Drakan: The Ancient Gates is a cautionary tale courtesy of Sony Computer Entertainment, directed at budding quality assurance types. Don't join us, it says, or one day, you might be involved in something like this. Despite a lot of people's best efforts, this third person adventure is too bug-ridden and sloppy to be enjoyable. I've been waiting for this game for what seems like years [you have been waiting for years, actually -Ed], and after all that, it's a buggy, poorly executed blooper. For a start, I find myself questioning the system requirements. A sticker on the front warns that you must own a memory card to play this game, and fair enough, that's a given these days anyway, but each save consumes 1.5Mb of space (at the speed of your average glacier, too), and you'll be needing at least two of them in case the game glitches you into an untenable position and you have to resume from an earlier save, and it does that a lot. The first time I loaded the game up, it crashed trying to load the first gameplay sequence after the opening cutscenes.
The story follows on from the conclusion of the (excellent) PC title, with the delectable Rynn and her dragon pal Arokh (who, by means of a convenient bonding ritual, share a status bar) setting out on a mission to destroy the maniacal Desert Lords, who seek to enslave mankind. The story is elaborate, but it has enough draw, and before long becomes enjoyable and intriguing, with lots of passion, betrayal, slaughter and typically fantastical environments, characters and scenarios. However, the dungeon clearing gameplay at the heart of Drakan is predictable, repetitive, and at times downright depressing.
After buying some toys at the Blacksmith's in the city of Surdana, with a bit of financial help from the Queen, you get to play around with your inventory system. This is accessed via Select, and lets you equip weapons, bind your chosen sword, bow and health potions to a 'quick' interface for hot-swapping in battle, and it also allows you to spend experience points on four key attributes. And I do mean key - you will want to develop sword-fighting primarily, but keep that bow skill up or when, completely without warning, it becomes the only way to defeat the game's penultimate boss, you'll be in a bit of a pickle. As I was. You can't keep too many items in your inventory, but one of the reasons for those enormous save files is that the game keeps track of every item's position for you, so you can quite happily stash items on the floor of the Blacksmith's shop, for instance.
The third person combat is repetitive and boring - you can target enemies and perform all sorts of slashing manoeuvres, but the only one which is likely to keep you alive is the forward slash, and thus you resort to it for every single bad guy in the game. And there are a lot of them. Dungeons are themed, so generally they consist of one or perhaps two sorts of enemy at most, and trying to separate them so you can pick them off one-by-one is about as strategic as it gets. If you've been keeping your magic skill in check, you can cast fear spells and other such tripe to try and curb the onslaught of ugly Wartoks and bizarre hunched reptiles, but I was dying of boredom by the time I emerged from the first area, known as the Shadowmire. This tedious swamp is dragged out over a series of repetitive tree and water-packed levels with mad, soon to be extinct frog creatures, and it keeps threatening to end for three and a half hours before it actually does, at which point the will to keep playing is somewhat sapped.
Fortunately, it's at this stage of the game that you get to play with Arokh, the dragon. Flapping about in the air is great fun, soaring high above trees and swooping down into villages. The graphics really show their worth here, with beautiful mountain ranges and valleys mapped out before you, the sun shining in the distance and catching the water in the lakes and streams below, and as you get closer villagers pop up and things become more detailed. Although the effect is a bit too obvious, it is at least smoothly done, with a high framerate at all times. Arokh himself looks magnificent, his wings arching and falling like those of an enormous bird, and the sound effects here, as with the rest of the game, are perfect. Arokh also develops a number of handy attacks, useful for pelting ground units, and when Rynn is on her own in the open, she can call him down and direct him to incinerate her assailants, which is nice.
Sadly though, aerial combat is just as disappointing as its land-based counterpart. As if clearing out repetitive, poorly designed dungeons, defeating a tawdry boss character and then either emerging or teleporting out of there wasn't bad enough, engaging rival dragons in the sky is reminiscent of the fight for the top seats on a double-decker bus. In order to avoid being destroyed in seconds, I had to climb as high as I could into the sky and use my heat-seeking attacks whilst wrestling to keep enemies in camera view long enough to lock onto them. It's a good thing I kept my height, too, because Arokh has a tendency to get stuck in the ground if you land too close to… well, if you land on anything barring a completely flat patch of turf or rock.
You might well be wondering why I didn't wrap this up a few paragraphs ago and just warn you off it as well I might warn you off engaging plague-infested rats in sexual relations, but actually for those of you with a bit of stamina for such tripe, Drakan weaves quite an interesting tale. The Ancient Gates of the title must be opened to allow travel back and forth around the various lands of the game, and only Rynn and her bonded dragon chum have the power to do this. The story of the Gates and the Desert Lords is told gradually through in-game cutscenes, and every character in the game is voice-acted, mostly by English fellows! Tally ho what-what hark I hear you say! That's right, and very well voice-acted to boot. Rynn herself does one of those delightfully seductive Lara Croft impressions, and since she doesn't resemble a stick insect with a pair of walnuts stapled to her chest, she's an endearing central character. Furthermore, the inhumanly deep pitch of Arokh's voice is enough to convince the player of his dragon credentials, and there are plenty of comedy accents besides - I heard cockney, Yorkshire, and I'm pretty sure I even heard a bit of the old handle-barred, moustachioed 'you're in the RAF now tally ho sunshine guvnor'. I like it.
In The End
Obviously nobody is going to stick with the game for the comedy accents alone, but in all honesty, I can't imagine why I plodded the whole way through this except for the lure of the story. Admittedly, there's a lot to do and a lot of variation in the objectives as they sit on the laundry list menu screen, gradually getting ticked off as you progress, but generally the only thing to distinguish between "Defeat so-and-so the unpleasant fellow of such-and-such" and "Retrieve the amulet of what's-her-face" is a change of scenery and a different boss character.
Towards the end of the game things grow in magnitude and you start to unlock some impressive weaponry, although I was extremely frustrated to have unlocked three elemental blades, only to discover that the fourth was in an empty dungeon somewhere under some stone I left unturned. This seemed bad enough - after all, the world of Drakan is quite sizeable and it would have taken me a good half an hour to get to where I needed to be - but when I actually got there and found a locked door in my way… Ah well, it looks like I'll never get to see the magical top-level sword I would have unlocked with my spoils. Thoughtful game design? I'm not that charitable.
It would be nice to be able to say that Drakan is worth pursuing despite its countless bugs, glitches and design stupidity, and that the mixture of combat systems was enough to keep me happy while I was soaking up the fantasy adventure, but in all honesty, Drakan is the wrong side of average. It has an audience, and those of you who finished the PC original, and can perhaps put up with bug-infested game design will lap this up, and more power to you, but don't take a look at the screenshots and think "I might try that". You'll only wish you hadn't.