Monday, March 23, 2015

Game #37: Drakkhen (SNES) - Hidden Spells of Stonehenge Forever Lost (Finished)

Game 37

Title: Drakkhen
Released: August 1991 (May 1991 JPN)
Platform: SNES
Developer: Infogrames
Genre: RPG
Exploration - First-Person / Third-person
Combat - Active
Series - Drakkhen

I can't wait!
When I think of RPGs on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) my mind doesn't immediately go to Drakkhen, but maybe it should. As the first RPG available during its launch month, I'm sure many people bought it expecting an experience similar to Dragon Warrior, Final Fantasy, or Phantasy Star. Drakkhen is unlike any of those; in fact I can't recall a game similar to it other than its sequel. Exploration outside uses a first-person perspective, but it transitions to third-person when entering combat or dungeons. Combat is in real-time, but unlike most games the player doesn't have full control. Party members act on their own volition based on a designated strategy. Only a single character can be controlled.
It's only possible to re-roll stats three times per character, the third roll you're stuck with or restart all character creation
I've already beaten the game once before, so going through it again wasn't too difficult. The party is comprised of a warrior, scout, magician, and a priest. Each character can either be male or female, although aside from changing warrior to amazon and priest to priestess I didn't notice any difference. I was lucky to get some relatively good stats for each character, some even on the third roll. Once the characters are assembled the story begins. A story that seems so butchered as it made the transition from the Amiga to DOS, from English to Japanese, and then back to the English in the US.
Humans wiped out dragons. An island was made for the Drakkhen; half human, half dragon beings. The drakkhens plan to destroy humans unless four chosen warriors can succeed in figuring out this game. Gone is the part about magic failing in the greater world, and seeking a way to restore it. Before getting dropped in completely, the game suggested to visit the castle Hordkhen off in the distance. Seems simple enough.
Can it be for this one?
Story aside, the controls for the game are very well detailed in the in-game tutorial. That's right, this may be the very first time game controls are explained in the game. The icons read from left to right, top to bottom are: character info (stats, equipment, spells), speak or listen, tutorial, take, combat options, push or use, look, exit castle, and save game. There are two save slots, but they're exclusive, meaning you can't make a back-up. Even rather obscure controls, like pressing L and R to run from combat, are explained in detail.
The in-game map does it's job, but could stand to have some more detail, like the merchant outpost hidden nearby
So let's get to business. Hordkhen's castle was easy to get to, right in front of the party from the start after all. Moving about the 3-D world is a bit odd at times, and the map doesn't help a whole lot when I'm supposedly standing right on top of the building yet it's nowhere to be seen. The first room provided the first challenge. All the doorways have energy fields blocking the path. This theme  repeats in all castles, even the friendly ones. To advance I had to touch the correct symbol, as requested by the disembodied voice when I looked around. Since I knew this was the Earth Prince's castle, a fact described when I first entered, I just needed to figure out which symbol stood for earth. There's only four, so how hard could it be?
Turns out it's incredibly easy
The earth symbol (hidden by my scout) looks just like water, except inverted. I noted these for later even though looking at the symbols in any castle will tell you their order. Exploring the castle I learned of a group called the Ninth Tear Allies, and how I needed to inform Hordkha that Hordkhen is going to betray them. Hordkhen himself gave no indication of any betrayal, and instead sent me on a mission to speak with Hordkha to the east. It's a bit strange after the introduction that any Drakkhen would be friendly to humans. From some battles in the castle I found two bows, and gave them to my spellcasters. Bows in this game are very overpowered, and by the time I left to seek out Hordkha I had gained a couple levels.
I think you mean Hordkha, I just came from Hordkhen's castle and it's fine... don't worry, I get them confused too
Going straight east isn't an option, and the first real obstacle in the game doesn't present an easy solution. There were a few choices. One, do what I did as a kid and walk backwards through the barrier. The game isn't smart enough to push you west, and instead just pushes you backwards. Two, normally you can't cross the border to the north or south because an old man will pop up and say you're not strong enough; however, there's a small section to the north where the rainbow road stops before reaching the water territory border. Third, and one I didn't know until recently, there's a teleporter that will send the party from the west side of the island to the east.
Huh, this is a strange formation, I wonder what happens when I woo...ahh....
It's quite a trip. On the other side of the island was Princess Hordkha's castle. Her attendants greeted me from her ruined castle to inform me that Prince Hordkhen's troops attacked. Well that's strange, I was just sent by the prince to... wait, seems the story is changing and it was in fact Prince Haaggkhen's troops that have captured Princess Hordkha. Back to Hordkhen to inform him of this confusing news. Of course, that is if I can get past the new killer shark installed in the moat.
The trick is to cross only after the fin appears on the right side of the bridge... it's funny that the game already knows my scout is dead before the shark has actually touched him
Prince Hordkhen is a bit miffed about the whole kidnapping news, and directed me north to the swamp castle of Prince Haaggkhen. Before heading over I explored a bit and found the previously mentioned wandering merchant outpost. Not much help at this point, but I bought a couple healing phials. In the swamp I stopped by the house on the map and found the water prince's old adviser, relieved of his post on the whimsy of the prince. He confided that the only way to enter the castle was the unlock magic. I already had the spell, so I set out for the castle. The rooms inside each castle so far have had a very empty feeling. Not only the castles, the whole wilderness is devoid of unique features. Some rooms have equipment hanging on the walls for any would be adventurers to grab, and others might have a red dot or two that indicate something small to look at or take. Some are letters or books, and others are things like keys or phials.
Except for this one, I couldn't find where that red dot in the center actually indicated
Prince Haaggkhen was nowhere to be found; however, I did manage to find my way into his dungeon. A fearsome water elemental dared to bar my way, but with some strategic maneuvering I lured him away from the door and skirted around. Inside was a prisoner who, once freed, told me princess Hordkha was transferred to Princess Naakhtkha's castle. Before heading there I was told to visit Prince Naakhtkhen in the northeast to get directions. Well, I didn't really need directions, but the entryway was guarded until I visited the air prince.
The story is so convoluted that it can't even keep itself straight
Seriously, I'm not sure if the game is purposefully misleading, or if it just keeps getting the names mixed up
So, the story so far is that the fire prince has an alliance with the prince of water and princess of air. The earth prince seems to want to join the fire alliance, but he has yet to be accepted. That alliance has kidnapped the earth princess, and destroyed the air prince's castle. The air prince is willing to assist me in gaining access to the air princess' castle where the earth princess is being held. The air princess plans to kill the earth princess for her gem.
The Anak is the only place to revive a fallen character (unless there's a high level priest spell as well, but I didn't level very high)
The air princess, like the water prince, was strangely absent from her castle. I found a note that suggested a high priest was to carry out a sacrifice, and then send the gem to the princess. Afterwards, there was a plan to do the same to the air prince and send his gem on the Hazhulkhen, the Fire Prince. In the dungeon, I found Hordkha, still alive. She told me of her involvement with the 9th Tear Alliance, and connected the tears to the gems that each Drakkhen lord holds. She then gave me her gem, and she instructed me to seek out Haaggkha, the Water Princess. Before parting she mentioned that I should seek the priest in the middle of the swamp if I ran into trouble. In the end, it was merely another Anak.
It's not like they have bloody signs on them
The water princess instructed me to destroy Hordkhen before he had the chance to join the fire alliance. With the way he reacted to his sister's kidnapping you'd think that'd convince him to stay with the 9th Tear. She passed on a Dragon Slayer sword, and told me to come back with the prince's gem. Hordkhen was less than thrilled to see me again and suddenly attacked.
This is when the game kicks things into high gear
Even with fully decked out armor, the drakkhen lords do so much damage in a single hit that it's impossible to avoid dying. This is probably the main reason every review I've looked at suggests the need to grind. All it really takes is some luck. When I returned with Hordkhen's gem, the water princess rewarded me with her gem. My next task was to follow up with Hazhulkha, the fire princess, another member of the 9th Tear who hasn't been heard from for some time.  When I arrived at the castle to the southwest the door was shut tight. A nearby tent informed me that the doors would only open at dawn.
Uh... all?
Hazhulkha's castle was a mess. Corpses lined every room. Hazhulkha herself was slain, pierced through the heart while she sat on her throne. Her gem was gone. Luckily the thieves had not gone far. In the next room was an easy battle for her gem, held by one of the fire alliance troops. Naakhtkhen entered the room as I recovered the gem, and declared that he would avenge Hazhulkha. By that, he meant order me to avenge her by killing his sister Naakhtkha.
These prices sure escalated quickly
Naakhtkha quickly took out my fighters, but her ranged attacks seemed ineffective. I switched from bows to fireballs for the first time, and eventually whittled her down. I had to use a couple quaffs from the MP phials. As her body fell, her brother showed up, again late for the party. He passed his gem to my party, and the final task of retrieving the water and fire prince's. The water prince was by far the most difficult with a ranged attack that took out everyone except the priest. I ran through 8 uses of the MP phial before I finally gave up on that first attempt. On the next one, I defeated him within a couple of rounds. The battle system in this game makes little sense, and just seems like a random mess.
None shall pass!
The fire prince's castle was guarded, and I didn't have a clue about how to enter. However, while I circled the outside of the castle, I remembered that I needed to enter it from the south. I don't recall where I received that clue from, but there was mention of some kind of secret passage on the south side when I last played. Once inside, I made quick work of exploring the place. The path divided into two. The left way led to a set of dragon armor and sword. On the way I met a drakkhen in the service of Haaggkha who had gained the confidence of fire troops, and he was now working as a double agent. All this intrigue is interesting, but it never led anywhere.
That sounds very unimportant, write that down
The game feels incomplete with all the empty clues, as if they rushed it out the door to meet launch time without fleshing out the game. In another room an old man suggested I needed to pray to some primordial gods, but I found no way to do so, and in the next breath he chastised me. In four of the castles I found tombs with strange inscriptions. The priest at the air zone's Anak mentioned these tombs held the key to eight spells that should be cast at the Stonehenge. The messages are rather cryptic, and I'm not sure how they could correspond to spells:

Earth Castle - "the almighty..." "...the gods."
Water Castle - "of life and death..." "...the source."
Air Castle - "from your humble.." "...servants."
Fire Castle - "remorse..." "...must be accepted."
There's also a couple mentions of "the jade" that baffles me
At the end of the right path from the beginning of the fire castle is the lord of that castle, Hazhulkhen. As the final boss of the game I'd expected a big fight, but someone forgot to give him a ranged attack, and he only sat there. Once defeated one of the priests appeared, and told me to take the gems to island's center. So, I took them to the rainbow road in anticipation of creating the ninth tear. Four giant dragons descended from the sky, used their magical eye-beam lasers, and ended the game. They went on for a bit about how I accomplished a great deed, and how justice was restored. I have no idea how killing the drakkhen and stealing their gems was justified. Maybe everything will be explained in the sequel!

Elapsed Time: 5h40m (Final Time: 5h40m)

Figuring out why this game was made...
Combatant - Combat is a chaotic mess. One character is controlled, while the others are automated. All mechanics are hidden, so it's difficult to tell when someone is hitting, when they've missed, or why they took so much damage. The bow and arrow is completely unbalanced. With experience gained from each successful attack, it can be difficult to get melee characters leveled up. The spellcasters don't get damaging spells until level 3, so they basically require a ranged weapon or will never level up. Luckily everyone starts with a strength spell that seems to increase damage and accuracy. There are some spell options, enemies are strangely interesting yet mostly deadly, and everything is based on stats even if I don't understand the interaction. Rewards for combat are okay, but rarely match the risk involved.
Rating: 3
Alright, who let their kid draw an enemy?
Admirer - I liked the paper doll aspect, although there weren't a lot of choices for equipment. Characters, and even party make up, are set in stone. You'll always have one of each class, and they always level the same way. Experience gained is hidden, so it's hard to tell how much grinding really helps. Controls outside have some slowdown, but transitions are smooth. During combat and indoors the characters move slowly, but the option to quickly switch between characters and even explore solo is welcomed.
Rating: 4
My ending stats; there's really no reason to grind
Puzzler - This game could have been filled to the brim with puzzles, and in other versions may have been. There are riddles, and expositions that suggest there's more to the game than I found. What is the jade? Where is Stonehenge? What are the spells indicated on the tombs? I never got lost for what to do in the main quest, except for finding the clue that would allow me into the fire prince's castle. It might be the water princesses, or possibly a house I missed. There are no side quests, or they're so obscure I didn't find them. The use of the symbols throughout the game was interesting, but their significance wasn't explored.
Rating: 3
The only true riddle in the game can just be brute forced with 16 combinations
Instigator - Wow, the story. An incoherent mess if I ever saw one. It's possible to piece it together, but there are so many loose ends and inconsistencies that make it difficult. In the end it doesn't get in the way of completing the game, but there are times when names get mixed up in such a way that I wasn't sure the game knew what kind of story it was telling. There's no influence I could instill, and any time I started to get into it I was jarred out by confusing names or premise.
Rating: 1
Oh really?
No, not really
Collector - There sure are a lot of items in the game. Rings a plenty, and staffs that enhance the characters. Weapons and armor share a different inventory from those general items, which also includes keys, torches, and restorative phials. Both are limited however, and with the need to keep additional armor since each piece has a hidden durability, they fill up quickly. There's no way to tell if one equipment is better than another except by equipping it and seeing what changes. Even then I couldn't tell what the life or magic staff did at first glance. The currency is called jade, and it's hard to come by in quantities enough to purchase all the available equipment.
Rating: 3
I hoped "see" would mean identify, but it only meant see the inventory of a character
Explorer - I think the best part of the game is its soundtrack. The music uses soothing tunes throughout the game. The graphics are detailed inside, but outside it's barren. It would have been nice to find Stonehenge and possibly other unique features, but there's very little reward for doing so and so much open area to explore. The open world isn't so open right away. Each elemental land only opens up as the story progresses. At least the game is short.
Rating: 4
I do wonder if this sight is actually in the game... looks like the desert land in one of the corners

Final Rating: 18 [30%]

Overall the game feels unfinished, but playable barely. Maybe with another year of polish this could have been a great title, like Dragon View (Drakkhen II). Unfortunately with the flop of this game confidence in the second wasn't very high, so it didn't do as well as it should have. Another game finished, and now we move on to Shining in the Darkness. I've only played it a bit (I remember a crab boss), so it should be fun to complete.


  1. Congratulations! Yeah, there's not a whole lot to Drakkhen, and its most redeeming feature is that it's short.

    Shining in the Darkness trivia tidbit: the character Pyra is also playable in the Dreamcast RPG Time Stalkers. Like the other playable Time Stalkers characters, Pyra has to recruit and power up a team of monsters to support her through repeated dungeon crawls.

    1. Thanks. I'm glad it didn't drag on. Although, I did mention the music; that's another redeeming quality.

      So far I'm enjoying my time with Shining in the Darkness. I tested Time Stalkers out for a bit, but I guess she's not the lead character. Looking forward to reliving an adventure with her. I'm sure she'll keel over just as much.

    2. Sword is the lead character of Time Stalkers in the sense that the player must use him for the first dungeon crawl of the game (and he's on the game's cover art). As more playable characters join, the player can switch to any of them to tackle any given dungeon.

      Pyra has a significant role in (admittedly somewhat thin) main Time Stalkers story, whether or not the player chooses to use her. And yes, she is probably the most frail of the playable heroes, but Time Stalkers isn't tremendously difficult anyway.

      If the player is a SitD fan, it's worth it to beat the game with Pyra and see her ending.

    3. Sounds like I might have to at least give her a shot then. I'll probably give all the characters at least a passing try though. If each character has a different ending, then depending on how difficult it is reach them I might try them all.

  2. I remember playing this and thinking that the story was so involved and "adult". Games like Zelda were too simple for my more mature sensibilities. Ha! Shows what I knew as a kid (apparently my confusion of the story wasn't just me not "getting it").

    1. Well, French games tend to have that sense of depth, but rarely do I understand it, so I might be missing something. It's as confusing today as it was when I was a kid.

  3. I like Drakkhen a bit more than you do, but either way I definitely agree that the game's soundtrack is its strong suit. The instrument set is a bit limited and quirky, but the compositions themselves are very nice ambient tracks, especially the night themes.

    1. Well, I like it more than the majority do, but I still do tend to see it in a below average to negative view. Still, could listen to the soundtrack as background music during a lot of different tasks. I am looking forward to Dragon View though.

    2. Just finished replaying Drakkhen for the first time in ages, and I noticed one criticism in your review that isn't quite fair:

      There's no way to tell if one equipment is better than another except by equipping it and seeing what changes. Even then I couldn't tell what the life or magic staff did at first glance.

      The manual actually spells this out pretty explicitly -- the functions of all the rings, staves, spells, etc. are described -- and even ranks all the armor and weapons from weakest to strongest.

      Of course in-game info is always nice, and it doesn't tell you who can wear which armor (which gets to be a hassle), but Drakkhen's a lot less punitive about this than many RPGs of the era, e.g. "Haha, you just wasted 40000 gold on an item that's actually weaker than the cheaper one you already had!" which happens waaay too often in certain games.

    3. Now that you mention it, I don't know if I actually reviewed the manual for this one. I had already completed the game, so I knew I could get through it again without reading it. Good to know that information exists somewhere.

      As for games that tend to waste money, I suspect I'll get to those eventually. I've done my best up to this point not to save-scum through shops, but it might get to a point where that's what's expected.

  4. I never played Drakkhen and I'm glad I didn't.

    Played the sequel though fun game.

    1. Yeah, I think Drakkhen can be skipped without much loss. Dragon View will be a fun game to finally get to. Hope you're around to comment on it then.