Drakengard 3 is a mess. It's baggy, inconsistent, repetitive, scrappy, tonally iffy and beset by a litany of technical failings. And yet at the same time, it's weirdly fascinating; for all its faults, this is a game that tries something different - several things, in fact - and comes close to pulling them off. At the very least, it's flawed in interesting ways, and it will surely find a niche audience that is prepared to defend it to the hilt.
Much of that, of course, could also be said about director Taro Yoko's Nier, which, with the benefit of hindsight, I rated rather harshly in our 6/10 Nier review. Nier was a tragedy with a viciously cruel streak, but it was also surprisingly warm-hearted, particularly in the developing bond between its protagonists. Drakengard 3, by contrast, plays more like a jet-black comedy and is much colder to the touch.
That's chiefly down to our protagonist Zero, who is on a single-minded quest to kill her five magical sisters, ostensibly to steal their powers and become the world's only remaining goddess. Assisted by a juvenile (and oddly incontinent) dragon named Mikhail, she tackles them in reverse numerical order, cutting a bloody swathe through each deity's armies. She's hostile to everyone she meets - even poor, put-upon Mikhail - and ignores any and all pleas for mercy. Soldiers cry out in terror and her sisters beg for forgiveness, but Zero slices them apart without pause. "I don't hate you," she tells one sister, "I just want to kill you."
Many will find her abrasive personality repellent, and I can't blame them, but for me there's something refreshingly honest about playing a mass-murderer whose actions aren't excused or justified. Dozens of games have us controlling sociopaths who think nothing of gunning down or slicing up hordes of opponents that lie between them and their goal, but then they expect us to empathise with these so-called heroes. Zero may be irredeemably horrible, but at least she's consistent. It helps that her bluntness is often genuinely funny, and Yoko gives her some truly savage put-downs. At times I was reminded of Jordan Belfort, the Wolf of Wall Street: this isn't someone who you would ever identify with, but there's something magnetic about their horribleness.
On the face of it, Drakengard 3 is an action-RPG, but it plays more like a cross between DmC and Dynasty Warriors with a lightweight levelling system. It's cut from a similar cloth to the latter, with its square-square-square-triangle combos, adding the weapon-switching of the former and a dash-evade that allows you to quickly dodge incoming attacks or get behind enemies that like to block frontal assaults. There's also a rage meter that builds the more blood you spill, with Zero briefly assuming a more powerful and even faster form.
For the most part, it works fine: it's hardly the deepest or most original fighting system, but Zero is quick and responsive, and the different weapons all have their benefits in different situations. Swords are your classic all-rounder, the heavier spears are slower but useful against more powerful or shielded opponents, bracers are ideal for building up combos at close range while the chakra - a violent Frisbee, basically - can target airborne and distant enemies.
It would be more fun and empowering than it is if Drakengard 3 hadn't been one of the most technically inept games I've played in years. The camera jerks upwards awkwardly whenever Zero jumps, but that's the least of its problems. It's hopeless at close quarters and in cramped interiors you'll be lucky if you get a decent view of Zero, let alone whoever or whatever she's fighting. Meanwhile, the frame-rate drops to what appears to be single figures on the thankfully infrequent moments when you call Mikhail in to help thin out enemy numbers, and even labours slightly when you're surrounded by any more than a handful of foes.
It's not even as if the characters or environments are particularly complex or detailed: for the most part, this looks like an upscaled PS2 game. It makes Dynasty Warriors look like Crysis, and I'm almost surprised Epic didn't ask for the Unreal Engine 3 ident to be removed from the game's intro out of embarrassment. It's even worse when you clamber aboard Mikhail for airborne encounters, which play out like a very poor man's Panzer Dragoon, the camera jerking and lurching all the while; it's like watching a Paul Greengrass film after a heavy night out. It's clear Yoko and company have been working on a shoestring budget, but I'm not sure that excuses how poorly it performs.
Elsewhere, Drakengard 3 plays that tiresome trick of mocking design conventions or contrivances in the dialogue while committing the exact same crimes. Zero complains about tacked-on jumping sections just before a bout of tedious platforming, and you can probably guess what follows a moan about fetch quests and repetition. Sometimes, this streak of self-awareness works: while climbing a peak with a decidedly unwieldy name, the party decides to rename it Mount Whatever. But on more than one occasion, it seems as if Yoko might be making a joke at his publisher's expense. He's talked about being constrained by the expectations of a 60-dollar boxed product, and while it doesn't make these sections any more enjoyable to play through, I'd be surprised if he wasn't attempting some form of commentary on the need to conform to certain established ideas.
The element of surprise is ultimately what keeps you going, even as the chapters lengthen and you find yourself slogging through the same boxy, poorly-textured environments. The boss fights are inventive, and the story pulls off several neat tricks, with surprise reveals, unexpected surrenders and a handful of laugh-out-loud moments. It's never as playful nor as creative as Nier, but that same vein of irreverence runs throughout.
I'm less convinced by the game's sexual dynamics. Each of the goddesses has a male companion, whom Zero recruits after killing them. It quickly becomes apparent that these disciples are essentially sex slaves, and while it's unusual to play a game in which women have dominion over men, it often seems like little more than an excuse for the male characters to make constant, leering, suggestive remarks. Few games are quite so frank about sex, but the dialogue is often sniggeringly juvenile.
What do you expect from a developer who conducts promotional interviews as a sock puppet and admits to making "weird games for weird people"? I sense Yoko might be better off freed from the shackles of Square Enix, yet at the same time there's something wonderfully subversive about a major publisher releasing a game this wilfully strange, particularly in a market this risk-averse. Drakengard 3 isn't a very good game, then, but it's an interesting kind of failure, and as such is impossible to completely dismiss.