Drakengard 3 is what happens when a perfectly good action RPG gets crushed by questionable taste, a poorly optimized graphics engine, and awful writing. It gasps for breath for a while, wheezes, then just collapses under the weight of it all.
Developed by refugees from Cavia (Nier, Bullet Witch), Drakengard 3 is an action RPG that functions as a prequel of sorts to 2002's Drakengard. At the outset, it plays a bit like an anime-inspired ripoff of Kill Bill Vol. 1 and 2 with some magical girl elements. Imagine a Sailor Scout suffering a psychotic break and killing her sisters one by one amid buckets of blood, and you've pretty much got the gist of Drakengard 3, absent some rather random multiverse elements.
And I'm not exaggerating when I say "buckets of blood," either. Drakengard 3 positively revels in the stuff, splattering characters whenever a convenient moment presents itself. One of Drakengard 3's key features is blood splatter on the main character; as a mission progresses, she becomes steadily more covered in it until she's practically red from head-to-toe (though not in cutscenes). It's kind of gross, though I don't see that as the main problem. My issue with it is that I've always thought blood should be reserved to heighten the impact of a big moment. Think of any of Kill Bill's best scenes, or even a Fatality in Mortal Kombat. When it's just kind of smeared around, as it is in Drakengard 3, it's just nauseating.
The blood also tends to clash with the tone in a way that's off-putting. A lot of the time, it's presented as sort of a light-hearted adventure, with Saturday morning cartoon-like dialogue and an aggressive amount of bathroom humor. But all of this is presented against a backdrop of ultra-violence as soldiers gets chopped in half and scream for their mothers. At one point, the dragon Mikhail makes a wistful comment about all the good times he's had with the protagonist Zero, and all I could think of was the trail of skulls that they had left in their wake.
Putting aside the tone, the characterization is about par for the course for a magical girl anime. Each of the sisters have paper thin personalities and rely on a single dominant trait to animate their personalities, generally a variant on "sex-crazed." That goes double for Zero, who is characterized in large part by her apparent love of killing and her aggressive bitchiness toward her companion dragon Mikhail, who follows her like a lost puppy. Their repartee consists of petty insults, innuendo, and tittering urine and sex jokes, most of it there to break up the moments when Zero is stabbing people.
It goes on like this for eight chapters and change; and to be honest, the only things keeping me from completely losing my mind aside from the ability to skip cutscenes was the semi-decent battle system. I don't want to oversell it or anything, not the least because it's hampered by one very janky camera, but it does a fairly good job of making the action feel interesting and impactful. In my mind, Drakengard 3's best fights are the Dynasty Warrior moments when I'm wading through a couple dozen soldiers, none of them able to even touch me as I cut them to shreds. Not exactly what one would call challenging, but engaging enough in its own way.
The crux of the battle system is four weapons that can be accessed at any time—a sword, spear, chakra, or Tekken-style fisticuffs. Each has a role to play, whether in breaking armor or building up combo damage, and I found myself using all four with regularity. The actual combat does a nice job of straddling the line between accessibility and depth, with each weapon offering a few aerial and ground combos to choose from. The RPG elements are slim-to-nil—don't go looking for a talent tree or any other advanced customization in Drakengard 3—and there's no exploration to speak of due to the story being broken down into discreet missions and sidequests. However, there are plenty of weapons to purchase and upgrade as the game goes on. And in a nice touch, each weapon gets a makeover as it levels up, making it look steadily meaner as it gets more powerful.
Where it all falls down, as so often happens in Drakengard 3, is when Zero hops on Mikhail's combat and engages in a bit of aerial combat ala Panzer Dragoon. There's a decent amount of depth to it, and I enjoyed mastering Mikhail's dives, melee attacks, and fire attacks. However, the camera is atrocious during these scenes, making it exceedingly difficult to line up an attack. Moreover, Mikhail moves extremely fast and is often difficult to control, which makes for a lot of disorientation and bumping into walls. And none of it is helped by serious framerate drops, which frequently slows the action to a crawl. It should be mentioned that Drakengard 3 uses the Unreal Engine 3; and in that regard, feels like a throwback to the bad old days of Last Remnant, which was equally hampered by technical issues. With its muddy textures, unstable framerate, and frankly boring level geometry, Drakengard feels like it was released in 2006 or 2007 rather than 2014.
I don't want to say that I hated Drakengard 3; because on some level, I enjoyed the hack-and-slash action, as well as grinding money to upgrade weapons. But its technical elements are borderline incompetent, and the story, tone, and characters are just insultingly stupid. A guilty pleasure for some? Maybe. But a good game? Unfortunately, no.
- Graphics: I don't have a lot of nice things to say about Drakengard 3's graphics. Mikhail is a decent design for a dragon, I suppose. The rest of it is alternately generic, broken, and downright ugly. And the camera isn't too great either. As I said before, a definite throwback to the early days of the previous generation.
- Audio:Despite not being particularly memorable, Drakengard 3's audio is pretty good. The soundtrack is aggressively anime, mixing piano riffs with the odd bit of J-Pop for emphasis. The voice acting is inoffensive, which is saying something considering the dialogue they have to read. Of the technical elements, the audio is definitely the best.
- Interface: A solid action game interface is one that keeps the combat flowing as much as possible. Drakengard 3's UI accomplishes that with a wheel menu that is quick, easy to access, and doesn't interfere with the pace of the battle. The default controls similarly get the job done.
- Lasting Appeal: I was surprised by how quickly I was able to get through Drakengard 3's content. Playing for modest stretches, I managed to finish the story over the course of a weekend without any problem, mainly because the exploration is nil. There's plenty of content after the credits roll, including side stories and lots of weapons to unlock, but it's tough to imagine Drakengard 3 lasting a dedicated gamer more than a couple weeks.
Drakengard 3 is rough, to say the least. Fundamentally, I like the focus on action, and the battle system is competently executed. However, it's all buried beneath a poorly optimized engine, terrible camera, and a story that's alternately infantile and gross. I've played a lot worse; but by an large, Drakengard 3 is a pretty bad game.