Note: Today on Random Encounters, we’ve got a very special treat for you: a guest column by Kotaku bossman Stephen “JRPG Lover” Totilo. Be nice! —Jason. Thanks, Jason... can I start my column now? —Stephen.
Some of us like video games that we might call "insane." We mean this in the best of possible ways. Video games can be weird—fever-dream weird, something's-not-quite-right-with-the-people-who-made-it weird—and when we see one, we want to play it.
Enter: Drakengard 3, which on the surface is just another action-RPG, a game full of hack-and-slash action mixed with sequences that allow you to ride a dragon and kill armies of enemy warriors.
Been there, played that.
But sometimes... sometimes the ordinary-looking action we can play goes hand-in-hand with a bit of madness that makes a potentially indistinct game a must-play.
Re-enter: Drakengard 3, which stars a woman named Zero who runs through her world with an odd boyish-looking guy named Dito. Dito "likes to watch others die," according to series producer Takamasa Shiba. Our heroine can also go through her adventure with one of three companions who are.... ready?..."a conservative 40-year-old man... masochist who likes to be slashed".... "an old man [who is] full of sexual energy"... and "a typical Square Enix RPG character, very handsome, very good-looking, [but] everything he says is wrong." Wikipedia informs me that, according to a translation of a Japanese article about this game, they are there "to accompany Zero to satisfy her sexual wants."
This game, you see, is from the makers of Nier, the wonderfully insane action-RPG whose best supporting character was a wise-cracking, flying book.
What you see when you look at the gameplay of Drakengard is Zero getting her white clothes bloody as the player switches melee weapons and dices up enemies. As the blood spills, a meter fills up. When it's all-red, the player can invoke an "Intoner mode" which slows enemies and speeds our protagonist's attacks up. It's nothing you haven't seen before.
Or, in some sequences, what you'll see from the gameplay is a game that lets your characters climb on the back of a dragon and either stomp through armies or take to the air and burn them down.
What you see when you read the text bubbles that pop up during gameplay, however, is a bit different. As the player hacks and slashes, there are our lead character and her young companion talking about kinks and "nympho freaks," declaring that "I don't like the macho look" or informing enemies that "I will obsess over killing you." The dragon who hangs out with them is a kid dragon named Mikhail—high-pitched voice and all that—and he doesn't understand some of the sex-talk between the other characters. That's part of the joke.
Drakengard 3 doesn't look like the kind of game that's going to be a big hit. It's not a Final Fantasy or a Dragon Quest. Shiba introduced it to me as a game that Square made to cater to their most hardcore fans in a moment in gaming when so many gamers and so much of Square are getting involved in playing and making mobile games. This is a PS3-only adventure, not exactly a graphic stunner, but it is for sure the kind of oddball game that can make it so much fun to be a gamer. This doesn't seem like the kind of game that's made to make big money; all the better.
While the first couple of Drakengard games starred men, this one not stars a woman and has women in major supporting roles, too. "The plot of the game, the theme, is that [Zero] is out there trying to kill her five sisters," Shiba said. That's kind of dark, I suggested. She's the youngest, he pointed out. "She has a very strong will to kill. It's not like revenge or anything like that, it's just clearly trying to kill them."
He continued: "Why is she trying to kill her five sisters?" I think he was anticipating that I'd ask that, though I hadn't. That's not something we can discuss right now," he replied anyway.
"The fact that a female is trying to kill other females is also atypical," he added, pressing hard that this game was going to feel different from the norm.
I'm sure that some people will look at Drakengard 3, which is slated for a 2014 release in America, and just dismiss it as another hack-and-slash action RPG with some dragon gameplay. Others may see some sort of twisted, M-rated long-form sex joke starring a young-looking woman who is surrounded by horny men and... hmmm....maybe that's what this is. Yes, it's strange. Potentially awesome, too, if it's as knowingly weird as the very self-aware bizarro Nier.
Some of us like insane games. If you're in that crowd, this game's for you.
JRPG Expert Stephen Totilo: "Maybe a very fundamental question, but at the beginning of this, Shiba-san said this was a JRPG. What makes this a JRPG? If it was, I don't know, an alien coming down from outer space and I looked at Final Fantasy X's remake, Final Fantasy: Lightning Returns and Drakengard 3, I don't know if I'd see them all as the same thing. Yet they are all JRPGs. What makes this a JRPG?"
Shiba: "I thinks that it's the rhythm of the game and also the characters."
JRPGEST: "Can you elaborate on that? Does a JRPG have to be made by Japanese people? Is that one prerequisite?"
Shiba: "Not necessarily."
JRPGEST: "I think we know what a first-person shooter is. There's no dispute on that. But so many games can be JRPGs, and you've worked on so many of them. I'm curious how you define what is and what is not a JRPG."
Shiba: "The story moves along on a linear [path]. Skyrim, for example, is an RPG, but not a JRPG. But The Witcher is a little more toward JRPG. For both good and bad, JRPG is very unique in that it has a very typical hero and the story is kind of expected. There's kind of a formula there. So on that note, Drakengard 3, on the structure, is a JRPG, as we mentioned, it features an anti-hero, so what's inside of the hero and the world is not typical JRPG."
JRPGEST: "It's sort of a rebellious JRPG."
Shiba: "Yes. That's exactly right."
JRPGEST: "It doesn't escape me that you have a female protagonist and Final Fantasy does now, too. What's going on at Square?"
Shiba: "[Drakengard 1, Nier and Drakengard 3 lead designer] Taro Yoko, every time he makes a game, he wants to go against what users expect. He thinks it makes it more interesting. People would have expected to see a good-looking male hero, but he wanted to specifically go against their expectation and have a female protagonist."
Random Encounters is a weekly column dedicated to all things JRPG. It runs every Friday at 3pm ET (except when Totilo makes the column run late). You can reach Jason at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jasonschreier. But why would you want to do that? Wouldn't you rather contact the author of this post, write to email@example.com or find him on Twitter @stephentotilo.