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In Memory
Sean Pettibone



  
   

 


 

Surreal Softwareís Drakan: The Ancientsí Gates attempts to transplant a PC style RPG onto the PlayStation 2. Putting players in the shoes of warrior Rynn and her Dragon companion Arokh, the game is unique in that it features both traditional dungeon battles with Rynn alone and intense aerial battles when she joins with Arokh. The visuals are spectacular which enhances an evocative storyline but the inventory interface is problematic. Its excessive difficulty may also become too frustrating for some players. Issues like this can potentially derail a great design, but do Drakanís strengths outweigh its problems? The Laser examines Drakan and finds out.

The appearance of Drakan: The Ancientsí Gates on the PS2 is a huge surprise since the first game was a PC title but the developers, Surreal Software havenít gone with the conventional wisdom and have instead opted to bring out the sequel for the popular Sony console. Fortunately, fans of the original game will find that in addition to the usual graphics upgrades, the series has remained relatively faithful to its roots and hasnít been watered-down for console players. Taking place in a mystical world where Dragons fly the skies and danger lurks everywhere on the ground, Drakan: The Ancientsí Gates casts a spell of myth and legend with its elaborate storyline that takes place in an expansive ancient fantasy world populated with humans who will help you and Arokh through your long, arduous quest and a multitude of beasts who will try and stop you.

The most interesting aspect of this release is that Drakan is really two games in one Ė a standard dungeon crawl and much more interesting aerial mode where Rynn mounts her Dragon Arokh and flies above the world for some intense combat missions. Since these are so different from each other weíll spend a little time on each one and see how they mesh together later on in the review. Drakan starts off as a typical adventure title. You take the role of Rynn, a sexy female warrior. Rynn has a number of physical and magical skills at her disposal and this makes her more than another pretty face. At the start of the game Rynn travels through a series of small villages to meet a queen of a castle who tells you about your mission, which is to open the Ancientsí Gates, unleash the sleeping dragons and save the world from the darkness that is overrunning it. This is a massive quest and takes the player through many different landscapes and locales, but the sheer magnitude and general ambition of the project is impressive in and of itself. The action takes place from a third-person behind the character perspective throughout but players can also look around to gain a better perspective on the action.

Drakanís first major mode of play is its dungeon levels which seem to be the longest part of the game, which youíll discover later on once Rynn mounts Arokh. These are the first thing youíll face and are the least impressive aspect of the game. While the enemies are difficult, their designs are great and the large cavernous worlds are light-sourced and have complex layouts. These are massive underground mazes which look fantastic with an appropriately foreboding feel when you pass skeletons, heads on pikes and body parts scattered about, you know youíre in for a rough ride. As Rynn battles a variety of enemies through swamps, dungeons and other places, sheíll find a lot of strength and power. However, this doesnít mean the game is impossibly difficult, just that you need a lot of persistence and stamina. While the individual enemies arenít hard to beat, there are many of them in the dungeons and they have a way of clustering together. This makes avoiding damage almost impossible and combined with the long gaps between save points, can make Drakan an occasionally frustrating adventure.

One of the most annoying things about console RPGís is their abstract turn-based battles, which while interesting, always feel a bit cerebral and too detached from reality to be effective. This is one of the main reasons why the genre on consoles has always had a hard time being entirely convincing, despite some companiesí efforts to introduce more cinematic elements. This is what separates Drakan from the pack and itís PC style approach makes it a breath of fresh air on the console scene. Indeed, the battles take place in real-time which lends them urgency. This can be seen in the swamps when the creatures are coming towards Rynn with only their eyes visible, which is a menacing effect.

Unfortunately, while the real-time approach is cool for battles, it works poorly in Drakanís PC style real-time inventory system. The interface for this isnít terrible, though the button layout is a little confusing and makes you drop items you want to use too often. Once you get the hang of this, itís fine. However, because you are managing your inventory in real-time, the game continues without pause. This isnít a problem when youíre walking around a village but becomes a major one when youíre in combat. The multi-step process involved in selecting an item makes it very difficult to equip and use and item quickly and causes the player to take damage or even die. Using this combat system seems to have backfired and makes playing Drakan much more difficult and frustrating than it could have been. Still, itís not enough to completely ruin the game, and players can learn to compensate for this by finding a safe area in the dungeons and managing the inventory before they face off with demons.

Players will find Drakanís dungeon levels quite long and will need plenty of patience to get through these long quests. The enemies are relatively difficult to beat throughout the game and most players will find even the Swamp-dwelling ogres of the first level to be nasty, aggressive opponents. Luckily, Rynn has some abilities to help her along. She can use her sword or collect various items such as health power-ups to help her survive the assaults and melees. Later on in the game, Rynn gains the ability to use magic spells, which is a nice ability, but again is undermined by the real-time inventory system, which means you really have to know what youíre doing, especially in some of the more difficult confrontations with tougher enemies.

Controlling Rynn is intuitive thanks to the intuitive controls that allows for acrobatic movements and devastating attacks. Players will find that the action sequences in her solo mode are challenging but fun to play. Running, Jumping and slashing is all accomplished with a single button press, and players can also select an item before hand to put in the hot-button, allowing them to use these in real-time without having to switch to the inventory menu. In many ways, the dungeon sequences resemble Tomb Raider in their approach, layout and design, though there are more enemies in these levels. These can be quite difficult because in addition to battling foes, there are also complex puzzles and intricate maneuvers facing you. Unfortunately, the enemy attacks are predictable and battling them can get repetitious quickly and this makes the dungeon crawls seem like just that: crawls. Luckily, while they can become tedious, theyíre broken up by the gameís stunning flying sequences.

Just when you think Drakan will become a dull, me-too adventure, along comes the aerial sequences where Rynn mounts Arokh and flies over the ancient world. This counterbalances the flawed dungeon sequences perfectly and is where Drakan really shines and becomes and incredible experience. Visually, Arokhís flights are both consistent with the world on the ground yet are also amazingly beautiful. These are highlighted with smooth texturing, brilliant light-sourcing, not to mention an impressive field of vision with distant horizon contributing to a breathtaking, epic feel. Flying mostly takes place free-roaming areas, and make an outstanding contrast to the dungeon areas which feel claustrophobic in comparison.

Controlling Arokhís movements is much more intuitive than the dungeon sequences were, because the flight control scheme is outstanding. Players can turn change height, dive and soar while avoiding the enemiesí shots with ease and these faster sequences are incredibly exciting, though a bit difficult to get the hang of at first. Like the dungeon areas Drakan saddles the player with the same real-time inventory management system, but fortunately, this plays a much less important role in these sequences. The aerial battles with other dragons and creatures can become quite intense in a hurry and can be a bit annoying when multiple attackers are targeting Arokh. The good news is that itís so much fun to control Arokh that it mitigates the frustration and difficulty to a large degree. Switching from Air to Ground missions isnít a perfect solution and to be honest, the Air sequences are much more enjoyable, but both mesh together nicely, keeping a consistent feel that makes the total experience greater than the sum of its parts.

This is a fantastic looking title with richly textured environments and locales making for an evocative and beautiful game. Rynnís acrobatic movements feel realistic and her animation is outstanding as are the animation and aesthetics of the enemies she faces. The dragons themselves are the real stars of Drakan. The living creatures move and look fantastic throughout with excellent modeling, beautiful animations and realistic flight physics making them seem completely believable and is used to great effect. Character animations and movements are incredibly smooth. The sheer magnitude of the game is quite impressive, with numerous characters to interact with and many different types of enemies to face. The design of the world is cohesive and consistent throughout which is impressive when you consider the sheer numer of locales Drakan takes you through. The camera system is quite polished, allowing easy changes in viewpoint, and rarely has problems though sometimes enemies seem to get stuck in nooks and crannies, which is annoying.

Drakanís excellent production values are in evidence through other elements as well. One of the most noticeable aspects of this is the excellent voice acting used extensively to bring the characters to life. For the most part, Rynn and Arokh sound as good as youíd expect them to and exploring their evolving relationship is one of the highlights of the game. There are also numerous other characters in Drakan and these are likewise voiced by talented actors. There is some problem however, as some of the dialogue in the game falls into the trite fantasy clichťs and while the plot is interesting, it unfolds too slowly. For the most part, however, Drakan comes together smoothly and the elements work well together thanks to an excellent design. This is only enhanced by with its consistency that creates a cohesive world. The excellent storyline, numerous characters and variety of enemies helps to further add to this atmospheric titleís appeal. Surrealís engine uses the supposedly behind-the-curve PS2 to great effect and Drakanís presentation overall is technically excellent with very little pop-in during even the most elaborate and complex levels. Unfortunately, the PC lineage of Drakan rears its ugly head in one other key area Ė it takes a massive 1500K bite out of the memory card. Given the complexity, itís understandable to a degree but compared to other RPGís seems to be excessive. This isnít a bad thing if youíre playing Drakan exclusively but can be a problem if you want to play it in dribs and drabs while working on other games.

In the end, while there are some flawed elements in Drakan, most of the experience is worth the effort. The PC approach with real-time visceral battles is a nice change of pace, though there are still plenty of cerebral puzzles and an engaging storyline here as well. While the inventory system is awkward and leaves much to be desired, itís not bad enough to ruin the game. While its dungeon sequences are merely average, the Aerial sequences more than make up for it and are simply incredible in the way they make you feel like youíre on Arokhís back. These are the sequences that are the best parts of the game, and make slogging through the ground levels worthwhile. Donít be fooled however, this is quite a long and incredibly difficult adventure and its doubtful youíll be able to beat it in even a long weekend. Youíll definitely need a lot of persistence and stamina to get through, so players looking for a cakewalk are advised to look elsewhere. Some console players accustomed to console-style RPGs may not like the style of the game, but itís solid for what it is. Even though Drakan: The Ancientsí Gates isnít perfect by any means, players who can overlook its flaws will find an evocative adventure with many incredible moments.