The Joys of Agony

In the seven months since Nier: Automata’s release, I’ve played through a number of heavy-hitters and memorable gems alike, yet none have had the same level of permanence. The wounds left by Yoko Taro’s depressing masterpiece never closed: “Vague Hope (Cold Rain)” still makes me tear up without fail, and few things give me greater joy than seeing yet another fan illustration of 2B and 9S cuddling or placing bows in each other’s hair. It was only a matter of time before I started paging through the rest of his brief catalog, eager to find something with the same cruel melancholy that Automata had perfected.

I went with Drakengard 3 for three reasons: it was on sale for $10, none of his other titles worked on the systems I owned (at least in the US), and a friend pitched it to me as his second most approachable game. A few hours later, I would understand that her recommendation was damning with faint praise.

Imagine if the thousands of grunts in Dynasty Warriors were replaced by hundreds of semi-competently trained soldiers, each growing in strength and skill as your conquest progresses. Add a dash of Panzer Dragoon, though aside from scant wave-based shooting and the occasional boss battle, your dragon brings everything to a screeching halt whenever his fireballs slam into more than one soldier. Without fail, every level has at least two or three rooms where the camera watches the door shut behind you, form a red sigil (often sending the frame rate into the single digits), and demand that you slay everyone inside before another cutscene points to the passage outside. It’s a repetitive, hideous, stapled-together slog, where the nicest compliment I can find for its moment-to-moment action is “tolerable.”

Why did I spend 12-13 hours with Drakengard 3 if it only managed to be tolerable? Everything surrounding its leaden action proves that Nier: Automata wasn’t a fluke. Zero, a warrior with a horrific (for reasons I won’t get into here) flower in one of her eyes, sets out to kill her six Intoner sisters that protect society through the power of magic-infused songs. Despite her sororicidal wishes and willingness to murder anyone who gets in her way, she fares better than her kin: each seduces, tortures or mutilates their followers under the guise of protecting the land. Their disciples, who join your quest after you kill their masters, are crude individuals who think nothing of bluntly discussing their kinks or reveling in the near-constant bloodshed.

Despite the near-constant cruelty Zero and her party dish out, it had just enough warmth to keep me hooked. Zero’s dragon, Mikhail, is a growing creature with the mind of the child: you’re introduced to him as he rolls around in a pond steeped with mud, giggling uncontrollably. He’s mistreated by nearly everyone you meet, Zero included, but Mikhail does his best to keep a positive attitude in a dire world. He also ends up being the only moral voice in the story, always questioning whether it’s really necessary to kill the other sisters. Yoko Taro inevitably weaponizes your fondness for Mikhail, but it feels totally earned and only reinforced my fondness for the little guy.

I worry that attributing my Drakengard 3 fondness to the characters themselves may be my escape from the uncomfortable truth: that deep down, I share something with Decadus, the masochist of the group. From Zero’s frequent threats to the scorching desert heat, every challenge and perceived threat is met with an ecstatic shudder. He protests, insists that he feels shame for following villains, but he can barely contain the joy welling up inside (much to the disgust and amusement of his cohorts). Finding a full playthrough on YouTube isn’t exactly difficult, yet I waded through 80% of the game, dumping hours into a monotonous slog that only drove my face further into the ground, mission by mission. At some point, should I accept that I enjoyed the pain? That even as my thumbs grew sore from mashing the controller through one dire situation to the next, I always wanted more?

In fact, I was willing to grit my teeth and limp my way to the end if it weren’t for a few late-game adjustments that finally broke my resolve. Going in, I was already aware that reaching the fourth and final ending would be a daunting task: you must grind for enough gold to buy every single weapon available. If that wasn’t enough to deter you, it also has a laundry list of tough-as-nails side quests that must be completed without your disciples, items or choice of weapon before you can reach the finale. Having attempted a few of these challenges myself, I was already convinced I wouldn’t make it, but wanted to stick around to at least see the third branch through for myself. As it turns out, said third branch had other plans.

Branch C begins by dropping you in the game’s most infuriating level: a series of four temples arranged in a square formation, with a vast desert linking them together. During the day, you had to stay in the shade to avoid losing health from the sun’s rays, but C’s nighttime variant replaces the heat with blistering cold that serves the same purpose. Instead of shade, you sprint to spread-out pyres while your energy is whittled away. Each temple is protected by a coven of warlocks, committed to keeping the cold going, but they love sending out droves of evil spirits and skeletons to overwhelm your progress. This level has one and only checkpoint, and it triggers when you’re a quarter of the way through. If you happened to die in the last fight like I did, you get sent all the way back.

I might have given it one more shot if the game didn’t hit me over the head with its’ “clever” observations the whole time. Drakengard 3 knows when it’s subjecting the player to something unpleasant, which tends to amplify the suffering significantly. While I was combing through this desert, Zero and her companions made endless complaints about how they were doing this for a second time, swearing revenge on whoever was responsible for this mess. As it turns out, bickering about whatever nonsense hoops you’re also forcing players through only adds to their anger. As soon as the complaints repeated when the previous checkpoint reloaded, I knew I couldn’t play for another minute without sending my damn PS3 out of my apartment window.

As much as it pains me to admit this, Drakengard 3 surfaced my masochistic tendencies. It may be easy to fall in love with its broken world, but getting as far as I did required commitment to systems so poor that they often buckled under their own weight. I hope that future Yoko Taro games pull back on the pain: now that I’m cognizant of these limits, how long will it be until they’re pushed even further?