Welcome back to Franchise Festival, a fortnightly column where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found in the archive here.
This week we’ll be winding our way through all of the branches of Drakengard and Nier. All cover art is from MobyGames unless otherwise noted. Where two dates or years are listed, the first is Japan and the second is North America. Much of the development information is drawn from Nicolas Turcev’s The Strange Works of Taro Yoko. From Drakengard to NieR: Automata (2019), though any errors are my own.
Takuya Iwasaki founded Cavia on March 1, 2000 in Tokyo and used industry connections to attract talent from Namco. High profile employees, including writer Sawako Natori and audio engineer Nobuyushi Sano, already had years of experience crafting heavy-hitting franchises like Tales and Tekken in the 1990s. Cavia wisely positioned itself as a second-party developer for established studios, producing spinoffs like One Piece: Nanatsu Shima no Daihiho (2002) for Bandai and Resident Evil: Dead Aim (2003) for Capcom while these publishers focused their internal teams on core titles.
Iwasaki’s relationship with Square Enix’s Takamasa Shiba would form the backbone of the studio’s most famous intellectual property. Both were passionate fans of Namco’s Ace Combat series and sought to reproduce its exhilarating aerial combat in a fantasy setting with a project tentatively titled Project Dragonsphere. Other executives at Square Enix, however, were intrigued by the commercial success of Koei’s Dynasty Warriors 2 (2000) and insisted that Cavia integrate large-scale hack and slash combat into their prototype.
Project Dragonsphere was assigned to first-time director Yoko Taro, who had previously contributed art to Namco’s Time Crisis 2 before a brief stint at Sony Computer Entertainment. Taro had been seeking a big break in the game industry since encountering the thrilling bullet-hell level design of Gradius (1985) during his university days in the early 1990s. His interest in the fusion of intense action gameplay and experimental storytelling, which used traditional forms to explore taboo ideas, made him a natural fit for Cavia’s recently renamed new property. Square Enix published Drakengard for the PlayStation 2 in Japan on September 11, 2003 (as Drag-On Dragoon), and in North America on March 2, 2004. A European localization featuring some minor enhancements was then released in May 2004.
Drakengard’s gameplay is uncharacteristically modular for an action role-playing game (ARPG), mixing together two distinct modes during its single-player campaign. Some stages – referred to in-game as verses – see protagonist Caim exploring large battlefields on-foot as he accomplishes various objectives and slays hundreds of enemy troops. Caim slowly gains access to 65 weapons that offer unique background stories unlocked by accumulating experience points in combat, though all share a roughly identical set of attacks. Other stages are set in the sky above these battlefields, as the player controls a dragon who hurls fireballs at ground and air-based opponents. In an impressive technical feat that was difficult to accomplish on the PlayStation 2, programmer Yosuke Saito and his team managed to integrate both modes in some stages; the player can toggle between flying and exploring the ground at the touch of a button as circumstances require.
Drakengard’s narrative, which is initially presented as a straightforward high fantasy quest involving dragons and warring nations, later reveals itself to have more depth than contemporary RPGs directed at children and teenagers. Deposed Prince Caim is mortally wounded as he fights for the Union in a war against the Empire, forcing him to make a blood pact with a trapped dragon called Angelus; this strips Caim of his voice but grants him immeasurable strength on the battlefield. The Union is able to win their war, though the process turns Caim into a bloodthirsty tyrant and ultimately results in a pyrhhic victory in which four seals that protect the land of Midgard from chaos are undone by the Empire. The plot grows increasingly dark as it tackles subjects like incestuous relationships, pedophilia, and suicide. Completing the game multiple times leads to five different endings, including a Silent Hill-inspired twist in which Caim and Angelus are transported to 21st Century Tokyo and are shot down by a fighter jet.
Drakengard was received less well in North America than in Japan. Though the game’s exploration of serious themes, hybrid gameplay, and lush soundtrack were praised, its drab color palette, generic enemy design, and limited draw distance were the subject of criticism. Perhaps due to its impressive commercial performance in Europe, that region received an exclusive mobile adaptation that serves as a nod to the game’s 16-bit forebears. Ground stages offer side-scrolling beat-’em-up gameplay reminiscent of Streets of Rage (1991) and air stages recall Sega’s Space Harrier (1985), while story sequences expand the world of Drakengard and provide tips for the main game.
Drakengard 2 (2005/2006)
Square Enix’s rapid expansion in the mid-2000s, along with its heavy dependence on second-party developers, meant that even relatively obscure properties like Front Mission and Valkyrie Profile could receive sequels. The modest commercial performance of Drakengard certainly merited a second entry. Unfortunately, Taro departed the project following Square Enix’s demand that Cavia produce a straightforward iteration on the preceding game; his proposal to abandon ground combat in favor of dragons fighting one another in space was declined. The publisher would manage to pull him back in later to help edit Drakengard 2’s cutscenes, but his directorial role was filled by Drakengard lead designer Akira Yatsui. Most of the other creative leads – including writer Sawako Nori and artist Kimihiko Fujisaka – remained consistent between the two games. This continuity ensured a smooth development process that took only two years, and the PlayStation 2 game launched in Japan on June 16, 2005. North American and European localizations respectively followed in February and March 2006.
Drakengard 2’s plot picks up 18 years after the preceding game’s Ending A, in which Angelus turned herself itself into a mystical seal to reestablish order in Midgard. Five additional seals, each the center of a geographical district and bound to a powerful individual guardian, are now in place to augment this key Goddess of the Seal. A group of knights known as the Knights of the Seal are tasked with upholding this system and defending the seals.
Protagonist Nowe is one such knight, though he was raised by a partner dragon named Legna for much of his early life following the death of his parents. The story begins when he and another knight, childhood friend Eris, are sent into battle against monsters threatening the seals. Nowe discovers that humans are imprisoned and sacrificed by the Knights to preserve the seals’ power, prompting him to join the returning Caim in an effort to kill each seal guardian and free Angelus. Its tone retains tragic elements, and offers three endings that are only accessed by replaying the game, but the comparatively unambiguous story has more in common with popular contemporary RPGs than with its morally gray predecessor.
Drakengard 2’s gameplay, on the other hand, is much more polished than that of Drakengard. Level design and enemies are widely varied, including oversized boss encounters that had been impossible to implement in the previous game despite Cavia’s best efforts. The overall number of weapons have been scaled back, but each now has unique combo attacks that are expanded through the accumulation of experience points. While Caim could call on support from allies in Drakengard, Nowe can be swapped out for other playable characters with their own weapon loadouts in Drakengard 2. Finally, the player can carry consumable items into battle that recharge their characters’ health and magic gauges. Weapons and items can be acquired on the field or bought at villages between missions using currency obtained through combat.
Drakengard 2 was seen as a worthy successor in Japan, but reviewed less well than the previous series entry in North America. Critics praised its enhanced combat while drawing negative attention to its stripped-back presentation – cutscenes often consist of unnmoving characters speaking dialogue instead of the more action-packed in-engine and full-motion video cutscenes of Drakengard – and less engaging story. Even so, sales for the game in Japan were strong enough (alongside other commercial successes for the studio) that Cavia was bought and absorbed into conglomerate AQ Interactive shortly after its 2005 release.
NieR Gestalt / NieR Replicant (2010)
Production began on the next series entry shortly after Drakengard 2 shipped. Yoko Taro was back in the director’s chair, but executive interference would once again shift the team’s design early in the game’s three year development process. Pre-production plans for a world inspired by European fairy tales was shelved at the request of publisher and collaborator Square Enix, who saw this as a distraction from their popular Kingdom Hearts franchise. Square Enix producer Yosuke Saito likewise insisted that Taro deemphasize traditional fantasy elements in favor of a darker, more action-heavy style in an appeal to older video game fans. This led the team to drop the Drakengard name in favor of a new spiritual successor series called NieR.
At the same time, market forces dictated that Cavia abandon the PlayStation 2 in favor of seventh generation home consoles. The expenses associated with this era’s high-definition graphics – prior to the wide adoption of off-the-shelf game engines like Unreal or Unity – necessitated that large-scale projects offer broad commercial appeal to the West as well as local audiences; NieR was therefore planned for simultaneous release on the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3. Test audiences in North America reacted negatively to a debut of the Xbox 360 prototype, which centered on a waifish young man protecting his sister, so Taro and his team redesigned the game to feature two different playable protagonists without otherwise altering its content: worldwide audiences would get to control a father figure in NieR Gestalt (renamed NieR in North America) when the game launched on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in April 2009, while Japan would receive the original vision as PlayStation 3 exclusive NieR Replicant the same week.
In both games, a brief prologue set some time after Drakengard’s Ending E establishes the story’s setting as post-apocalyptic Earth rather than the fantasy world of Midgard (author’s note: Midgard is actually a version of Europe in which dragons and a series of earthquakes dramatically altered history from the 800s AD forward, but it is presented as a fictional world). The player-named protagonist protects his daughter/sister Yonah from monsters in a chilly, abandoned 21st Century city before the action shifts over 1,000 years into the future. Yonah, who suffers from a terminal illness known as the Black Scrawl, now lives in a pastoral village settled amid crumbling industrial ruins with her father/brother.
The player character sets out to find a cure for the Black Scrawl and is eventually joined by three allies on his journey: foul-mouthed warrior Kaine, erudite magical book Grimoire Weiss, and optimistic child Emil. The team is opposed at each phase of their overworld traversal by shades, antagonistic shadowy creatures that attack en masse, and mechanical remnants of the old world. As in Drakengard before it, NieR Gestalt and NieR Replicant offer multiple endings that radically recontextualize their party’s apparently noble actions.
Gameplay at first seems to echo previous series entries, albeit without any dragons or aerial combat; the player character engages in real-time combo-based battle with dozens of enemies using one of many available weapons while occasionally firing off powerful magic attacks. The level-based structure of Drakengard is entirely eschewed, however, in favor of an open world featuring explorable villages and dungeons. Its most memorable sequences even integrate entirely different genres, as the player character explores an eerie mansion from static camera angles in the style of Resident Evil and works their way through one area depicted as a text adventure.
Unfortunately, NieR fared little better than Drakengard or Drakengard 2 with critics. The strength of a genuinely audacious story by writers Sawako Natori and Hana Kikuchi was undermined by drab graphics, unremarkable monster design, the absence of industry-standard lock-on enemy targeting, and a largely empty overworld. Alongside other high-profile commercial flops for AQ Interactive, including Bullet Witch (2006/2007) and Mindjack (2011), Cavia was shuttered and many of its employees absorbed into its parent company in August 2010. Though a planned port to the PlayStation Vita was canceled, NieR Replicant would live on in the form of an enhanced remaster developed in collaboration between Square Enix and contractor Toylogic. The 2021 Xbox One and PlayStation 4 release of NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139… brought its namesake’s Japan-exclusive content to the West for the first time while smoothing out performance, making the world more vibrant, and integrating a targeting button to improve combat.
Drakengard 3 (2013/2014)
Yoko Taro left AQ Interactive shortly before Cavia was closed and served as a freelance director for several Square Enix mobile phone projects during the early 2010s. Around the same time, Drakengard producer Takamasa Shiba was passionate about revisiting the franchise he’d overseen during his early days at Square Enix. Shiba was troubled by his studio’s pivot towards mobile gaming, a business decision inspired by the decreasing popularity of home consoles among young Japanese video game enthusiasts, and wanted to recapture traditional RPG fans who might have felt abandoned by one of the world’s most beloved RPG developers. Though initial attempts to recruit Taro as director were unsuccessful during the late 2000s, Shiba finally managed to pull in the self-effacing auteur following the dissolution of Cavia.
Even so, Taro’s vision was heavily circumscribed by his publisher. Plans to set the game at a high school in modern Tokyo, where a student could summon her dragon via mobile phone, or force players to guess at the events of an unmade intervening chapter by titling the new release Drakengard 4 were quickly shot down. Questionnaires circulated to fans by Shiba effectively laid the foundation for a derivative work, as these consistently indicated that players of the earlier entries just wanted more dark fantasy and dragon combat. Taro and a team at Access Games – then best-known for glitchy cult classic Deadly Premonition (2010) – delivered the requested product on time and under a restrictive budget by using Unreal Engine 3, and Drakengard 3 launched on the PlayStation 3 in Japan on December 13, 2013. It was then published in the West during May 2014.
Set long before the events of Drakengard, Drakengard 3’s action-heavy narrative reflects Taro’s work on NieR. An explosive opening sequence during which protagonist Zero assaults gleaming Cathedral City in a doomed attempt to assassinate the Intoners, a powerful collective of five sisters inspired by magical girl anime Puella Magi Madoka Magica (2011), gives way to the exploration of pastoral wilderness settings littered with ruined buildings. Zero is accompanied by youthful dragon companion Mikhail as she seeks to regain her strength and slay each of the Intoners one-by-one. She gains allies known as disciples along the way – including swordsman Cent, lustful Octa, masochist Decadus, and sadist Dito – and discovers the true history of her world.
Though its plot and presentation echo NieR, Drakengard 3’s gameplay is instead a throwback to earlier titles. Zero alternates between ground and air combat while traveling through individual stages accessible from a world map menu. New mechanics for the franchise, intended to make its action more visceral, include the ability to parry incoming attacks and activate Intoner Mode by tapping both joysticks simultaneously. Intoner Mode makes Zero faster and more powerful for a short period of time, after which it must be recharged with the blood of fallen enemies. Zero’s sisters can also use this power in their climactic boss battles.
Drakengard 3 was critically panned upon its release, as too many of its compelling plot beats were hidden away at the end of another mediocre beat-’em-up filled with graphical and performance problems. The series’ newest entry had fallen short of the already-low audio-visual standards established by its predecessors. Even so, six downloadable content (DLC) prologue chapters were published by Square Enix in March and April 2014 in Japan and on June 3, 2014 in North America. Each tells the story of an Intoner before the events of the main game and allows the player to control Zero’s sisters for the first time.
NieR: Automata (2017)
Passionate fan communities kept Yoko Taro’s reputation alive following the disappointment of Drakengard 3 through the translation of Japan-exclusive transmedia tie-ins and the ever-increasing cult status of NieR. Square Enix’s Yosuke Saito took notice, successfully pitching a sequel to new CEO Yosuke Matsuda in 2014 after a reorganization put him in control of one of the studio’s 12 divisions. Saito initially brainstormed plans with Taro, including a Vita entry or a mobile spinoff inspired by Farmville (2009), but a nascent business partnership between Square Enix and PlatinumGames would form the foundation of the series’ most popular title yet.
PlatinumGames was known for producing critically-lauded but commercially unsuccessful third-person action games Bayonetta (2009), Vanquish (2010), and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance (2013); Metal Gear Rising designer Takahisa Taura was a big fan of NieR, and had even drafted a proposal for a sequel independently of Saito and Taro’s work. PlatinumGames’ ability to consistently deliver smooth action gameplay made it a natural fit to resolve problems that had plagued Drakengard and NieR since the franchise’s inception.
Longtime Taro collaborator Sawako Natori, who had handled much of the writing for the series so far, was replaced on the project (titled NieR: Androids at this point) by NieR and Drakengard 3 co-writer Hana Kikuchi and newcomer Yoshiho Akabane. NieR character designer DK Gashu was likewise replaced with Akihiko Yoshida, a freelance illustrator responsible for the enduring art of Final Fantasy Tactics (1997), Vagrant Story (2000), and Final Fantasy XII (2006). Taro’s primary thematic focus was building an emotionally “dry” story infused with existential philosophy. The biggest challenges faced during development were ensuring the accessibility that had been absent from earlier series entries and adapting PlatinumGames punchy action to its first open-world environment. Taro’s team proved equal to the task, however, and NieR: Automata was released worldwide on PlayStation 4 and Windows PC in February/March 2017.
Set thousands of years after NieR’s Ending D, the narrative initially centers on androids 2B and 9S as they carry out a mission assigned to them by a satellite command center called the Bunker. They are tasked with aiding the android Resistance faction on Earth in its war against the apparently bloodthirsty Machines. As 2B and 9S explore a variety of expansive locations, including a robot carnival and abandoned shopping mall, they discover that the Machines are beginning to exhibit signs of humanity. Replaying the game after encountering its first ending reveals competing perspectives and alternate player characters.
Gameplay is inspired by NieR, but demonstrates a greater level of polish and ambition. The prologue shifts seamlessly between top-down shooter, side-scrolling shooter, beat-’em-up, and bullet hell sequences. During ground-based combat, 2B even has access to a support drone that can fire projectile attacks as she moves into melee range. Party members are absent, for the most part, but a wider range of character customization options than were present in previous games allows the player to alter their avatar’s loadout to respond to enemy types and tactics. Finally, a hacking minigame that starts simple grows in complexity and narrative importance during subsequent runs of the game.
NieR: Automata was a critical and commercial blockbuster, with the serendipitous collaboration between Taro and PlatinumGames mitigating the most abrasive elements of the former’s approach to game design while offering a more richly textured, beguiling world than anything present in the latter’s previous work. Paid DLC 3C3C1D119440927, published in May 2017, offers myriad character customization options drawn from NieR, a combat colosseum, and bonus boss fights. Finally, an Xbox One port that bundles together all previously released content was released worldwide in June 2018.
This franchise produced dozens of tie-in novels and manga, including a 2014 Drakengard 3 novelization by Jun Eishima that links that game’s ending with the start of Drakengard. “YoRHa” and “YoRHa Boys,” Yoko Taro-directed plays respectively performed in 2014 and 2018, also serve as prequels to the events of NieR: Automata. Even supplementary art books like the Japan-exclusive Grimoire NieR (2010) feature unique information that explains the series’ dense, interconnected world.
The only interactive spinoff at the time of writing is NieR: Reincarnation. Developed by Applibot under the supervision of Taro, this free-to-play title was published by Square Enix on Android and iOS devices in Japan on February 18, 2021 and in the rest of the world on July 28, 2021. Players control an amnesiac girl as she explores an otherworldly collection of towers called The Cage through a combination of 3D overworld traversal, side-scrolling stages set in the memories of weapons, and real-time party-based combat. Though the game features a rich story befitting its source material, gacha mechanics give the player the chance to acquire randomized party members and weapons at an additional cost.
Players of the mechanically and visually unremarkable Drakengard could be forgiven for assuming that creator Yoko Taro would fade into obscurity following a sequel that failed to iterate on its predecessor. The curiously dark themes of the series’ debut, however, would eventually mature into the ambitious postmodern narratives of NieR and Drakengard 3. PlatinumGames, whose mechanical expertise was a perfect counterpart for Taro’s creative direction, would be the key ingredient to finally bringing mainstream popularity to the franchise with NieR: Automata in 2017.
Of course, none of this would have been possible without the faith and perseverance of Square Enix’s Takamasa Shiba and Yosuke Saito. Both believed in Taro’s unique vision even after years of mediocre sales and critical disappointment. So often cited as an example of auteur theory, Drakengard and NieR actually serve as a reminder of how fruitful long-term collaboration can be.
What do you think about Drakengard and NieR? Which entry is your favorite? Do you think it improved over time, or do you miss the fantasy trappings of earlier titles? Let’s discuss in the comments below.
Be sure to tune into the monthly Franchise Festival podcast if you’d like to hear an even more granular exploration of noteworthy video game series. If you enjoy the articles or the show, please consider backing us on Patreon. Patrons like Celeste, Jarathen, Cheatachu, and Quinley Thorne make it possible to keep producing great content!
As ever, here is a tentative list of upcoming articles:
- #124: Valkyria Chronicles – June 3
- #125: Half-Life / Portal – June 17
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