Drakengard, a little known action game by SquareEnix that was released in 2004, filed under the 'Dynasty Warriors clone' category, and quickly forgotten about. It was about a warrior named Caim, whose soul was linked with that of a Dragon, and together they fought for the Union against the Evil Empire. With both a foot soldier and a flying dragon as protagonists, and a war to participate in, Drakengard featured a mixture of action gameplay styles. Having not played the original, we can't really comment on what has changed and what's been improved, but we can tell you this: Drakengard 2 plays like Dynasty Warriors with Panzer Dragoon-style flying, all set in a world that would befit a Final Fantasy game perfectly. While it's a decent attempt to fuse two playing styles, as with many hybrids it probably would have been better expanding on one play style, rather than tacking a pair together.
Story-wise, Drakengard 2 is set 18 years after the events of the original game, and concerns the exploits of a boy called Nowe, who was raised by a dragon called Legna. Nowe has joined a group called the Knights of the Seal, who are supposedly the protectors of five magic seals that protect peace in the land. But, after a few obvious hints, it turns out the Knights are not so nice after all, so Nowe and Legna set out to find the real truth behind the legends. The story is interesting and decently told, but Nowe is pretty whiny, and if you've played a few RPGs in the last ten years you've seen all it's got to offer. The game begins with a mandatory (and infuriatingly insulting and long) training sequence, which introduces you to the basics of the gameplay and plot. The core gameplay is the ground-based combat, and is very much in the vein of Dynasty Warriors, where you plough through multitudes of mostly identical enemies with a melee weapon. Just like it's inspiration, this usually involves running into the biggest patch of enemies you can find (using the radar display if necessary) and whacking the square button until they're all dead. This type of gameplay is instantly entertaining, but gets boring quickly, so to break up the button mashing, there's simple combo and magic systems, a character/weapon change system, and dragon flying.
Basic combat on the ground involves hitting an enemy or enemies multiple times with your weapon's main attack until they're knocked over, hitting some others while they're getting up, finishing off the first lot, then rinsing and repeating. There are some alternate attacks like jump shots and upward swings, but they have more recovery time and less of a hit box, so the basic swing is best in most situations, and what you'll use for 95% of the game.
To avoid enemy attacks, there's both block and dodge functions, and while block works quite well, the dodge move can be a pain, because the game decides for itself whether or not you're targeting an enemy, so you could end up circle dodging when you meant to just dive right or vice versa. Once you've built up your bar, you can also unleash a magic attack to clear the area. The worst part about the basic combat is the camera, which is mapped to the right stick. This of course means you must stop attacking to re-center the camera, and since this is usually not an option, most of the time you'll end up auto centering it with L1 button, which is hardly ideal.
There are four playable characters that players can switch to at any time (once they're unlocked), and each character uses a different type of weapon, and a certain amount of strategy is involved in selecting your character (and therefore weapon) for each battle situation. For example, you could clear a path with some quick sword combos with Nowe, kill off some larger enemies with Ulrick's axe, and then finish off the stragglers with Eris' spear. Each character and weapon levels up with use, so like an RPG, it's necessary to use every one just to maintain a balanced party. You'll probably end up switching just to break the monotony, but won't want to switch too often because there's a pause (masked by a 'transformation spell' animation) as the game loads us the new character every time you change. There are many weapons to unlock for each character, each with a unique magic attack and set of combos that are unlocked as the weapon levels up.
The unique aspect of Drakengard 2 is the ability to summon and ride the dragon Legna during any outdoor battle, although you have to switch to Nowe before you can do this. Legna can fly over the whole battlefield, then hover over a spot and unleash a few different fire breath attacks on the enemy army from above, as well as use your built up magic energy for a massive spell that can kill hundreds of enemies at once. It's actually pretty unbalanced, since the dragon can kill in seconds what would have taken ten minutes on foot, and sometimes you'll just use the ground fighting to build up magic, then whenever you get the opportunity switch to Legna to do some real damage. The game designers seem to have realised this, and have made some enemies immune to Legna's fire attacks, forcing you to drop down and slay them by hand; after you've just killed 50 enemies with a single button press, it feels like a chore.
However, even without the annoyingly fireproof enemies, the dragon gameplay is not without its problems. The biggest enemy in the game is not an ogre, dragon or king, but the engine's draw distance. You can see the landscape fine for miles without much problem, but enemies fade in at what feels like fifty feet away from you. You'll end up circling the ground at low altitude until you find a bunch of dots on your radar, then fly down until you can see their above head energy bars (which pop up before they do). It's even possible to be hit by an enemy that pops-up before you have time to move out of the way, which is trĂ¨s annoying.
Things don't get much better in the Panzer Dragoon inspired flying-only sections. The draw distance is slightly better then in the ground/air missions, but is still a problem, as you'll often not have time to hit things between the time they pop up and when you pass them. Legna never seems to hit anything with his main attack, and while he has a lock on laser like thing, it's so weak that you have to turn around for multiple passes to do any damage with them. There are also some fun and destructive special attacks that you can do when you've collected power ups from defeated enemies, but you can't do them often enough, and due to the overall clunkiness of it all, the flying missions get tedious quickly. The worst ones require you to beat an enemy or enemies, and you'll have to chip away at them for what seems like an age until you're done, but on some you can just fly straight past them to the end of the level ignoring the combat altogether, which was what we found ourselves doing whenever possible.
Graphically, Drakengard 2 looks like it would have been a nice-looking game...four years ago. The art direction is good, as is the modelling of the characters and some environments, but many textures look dated and bland, and there aren't any effects like advanced lighting and particles that many of the best-looking games today feature, making it look sparse and flat by comparison. As mentioned before, the game engine's limitations don't just affect the looks of the game, but the poor draw distance makes sections of the game much more tedious then they should be as you search for enemies. The framarate is good most of the game, which is itself a positive, but we'd rather they improved the draw distance at the framarate's expense, really.
The CG cutscenes are your usual decent Square fare, but the in-game story scenes are badly staged and terribly stilted. The dialogue is performed by British actors (amusingly, the sub-titles use American spellings), and they do a decent job most of the time, but can also clearly be the victims of bad direction, and emphasise the wrong word or idea. So even though the story is above average, it's poor presentation will prevent all but but the most die-hard RPG tragic from getting into it. One high point is the music which - while nothing particularly special in the grand scheme of things - comes with midi and orchestral themes that fit the J-RPG style game world and scenarios perfectly.
Overall, Drakengard 2 isn't totally broken, and there's some fun to be had, especially in the ground/air missions. Constantly switching between swordplay and air-to-ground combat relieves the repetition of both, and after slashing through a large bunch of tough beasties, it's really quite satisfying to take to the air and slay all 100 at once. But when the game forces you to do either style for any extended period, the flaws of each become far more apparent, and it quickly becomes a chore to play. Action RPG fans may get a kick out of collecting and levelling up each weapon and character, and to those of you who think you can handle the repetitive nature of each type of combat (which some people can), and are interested in a very slowly drawn out story, then the game comes recommended - it's certainly a long quest at over 20 hours. But most players will find the high points too few and far between to justify the effort.