without song - a drakengard shrine

Into the Dragonsphere

Drakengard (called Drag-on Dragoon in Japan) is a dark fantasy JRPG developed by Cavia. It boasts a cast ranging from annoying to deplorable, an oppressive atmosphere, a downer story, and dull gameplay that seems to play up its own weaknesses.

Q. Would you recommend it, even so?
A. No.

Q. Why make this page then?!
A. It succeeds at what it wants to do, which is to punish you for playing it.

During development of the game (then just conceptualized as 'Ace Combat but with dragons'), the Dynasty Warriors franchise began to take off. The developers were pushed to include similar hack-and-slash gameplay for this title, usually involving the killing of large hordes of enemies. Much of the unpleasantness can be attributed to it simply being an answer to the question of "what kind of person would do this?"

What kind of person would do this?

In-universe, our protagonist Caim is vengeful, bloodthirsty prince who saw his parents killed brutally before him. Despite loathing dragons for their involvement in this, he goes as far as to merge his soul with one in order to prolong his life. Much of the missions' tedium is a result of his grudge: he often refuses to leave a stage until he's killed hundreds of soldiers.

In many games, it is understood that there are certain types of living beings (be that 'monsters' or subsets of people) who are there to be cannon fodder to grant the player a sense of struggle for progression. This is rarely divorced completely from killing: after all, why else would games like Pokemon specify otherwise?

Instead of creating entirely new gameplay styles and objectives, they seem to want to bring violence and fun closer together. In that sense, Caim's real life counterpart is expected to be nothing more than someone who has played their fair share of this type of game.

Twelfth Chapter ~ On the Ground

A resolution

Drakengard does not try to escape this paradigm. Be it with swords, magic, or a dragon, you're still killing enemies to gain EXP, no pretenses. But the game isn't going to make it easy on you. Each ending makes you work harder for worse and more bizarre conclusions for both the characters and world at large.

Most of the cast of Drakengard start their tenure already too far gone for speculation on what could've been. Instead it invites you to be stubborn and do the wrong thing over and over again, just to see what happens. The 5th and last ending provides the backdrop for one of their later games, NIER: "what happens", in this case, is that you doom two worlds at the price of one.

Sequels would go on to tone down the particularly revolting elements in favor of traditional heroes and presentation (Drakengard 2, bless its heart) or just being Cooler and Edgier (we love a good poop joke, Drakengard 3). I recognize that a lot of what's unique about the first Drakengard had to do with the developers being severely undermanned, and the specific time and place of its creation. The director, Yoko Taro was quoted saying that if they had tried to make a normal RPG, they'd never have been able to compete with series like Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest. (Having played some of those, I can say they occupy very different parts of my brain.)

In many ways, it's a flawed game. But it's one of the more holistic in how it presents its themes and gameplay together, and it's lovely to see those qualities carried forward in the more recent additions to the series.