Drakengard 3 and Today’s JRPG

Over the last year or more the PS3 has entered that phase of its lifespan where the niche Japanese RPGs start to arrive. As I peek at maybe a couple hours of one of those games — Drakengard 3, I’m reminded of how long it’s been since I played one of these games, as well as how much or how little they’ve changed.

To be more specific, I’m talking about class of JRPG that emerged from Final Fantasy VII’s influence on the original PlayStation. I’m talking about the kind of game that set itself apart back in the 90’s with stories written for teens instead of small children, J-pop music, anime cut scenes, and provocative Japanese character designs while largely maintaining the same gameplay JRPGs have had since the 80’s. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed games like Demon’s Souls, Ni No Kuni, and Dragon’s Crown because they make a point of evoking pre-1997 RPGs with subtler narrative exposition and more to-the-point gameplay.

Drakengard 3 is a sharp reminder of that teenage era of console RPGs because as soon as I turned it on and was greeted with a flashy intro video I realized I’d have been seriously hyped to play this game when I was 13. Going a little deeper I realized Drakengard 3 is actually supposed to be somewhat of a send-up of this style of game but I’ll get to that later, because the game showing me what it’s calling out was a reminder of why I hadn’t been interested in these kinds of JRPGs in years.

Basically, this style of game hasn’t changed a whole lot since the late 90’s, but I have. Being an action RPG, Drakengard 3 has you slash through hordes of enemies (mainly by pressing the square button) in environments that almost look like they came from a PS2 game, or at least a PS3 game from eight years ago. You buy and upgrade equipment, and so-on. Now I’m not gonna completely slam a game for modest graphics or even unoriginal gameplay — if that gameplay still feels fun. To me the combat in Drakengard 3 has the same effect Killer is Dead has — it just makes me want to load up one of Platinum’s more refined games like Bayonetta or Metal Gear Rising.

Drakengard 3 even manages to evoke a few things from western games I’ve gotten tired of — loading screen tips, excessive in-game banter, and obvious mission objective displays. One of the more recent JRPGs people have talked about — Xenoblade Chronicles on the Wii, has gotten more positive reception precisely because it makes the possibly western-inspired changes to the JRPG formula it needs to in order to feel like a real advancement for the genre. Its environments are uniquely large for JRPGs and you can go in and out of battle without transitions (like Final Fantasy XII which more games should have followed).

But as with a lot of JRPGs of its ilk, Drakengard 3’s gameplay probably isn’t even its main selling point. That would be the story and cut scenes — a focus that initially felt neat in the late 90’s but today just distracts from the actual game.  This however is where Drakengard 3 tries to make its own statements about JRPGs and probably Japanese media in general. When I started a new game I almost immediately became bored with the cliché prologue telling of yet another legend of goddesses and ancient wars or whatever… until the protagonist showed up and murdered the narrator mid-sentence.

One of the most immediately striking things about Drakengard 3 is that the protagonist isn’t a teenage boy on a word-saving quest but instead what appears to be a young woman on a quest for personal gain. Furthermore, pretty much every character in the game is revealed to be a horrible person on one level or another, the main cast representing specific vices. That focus, along with the admittedly above-average localization makes Drakengard 3’s story feel probably a step more mature than the likes of Final Fantasy XIII, but only because it deliberately calls out modern Final Fantasy and its progeny.

As I understand it Drakengard 3 actually comes from the same team responsible for Deadly Premonition, which would explain a lot. I can look past that game’s horribly outclassed graphics and janky gameplay though because it actually tries to do something different and interesting mechanically. I feel like Drakengard 3 would be more interesting if it also tried to take a serious swerve with its gameplay in-step with its observant story. Uninteresting conventional gameplay for the sake of making fun of uninteresting conventional gameplay… is still uninteresting conventional gameplay.

I’m thinking about maybe trying out one of those Atelier games that have been popping up on the PS3 seemingly in rapid fire over the last two or three years. I’m a bit put off by their character designs but I hear they revolve around some kind of shockingly deep alchemy system. That’s called a unique gameplay crux right there.


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