Okay, I’m getting this out of the way right now, because, to my dismay, people just can’t seem to see past this: “Rynn is NOT Lara Croft! Just because she’s an attractive female lead in a third person action/adventure, doesn’t mean she’s a clone. You don’t see people saying Sam Stone is another B.J. Blazkowicz, do you? Get over it people! Just because they’re female and in the same genre doesn’t make them the same character.”
*Whew* Sorry about that atypical display of Badger angst, but that comparison has been plaguing me since I played the original Drakan for PC in 1999. I also expect many to continue to draw such a comparison with Drakan: The Ancient’s Gates, and I loathe the thought beyond words. While the Drakan: Order of the Flame, the first Drakan title released, game received mixed reviews, it at least left most gamers with the impression that Surreal Software had created a game which took a fresh new twist on an otherwise lagging genre. Irregardless of what you thought of Rynn, whom I happened to find a unique and intriguing heroine, the prospect of having a game which so seamlessly integrated foot vs. dragon-mounted combat was irresistible. It was quick to get into, provided plenty of exploring and challenge, was rather pleasant to look at environmentally, and hey, it had a really playable dragon. I must have liked it a great deal – I still have the game and all the save games on my original (and now secondary) PC!
It’s been a long wait for the sequel to the first Drakan; Drakan: Order of the Flame, a game which garnered a loyal, albeit patient, following. The original publisher of the game, Psygnosis, fell into obscurity, and hence, we had all but given up on finding out what happened to poor Rynn’s brother (not to mention the rest of her civilization). Then, some time after the Playstation port of the original had been abandoned, rumors began to slip out that SCEA had adopted Rynn and Arokh for a sequel on the PS2. Drakan: The Ancient’s Gates effectively picks up where Order of the Flame left off – opening with a quaint storybook like summary for those who did not have the chance to play the original. As Rynn returns to her home village to honor and put to rest her departed friends and relatives, Arokh informs her that their presence is requested at the last human stronghold in Drakan in Surdana. The leader who has summoned her, Lady Myschala, explains to Rynn that there is yet hope for humanity, and it lies with Rynn and her bonded, Arokh. They must awaken the Mother of Dragons by opening the four dragon gates scattered across the land. By doing this, they can summon forth the dragons who have lay dormant, awaiting the time when humans once more might adhere to an honor code long lost. So begins your journey…
The controls are, for the most part, remarkably similar to their original PC counterparts – even if it is an entirely different platform. You’ll have your basic commands like jumping, crouching, attacking (with different buttons for magic and physical attacks), zoom-in mode for archery, and all that other good stuff. The menu system, which is logically and neatly organized, allows you to choose items and weapons to include on your “Hot-Slot” command – which basically means a set of frequently used items that can be cycled through without having to actually enter your inventory to equip. Drakan: The Ancient’s Gates also includes an “auto-target” feature ala Soul Reaver which will mostly help aid you to hit your mark, and for some, make the game feel insanely easier. I say it mostly helps because you may find from time to time that with certain agile monsters, or in larger groups, you might want to freestyle it to produce more effective results. Magic spells can be cast from the “inventory/spell” menu, or they can determined by button combos (leaving the wistful PC gamer with a reminder of why keyboards sometimes surpass controllers). The good thing is that the game manages to somehow remain otherwise completely true to the original, and the port changeover is almost completely painless.
The game takes on a smidge more of a lite-RPG flavor (ala the level of Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance) than it’s predecessor, as you can actually mold Rynn into one of three types – a magic user (mage), a melee weapon fighter (warrior), or bow-user (archer). As you gain experience and coinage, you’ll be able to acquire skills and items which best suit the attack-route you most prefer. While you don’t necessarily have to commit to one of the three directions, if you’ve played RPG’s (especially in situations like Diablo II’s skill tree system, for example), you’ll know it’s better not to distribute your skills over too great a scope. Not only will it get costly in terms of the weaponry/items you will need to buy – but it will make your overall attacks less effective. You can buy and sell weapons – as well as find special weapons on your quests that merchants will not have.
After the game thoroughly introduces you to on-foot combat (sorry Arokh fans, you don’t get to do the dragon-thing right away), then you’ll be introduced to the joys of dragon-mounted attacks. As before, Arokh will have rogue elements of his own species to repel with his breath attacks, in addition to all those nasty ones on the ground who rather enjoy shooting projectiles at you. Arokh will progress along with you, gaining access to different effect spells as he gains experience. There is also an auto-targeting feature for Arokh which seems to almost feel like cheating compared to the optional cross-hairs in the original. Nevertheless, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This targeting also makes for some very cool moves on Arokh’s part as he will remain focused on his chosen target, performing some graceful moves and treating us all to some virtual “oohs” and “aahs.” It’s as close as you’re going to get to almost feeling what doing a barrel roll on a gigantic mythical beast – and it just looks fantastic! Plus, as Rynn’s bonded, it’s always refreshing to see Arokh’s shadow above you as you walk on foot, and watch him protect you from afar, even when you’re not mounted.
In the tradition of adventure gaming, you’ll have to get your motor skills warmed up to handle lots of jumping, puzzle solving, and obstacle dodging, but luckily the simplicity of the controls is only slightly hampered by what may seem like a bit of analog stick hypersensitivity that can make delicate maneuvers a bit difficult. To the game’s credit, it does supply an alternative set of controls if some of your fingers don’t seem to want to co-operate with the default setting. I really don’t feel it takes away from the game too much, but jumping puzzles may be a bit frustrating to the less patient. Also, another big, and rarely used, bonus to The Ancient’s Gates is that you can save whenever you want to, instead of designated points. It must be mentioned that there are some mandatory save points which may feel intrusive considering you basically feel free to save when you like, but you will probably be glad they are there, even if you have to put up with the delay.
Returning to Drakan in “The Ancient’s Gates,” is the presence of non-linear gameplay and plenty of goodies to be obtained in the many side-quests you can take on. Despite the post-apocalyptic feel of the first Drakan, where you wondered if you were the very last human to have survived, The Ancient’s Gates immediately introduces you to the last bastion of civilization, and hence, a lot of people who need you to do things. The game also maintains a hearty gameplay length, including 15 substantial levels and many, many side quests. The levels are pretty huge, which really validates any longer load times. Luckily for you, the game does keep map records, so what might seem a challengingly expansive world to keep track of is at least cartographically recorded. Between just accomplishing your main quests and some standard side quests – you’re looking at over a 30 hour game.
There are also a few familiar denizens of evil that make a return in Drakan: The Ancient’s gates including the gargantuan spiders and the less than easy on the eyes, Wartoks. Oh yes – and scavengers (uuuuggh!). AI seems to be a little weaker with The Ancient’s Gates, but don’t think button mashing combined with the auto-target is going to get you completely through the game. At times you will be required to use specific weapons against certain enemies, so the “Hot-Slot” command will come in extremely useful for quick weapon changes. Notice I didn’t say you shouldn’t completely limit yourself in character paths, there are some enemies where a long range attack is very nearly required! My only complaint was that the AI seemed way weaker than in the PC version, and I found myself moving through the game way faster than I expected.
Graphically, the PS2 version of Drakan is a bit lighter than it’s predecessor. And I’m not only referring to the surroundings, although it is true that The Ancient’s Gates is a bit brighter on the color scale. The gore factor has been reduced a bit – when your enemies (or you) die, you don’t splinter into various cuts of meat or spew blood like in Order of the Flame. Instead, you or your enemies just collapse, with perhaps an arrow still stuck (sans blood) in the body. You also won’t have to adjust your brightness controls as you might have had to do on Order of the Flame. Rynn, Arokh, and their surroundings lose the dark shadowed feel of the original and have a much more vivid landscape. Amongst some of the most impressive graphics and visuals are the moons in Drakan’s sky, with one whitish red planet bearing a resemblance to a pale Io (Jupiter’s volcanic moon). There’s also a nice effect of the sunlight as it refracts through the clouds, creating small halos in the wispy sky.
The sound and voice acting takes on a bit of the inevitable medieval, “everyone has an English accent in these settings,” flair – but critics of the voice acting in the original should be pleased with the smooth voice overs and witty dialogue of our heroine and her charmingly arrogant dragon. The music though has some particularly impressive moments, with the Andrellian Islands having a hauntingly surreal (pardon the pun) Native American sound. Even the sound effects – such as the rolling thunder and the wind that rushes beneath Arokh’s magnificent wingspan shows the results of some dedicated work in the sound department.
And speaking of dialogue, I really have to give some kudos to the dialogue team – and especially for the merchant you first encountered in Surdana. Amongst his greetings to Rynn are: “Well look who’s here… Little Miss Bloodbath”, “Ah, my armor clad angel,” and “My Blood Soaked Princess.” It’s little remarks like this which really keep the storyline fun and keeps you from otherwise skipping over what people have to say.
Overall, Drakan: The Ancient’s Gates should make the original fans of the series proud in it’s faithful recreation of the game’s origins. There are some new angles, looks, and voices thrown into the mix, but it only adds to the original experience rather than detract. The game’s controls are intuitive, logical, and although difficulty levels cannot be changed as they could be in the original, the game should still be approachable to even the novice gamer. To leave you with the words of wisdom of my aforementioned merchant, “You’re never real life until you’re knee deep in gore, I say” So get out there and do it, Arokh’s waiting!