There’s one in every family, isn’t there? One person who has to spoil every gathering, causing drama on social media, and jumping out, murdering people all of the time. No? In Drakengard 3, that’s exactly what happens. As moody anti-heroine Zero, you’ll need to trek across mountains or through lush green forests on a quest to destroy your sisters and their vast armies – and you thought that your next Christmas dinner was going to be awkward.
This overdue sequel paints itself as an action RPG, but the reality sits more on the side of Dynasty Warriors than that of Final Fantasy or Kingdom Hearts. The basic goal is to bash stuff without getting too knocked about yourself – something that becomes increasingly hard to accomplish as you progress through the story. This is partly because the difficulty curve is gigantic, and partly because the combat and camera actively work against you.
The game opens with Zero killing the narrator, instantly setting the release apart from its peers. The long-winded old man voice going on and on about the good old days – so familiar in RPGs and action games – lasts about forty seconds here, and this sets the tone for the next ten or so hours to come. Covered in blood, our feisty lead jumps into battle, killing everybody in her way, as she runs towards her sisters. Unsurprisingly, the siblings overpower her, lop off one of her arms, and kill her dragon in the process – all before she can retreat.
The plot is interesting, and the dialogue is frank and hilariously funny. The characters aren’t exactly three-dimensional, but the depth of their single-mindedness more than makes up for that. Zero herself is absolutely insane, but also endlessly rude. Her cruelty causes replacement dragon Mikhail to mess itself on a regular basis, something that we’re sure never happened in any of Tolkien’s work. The sisters, named by the numbers one through to five, are equally straightforward, but don’t get the screen time for it to really matter. Their entire personality is often summed up in a single line – “She’s the slutty one” or “She’s the virgin” – and that’s what you’ll get when you come to the inevitable showdown with each sibling.
This can lead to a certain roughness during conversations – a feel that perhaps the writers have gone further than they needed to. Those sensitive to such things may feel that it’s a little gratuitous with its frequent bad language, violence, and references to sex, but it’s all part of a gritty and unique style that works really well.
Each level consists of a linear pathway, which you’ll slice and dice your way along – perhaps bumping into a boss as you go. Stages are short enough that you can play the game in bursts quite comfortably, and as such, it feels like a game that would have sat nicely on the PlayStation Vita. You’ll mostly be fighting foot soldiers or Devil May Cry-style demons, but occasionally you’ll be able to take control of Mikhail the dragon. The flying levels sound amazing on paper, but rapidly become a mess of bad controls and poor design, made worse by plummeting frame rates.
These are all problems that affect your enjoyment while playing as Zero as well, although they’re not nearly as bad. The fighting is good enough – especially when you factor in multiple weapons, each with their own animation – but it doesn't feel as fluid as it should. It’s undeniably sluggish, a fact that’s most obvious when you’re hitting something and try to dodge an incoming attack at the same time. This is made less of an issue by the fact that the enemy artificial intelligence is dreadful, and that you’re more likely to see them getting caught on a random piece of landscape than bunching up together to attack you.
The camera is a problem as well, getting stuck on trees or pointing in the completely wrong direction at inopportune moments. It feels like something that might have barely been acceptable in an early PlayStation 2 game, and it can easily ruin a good fight. Considering that some of the levels struggle to properly place their checkpoints, the more difficult moments can be incredibly frustrating if you’re suddenly killed because you couldn’t see what was happening or because you couldn’t move fast enough to dodge it. Issues like that can easily cost you five or ten minutes of playtime, and the game is repetitive enough as it is.
For the average player, this will be a below average action game with a wacky story. Unless you absolutely hate the genre, the repetitiveness probably won’t set in unless you plan to play through for the multiple endings, or if you’re interested in completing the additional missions. If you ignore all of the extra content – and that would mean knocking some forty hours off the potential playtime – you’ll probably enjoy the game more than someone who struggles through it all. There’s plenty more to do beyond the main story, but the technical issues, as well as constantly replaying very similar levels, will be enough to annoy all but the most dedicated of Zero enthusiasts.
For those that do manage to fall hopelessly in love with this title, the extracurricular quests will keep you going for dozens of hours, although as alluded, there won't be much originality in them. Collecting and upgrading weapons, levelling up the lead, and finding hidden chests also makes the Platinum Trophy harder to grab than you'd expect.
Aside from the mentioned framerate drops, the graphics are quite nice. The environments look pleasant and varied, and the look of the characters is typically Square Enix. It’s poorly optimised, though, with jaggy blood spatters and low-speed animations causing the action to come to a standstill. For a game that's almost entirely about battling groups of enemies, the developer seems to have put very little effort into actually making sure that it works. Thankfully, the audio is excellent, with a beautiful soundtrack and suitable voice acting throughout.
Drakengard 3 is what happens when you give imaginative people no budget. The flaws, both technical and during gameplay, cause a few too many problems to overlook, but, like any family reunion, there’s definitely still a good time to be had – especially if you know when you've had enough.