NOTE: Instead of the usual captions for my images, I decided to include some Zero quotes with each picture. They were too good not to share!
Drakengard 3 takes place in a conflicted world, a land ruled by five separate warlords who each despotically govern their territories. After many wars between the nations, these men were finally brought down by the five mysterious Intoners, sisters with the power of magical song. Because of their heroism, each sister is worshipped in the land they freed and becomes the new ruler. Several years of silence have passed when the lead sister, One, makes a bid for peace and unity between the various countries. You play as Zero, the sixth and eldest sister of the family. She wishes to kill her five sisters and take their powers for herself. After a disastrous first attempt that nearly destroys both her and her dragon, Zero recovers and heads back down the dark path of sororicide– killing anyone who gets in her way.
Zero is a fun, humorous character whom I really enjoyed playing as during my 15-ish hours with the game. At first, she seems reminiscent of Kainé from the developer’s previous game, Nier–loud-mouthed, vulgar, and not willing to put up with anyone’s shit. After a bit of time with her, it becomes clear that she is similar but ultimately is her own character. Underneath the rough exterior, there is someone who is trying to do the right thing–even if it means killing her sisters to do so. Her writing is excellent from top-to-bottom, fleshing out her characterization perfectly. Zero is also remarkably good at saying just what I was thinking as events occurred throughout the game; more than once, she said EXACTLY what I was saying to myself just moments before (such as our shared distaste for the game’s iffy platforming sections). For these reasons, I found her an exceptionally memorable and sympathetic character.
Furthermore, Zero is a brilliantly designed female character. She is mature, fully-developed, and has complete sexual agency. Sexuality is a huge part of this game’s story, and Zero is no slouch when it comes to her desires, willing to have sex whenever she wants and with whomever she wants. It’s clear that she is never forced into anything she doesn’t want to do; in fact, she is always displayed as the dominant one in her relationships. It’s refreshing to see a woman character who steals men away and beds them simply because she wants to, instead of the other way around. On a smaller note, Zero even mentions having her period! This may seem like an extremely minor thing (I can just see some of you shaking your heads and saying “So what?”), but it grounds her sexuality and womanhood as something that is relevant to her character, instead of simply being an afterthought. I think Zero is an immense step forward for women characters, showing that it is possible to write a character that feels like an actual human being instead of what is expected of a female character. I truly hope that future games learn from Zero’s design.
The other characters are unique in their own ways. Zero’s various sisters (also named after numbers: One through Five) each have their own strange personalities, such as Three’s tastes for experimenting on the dead and walking around with a giant pair of scissors. There isn’t much given about each of them, but what there is hints at detailed backgrounds that I would have loved to learn more about (which maybe the DLC does?). You also recruit various disciples to your party, stealing them from your deceased sisters. Each is entirely different from the rest with their own quirks and sexual fetishes. Among these, Dito is probably the most memorable: a man who loves causing pain to others. Some of the later story beats involving him actually get pretty intense and fucked-up, going much farther than I would have expected the game to go. The final character is your dragon, Mikhail. He is very hit-or-miss in my opinion, with a pretty annoying voice and some flat emotional moments. There are moments of greatness from him on occasion, but he is easily the weakest character of the game.
As far as the story goes, it takes a fairly predictable but engaging path to the endgame and culminates in a distressing end to the state of the world. Instead of ending on that note, however, the game then opens up a new branch. These branches are essentially alternate timelines, smaller “what-if” stories that imagine events playing out in different ways. Each of these branches goes to some neat places, especially the final one which contains TONS of relevant backstory and the “true” ending of the game. Seeing them all is definitely worth the time investment, as many unanswered questions are solved in these branches. Sadly, there is a minor annoyance of being forced to collect every weapon in the game before progressing to the final branch (similar to Nier’s final ending). This is a bit of a grind, but one that gladly doesn’t get in the way for too long.
The game culminates in a special gameplay sequence that I won’t spoil here. This part of the game is one of its most beautiful and creative moments; sadly, it is also one of the most frustrating, difficult things I’ve seen in a video game to date. It drops you in without explaining a thing and expects you to figure it out. You are tasked with the need for impeccable skill with gameplay that isn’t even similar to what you’ve been doing for all the hours leading up to it. To top it all off, the sequence is a shocking six minutes long, requiring not one fuck-up to beat. I am not joking when I say that it took me OVER FOUR HOURS to finish this one part of the game. That was hundreds of attempts of varying success before I blissfully managed to succeed. The one saving grace of this whole section is that the story bits that come after it aren’t really necessary to understanding the story; the important parts are from the level just before this. If you get curious but don’t want to endure the frustration, looking the scene up on Youtube is simple and likely preferable. The fact that the events following this annoyance aren’t vital to the story makes this section much less harmful to the game as a whole.
Drakengard 3 is a game with a very strange tone, one that bounces back and forth between maturity and slapstick in a matter of seconds. At times, the story is very focused on sex and violence as Zero murders her sisters and their troops before taking the new disciples to her bed. Much of the incidental dialogue between Zero and her disciples is very open discussion about sex, including the various fetishes of your party members (such as one member who groans pleasurably whenever receiving a verbal lashing from Zero). It’s common to go from a boss level where you stab one of Zero’s sisters to death in a shockingly violent manner to a scene where your disciples are complaining about sand being stuck in their cracks. It’s a strange tonal balance, one that nearly gave me whiplash at times, and it can be hard to get used to at first. Still, by the end of the game, I managed to find this inconsistent tone quite endearing.
My enjoyment likely came from the fact that this game is surprisingly hilarious, making me laugh out loud for several seconds with some scenes. The soldiers you murder are filled with various incidental dialogue that is both funny and oddly perfect in its subject matter and delivery. Objectives like to display things like “Kill that fucking dragon,” breaking the fourth-wall with ease. Zero is bleeped just one random time, something that shocked me into sudden giggles. Probably my favorite example is one scene where Zero viciously scolds her disciples for their terrible abilities in the sack. A lot of the humor tends to be juvenile (like an actual poop joke, sadly), but I still found it honest and sincere time and time again. In fact, I might actually call this one of the funniest games I’ve ever played.
The majority of gameplay in Drakengard 3 has you fighting groups of enemies in a style of combat that most reminds me of Dynasty Warriors but with tighter control and more energy to the action. You can mix light and heavy attacks together in predetermined combos, with heavy attacks dipping into a recharging stamina meter. Zero has the ability to dodge or block attacks, something you’ll use frequently in later stages as enemies get more vicious. On rare occasion, your dragon is available to be called in for a bombing run that deals heavy damage to all the enemies on screen. Finally, when the going gets rough, you can activate Intoner mode–a meter that charges from either dealing or receiving damage–to become temporarily more powerful and invincible.
I found the action a bit simplistic at first, but this impression changed as I unlocked new weapons with longer combos and options. New weapons feel really different from one another, each with unique heavy attacks and different attack speeds. It all comes together into gameplay that is mindlessly enjoyable for the majority of the game. I relished mowing down the waves of smaller enemies, foes that Zero can take out in just a few hits. These guys are dumb and satisfying to tear through. Eventually, bigger adversaries join the fray, forcing you to play more defensively and have a bit more perseverance. Sadly, these beasts are often tedious to fight with their massive health pools that can have you hacking away for a couple minutes just to down one. I rarely wanted to fight these bigger opponents, as they seemed like something the developers felt they had to include, albeit grudgingly.
The difficulty curve is rather severe too. For the entirety of the first branch, I never came close to dying and was often bored with the simplicity of combat. As soon as I made it to the second branch, however, the difficulty spiked heavily. All of a sudden, I was forced to fight much larger groups of enemies that mixed some particularly nasty varieties together, such as the spirits that possess other guys and make them much stronger in order to bring me down. They begin doing significantly more damage, making dodging much more important. Sadly, the block ends up being mostly useless, due to its drain on your stamina. In the later levels, your block gets shattered almost immediately, instead forcing you to dodge and jump around to avoid being hit. This can lead to some pretty intense moments with low health and an enemy who can kill you in just one more hit. It became quite frustrating at points, especially since it was so easy at first, but I managed to persevere with satisfaction in the end.
There were two big issues I had with the combat. First, enemy types are reused constantly throughout the game. Instead of encountering new foes, you will see a lot of reskinned but tougher versions of earlier monsters. By the end of the game, I was exhausted with the lack of variety, especially the bigger enemies which get recycled much more heavily. Second, the camera was exceedingly annoying to deal with. It is VERY close to Zero, almost claustrophobically so. I got hit with countless attacks that I couldn’t see coming simply because of this camera angle. An option to pull it back some would have been a nice choice.
On rare occasion, you get to control your dragon in combat. These levels manifest in two different types. The first is an open, free-roam type of mission that has you flying around manually and blowing stuff up. I never really found any of these fun, as it was tedious having to constantly tap the X button to stay afloat and maneuvering to hit a target was often disorienting. The other type of section, which is more enjoyable, most resembles something like Panzer Dragoon. You fly automatically forward and shoot things as they appear on screen, complete with lock-on targeting for multiple enemies and bonuses for clearing a section perfectly..
Many of the boss fights are also fought on your dragon’s back. Sadly, I didn’t really care for any of these. You are often forced into a VERY small arena with not much room to maneuver, bumping into walls and the invisible barriers as you try to turn around for another pass. Additionally, these fights are not very forthcoming about what exactly you need to do in order to damage the boss. It takes a bit of experimentation, and maybe a life or two, to finally get it figured out. On occasion, you do get to fight a boss on foot. These aren’t really much different than fighting a bigger enemy in normal combat and were mostly disappointing to behold.
Every mission (or chests you can find in the missions) reward you with gold, experience, weapons, or weapon materials. Experience levels you up and gives you a bit more health and stamina. The gold is used to buy restorative items, new weapons, or weapon materials from the store. Weapon materials, along with a bit of gold, are used to upgrade the weapons you obtain. Every weapon goes up to Level 4 with this process, barring Zero’s main weapon which levels automatically during the story. These upgrades are key as they significantly increase your damage potential and open new combo options with each new level. Finally, you choose which weapons and disciples (who aren’t really that useful in combat, to be honest) you want to take into battle before jumping into the next mission.
There are also side missions you can undertake between main missions. These open up slowly as you progress through the game and are always one of four types: collecting item drops from defeated enemies, collecting items from locked chests, hitting targets to collect gold in a time limit, and surviving several waves of combat back-to-back. These missions repeat frequently and are extremely boring after just a few of each type. Really, they are only good for grinding out gold for upgrades or for the rewards you get for completing each the first time. Some of these side missions get EXTREMELY difficult to complete, with very strict time limits and requirements. Completing them all is a challenge in and of itself, one that few people will probably manage to do.
Drakengard 3 isn’t the most beautiful game, but it has its moments here and there, particularly with the character designs. Instead of trying for high-fidelity graphics, the designers instead use some slick storytelling tricks to keep things interesting, such as split-screen cutscenes that show multiple people talking to each other. Easily my favorite level design is a late-game one that takes place entirely in sepia tone, complete with muted sound effects. The music in Drakengard 3, which is absolutely fantastic, is very reminiscent of tracks from Nier. While I didn’t feel the soundtrack packed as much emotional reverence (to be fair, few soundtracks could match Nier’s power), it is still perfectly suited to the events of the game and wonderfully memorable.
Technically, there are a few problems. The first chapter gives some really bad initial impressions in regards to the framerate–I’m talking frames in the single digits. It does improve significantly after that point, but it is shocking to see right up front. For the remainder of the game, it stays mostly consistent, aside from some high intensity moments involving the dragon or Intoner mode. The load times can be ridiculously long, even in the middle of levels; in particular, waiting for doors to open after a locked combat room is quite intense. Finally, the audio mixing is a bit strange in places. Voices tend to overlap at times, drowning out certain bits in favor of others. In boss fights, the (excellent!) music is mixed very low, sadly making it nearly impossible to hear. I don’t think any of these issues ruin the game, but they are worth mentioning for potential buyers.
In terms of the gameplay, I would say that Drakengard 3 is below average. The combat can be fun to mindlessly mash through, but it lacks depth and variety that can last for the entirety of the game’s length. Many of its additional gameplay mechanics, such as the dragon sections, are pretty poor as well. If it weren’t for the story, or more particularly the characters, I don’t think Drakengard 3 would be worth playing. I find it impressive just how much Zero improved my impressions of this game. She is easily one of the most important female characters ever put into a video game, and I truly adored spending the fifteen-ish hours getting to know her. Add in the quirky, but shockingly mature and detailed, story and you get a game that is absolutely worth slogging through a bit of mediocre gameplay to see. I highly recommend this game to anyone who wants to see something truly unique.