This review is part two in my recent attempt to compare the recent spate of fantasy games starring females. At least two discs with cheesy titles hit shelves within a month of each other, and they're very similar in a lot of ways. While Drakan: The Ancients' Gates was first to stores, Pirates: The Legend Of Black Katwas right on its heels. Both have their share of flaws, both feature alternative forms of free-roaming transportation, and both have a distinctly PC (as in Personal Computer) flavor. One has dragons, one has boats, but down deep they're amazingly alike in terms of their graphics, structure and play value. I tackled both games in two separate reviews in order to compare and contrast, but if you like either one of these titles, its a safe bet that you'll like the other.
Drakan is the story of a young firebrand named Rynn and her dragon companion Arokh as they travel through a fantasy realm and become involved in an adventure. The main quest of the game is to defeat a tribe of evil magicians by reactivating a series of mystical gates. When the gates are functional, they will restore a host of good dragons to the world and aid in the magicians downfall. Along the way, there are multitudes of side quests that will earn you special items or treasure if you take the time to fulfill them. As popular as dragons are, they really don't seem to take center stage in games very often so its nice to see at least one that's not a boss character or an enemy to be killed.
The game consists of roughly 80% third-person adventure, and 20% dragon flying. While on foot, control in towns or dungeons is relatively straightforward, featuring a standard third-person setup. However, Rynn's combat skills took me by surprise by having more depth than you'd suspect. In an attempt to add a bit of role-playing flavor, Rynn can level up after dispatching enemies and allocate a small amount of points between Melee, Archery or Magic attributes. Its an extremely basic experience system that gives you access to more powerful weapons and spells instead of Rynn's stats actually increasing. Its better than no reward at all (like Pirates) for killing the plentiful enemies, but it ends up feeling fairly unsatisfying.
Things to do on Arokh's back are somewhat limited since hes basically transportation from point A to point B, but air-to-air or air-to-ground combat does occur when you venture too close to enemy forts or other airborne creatures. Your "wyrm" comes stocked with the requisite fairytale fire breathing abilities, but other special attacks like Lightning or Darkness can be acquired. Hes basically too large to go with Rynn inside most of the castles or caves, but he can be ridden like a horse on open terrain when hes not swooping through the skies. A huge, red, reptilian horse with foot-long fangs... but you get the idea.
Looking at the high points, the games world has a lot of atmosphere and a pretty convincing level of believability. This element is always crucial in the best adventure games, and its present here. There's a good variety in the areas to explore (dungeons, swamps, caves) while staying true to the overall setting of the realm. What adds to this palpable sense of reality is the variety of villages to explore, settlements to find and townsfolk you can talk to at your leisure. The villages aren't especially huge and there's not a heck of a lot to do in them, but the mere fact of their existence is worth a lot in a game that's not a standard RPG. Another high point was that some of the evil creatures populating the locales are semi-intelligent and will taunt you, or can be tricked into attacking their comrades at times. Its a nice touch that I would love to see implemented more since mannerisms like these lift enemies from being mindless blade fodder into more lifelike opponents.
This fantasy setting is made even more immersive by the fact that its extremely open-ended in design, and you will often have the ability to go anywhere in the world that you want to, at any time. Some people have referred to Drakan as the "Zelda" of the PlayStation 2, and I have to say that while the games aren't exactly carbon copies of each other, there are some correlations. Having free access to Arokh without many discrete restrictions gives the player the same sense of freedom and independence that was also found after acquiring the horse in the widely acclaimed game, The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time. This addition is a charming feature and one that lends an element of discretion not found in many games.
Getting back to the battle engine, I was pleasantly surprised at how fun and easy to use it was. The game features a wide range of melee weapons for Rynn to wield, and she swings each one around differently. A hammer strike looks totally different from a sword strike, and there is a clear difference in both the handling and your tactics. During fights, there will often be multiple enemies, so Drakan has implemented a lock-on function very similar to "Z-Targeting" also found in the 64-bit Zelda titles. This feature works splendidly and should be a requirement for all 3D action games, in my opinion. For ranged attacks, Rynn can handle bows in either first- or third-person perspective, adding a welcome sniper element. Combine all that with good blocking and dodging options in addition to the magic spells and you've got a pretty juicy recipe for bloodshed.
However, while all those things help make the game a fairly formidable entry to the PlayStation 2's library, there are a few vulnerable patches in the games scaly hide.
While killing orcs and delving into dungeons is all well and good, the game in general suffers from too much repetition in the tasks presented to the player, as well as not giving Arokh enough to do besides act as your winged taxi. Quite simply, nearly every quest you get boils down to "fly Arokh to Dungeon A, find item B." Once in a while, you'll have to kill a certain enemy, but its not much different. This simple structure is fun and enjoyable for short periods but becomes quite boring during longer play sessions. My interest in the game was strongly dampened after it became apparent that I was going to be spending the majority of my time in search of caves to assault like a fighter pilot over Afghanistan.
Looking at the technical aspects of the game, the element I disliked the most about Drakanwas how much it felt like a PC game. Its completely obvious that it wasn't designed using PlayStation 2-specific or even console-specific tools, and could easily pass as a low-end PC title. (The original Drakangame, in fact, originated on PC.) The graphics are good, but the character models, landscapes and architectural design all have a certain generic quality that's quite characteristic of an average computer game. In addition, there are a lot of niggling issues with the clipping, collision and overlap, as well as other graphical hiccups that betray a sloppy and un-optimized approach to the visuals. If I didn't know that Drakan was specifically made for the PlayStation 2, I'd swear it was quickie PC port.
Along with the above gripes, there's one other thing that hangs it as a PC wannabe—bugs in the program. Unfortunately, Surreal seems to have forgotten that its not possible to download patches for the PlayStation 2. There's one particular glitch in the game (though there may be others) that was talked about by the online community almost as soon as the game was released. Unfortunately, I stumbled into it before seeing any of the warnings. If you enter a certain cave on foot and exit the other side, Arokh will mysteriously vanish for the rest of the game, making further progress impossible. In other words, you will have no choice but to completely restart your game if you don't have a usable save to reload. While some minor bugs manage to slip by even the most thorough play-testers, this one is huge and could easily trap the average gamer. Unacceptable.
All in all, its a strong adventure game that's going to satisfy a lot of people. I make no secret about being a dyed-in-the-wool console lover, so things that annoy me may not be a big deal to those who don't mind having PC elements in their discs. My foibles aside, flying a dragon and turning trolls into briquettes is definitely a good time, and Rynn can easily hold her own when stacked up against other heroes from similar fantasy games. For players looking to get lost in another world, Drakan is a game that's worth the price of admission.