It’s taken a little while now, but the seeds of the Square Enix merger are starting to come to fruition. Sure, the two companies have had the Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior series to rely on separately, but once you look past those giant franchises, you see that most of their other games have struggled to achieve similar levels of notoriety. That’s all about to change now that Square Enix is set to let loose upon the masses an action game designed to end all action games. A furious spiritual combination of hardcore fan favorites Panzer Dragoon and Dynasty Warriors, Drakengard attempts to redefine the notion of just what an action game can be.

So what is Drakengard about, anyway? Despite the chaotic nature of the game, Drakengard is a rather structured affair. You assume the role of the game’s principal protagonist, Caim, a soldier whose parents were killed by a dragon when he was only a child. Once a few key events in the opening segments set up your fateful encounter with the Red Dragon, you’re quickly off on an adventure that incorporates high-flying aerial battles, as well as ground-based missions in which you do battle with, literally, thousands of enemy warriors.

The Panzer Dragoon references come in during the parts where you take to the skies and do battle with a wide variety of airborne foes. Owing much to the “steampunk” milieu that seems so popular with medievalesque fantasy games like Drakengard, the game’s ships seem more like boats (of the man-of-war variety) than actual aircraft. Other lofty targets (like other dragons) occupy the clouds for the Red Dragon to shoot down individually with fiery blasts of breath or, in one of the most Panzer-like moves, obliterate with a screen-clearing lock-on attack, which can simultaneously target more than a dozen enemies.

Since the similarities to Panzer Dragoon are prominent (among the features Drakengard shares with Sega’s game are a lock-on system, overdrive meter, and dragon growth system), we asked Takamasa Shiba, the producer for Drakengard at Square Enix, if that particular series was an influence. Shiba-san tells us, “Very true. The main programmer on the team worked on Ace Combat, so there you go. But while Panzer Dragoon is a rail shooter, Drakengard’s strength is in Dogfight mode is that it’s like a flight simulator that lets you fly anywhere.”

Seeing the dragon in flight is more impressive than the screenshots let on–as you soar through the sky, the dragon’s wings ripple as the wind buffers them. Likewise, the sense of air rushing all around you is tangible when you nose-dive from higher elevations. Was creating a realistic flight engine difficult for the team? “That was one of the most difficult tasks we had in creating the game,” Shiba explains. “It’s not the combat engine, but the system that lets you get on and off the dragon that made it a very high-speed engine. I’d like to consider this engine the most amazing part of the entire game.”

During the dogfight sequences, when not busy dodging gunfire, the eagle-eyed gamer might notice the hyperrealistic ground textures and geography. That can be attributed to the participation of Cavia, the production team behind Drakengard, whose staff features former members of the Ace Combat development team. This photo-realistic attention to detail helps anchor a game whose very subject material could have made it too fantastical for its own good.

Don’t let this fool you, however, into thinking the whole game takes place above the clouds. When you’re not gliding on thermals, you’re either strafing ground forces while riding on the dragon’s back (bombing hundreds of tiny soldiers with fire blasts or a charged-up volcanic supernova) or duking it out mano a mano with the surging masses in the game’s other primary combat offering, the melee mode.

It is during these melee encounters that thoughts of Dynasty Warriors will dance through your head. As a lone soldier tasked with repelling thousands of enemy forces, dozens of which appear onscreen at any given time, you’ll wonder if this too is a deliberate nod to Koei’s long-running franchise. “If we are to talk about massive combat, then yes, I was influenced by those games,” Shiba-san elaborates. “I think that’s a new way of playing made possible only by high-spec machines like the PS2. I can see more games outside of Dynasty Warriors and Drakengard in the future that will have a similar style.”

Fortunately for Caim, one of the elements that makes Drakengard so engaging is that he can find 64-plus weapons throughout his travels, with each one having unique attributes and moves. “All of the weapons have their own characteristics, and a weapon’s level will increase as you defeat enemies,” Shiba explains. “As a weapon’s level increases, its number of combos, damage, and reach will also increase. Also, magic is sealed in each weapon–for example, the first Caim sword has a fireball power–and this magic power will go up with each level increase. I recommend the one called ‘Takamasa.’ It’s named after me!”

Scheduled for release in early 2004 (late February/early March), Drakengard is not a game that can be finished quickly. The game is 13 chapters deep, 60 missions long–and that’s not counting repeat visits to areas previously beaten or the optional side quests offered. This should serve to calm any fears triggered by comparisons to Panzer Dragoon, whose games are particularly brief. If anything, Drakengard is comparable in length to the Dynasty Warriors games.

Not just an action game, not quite an RPG, Drakengard is a rare hybrid of genres that works well where others have failed. “Drakengard intertwines elements of various games,” Shiba-san tells us. “If I may say, when you take various aspects of games and blend them well, you get Drakengard. Having grown up with games (I’m currently 28), I have a very low threshold when it comes to bad ones. I think that rather than categorizing games, the highest priority should be on whether they are fun and intriguing. That’s why Drakengard is the way it is. Categorizing it as an action-RPG shows off only one aspect of its many strengths.”

Copyright © 2003 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in GMR Magazine.