Panzer Dragoon Saga, Reviewed by Geoffrey
A review of Panzer Dragoon Saga.
The original Panzer Dragoon and its prequel Panzer Dragoon Zwei that was developed for it later to give the laser-breathing dragon first seen in the original game the background it was missing, were both what are commonly referred to as rail shooters, and by rail shooter I mean that the dragon flew on invisible rails from a third person perspective (behind and slightly above the respective dragon animations) along a predetermined flightpath from start to finish while blasting whatever came into view (from any conceivable angle) in a fully realised 3D world like no other. Panzer Dragoon Saga takes the gameplay to the next logical step by freeing players from the invisible rails of the previous games, giving players the freedom to truly explore their surroundings aboard the dutiful dragon who has now become synonymous with the series. Panzer Dragoon Saga can best be described as a role playing game born from, or evolved from (depending on how you look at it) two of the best shooting games of their generation set in the very same world.
The story of Panzer Dragoon Saga ties the storylines of its predecessors together into a singular story arc, and ties up any loose ends, bringing the story of the Ancients to its inevitable end. The game takes place thirty years after the events of Panzer Dragoon (remember, Panzer Dragoon Zwei was a prequel) in a time when old human habits still die hard.
In any of the Panzer Dragoon games we take a trip to a dark vision of the future where the world has been desolated by war, and where we are invited to delve into the deep mystery of ancient ruins built out of glimmering metals that somehow seem untouched by time left behind by a now extinct civilisation. Not only are these ancient installations full of technology so advanced that it simply defies human understanding, but they are also infested with living, breathing bio-mechanical guardians which still guard them even to this day, as if they are still serving the will of long-forgotten masters. They tell the tale of a war between Man’s last great Empire and the creations that had escaped his control, pushing humanity to the very brink of extinction. Now men wish to restore the Empire to its former glory in a world that has already suffered the consequences of an apocalypse human beings of the past have brought upon themselves and countless subsequent generations. People now struggle to survive in the face of the vicious products of ancient genetic engineering. A human empire known only as the Empire to the few remaining people of the world has pillaged all the ancient ruins within its reach for their weaponry, and thus constructed an immense fleet of anti-gravity warships to safeguard its people from bio-engineered predators created by their ancestors.
Soon, however, the Empire turned its attention to world domination by declaring war on all of its neighboring nations. Once the Empire had crushed its neighbors under the military might of its advanced aerial armoured fleet, the Empire sought to control the ancient monolithic structures called Towers, which legends speak of as weapons of immeasurable power…
Edge, a mercenary hired by the Empire to protect an excavation site, is swept up by the inescapable tides of war when he discovers a pale woman encased in stone in the middle of a battle with a deadly pure-type creature born in the Ancient Age. To Edge’s surprise, bullets from his man-sized rifle merely bounce off the creature’s impervious rocky armour. However, despite this little insurmountable problem, and despite the fact that the creature Edge faces wields a scythe-like claw which slices through solid rock, Edge simply refuses to give up without a fight. The young mercenary is only able to defeat it by destroying the bridge it’s standing on with a carefully aimed rocket in an act of sheer stubbornness, but the only thing on his mind at that time is the discovery he has made.
The few survivors of the battle against the Ancient Age creature escape the excavation site in one piece only for all of Edge’s friends to be shot dead by what at first appears to be a member of their own fleet whose insane laughter will continue to echo in his mind long after the incident took place. Black ships hover over them in the sky above, and unbeknownst to Edge, a rebel fleet led by a man known as Craymen staged a bold coup to seize the Imperial ruins. Edge cannot understand why the excavation site is being attacked by his own forces, but is knocked unconscious before he can learn anything more.
Edge wakes up in time to see Craymen’s flagship taking the relic containing the mysterious young woman he found inside the excavation site. Despite being powerless to stop the ship from flying off into the distance with its stolen cargo, Edge runs after it anyway. Unfortunately for him, he is shot while trying in vain to pursue the rapidly departing ship by the same man who killed his friends, and is blasted into what from above almost seems like a bottomless chasm. Edge is later surprised to find himself waking up in clear blue water, miraculously unharmed within a ruin stretching up into the air as far as the eye can see. He comes to the conclusion that the water broke his fall, and after exploring his ruinous surroundings, he finds a gun shaped like a dragon near a finely engraved image of a dragon high on a wall above. After taking an elevator to the surface, a small army of amour-plated bio-mechanical monsters each with a gleaming red eye that penetrates the darkness all around them start marching towards Edge in unison. Edge’s gun conveniently refuses to fire when he needs it the most, and for a brief moment it looks as if the young hero in the making is on the verge of an early death when he is saved by none other than a dragon of myth and legend, which blows them all to gory pieces of charred flesh and bone with lightening fast laser beams that rain down from above.
Edge stares into the face of the dragon until their minds become one where the dragon proceeds to show him images of the white haired man referred to as Craymen who ordered the death of his friends, the young girl who was stolen from the excavation site, and a mysterious metallic monolith located on a small island on a shimmering lake. Edge realises that the dragon has chosen him to be its rider and to stop Craymen from activating this newly discovered Tower. From here you naturally play the role of Edge, a young hunter seeking vengeance for the death of his friends aboard a mythical dragon. In the beginning Edge’s purpose seems crystal clear, but as his journey progresses his goals become less and less clear as he’s thrown into the war between Craymen and the Empire for control of a Tower of legend and as he inevitably learns the true purpose of the Towers themselves. What may seem evil at first becomes distorted by noble intent, and by the end you’re left wondering who the true villains are. Revenge is still Edge’s first priority, however, so the chase for Craymen begins with the Empire in pursuit not far behind…
Let’s just say that for a console that has earned a reputation for being unable to handle 3D graphics, Panzer Dragoon Saga exceeds all expectations. As you might expect from a typical Panzer Dragoon game, PD Saga squeezes every last drop of power out of the Saturn to produce fluid and detailed animations. It’s a safe bet that the game renders some of the best visuals of its time, showcasing the true power of the Saturn. Textures are mapped out with all the intricacy of a work of art in vivid detail around 3D objects and scenery all in the Saturn’s second highest 3D resolution mode to sharpen the texture work, and the 3D environments are always solid (as opposed to wobbly). The sight distance is also surprisingly great with 3D backdrops growing into place rather than popping up out of nowhere. The game runs at a smooth 24 frames per second with slowdown only occurring momentarily when the action really heats up, but in those instances it’s safer to describe the action as running in slow-motion rather than suffering from the much dreaded choppy-ness associated with frame skipping.
Team Andromeda pushed the Saturn to its limits to render special effects thought not possible by its critics, including transparent rivers that ripple before your very eyes. And as if that wasn’t impressive enough, the lakes of Uru change colour as they literally reflect changing time-of-day lighting, which is truly a sight to behold. Of course, that’s not the first or last time players witness light sourcing in motion; when the sun sets there’s a camp-fire in the nomadic caravan site that lights up everything around it. The game world is packed with many weird and wonderful sights and sounds. You travel through many exotic places unique to this particular world on Edge’s journey (mostly flying atop his dragon companion) that never cease to amaze. From cloudscapes to transparent underwater passageways, they never fail to grab your attention when you least expect it.
Compared to other games of its time, Panzer Dragoon Saga’s graphics can hold their own against the best of them. Even though the game’s graphics are rather grainy by today’s standards, the game’s artwork still stands the test of time. The armoured skyships armed to the teeth with cannons and beam lasers constructed by the human Empire are back from the first two games with a vengeance. From floating fortresses to metallic insectoid bio-engineered predators, Panzer Dragoon Saga has an extensive range of imaginative enemies that will leave you in awe from the first moment you lay eyes on them. Giant worms that could swallow a man whole even burst out of the Garil desert, and leap through the air overhead before borrowing into the ground again. The bony-white seemingly organic anti-gravity engines the Imperial warships use bear all the hallmarks of an almost alien civilisation that is so typical of this world. As you might also come to expect from a typical Panzer Dragoon game, there are huge screen-sized bosses just begging to be blown up into thousands of tiny pieces. They also have huge weaknesses that must be exploited if the player hopes to defeat them.
The cinematic cutscenes that are one of the trademarks of this series return in full force. They are easily some of the most impressive I’ve seen on the Saturn with facial expressions that help characters come to life. Very few cutscenes actually use the in-game graphics engine, but who’s complaining? Certainly not me.
The gameplay of Panzer Dragoon Saga is somewhat akin to its predecessors only set in a free roaming environment with random battles occurring at a leisurely pace as you travel from one place within an area to another by accelerating of your own free will. The dragon is completely under the player’s control and you are free to steer the dragon in whatever direction you choose as it flies through the air. Pressing the A button brings up an on-screen cursor (resembling the targeting cross-hair seen in Panzer Dragoon Zwei) which is used to target nearby and far away objects (objects within range are indicated by a blue-coloured cursor, and objects out of reach are indicated by a yellow cursor) for inspection or use by simply scrolling over them. Pressing A again will release any contents they might contain, reveal their identity, activate something etc. Exploration is the key to success in these free roaming areas. You can even travel back to old locations to discover new things even as new locations become available to explore to your heart’s content.
You can also explore areas as the main character on foot, such as towns, where you’re given the chance to talk to people and buy/sell whatever items you may require for the trials ahead, like any other RPG. This also grants you the rare opportunity to familiarise yourself with the disenfranchised people of the wartorn world of Panzer Dragoon, thereby becoming fully acquainted with their day-to-day struggles. While controlling Edge on foot you can talk to people by scrolling the cursor over them in the same manner as in the dragon riding areas, and even eavesdrop on them from a distance to learn secrets from people who would otherwise be tight-lipped if Edge chose a more direct approach. There are even quests unrelated to the main plot to complete if you feel like taking a brief detour. These side-quests, some of which only become available as the plot progresses, not only make the world feel less static, but create the added illusion of playing in non-linear world (unlike Japanese RPGs such as Grandia 2 where all there is is what lies ahead).
Combat is real-time where actions can only be performed once your energy bars have charged up, but the game can be paused between choosing how to make your next move, giving you time to think and plan ahead. You can circle your dragon around an enemy or enemies in order to avoid attacks zones and find weak spots. Remaining in one place will gradually charge up to three power gauges, which in turn grants you the opportunity to attack, use items, or unleash a berserk attack from a range of special class-exclusive abilities (namely attack, defense, agility and spiritual). Berserker attacks require more than two power gauges to be fully charged up before you dragon is permitted to vent all that pent up aggression.
Regular attacks include firing Edge’s laser gun (which can be customized via upgrades), and the dragon’s spiraling lock-on lasers that home in on several enemies at once, or blasts one enemy several times (as the dragon morphs it can lock onto more enemies/areas of an enemy). As you charge your weapons so does the enemy (they fight in preset routines, but their routines sometimes change without warning, especially in the case of bosses). At the top right of the screen is a handy radar which naturally indicates your position in relation to the enemy. Enemy attack zones are indicated as red or no colour, and safe zones are indicated as green (enemies will always move into a position where they can attack you, but the red zones are where they unleash their deadliest attacks on you). Positioning yourself in a safe zone is the most recommended way to go, though an enemy rarely allows you to stay there for long (not to mention some weak spots are located in red danger zones). Overall, this game’s combat system is quite innovative for its time; I’m surprised it hasn’t been copied (or cloned as I would usually put it) in other RPGs.
Your performance in each battle will be ranked at the end. Each rank determines how much money (in the form of dynes) and experience needed to improve statistics the dragon receives. Killing an enemy or group of enemies as quickly as possible as soon as possible is the only way to earn the highest ranking and be on the receiving end of the best possible rewards. Your dragon will also evolve into a new form as the story develops, or if upgrades are found, complete with a new pair of wings coloured in beautiful patterns, and thus, become more powerful each and every time by gaining deadlier homing lasers which allow him to destroy objects that were previously indestructible. Real time morphing is included too; the dragon can be customised to the preferred specifications of the player by balancing points between agility, offensive, defensive and spiritual (magical) capabilities. Increasing points in one such area, will decrease points in another. Strengthening your dragon’s offensive capabilities, for instance, will weaken his defensive capabilities, and so on. The dragon’s appearance will even change to reflect his altered abilities. For example: morphing your dragon to be more defensive will thicken its armour.
The game’s musical score is generated by the Saturn’s on-board sound chip and often sounds like it came straight out of an epic anime. One can argue that the orchestral score of the original Panzer Dragoon better puts players in the heat of the action, but I believe the synthesized instruments heard in and throughout Panzer Dragoon Zwei and Panzer Dragoon Saga go a long way further to building up an atmosphere for a future where technology reigns supreme. The anime-inspired music manages to capture the mood of each and every moment in its own way in ambient fashion. For instance, frantically-paced sound tracks are used to reflect a sense of urgency in such a situation. Whereas, echoing music is used in winding, empty underground passageways to reinforce a sense of loneliness. Bosses and types of enemies also have their own distinctive sound tracks to distinguish them from one another. Primeval themes reflect the low-tech nature of human settlements struggling to survive in the barren wastelands, while techno themes are reflective of the futuristic nature of the ancient yet technologically advanced ruins still littering the world. The music, while in a league of its own, encompasses a world-wide variety of instrumental sounds. The theme of Atolm, a hostile black dragon Edge encounters early in the game, is composed of tribal drum beats rolling in quick, orderly, alternating rhythms, and culminates in a beautiful flow of resounding panpipes. The music besieges the ears with an atmosphere of otherworldliness like no other; in other words, few soundtracks are more memorable than this one.
Apart from the intro and ending where the fictitious yet incomprehensible Panzerese language is used, every spoken line is spoken in Japanese. The voice acting is lucid even if we cannot understand a single word of it, but thankfully everything is supported by English subtitles. The language barrier actually helps immerse English players into an already alien world that paints a very bleak picture of humanity’s future if you ask me. But who’s asking me? Heh. The voice actors play more than mere roles; every line of dialogue is injected with a healthy dose of genuine emotion to make the characters they play sound all the more convincing.
All the other in-game sounds ranging from gently flapping wings to violent explosions, subtle and dramatic alike, are almost lifelike to the ears. Many of these sounds were ported over from the previous two Panzer Dragoon games, and thereby creates an audible sense of continuity.
It’s a shame that Sega distributed so few copies of Panzer Dragoon Saga; I cannot stress enough how action-packed and meaningful the game truly is. The underlying theme of humans trying to wield ancient weapons far beyond their understanding in a post-apocalyptic setting speaks volumes of humanity’s self-destructive nature. The game will last a veteran gamer little more than 15-20 hours, but has great replay value nevertheless mainly because the story may take some time to digest. The deep plot is tied to the events of the previous games, so any fan or anyone who’s experienced the depth hidden beneath the surface of the previous Panzer Dragoon games will easily uncover the existing connections and the direct impact those games have on Panzer Dragoon Saga as it transpires. Many questions accumulated from the earlier games are answered but more unanswerable questions arise at the same time. The fact that we are not told every little detail keeps the mystery alive; no wonder so many people begged for a follow up game. We desperately want to alleviate the suspense!
Even though the English script leaves no room for ambiguity, we still don’t know exactly what happened in the Ancient Age, nor has the identity of the Ancients been revealed. Humans of the past created the bio-weapons that still hunt them to this day according to the English script, but the source of these bio-weapons haunting the sites of ancient installations like ghosts with unfinished business is far less clear and far more vague in the original Japanese script. The irony of humans creating their own demise would be lost if the people of the Ancient Age weren’t human, and even if the original Japanese game tells an entirely different story in which humans aren’t repeating their own mistakes, I refuse to believe that everything we’ve learnt over the years was a lie. Perhaps it’s best for all involved that the Ancient Age remains forever shrouded in mystery. Still, even if the story isn’t entirely true to the original Japanese version of the game, my final verdict on it remains the same.
Panzer Dragoon Saga tells a very thought-provoking tale of humanity’s insatiable hunger for power which no self-respecting Saturn owner should miss. It’s a shame that it isn’t longer. Team Andromeda have made their dream to create a three part epic story a reality, and Panzer Dragoon Saga realises the full potential of the Sega Saturn. I wish readers the best of luck finding it at an affordable price. Needless to say, unless you’re a hardcore Sega fan who’s made it their purpose in life to hunt down under-appreciated masterpieces, I wouldn’t recommend wasting your time and money searching for a copy of Panzer Dragoon Saga when far better modern RPGs are now available at a mere a fraction of this game’s average asking price on Ebay. You have been warned. Now Sega, where’s Panzer Dragoon Saga 2? This game is just begging for a modern-day RPG sequel…