Drakan: The Ancients' Gates Review
With the proliferation of action RPG games in the past five years, it has gotten increasingly harder for developers to create truly innovative titles that command a player's attention. Many studios have simply taken to creating knockoffs of the industry mainstays, and apparently without a great deal of effort either. Drakan: The Ancients' Gates almost falls under this definition, as it borrows from almost every established series in its genre, such as The Legend of Zelda and others. However, Drakan manages to do this with enough class and grace to avoid being considered a creation of imitation.
The setting of the game is fairly pedestrian. The world of Drakan was once a peaceful land governed by the Order of the Flame, a band of alliance between humans and the great Spirit Dragons that inhabited the land. Under their protection, Drakan lived in peace, yet this was destined to end, as traitors within the Order betrayed man kind for their own selfish purposes, and cast the world into centuries of bloody warfare. By the end of this great war, Drakan is in ruin, and the great dragons have fled into the depths of infinite slumber. However, one young woman by the name of Rynn was swept along the winds of fate, happening upon one of these ancient dragons, a great beast by the name of Arokh. Upon its awakening Rynn and Arokh became bonded in their fight to free mankind. While this is not the most original of tales, it is certainly done well enough to keep players' attention, even though it is far from being the games biggest draw.
Graphically, Drakan is nothing if not spectacular. The environments are quite possibly some of the largest ever seen in a console game. The landscape resembles something straight out of a Scottish countryside, with lush green meadows, cragged mountains, and twisting rivers that run into waterfalls and lakes. Floating above in the heavens, two huge moons hover in the heavens amidst a startlingly beautiful sky. There are myriad special effects that in fact best some of the more hyped up games. In this game, players can take rein of Arokh the dragon, soaring high above the lands. When at cruise altitude above the ocean, the light glimmers off the rippled surface in a near photo-realistic manner. Not only that, but the glint of the sunlight of the surface of water changes with the weather, to more accurately resemble true life lighting effects. These effects are not only apparent in the reflections on the water, but in the way lanterns play off the walls and other objects in the area. There are instances in which a character will move in front of a light source, and the resultant drop in ambience is both appropriate and convincing.
One of the reasons why Drakan is able to render such convincing backgrounds is the absolutely creamy smooth textures, without a hint of break up to be found. This game could actually be the one to put to rest the debate over the Playstation 2's ability to support full screen anti-aliasing, because there is nary a jagged edge to be found in this game. In addition, Drakan also features one of the biggest 'little touches' found in a game- the complete elimination of level building. In a game with levels so vast, a little level building would not only be tolerable, but expected. Yet this not the case, as the landscape matches the real world feel of being able to see to the horizons. Part of this is due to fogging effects of course, but since a great deal of your time is spent up in the clouds flying with Arokh anyway, it ceases to be an excuse to hide graphical flaws as it merely adds to the realism of this world.
However, those looking for photo-realism in Drakan will be disappointed. While it certainly has many graphical effects that properly mimic real life visuals, it only serves to create a surreal experience due to the aesthetic style of the game. Almost from the very beginning, it seems as though you are guiding Rynn through an oil painting as opposed to a computer-generated world. This effect is achieved with very bold color choices coupled with unique texturing effects, to generate a landscape that is both more and less than real. While it may take some time to get used to at first, the world of Drakan soon becomes quite easy on the eyes.
While the look of Drakan is both stunning and fairly unique, the gameplay is somewhat less than spectacular, due mostly to its unoriginal and repetitive approach. The game borrows heavily from both action and RPG genres, and while at first this mix may seem desirable, it only creates problems. Taking on the role of Rynn, players will gain access to various swords, spears, maces, axes, and of course, the traditional bow and arrow. The weapons and armor system in Drakan is quite similar to many RPG titles, both in philosophy and in use. Different weapons carry different damage stats; the higher the number, the more damage the weapon deals out. Weapons are also rated in terms of speed, and in this creates a rather traditional balancing scheme; in most cases, the stronger the weapon, the slower its attack speed. Each of these weapons also has a certain number of hit points ascribed to it, which determines its durability. Each whack of a sword or club chips off a point or two, and once the meter reaches zero, the weapon becomes unusable until repaired. As for the bow, its longevity is measured in terms of stockable arrows; once your quill is empty, the bow becomes useless. This would obviously pose no problem if the player were allowed to carry infinite items, but in fact your inventory is limited, creating a logistical and realistic problem of what to take and what to leave behind. There are only so many slots in which to carry a weapon or item, forcing players to prioritize, and to only take what they need. This would certainly be a welcome addition, if not for the woefully small space in which to carry items and weapons. Also, weapons can be repaired by blacksmiths located in various locations of the game world, but at a cost. Each time a weapon is repaired, regardless of how badly damaged, it loses a certain amount of overall durability. For instance, if your long sword has an original durability of 300, then the first time you repair it, its max durability will drop to 270, and then to 240 on the second repair, and so on. Armor works in a very similar manner, with each protective garment having a durability rating that wears down over time. The choices in armor are much more limited than weapons, however, and subsequently are often overlooked.
Rynn also has the ability to use magic both to attack an enemy or defend herself. Spells range from the usual fire and lightning spells to more creative ones such as Fear and Clone. Fear is a spell that fills enemies with absolute terror, which increases as Rynn gets closer and closer to them. This comes in handy when you see a grouping of enemies up ahead that might be more than you can handle. Simply cast Fear, and as you approach, the opposition scatters like a flock of little school girls, making it easy for you to mow them down from behind. Clone is a defensive spell that creates a mirror image of Rynn, which distracts enemies long enough for Rynn to heal herself or escape. It can also be used in various other ways to give players the advantage during combat.
There are two ways to cast these spells, and both are insanely frustrating, especially at first. The harder way to summon a spell is to open the menu, scroll to the spell subscreen, select the spell you wish to cast, and pray that you aren't dead by the time you finish. This takes an enormous amount of time, and during battle, casting spells this way will more often than not result in death. The less difficult, but still maddening way of casting a spell is to unequip your weapon, and hold down the O button. While holding this button down, a spell can be cast by punching in a set combination on the D pad. At first doing this in battle is terribly difficult and not really beneficial as most spells are far weaker than the weapons you have at your disposal. What's worse is that, just like in most games, magic consumes power, or in this case 'Mana', which depletes rapidly with each use. Even the most basic of spells will consume at least 20% of Rynn's mana, which can only be recovered by finding or buying tonics.
When playing as Rynn, combat in Drakan is like many action RPGs- hack, slash, kill kill kill. Despite the variety in weapons, items, and magic, enemies are most often dispatched in the same manner, one which usually requires little more than a very large sword. The bow and arrow come in handy for picking off enemies at a distance, which is made easier by the ability to use a sight for ultimate accuracy. By pressing the O button, you can enter a first person mode and a cross hair will appear that you can line up on your foes. The control scheme for the first person perspective is fairly tight and easy to use.
Using a sword or club in Drakan is fairly easy and quite intuitive as well. The D pad is used only for combat controls, nothing else, and various attacks can be performed by using it. Rynn can execute a thrust from the front, right, left, or back simply by pushing the D pad in that direction. To perform more powerful attacks, double tapping the D pad buttons when attacking is all that is required. While this may seem simplistic and boring, it is actually a rather nice system that can be used effectively and efficiently. When attacked by multiple enemies at once, Rynn can simply perform a backwards or sideways stab, without turning, to keep the flanking enemies off balance, and these moves can be executed quickly enough that is possible to fend off several enemies at a time.
Since Rynn will constantly find herself under attack by several enemies, a target locking feature is available, very similar to the Z targeting found in the Zelda series. By pressing the R2 button, Rynn can lock onto an enemy, assuring the accuracy of her sword or bow and making it easier to hit moving foes. Targets can be switched by simply pressing the R2 button to cycle through enemies. Also, when locked onto a target, Ryan can perform more complex dodging manuevers.
There are a few nice touches in Drakan's gameplay, but the one area in which it shines is the use of Arokh, both for travel and combat. Instead of traveling over the vast levels on foot, Rynn can simply hop on Arokh and soar through the clouds. However, flying doesn't put you out of danger of the various monsters that lurk about. There are feral dragons known as Blackwings (and Redwings) that make their nests in the mountain peaks, and they will attack anything that sets foot in their territory. Arokh, being a dragon of The Order, is of course more than capable of dealing with these wild beasts. Arokh has two different methods of attacking: his normal attack which targets one enemy, and a more powerful attack that targets a wide area. Once locked onto a target in the air, Arokh can twist and turn with amazing speed to keep a constant lock on his prey, blasting away with powerful breath attacks. Often times, multiple Blackwings will descend upon Rynn and Arokh, making for a potentially fatal encounter. Doing battle with two enormous dragons in mid air with blasts of fire and ice and lightning swirling around is, for lack of a better term, just too damn fun. Fighting with Arokh is just about the most enjoyable part of the game, and players might just find themselves going off on a spree looking for any dragon who dares to look at them wrong. Arokh is capable of learning new attacks as well, and can then switch between them with a simple click of the L1 shoulder button. At the start of the game, Arokh is only capable of using fire, but players can find several power ups for him throughout the game, such as Sonic Blast, Lightning, Ice, etc. Each one of these attacks has a more powerful secondary attack as well, which uses more Mana but inflicts more damage.
While Arokh might be a total badass in combat, that image goes right down the drain once he opens his mouth. Sounding like Barry White on crack, Arokh's voice is so deep and full of bass that its nearly impossible to understand what he is saying without the use of subtitles, and is representative of the not-quite up to average dialogue found in the game. Aside from Rynn, a great deal of the voice acting is cliched and often cheesy. Most if not all the characters use Cockney accents or Scottish brogues which play on specific stereotypes, and while it does work with the setting, it's overplayed.
Sound effects in the game are well done, but certainly nothing to write home about. Most sounds are realistic, like the clank of an arrow off a stone wall or the reverberating thrum your sword makes when you whack a wooden railing. One notable characteristic is the implementation of Doppler (distance measured) sound. The faint crackle of an open fire will gradually grow into a deep rumble as you approach it, and the voices of chatty characters will fade as you walk away. While there have been other games to use this type of sound effect, Drakan manages to do it just a little better.
The soundtrack in Drakan is the epitome of adequacy, as it fails to draw attention to itself in either a positive or negative way. The in game tracks seem almost purposely designed to blend in like Waldo at a family reunion, but it works in a way that goes largely unnoticed.
Yet another characteristic of Drakan that exemplifies mediocrity is its overall control scheme. Controlling Rynn and Arokh is neither difficult nor easy, but it does not take long to become accustomed to it. All character movement is achieved via the left analog stick, as the D pad is reserved for spell casting and sword techniques. Rynn can move fairly easily in any direction, but back-peddling seems to require just a tad more agility than the legendary knight has at her disposal. Controlling Arokh in flight is perhaps the most difficult of tasks, but still not too difficult to grasp. Flight is controlled by using both analog sticks, the left being used for movement, while the right stick controls pitch. It does take a little getting used to, but with the ability to take in a good deal of free flight before engaging in aerial combat allows players to grow accustomed to it at their own pace.
There are not many games in the industry that are truly innovative, and Drakan is no exception. The game utilizes a great deal of traditional techniques, but it uses them well. Overall, Drakan is a solid title that easily warrants a rental, and makes a strong argument for a permanent place in your PS2 library. It does have its share of drawbacks and often times seems to aim for the middle, but it manages to end up as a worthy title. While it may not be the most hyped game of the year, or the most technically dazzling, it offers a worthwhile escape for fans of the action RPG genre. Drakan: The Ancients' Gates might be just the title that gamers are looking for to pass the time until the next installment of The Legend of Zelda, and any game that can do that, and do it well, is a game worth playing.
2/26/2002 Ryan Hartmann