of the last decade to power this game if it hadn't said so in the opening credits. This is the same engine used to power Mass Effect and BioShock Infinite? You could have fooled me, but indeed, Epic Games' bread and butter is there working behind the scenes.
When compared to even the earliest game to employ the engine, like the first Gears of War, Drakengard 3 is still ugly. The sky city of Colombia, the space station Citadel, iconic settings used with the same engine, and yet all we get from this game is highly linear levels that are plagued with jagged edges and environments which lack any sense of effort put into their design.
The character models escape with a bit more quality put into their design, but not by much. Our female lead, Zero, is the best looking of the bunch with her acrobatic kicks and sword slashes being pulled off without a hitch. Her dragon companion Mikhail and quartet of disciples who join her along the path also look great, but unless an enemy is huge like a titan or an ogre, there really isn't any worth a mention.
The real problem with the usage of the Unreal Engine is not how under-utilized it is in creating these stiff environments. It is how poorly programed it is into the game. Developer Access Games obviously hasn't had much experience with it before, because Drakengard 3 suffers from some of the worst framerates we've seen in quite some time.
More often than I'd care to admit, I was unable to beat a boss or complete a side quest because slowdown reared its ugly head and brought the game to a chugging pace, allowing for time on a countdown to expire or an enemy to get a cheap sucker-punch in.
The Drakengard series is also known for putting a protagonist up against many enemies at once, so you can imagine the horror when time comes to take on an army.
Drakengard 3's biggest flaw is that it simply slams on the breaks and becomes a slideshow nightmare of epic proportions whenever too much is occurring on screen at once. Even one-on-one battles can prove to be a little too much for the game to handle.
I can guarantee that if Access Games had worked out the kinks here, Drakengard 3 would be getting a lot more praise than it has been, because what we are left with after poor performance is still quite good.
The real question: does the poor framerate add to the charm of its good "bad" game image? I'm not sure I would have liked a more competent frame rate, because that would ruin the illusion that I'm playing something unique.
Competence in the Combat
Action games are not simply stringing unrelated combos and attacks together, they require a bit of finesse as you roll from one attack into the next. Unlike its frame rate, Drakengard 3 is able to pull off at least competently, even if you'll be fighting stiff controls while doing so.
Zero relies on four different weapons to get the job done. Her sword will definitely become the backbone of your arsenal and used for all general situations, but she also equips a spear for shielded enemies, a tossable chakra disc for distant archers and mages, and gauntlets which I have yet to really find a specific use for.
When approaching Drakengard 3's combat, it would be wise not to expect the same level of depth as found in the genre's best, like Bayonetta and Devil May Cry 3. There is no switching between weapons to customize devastating combos or put a touch of personality into the game. Each weapon has a simple branch of techniques that it can use, and that will be enough to get the job done.
To counter this point, there are a lot of weapons. Zero will stumble across three treasure chests in each level that will usually pack a new murder tool for her arsenal, or at least the funds to buy new ones between levels. Each weapon type comes in small, medium, or large size, and each size of each weapon is home to its own attacks.
Not only that, but gold and materials can be collected to forge and upgrade weapons even beyond their base strength. The game's sense of character progression can be found here mostly because Zero gaining levels just adds to her life bar.
Jumping into combat with a large spear and short sword is different than with a large sword and a short spear, making small tactical decisions like this as deep as the strategy element is ever going to get. Drakengard 3 won't challenge your brain that much, just the most basic of your gaming instincts. Sharp sword? Slash it at the guy until he goes down.
Luckily, Zero will encounter plenty of enemy types, each with patterns to learn and different approaches to take when countering those out to kill you. Bosses also have a small touch of strategy to them, but most can be defeated by getting behind them and jump slashing them to death.
Don't expect too much help from your allies either. They are useless in battle and exist in the game solely to provide snarky banter or give another window into where the true heart of Drakengard 3 lies: in its story.
You want to do WHAT to me?
And here is why I really like Drakengard 3. Technical shortcomings and mediocre combat aside, the game is just simply gleaming with characters, story, and a mythology I can wrap my brain around enough to grasp but never fully accept. Everything we tend to dismiss as focus grouped game writing has been tossed aside for some genuinely unique ideas.
Some might call it silly, but there really is not getting around what is on the mind of each and every character in this game: sex. Zero is a promiscuous lady who dismisses her relationships as just as a matter of fact. Her sisters have varying levels of relationships as well from being an immaculate virgin to being kinky experimenters to even being genuinely in love with a person.
Her male companions are just the best, each of them with their own unique kink, will go on for hours and hours during the toughest of fights about how turned on they are about Zero murdering a group of enemy soldiers, how much they enjoy the verbal abuse she spouts off towards her pet dragon, or simply bragging about their own prowess.
Even the random foot soldiers spew out nonsensical dialogue along the lines of what they would do to Zero or her sisters if given the chance. Nobody in this game is an angel, but better than that, nobody, the characters or the writers, makes any apologies.
It's childish and ridiculous, but writing like this can only succeed if the writers are totally committed to going all out, and Access Games' does just that. One of Zero's companions, and my favorite character in the game, is a muscular bound brute of a man inhumanly turned on by shame, especially at the idea of getting his genitalia cut off by a giant pair of scissors. Best of all, he has no trouble admitting to his issues and and even requests it at one point.
I doubt very much that any serious studios in the anywhere world would be even willing to tackle such themes in a videogame, but because Access Games doesn't hold back, it works.
Underneath all of this talk of sex and violence is a genuinely sad tale about a woman so blinded by frustration that she would kill her sisters for no reason other than she doesn't want to share.
From the beginning, Zero comes off as an incredibly one dimensional character. Angry at the world, frustrated by the fact that she has to share power, and abusive towards anyone who would question her. She really is one of the most unlikable protagonists in recent memory.
However, the more time you spend with her, the more it becomes clear that there really is motivation there beyond her own greed. Her mood and character model's face changes with each passing death of one of her sisters, and while we never know what it is that truly drives her from the main storyline alone, she's obviously holding back a secret or a purpose for her rampage.
Certainly no person would go about such murderous acts just for the sake of doing so, and waiting to see what Zero's twist is becomes one of the main reasons to push on. Eventually, the bloodlust stops and become nothing but a backdrop to this new mystery, and Zero becomes somewhat naturally sympathetic. No single event or emotion can be placed on the moment of her metamorphosis, I just really remember my attitude towards her changing.
Is the world she lives in just that awful? Does the balance of power and farce of peace between Zero and her sisters still brew corruption, hate, and carnal lustful desires amongst the population?
Is there anybody worth saving in this world, and are all of these soldiers she slaughters by the thousands just as awful people as she is? They certainly say some awful things about Zero or the sister they serve under. Could Zero's desire to hit the reset button on this world be justified?
A World Worth Saving?
Alas, the sole good person in this game is not even a person at all, but rather a dragon. Mikhail, Zero's companion, comes off as an innocent child, thanks to some brilliant voice acting, and is unable to cope with the horrific violence and sexual innuendo surrounding him.
He constantly acts as Zero's conscience, questioning why she must kill her sisters, but more often than not, begrudgingly obeys after Zero abuses and berates him into acts of violence. He is the most sympathetic character in the game, and creates some of the best cinematic moments once his murderous dragon tendencies start to push through, leaving the childish image behind.
And then there is the climax, one which leave a lot of people scratching their heads in confusion, the game opens up and branches it's story into many directions.
The Drakengard series, and its side-entry Nier, are famous for turning their games on their heads during New Game+. Enemies become more sympathetic, the disciples start to flesh out into far more interesting characters than their original kinky personalities lead them off to be, and the doomed relationship between Zero, Mikhail, and the entire kingdom take on a whole new context altogether.
The gorgeous soundtrack doesn't hurt the game either, which has been universally accepted as the sole genuine highlight.
I've only begun to dig at these branches, and I'll be spending a bit more time with them as the game has taken on a whole new face altogether.
Drakengard 3 has the makings of a great game, you're just going to have to be patient as you dig it out.
Putting a score on Drakengard 3 is a really hard task. Do I objectively trash what is essentially the most broken game in existence, or do I find a balance to incorporate how much I really enjoyed it? I'm not sure if it's because I am just sick and tired of the status-quo video games and am that desperate for something original, or if I just genuinely enjoyed this odd game.
Let's put it this way. If you're the kind of person who grades a game on technical value alone, be it counting pixels to make sure the resolution is correct, scanning lines looking for jaggies, or timing framerates, then stay far far away from Drakengard 3. This game is a lot of things, but a smooth experience it is not. This is a rough game and is not competently put together. What else can you expect from the team who brought you Deadly Premonition?
A whole host of wonderful ideas, great characters, and a unique heart lie buried beneath the wet blanket of technical incompetence. Drakengard 3 has the makings of a great game, you're just going to have to be patient as you dig it out.
Today's video games are made to be instantly gratifying as they conform to a certain play style. Take cover behind a chest-high wall, aim down the ironsights, QTE a boss to death, make a moral choice between being mean or nice, deal with eye rolling sophomoric PR from the publishing studio with words like "mature" and "polished," and suffer through yet another half-hearted Hollywood inspired tale. It's a cycle that I know I'm not the only one who's sick of.
Drakengard 3 challenges each of those notions and somehow manages to stand out as something pure. Something imaginative, something that doesn't look at all like it was focus grouped but rather the vision of an artist. Maybe not the best artist in the world, but it's an obvious passion project. It is in no way something I would call a "product."
Director Taro Yoko claims to have made Drakengard 3 in response to video games, video game consoles, and video gaming in general being stuck in their evolution and unable to break free from the lucrative middle of the road they have succumbed to. I don't know if he has quite achieved what he was looking for, but he has proven that even the worst and most imperfect games that refuse to play by the rules still have some sort of value and can succeed in today's highly calculated world.
In that regard, I recommend you play Drakengard 3, a highly irregular game published by a world class AAA publisher that just somehow managed to capture my heart and imagination by being an absolute mess of game design with a secretly brilliant narrative. Somebody help me, please. I don't know what to believe anymore.
Disclaimer: We purchased Drakengard 3 on the PlayStation 3 with company funds and played to the end of the normal campaign before writing this review.