Panzer Dragoon Saga, Reviewed by Stephan Dolby
Hold onto your hats. This is the most explosive, and possibly greatest RPG ever. Why? All in good time...
Edge is a young lad who works as a fledgling guard for the Empire, protecting miners in an excavation site for ancient artefacts. He’s bored to death. The guards don’t even know why they’re still working there; Edge asks his friend Rhua who tells him that they’re maybe not supposed to know - enquiring will probably shorten your life expectancy quite dramatically. An alert from inside the mine causes the guards to grab their weapons and enter the tunnels. They discover an ancient armour-clad monster, unlike the usual weak creatures that they fight, and it’s hungry for human blood. Edge’s bullets just bounce off its shell. His captain, wounded, shouts at Edge to run. Edge can quite plainly see his Captain and Rhua in trouble. To his right, he spots a heavy duty mining cannon, and runs to it as his captain angrily questions his motives. Edge hauls the huge gun onto his back, but a fast clawed lunge by the creature hits the nearby platform, sending Edge flying backwards. He grabs the gun and runs to his right, into an obvious dead end, just as the creature saunters up onto the platform that he is on. He reaches the dead end, and turns to aim the gun, but the creature lunges again, narrowly missing Edge’s head as it rips upward through the wall, knocking a hole in the ceiling. As Edge’s covers his eyes from the dust, the monster waits so it can see him. It suddenly raises its claws, and as Edge opens his eyes, everything goes white. He sees a girl’s face. He opens his eyes again as the vision fades and turns around to see a fossil of a sleeping girl. Edge is stunned by her beauty, but a call from his Captain alerts him to the fact that the monster is behind him. He scrambles to pick the gun up, and the creature raises its claws just as his captain tells him to shoot out the floor below the beast. As its claw descends towards Edge, he manages to fire the gun from his sitting position, smashing the nearby floor into pieces in a fury of smoke, sending the creature down into the lower reaches of the ruins, crashing into platforms on the way. Edge lets the gun drop to his side and he pants for air. He looks to his left, then suddenly puts the gun down and stands up to see his friends. His captain says that they should get out of there because the beast cannot be dead.
As they walk into the brightness that is outside, Edge as their support, the captain is suddenly flung back by the impact of a shotgun bullet. As Edge cries in horror, a maniacal laugh is heard. The gunman stands there alongside his leaders, just laughing at what he has just done. Rhua looks into the sky and sees an airship, and immediately looks at the insignia. Empire? As he tries to tell them that they’re on their side, the gunman shoots him as well, which is even more horrifying to Edge. The leader tells the gunman, Zastava, to leave the people alone. They seem to be here for something. Edge, in shock from what he has just seen, tries to ask why they have attacked, and then begins to mention something about what is inside the ruins. The leader turns and, in a rather shocked tone, asks “You saw her?”. Edge replies “Yes, there was a girl…” before being silenced by the butt of a gun. The squad head inside, leaving two wounded and one unconscious man outside.
As Edge comes round, his face to the ground, he looks up and sees his comrades. They’re not moving. He then hears something and turns his head to see an ascending airship. He looks down and sees the girl’s fossil hanging from the bottom - they’re stealing her! Edge scrambles to his feet and chases the ship along the nearby bridge. As he runs along in rage, he hears that same evil cackle again, and looks to his right as he stops running. Zastava raises up on his craft, and immediately shoots Edge, who falls down into the canyon.
Craymen has been up to other things. Soon after, an artefact in the Academy of the Imperial Capital, sabotaged by Craymen, explodes, and as a result the entire city is levelled by a massive ball of heat. The Emperor, obviously not in the city at the time, is convinced of Craymen’s involvement in the city’s demise, and orders that he be hunted down using their flagship, Grig Orig.
When he comes to in the lake below, Edge finds that he’s not injured and comes to the conclusion that he was spared by some force. He looks around, trying to find a way to return to the surface, and finds an elevator. Searching for the method to unlock the elevator, he looks up to his right and sees a dragon’s crest on the wall. Baffled by its being there, he looks around and finds an ancient gun. He unlocks the elevator and rides it to where, he presumes, is the surface. The lift stops, revealing another dark area, and he looks around. He suddenly hears a bone hit the floor, and turns around to see multiple red, glowing eyes staring at him from the darkness. He hears movement as the beasts move towards him. He’s seen them before - they’re the same as the creature he fought earlier. He reaches for the gun he found. However, as he aims and attempts to fire, nothing happens. He shakes the gun, and then looks towards the enemy again. He backs off to the edge of the elevator. Just at the right time, a scream from above accompanies the bright light of several homing missiles which immediately obliterate the threat. Edge looks around at the charred remains of what would certainly have been his killers, and suddenly a swooping beast flies past him and down past the elevator. Edge, who has covered his face, moves his arms away, and looks behind him to the edge of the elevator. He looks down to see what it was. Suddenly, a dragon swoops up, causing Edge to fall backwards and on to the floor. It flies towards him and lands very close to him. As they look into each other’s eyes, the dragon initiates a mind-meld with Edge. Edge sees visions of the future, and flashbacks from years gone by. When the visions end, he realises where he is and the incredible experience he has just had. He asks the beast if he has been chosen, to which it rears its head and shrieks a form of acknowledgement. He gets up, and the dragon lowers its head. Edge clambers onto its neck, and it then begins to fly vertically, out of the abyss.
He returns to the excavation site, and finds his Captain dying. The captain says that the man responsible for the attack was Craymen - leader of the Empire’s Black Fleet, now turned renegade. He directs him to his pocket where Edge finds a map of the continent. As he inquires to what it is, he realises that his captain has died. Edge breaks down in shock and swears that Craymen will pay for his treachery.
Edge and his dragon set off through the valley in pursuit of Craymen, but this is only the start of the adventure. His objectives are complicated by the Emperor’s desire to hunt both him and Craymen, and ultimately his perception of the truth becomes clouded. Is Craymen really evil? Why did the dragon choose him? But more importantly, who was that strange girl in the ruins that Craymen wanted so badly..?
Graphics (and a bit about the game)
Boot up Disk 1 and you get the FMV intro, which is kind-of an overview of the game. Pretty smart, but the PAL version has a stretched version of the Japanese version, which is odd. I would have expected it to be from the original computer version rather than the Saturn. The sound is a tad out of sync too, but this is limited to this movie. Also, the colour depth has been lowered. If they used TrueMotion then this wouldn’t have had to be done. Still, great movie.
In-game, the FMV scenes are really great. The same faults as the intro sequence, but the sound is perfectly positioned so that the lip synching is perfect (except for the rare occasions where the lip movement is questionable) and the musical interludes come in at the correct moment. They also boast clarity and smoothness. The strange thing is, they’re still in Japanese, only here we’ve got subtitles. Cost-cutting measures? Maybe, but if it was translated it would lose the emotion of the scenes, and would therefore be not as good. The Japanese language, especially when spoken by Azel, is beautiful. English seems crude in comparison. The first in-game movie on Disk 1 is 5 minutes long, and is great for setting the scene. The only real gripe is that the previous games had 30fps films and this has 15fps, but the clarity and quality is far superior.
In walk mode, Edge walks through settlements and, using a target, can look at, talk to or eavesdrop on people, as well as look at objects from up close or far off. The settlements are lit due to the time of day, and in the evening the village of Zoah looks spectacular as the “Guardian Light” sends yellow light out across the village, brightening up the walls. Zoah is particularly resplendent, as for two or three minutes when you visit it you will see lighting transitions. In the day, it gets brighter and less coloured, and in the evening, the sunset fades, dispelling the gorgeous yellow-orange glow on the walls. The area goes very dark, and then the Guardian Fire kicks in, spreading yellow and green light over the town as it rises up, eventually making the downward-facing surfaces yellow and the walls a nightly blue. Fantastic. These parts of the game are few and far between, but help plot-progression and allow for cut-scenes. Zoah is by far the most visited of these areas, and you will find yourself there for about three hours during the game as it progresses. But what are cut-scenes? These are where video is not needed for Edge’s meetings with people, and the way that these people move is just fantastic. The cut-scenes where Edge talks to Paet are very funny and it just shows how much character they can put into a person. Even the minor characters, like Aldo or even the sweet little girl Rhoda, have character and a history. Also, the camp sections are in this mode, and it’s at these times where Edge can assess and maintain his relationship with his dragon (and initially give him a name). Treat him good constantly and he may just create a berserker spell for you (but only once)! Of note is how nervous the dragon is towards you if you visit the camp near the excavation site. He grows to trust you very quickly.
The flight sections are where the major part of the game lies. You need to explore everywhere you can and, using your lock-on sights (similar to the ones in walk mode), you can look at items, break open structures to get items, enter passages, even get animals to respond to you. These sections look even more spectacular than the walk sections and really push the Saturn to the limit. Just look at the beautiful Canyon Deep Gulch, where you can even see fish swimming around and can actually pick them off! You can see the valley cliffs under the rippling water. One of my favourite places is the Uru waterscape. The sea is absolutely gorgeous, with the effects seen in the valley stage but of a higher scale of brilliance. This section is subjected to (static) light changes, and the objects of the level reflect the lighting changes perfectly. In the cavern sections, the camera changes as you take your dragon up and downhill, and it is really good when you trip the Tower alarm system. Not only does the level flash red, but when you take a lift out of the area the light returns to normal as you approach the next floor. Scintillating. The main aim of the flight sections is explorations and the several simple logic puzzles that you must undertake. A special mention must go out to the skies seen in the game. Absolutely wonderful. You even get a facility where you can look at every enemy you’ve faced, along with the best grade achieved for its type, and it’s data. You can even rotate it and zoom in or out, and, even better, they’re slightly transparent as well so you can see the background slightly. Using pad 2, you can change the RGB and luminescence values for the displayed creature too.
Battle mode is the best. You are instantly teleported to the action. Panzer Dragoon Saga features almost a hundred different sorts of 3D enemy. This section is turn-based, like in other RPGs, but with big modifications. You have a three-gauge system, which charges as you stay stationary. Once charged to one gauge, you can use an item, cast one of a few spells, change your dragon’s type, use Edge’s gun or fire the dragon’s lasers. You can take your shot (if you’re quick enough) and then dodge out of the way to a safe area around the enemy (if there is one) before they take theirs, but each type of enemy charges the gauge at a different speed to you (some charge faster), so tactics are useful. Edge’s gun can be optimised for various settings, but it is best for exploiting enemies’ weak points. The dragon’s homing missiles are great for all-round damage, but not so cool when you need to target individual things. The berserker spells of your dragon (for the most part) use up part of your berserker count and deliver a special-effect-intensive attack to your enemy, which is not decreased by armour. They tend to be the most powerful attacks around, but you should use them sparingly as they also need mostly two gauges to work and can require huge amounts of berserker points. A few spells use one (for healing) or three (for the dragon-enhancement spells). Other things you can do is replenish lost health and berserker points, enhance your armour/speed/power, use portable explosive weapons and even blind your enemy, allowing for you to escape. In this (and flight mode) you can morph your dragon into the form you want, so it can attack harder, take more of a beating, use more powerful berserkers with less berserker points or fly faster. Modifying these attributes before a battle saves the trouble of having to charge up your battle gauge again. It’s also worth mentioning that with the seven different types of dragon which can morph allows for 280,000 different combinations of dragon, and each combination does have an effect. The effects in this part of the game are really something, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen any console do more for the available power. There’s very little slow-down and very few glitches. Sure, the game-screen on the PAL version is the same as on many other non-optimised titles albeit shifted up vertically, but the stills, Edge’s books and the credits are full-screen.
Aurally, this game is just about untouchable. The makers have decided on using chip-generated CyberSound music instead of CD sound. But before you cry out in agony, this allows for beautiful generative music using PCM sound channels, allowing the use of percussion samples as well as instruments, and the extra CD space is used for other things. Just fly through the Uru landscape at a high altitude, with the wind buffeting your dragon… breathtaking. The music in the valley canyon section also deserves a mention for atmosphere. They’ve done everything aurally - new-age music for the water levels, more urgent music for the battles, echoing music for the caverns and softer melodies for inhabited areas. A lot of the music exhibits an amazing use of deep bass, which you’ll hear if you go to Uru, the valley or the caravan, for example. The only CD tracks are the Japanese CD disclaimer, the title music (brilliant) and the end music (also brilliant, even though it is sung in the native Panzer tongue and hence not understandable to most of us). Essentially, the music allows for intense atmosphere and this is very immersive.
This game has got it by the bucketload. The exploration parts will satisfy seasoned RPG players, while the battle scenes are so action-packed and at times intense that even action fans should like this. The fights can be quite difficult, if not to stay alive but to remain in good shape, not use too many resources and get an Excellent!! rating. While the logic puzzles won’t trouble many, you are nicely eased into the action and the difficulty curve allows you to get used to the faster pace of the latter parts of the game. It is a very big game, and when I completed it I looked at my percentages and decided to start again immediately because I had missed parts of the game out. Also, try to beat every enemy in the game with an Excellent!! rating. A few people have accomplished this, but I took nearly 2 1/2 years to find the last enemy, the Golia Hunter (and I’ve now fully completed the game)… Also, try to cover every piece of the map, destroy every target and uncover every enemy. Try to get the Light Wing and, finally, Solo Wing dragon. See? There’s so much to do, and I promise you’ll have so much fun doing it too. It may take about 20 hours to beat it the first time, but I can guarantee much more time will be spent finding secrets, and then playing to aim for true completion. As I say, that took me nearly 2 1/2 years… :)
Put simply, this is the best Saturn game of 1998 and I challenge anyone to disagree with me. It was the last mega PAL game and a major shame. In my opinion, it may be the best Saturn game ever made, although it’s a tough call between this and NiGHTS into dreams… and my opinion sways often. Let’s just say they’re equal, okay?