You are the last Dragon!
Got any friends with unappealing character traits? Good - you'll understand my plight. My friend Rynn the Dragon Knight has searched high and low for a cure to her friend Arokh's morning breath. Pee-yoo. It's gotten so bad that she makes him stay on the outskirts of a town when she is briefed for a mission for fear he'll yawn and burn the entire town to ash'again. So I've been entrusted with the monumental task of procuring an industrial size Tic-tac for a 14-foot dragon with a severe case of stinky gum-holes. Oy.
But maybe instead of a breath mint, I should grab a memory card, because Drakan: The Ancients' Gates can not be played without one. The game won't allow you to go on the first major quest without a Playstation 2 memory card with enough free space. You'll just get a 'save' screen pop up over and over again. Needing a card to save your progress is one thing, but not even being able to progress without one is just insane.
At any rate, Drakan: The Ancients' Gates is a third-person action adventure set after the events in the PC Drakan: Order of the Flame. You reprise your role as Rynn, a warrioress who's soul has been bonded with Arokh, the last red dragon (no, not that Last Dragon). Cool fighting moves, visually stunning aerial battles, a nifty spell casting system and a plethora of items and weapons are Drakan's most appealing features. But the unintuitive control, unimpressive A.I. and a very predictable gameplay trajectory take some of the fire out of this beast.
The stage is set in a fanciful world where the nefarious Desert Lords threaten to enslave all of humanity. Rynn and Arokh must unravel the secret to awakening the dragons of old, as humanity's last hope rests in the awesome power of these ancient beasts. The story is typical, yet it moves you through the game smoothly.
You must guide Rynn and Arokh through 15 levels stretched across 8 lush, detailed environments, including swamps, floating islands, mystic mountains and more. Defeat the baddies and earn points to increase three stats - archer, melee or magic strength.
The game is divided between running about as Rynn (probably 65% of the game) and flying around on the back of Arokh. One of the noticeable kinks in Drakan's armor is the formulaic gameplay. The pattern is redundant: get mission in the open, green, above-ground areas, then ride Arokh to find the entrance to the subterranean areas that house all the bad guys. Kill the enemies, get an important item, then return to the surface in another location and fly Arokh back to whoever enlisted your aid. Rinse and repeat. Plus, many of the underground levels look very much alike with similar layouts and textures. Repetition is a vicious mistress!
You begin your adventure with a petty dagger, but after dispatching your first few baddies and absconding with the booty, you can go by the shop or the magician's surplus store and flash your gold nuggets. You can buy weapons, shields, armor, health and mana potions. Weapons are subject to wear and tear when used excessively in the field, which is a nice touch. A blacksmith or shop owner can repair most weapons, but they're never as good as when you first found/bought them. There are 50 hand-to-hand weapons, 24 bows with varying arrow types and 30 magic spells for you to buy, steal or find lying around the game world. This is much more than in the original PC Drakan and adds a lot to the gameplay.
The world is pretty massive and it looks good. Textures are fairly detailed and colorful. Oddly, the character lip-synch is terrible and Rynn's head is huge. Her animation could use some touch-up work as well.
Luckily, there are plenty of other people to look at. You'll have a chance to interact with 25 unique NPCs, as well as a slew of random characters. The main reason you'll deal with other characters is to obtain quests, of which there are 40 total. Many of these are optional and reward you with more loot or items.
Strangely, every NPC is sitting outside his/her house just waiting for Rynn to come talk to them. They're not wandering around doing anything - just standing there like robots waiting to be turned on. It's not really a fully working world. You don't see NPCs talking with each other, working in the fields, tending cattle or anything you might expect from a medieval town. While this was fine 6 years ago, it's a letdown to see such 16-bit RPG conventions crop up in new games.
But what the game lacks in dynamics, it makes up for with a well thought out fighting system. Rynn has a nice complement of strikes, flips (ala Tomb Raider) and parries. If timed correctly, they can prove very cinematic and very effective. Additionally, many special or unique weapons possess alternate attacks, like the cool Earth or Flame swords.
While the moves are very easy to accomplish, Rynn and Arokh are not the most fluid of combatants. They're both pretty stiff, so something simple like turning around to face an enemy behind you is like pulling a U-turn with the Statue of Liberty. Neither is given a quick turn around button. Though she strafes with the speed of a dead tree, Rynn's dodge moves and rolls are great for issuing a well-placed counter attack.
The dodge moves really come in handy when you're being attack by several assailants, though AI is not their strong suit. They may roll or sidestep, but for the most part they're making a mad dash straight for you. So learning the dodge is paramount.
A very cool spellcasting system rounds out Rynn's offensive repertoire. Once you've purchased a spell or two, take a look at your inventory screen to see how you cast it. If you hold down the circle button while you have no weapons equipped, Rynn will hold up her left hand and it will begin to glow. By pressing a certain button combination on the D-pad, Rynn will move her left hand in the series of directions. If it's done correctly, her right hand will begin to glow and you are now able to fire the spell as you would any other attack. The spellcasting is great and totally reminds me of the gesturing system from the PC game Black & White.
Compared to playing as Rynn, playing as Arokh is very simple. You just fly around shooting at things with your numerous breath attacks. It's genuinely fun to swoop through the air as a dragon, and the aerial battles look great.
Drakan: The Ancients' Gates is a good game peppered with numerous little annoying bits. Still, the item acquisition, terrific fighting and solid graphics offer good adventure fun, and you could do a lot worse.