The end of Drakengard 3 – beautiful and broken

Zero, the "hero" of the game.

Zero, the “hero” of the game.

NOTE:  I will be talking extensively about the very end of Drakengard 3.  I won’t get into too many of the greater story details, but the final sequence will be discussed at length.  If you want to be surprised by it (and it can be quite surprising), you may not want to read any further.  Also, be wary of the images used on this post, as I have included a few from this sequence.

I really enjoyed Drakengard 3.  While it had some repetitive gameplay and quite a bit of jank, it also featured a very unique story, one that felt very much like it came from that team behind Nier.  It wasn’t so much the story beats, although those had their moments, but the characters that made it great.  Zero is a fantastic character, maybe one of the best female characters I’ve seen, who feels very realistic and beholden to only her own desires and demands.  The rest of the cast is delightfully quirky, with some dialogue that may make those with Puritan sensibilities cringe in distaste.  This quirkiness can seem a bit crass at times, but it also manages to be exceptionally funny from top to bottom.  It all comes together to make a game that is truly unlike anything else I’ve played.

Drakengard 3 is also capped off with a singular experience, a last-minute shift in gameplay style that is unlike anything I’ve seen before.  The final chapter changes from a character-action game, complete with combo trees and lots of murdering, to what is essentially a rhythm-based minigame.  You play as Mikhail, Zero’s dragon, and have to time button presses to music in order to succeed, essentially shielding him from attacks by a giant creature.  The section quickly builds in intensity, requiring quicker button presses and better timing, until it reaches a crescendo and ends with the final cutscene.

A typical section with Mikhail, not at all like the end game sequence.

A typical section with Mikhail, not at all like the end game sequence.

This sequence is the most striking thing I’ve seen in a game this year.  The color palette shifts to a gorgeous black-and-white, the camera maneuvers wildly to capture the intriguing imagery, and the fantastic music begins to play over it all.  It’s a heavy tonal shift from the intense action and alternating mature/immature antics of the characters found in the rest of the game.  I was immediately reminded of Nier, particularly the way that everything had a very dream-like and ethereal feel that made it almost seem like it wasn’t really happening.  I don’t have nearly the writing skill to describe this in the detail it deserve, so I highly recommend tracking down a video and seeing it for yourself (or playing it for yourself, of course).  What is truly interesting about this sequence, however, is the way it drops the player in.

The player is given very little warning as to what he/she is expected to do, if anything.  The chapter selection screen, which usually labels sections as “Cutscene” or “Game,” doesn’t provide any help to the player–it labels this chapter as “Game?,” giving only the smallest hint that something different is coming.  Music begins to play, the camera zooms in on Mikhail, and the timed rings fly towards him; failure to hit a button, or at the correct time, will result in a harsh noise and a game over screen.  The one concession the developers made for this sequence is that nearly any button on the controller will work, giving those who fumble at their controllers in blind panic a chance of figuring things out on the first try.  Most players, however, will likely mess up a few times before understanding what exactly is going on.  Part of me really loves this concept–there is something brilliant about throwing a player into new gameplay without giving them any idea what they’re expected to do first.

Unfortunately, this mysterious feeling of not knowing what’s to come also makes this section quite frustrating.  While it is immediately striking and unique, it also does very little to prepare players for what is to come, something that will likely annoy modern gamers who have come to expect tutorials and waypoint arrows telling them exactly what to do.  I can’t really blame them in this case: being expected to figure out how to play a game, especially an endgame section that mixes things up at the last possible moment, is crazy to comprehend in a modern video game.  To be fair, however, this isn’t really that big of a deal–a few attempts will probably be enough for most people to figure it out and eliminate all traces of the unknown from this part of the game.

It gets worse.

Images don't really do this scene justice.

Images don’t really do this scene justice.

This section also features some very particular timing, timing that almost seems to mimic original Playstation-era rhythm games in its strict windows for hitting a note.  This rigidity is bad enough, but there also seems to be a bit of inconsistency in the timing, making it even harder to predict when the button needs to be pressed.  There are visual cues along with the musical cues, which can aid players, but the timing of these can be tricky as well–the button has to be pressed right before the ring hits Mikhail instead of as it hits him.  Furthermore, these cues are quickly stripped away as the sequence becomes crazier.  The developers also enjoy fucking with the player, moving the camera in some really deceptive ways that basically force players to rely on the music itself to succeed.  Combine this with the inconsistent feeling of the timing and you are already looking at a hair-pulling section.

It gets worse.

The final level is about seven minutes long.  Any single mistake sends you back to the beginning.  There is roughly a minute’s worth of slow setup before the playable portion begins, setup you are forced to watch without skipping each time you fail before getting back to business.  The beginning of the song is actually quite easy, but you’ll still see it dozens of times as you mess up later on and are forced to replay the whole thing.  I can’t even describe the despair and frustration I felt when I made a mistake five minutes in–for the twentieth time, mind you–and had to do the whole thing AGAIN.  It is a massive exercise in patience, making even a simple error in timing extremely punishing..

It gets worse.

The final few notes actually come after the screen fades to black and players assume they are finished.  In fact, the final cutscene dialogue begins to play right before the final note, further tricking players into thinking they are done.  Those who don’t know these notes are coming, which is probably the vast majority of players who go into this sight unseen, can expect a massive amount of rage when they seemingly fail out of nowhere.  The final note is the most egregious of all.  It is a very slow note, with nearly ten seconds between it starting and the need to hit the button.  Without the visual cues, as players are then looking at a black screen, it can be nearly impossible to time without practice–practice which takes a full seven minutes of prior gameplay to obtain.

It took me nearly five hours of attempts on this sequence before I finally managed to overcome it.  Even spending that much time, I never felt like I had the timing or the rhythm down.  Instead of persevering (or going mad–whichever came first), I eventually went online for some assistance and found a Youtube video that helped.  It has you line up the game to the video and provides Rock Band-esque note markers to help with the timing.  Even with this video, it still took me several attempts to correctly line up the audio and deal with the inconsistent timing of when the game wanted my button presses.

A screencap of that Youtube video.  The flowers go right to left and indicate when to hit the button.

A screencap of that Youtube video. The flowers go right to left and indicate when to hit the button.

It’s certainly possible that many players could attempt this section and have no trouble with it whatsoever.  It feels like one of those things that some people will have a lot of difficulty getting perfect and others do easily in just a few attempts.  I will note, however, that I have spent a lot of time with rhythm games in the past and have some decent skill timing things like this (I know how pretentious this sounds, but I needed to relate my relative skill to give you some idea here).  Even with all that previous experience, this section of Drakengard 3 still gave me a ridiculous amount of trouble.  There is very little to do with reflexes or quick button presses–it all comes down to the timing of the notes, something that always felt extremely hit-or-miss for me.  For that reason, I feel like this is a rather flawed section of an otherwise…well, flawed game.

I could easily see this section being the end of the line for many people, those who just can’t finish it for anything.  Sadly, this sequence is right before the very last cutscene of the game.  Those who have put the (roughly) 20 hours into Drakengard 3 to get to this point, including grinding out weapons to unlock the bonus chapters, may not get the closure they deserve depending on their skill with an entirely different kind of game.  This is a huge bummer, but I can at least say that that final cutscene is more of a fun extra.  It doesn’t really divulge any extra information about the world and is instead a goofy and inadequate reward for the difficult section preceding it.  It would be easy to avoid the hassle of this section and instead just watch the scene on Youtube, if one were so inclined.

With this post, I really just wanted to talk about this end sequence of Drakengard 3 at length, especially considering not many people have probably seen it.  I don’t know where my feelings actually come out on this section.  On one hand, I really think it is one of the coolest and most unique sections in a game this year: it is visually striking, features a breathtaking (but now somewhat traumatizing to hear) song, and is shocking in its nonchalant change of gameplay genre.  On the other hand, it can become unbearably frustrating and is somewhat archaic in its timing windows on the notes.  It’s a bit of a mess, a section that feels like more time was given to making it look amazing then making it play well.  Even with all its problems, I still think this part of Drakengard 3 is worth seeing–just don’t try and play it yourself, okay?