Drakengard is wretched, trashy, and totally amazing, the pinnacle of a B movie of videogames from budget to dialogue to mechanics. It’s not Duke Nukem, wallowing in the worst of games without a second thought, nor is it Spec Ops: The Line, a critique of games that conveniently passes over its own complicity. Rather, Drakengard 3 is endearingly awful, with bizarre, out-of-place humor, extreme violence, and, when you least expect it, wrenching sincerity.
Low budget, weird humor, and surprisingly well-made are hallmarks of the remnants of Cavia, the company that made the first two Drakengard games, the recent cult hit Neir, and a host of low budget licensed games much better than they reasonably should have been. Drakengard 3 is every bit of that. The tone of Drakengard 3 is kind of “fuck videogames,” but also kind of “videogames are great.” Despite its janky production values and frequent bugs, it’s as fun a Devil May Cry as you’d like with a story that is ends up being every bit as clever as it starts off being stupid.
When I say B movie, I mean it. The camera panics in corners. The lock-on sometimes reverses. At times, allies and enemies run desperately into walls. The visuals slow down and stutter when the screen is too crowded. Yet the game is very competent at being a fun time when it comes to beating up tons of enemies.
The most important thing a game can give me so that I can feel like I am in control of a situation is not just a ridiculous number of weapons to hit people with (it is just too easy to give the players something big and slicey). It’s the moving around and the blocking that make me feel like pushing buttons in the game matters—that I can notice when enemies are attacking and do something about it. Without a dash dodge and a block/parry, I would merely be mashing the attack button for 13 hours, which would quickly become boring to anyone, even if you are as violent and sociopathic as the protagonist of this game.
Zero is name of the heroine, and she does not have the personality of a heroine whatsoever. Despite her cute outfit and demure appearance, she seems like the sort of someone who is willing and able to kill the thousands of people required for the completion of a videogame. She has no compunctions about killing, except for her irritation at the stubbornness with which her cannon fodder enemies cling to life. She loathes jumping puzzles. Her quest is to kill all five of her sisters, who are responsible for keeping peace in the world; Zero does this for seemingly no other reason than to be the only one left. Zero’s baseline behavior and actions convey the exact degree of annoyance, contempt, and violence of a person playing a videogame. Games are fun, but they are also frustrating, repetitive, and full of annoying fetch quests, and Zero hates all of this as much as you do.
As strange and dark as the story is, what’s stranger and darker is the game’s humor, specifically how grotesquely discordant the humor is with the game’s violence and atrocity. The dialogue sounds like the most hateful and inappropriate Saturday morning cartoon ever produced. For example, when Zero causes an avalanche by yelling in the mountains, the “Game Over” screen appears, and she proceeds to shatter it while screaming “I decide when it ends!” There is a five-minutes-of-barely-uninterrupted-silence gag (think early Adult Swim) in which the supporting characters keep nervously trying to get Zero to stop. Zero’s allies are foulmouthed, perverted, and extremely respectful of her capacity to shut them up. She rides an extremely foolish and childish dragon that is responsible for toilet humor and continuously insists that Zero try to be friends with her sisters instead of slaughtering them. The language is unendingly foul and abrasive and insulting, but Zero is never the butt of these insults; she’s always in control, and the camera never leers over her. That is a very strange contrast to have considering how insistent games are on doing that even when they are trying as hard as possible to be taken seriously.
When Drakengard actually ends up being about something, when it ends and turns out to have very much not ended, and there is no happy ending in sight, the choice feels earned in a way that, had the game been self-serious, I don’t think I would have bought. I’m frustrated by games that take themselves too seriously; big budget games on big consoles about killing thousands of people are so entrenched in themselves that self-critique, as needed and as important as it is, comes off as hypocritical and fake. But Taro Yoko, who directed many of Cavia’s strangest games, including the previously mentioned cult favorite Neir, seems willing at least to acknowledge his own participation in making violent games because that’s what sells, and that’s what even he enjoys . If there’s something wrong with that, there’s no way to talk about it without at least acknowledging the game and the creator’s involvement.
The ludicrous immaturity of this game seems a more mature reaction, or at least a refreshingly different one, than pointing fingers at the players of games for enjoying violence, or the self-seriousness of games that turn sternly to the viewer, calling them out for participating in a culture that celebrates violent entertainment—while these games’ creators are employed by a billion dollar industry dedicated to it. Taro Yoko seems to have moved a little beyond that, and he is aware that he doesn’t have a satisfactory answer, itself a more mature response. In some ways Drakengard’s choices feel more earned for not having pretensions of greatness and acknowledging that it absolutely has to be a videogame, that videogames are a certain kind of thing, and that Drakengard is very good at all the things that make its own director feel frustrated and alienated. Its humor is a response to how intractable violence is from games. It won’t pretend it’s going to be different this time, even though it will still try in the ways that it can. It’s not resigned to the industry, but it also doesn’t think it’s above it. Trying to be better and still being gross and weird and terrible and heart-rending feels more honest.
Drakengard 3 was developed by Access Games and published by Square Enix. It is available for the PlayStation 3.
Aevee Bee is freelance writer who maintains a surreal videogame terror blog at mammonmachine.com and a twitter account, @mammonmachine, which is both a popular resource for anime puns and flirtation advice.