MG Rewind – Panzer Dragoon Saga – Review

written by Alex ‘Alaric’ Lemcovich on 24.1.13 panzer-dragoon-saga

I’m a little uncertain how to start this review; it feels almost like I’m writing an obituary, since we’re talking about a game that had its time way back in the mid 90’s; a game that was overshadowed by Final Fantasy VII for reasons that had more to do with the fact that it was a SEGA Saturn exclusive title rather than a game that deserved to be forgotten.

Panzer Dragoon Saga is one of the lost gems of the 32-bit era, a time when characters with pixellated faces were the cutting edge of storytelling immersion, and the concept of decent voice actors for games was downright laughable. In these respects, Panzer Dragoon Saga was well ahead of its time; the game comes on four discs, not because it’s unbelievably lengthy in its gameplay content, but because of the massive amount of rendered cutscenes. All the characters – yes, ALL of them – have spoken dialogue and I can’t help but be grateful that developers Team Andromeda didn’t replace the Japanese voiceovers with English ones. The emotion and subtleties of the characters are conveyed brilliantly as they stand, even though the graphics look dated.

So in case you’re inspired to seek this rare game out on the market it will help enormously if you can speak or read Japanese, since English subtitled copies are rarer still.

Another problem here, as far as reviewing goes, is that I’m not sure how much of the story I should tell you. How much can I give away to convey how brilliant this games narrative is without ruining anything, in the unlikely event that it gets a much-deserved re-release?

Worse still, you can’t really summarise the plot of Panzer Dragoon Saga in a few short sentences. It’s like trying to summarise the back story of Mass Effect or HALO, it’s more than just a guy going around shooting the fuck out of everything in his way. That being said, I’ll try my best.

Basically, Panzer Dragoon Saga is set in a post-apocalyptic world where human civilisation was once at a point of unbelievable power. We built these vast underground networks, environmental control systems, and we also decided it would be a good idea to mess with the planet’s ecosystem by genetically engineering new creations. Eventually these got out of control, there were a few wars; nobody’s really certain at this point what happened, but the end result is that human civilisation took a nose dive and now we struggle to survive against the very monsters and devices we created.

Having procured a great deal of ancient technology, including weapons and airships, humans have managed to form a new Empire that’s successfully defended its territory from the monsters, but this isn’t a ‘nice’ Empire – oh, no – these people are absolutely power mad. They want control of the ancient technology, control over the monsters themselves, they basically want to dominate everything and everyone.

This is where our protagonist Edge comes in. He’s a young guardsman posted to an Imperial excavation site on the Frontier, where a strange new artefact is uncovered by pure luck. What appears to be a girl, in some kind of stasis and embedded in a wall. Shortly afterwards, everything goes to shit. A rebel force under the command of an Imperial defector, Craymen, attacks the site and massacres Edge’s friends, and Edge himself is shot and sent tumbling into the valley abyss.

Somehow surviving, Edge encounters a dragon which saves him from a bunch of monsters then carries him to safety. Not knowing the dragon’s purpose or why it chose to save him, Edge sets out to find Craymen and take revenge for his friends’ deaths.

See? That wasn’t so hard.

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Panzer Dragoon Saga is the third in a series of Panzer Dragoon games. If you’re a relatively young gamer the name probably means little to you, but more experienced players who owned an Xbox may recall the on-rails shooter Panzer Dragoon Orta. Panzer Dragoon Saga is the only game in the series to be presented in a RPG format, so upon beginning this adventure you’re sitting through a ten minute prologue where the story is set up and the world is introduced.

The gameplay is split between exploration and combat modes. Edge’s dragon can fly virtually anywhere in the field map, investigating points of interest, collecting items, and generally getting from one area to the next. Following the conventional JRPG method, enemy encounters occur at random, and by defeating your foes you’re awarded money, experience, and items.

Combat is reliant on an active time battle system, where three action gauges gradually fill up and you’re able to make moves depending on how many gauges you have, but Panzer Dragoon Saga adds a tactical flavour by allowing you to position yourself around the enemies you fight. There are advantages and disadvantages to this; for instance you can move from a neutral point where the enemy can attack you to a safe zone where they cannot, however, if your foe has a vulnerable weak point and in order to hit it you have to position yourself in their line of fire, you’ll need to act quickly to exploit it without getting a smack in the teeth. It should also be mentioned that enemies are able to position themselves to their advantage, so it’s not a case of them sitting still waiting for you to hit them.

You have four options in combat. The dragon can fire lock-on laser attacks, inflicting damage on a few enemies. Edge can fire his gun, which is good for hitting weak spots or other specific targets. You can unleash special moves your dragon learns throughout the course of the game, summoning a range of powers to help out that includes giant fireballs, energy blades, homing lasers, healing, and shields. Of course you can also make use of items found throughout your journey.

By levelling up your dragon learns more effective types of special abilities and attack power rises as well, but Team Andromeda doesn’t leave development there. The dragon actually evolves over time, morphing into different dragons, and you’re able to customise its stats as you see fit in this way. You’ll quickly become aware that increasing one statistic such as laser attack power or defence will have an adverse effect on other statistics like agility or the dragon’s mental strength, and the gameplay during combat will demonstrate these differences. It is fun zipping around enemies with agility points maxed out, but getting hit by a powerful attack will most assuredly rape your health points. With all things in Panzer Dragoon Saga, there is balance.

On a purely aesthetic note, the number of shapes your trusty steed can take is staggering, reaching into thousands of variants, and watching the dragon change shape and colour so effortlessly – bearing in mind that this game was made in the days of the first PlayStation – is a monument to Team Andromeda’s collection of talented people.

There are things I’ve seen in Panzer Dragoon Saga that have rarely been attempted by even the most accomplished JRPGs, particularly with some of the dragon’s special attacks you unleash that use dramatic camera movements or special effects to demonstrate the raw power at your command, and it’s in these moments that you feel truly awesome as a player. What’s also great is that every defeated enemy is added to an in-game database where you can zoom in, look at it, and read a description on it, which again shows immense attention to detail. Plus you can admire the creature and airship designs, which range from the grotesque to the downright bizarre.

As far as exploration is concerned, there are a few occasions when Edge is given some time away from his dragon to run around and interact with NPCs, expanding the story or gaining background information through items he can find in local settlements.

If there’s a point where Panzer Dragoon Saga definitely shows its age, it’s in the on-foot sections. Pop-up graphics are used to lessen the strain on 32-bit era processing capabilities, which is understandable, and as for the in-game cutscenes where Edge is talking to important characters…Yeah, you’ll need to work hard to accept the static pixel faces. But hey, if you’ve ever played and enjoyed things like Minecraft or older Final Fantasy games, there’s no reason at all why you couldn’t immerse yourself in this. It’s impressive that Team Andromeda even attempted to do full scenes in-game; at the time it was cutting edge game narrative, so while it does appear to have aged badly I still sat enraptured by what was going on.

The music is unlike anything you would have heard in a game before, in a good way, and its unearthly tones really help you soak up the haunting atmosphere of sunken ruins, lost citadels, and ancient horrors created by mankind’s errant passion for control. All the antagonistic forces Edge battles against have their own themes and it’s the kind of music that stays with you after the game has finished. In short, it makes the world of Panzer Dragoon Saga completely believable and without it the game would feel hollow.

panzer-dragoon-sagaThe thing you come to love about Panzer Dragoon Saga is how dark it all is. Most JRPGs have dipped into dark themes here and there, but Panzer Dragoon Saga starts off dark and from disc one it just gets darker and darker. Edge at first thinks he can get this strange ancient woman back and kill Craymen to appease the Empire, but it soon becomes clear it’s not going to be that easy. The Empire are bastards who want to control everything, including dragons, and being a dragon rider Edge is told he’s now pretty much a target for everyone, including Craymen’s forces and the monsters.

There’s a long period of time throughout the game where Edge’s prime focus is on Craymen and what he’s after, then his focus shifts a little to learn more about this strange girl who he found in the excavation site, and after that, round about disc three, the Empire starts getting more involved and things begin to get really nasty. It’s a story that sets out with the simple theme of vengeance, then that seed grows and begins to spread into ideas of fighting for a just cause, and what makes it special is how Edge’s character doesn’t react in the typical Japanese RPG hero kind of way. None of this soul-searching or plucky bravado bullshit; Edge is completely down-to-Earth about what his motives are and who he’s dealing with.

Another break from convention is that Craymen never appears in a boss fight. Being the apparent main bad guy you would never have thought this was feasible for a JRPG, where periodic showdowns with the villain are central to the experience. That’s not to say there are no antagonists you fight against more than once, but without spoiling too much I’ll only state that they’re not the enemies you’d expect to be fighting.

There are other significant characters who help Edge out. One of them is a heavily scarred treasure hunter, Gash, and he’s more or less a counterpoint to Edge’s fury at Craymen in the beginning.

There’s this great scene where they’re sat at a campfire in a ruined village and Gash asks Edge what he’s so determined to accomplish with a dragon, and when Edge explains he’s got a score to settle with a man who killed his friends Gash says, “Well, that’s as good a reason as any. Few are brave enough to travel to the Frontier and half of those are crazy, but I’m not out to murder anyone.” It’s a brilliant moment in the script and it reminds us that what Edge is trying to do is really no less ignoble than what Craymen’s soldiers did to his friends.

It’s about two thirds of the way into Panzer Dragoon Saga when we finally see Edge confront Craymen, and I can only say that the way everything builds up to this moment is sublime. I still get chills when I watch that scene and, as much as I would love to share it with you, I can’t spoil it. Just get the game and play through it and watch it yourself, I can’t do it justice here. It would be like showing someone the scene from Mass Effect where Sheppard has his first conversation with a Reaper, or if you want a film reference to go by, showing someone that interrogation scene from The Dark Knight with Heath Ledger’s Joker.

A story must always be appreciated as a whole and I won’t do Panzer Dragoon Saga a disservice by showing a key scene here; just know that it’s significant and it will send the good kind of shivers through you.

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So a great story, told through expertly spoken dialogue with unskippable cutscenes. When you save your game you might notice the game time doesn’t account for the amount of time you spent watching those full motion video sequences, so I hesitate to put a number on how many minutes of cutscenes there are throughout Panzer Dragoon Saga, but we’re talking at least a solid hour or two.

Panzer Dragoon Saga is something of a tragic figure in gaming at the moment. It’s passionately supported by a loyal collection of fans, like me, who set up sites or make videos, and there are those who seek it out amongst the folds of the internet through sites like Ebay in an effort to play it. Unfortunately it’s not enough and there will come a time when this highly influential and rare game will start to disappear entirely.

If you support gaming culture and believe that games are more than just childish activities where you press buttons in front of a pretty screen, Panzer Dragoon Saga needs your support in order to bring about its resurrection. The game has been the subject of hundreds of articles in the years since its debut on the Saturn, praising its graphics, its story, and its ambition, but it deserves a full re-release so that younger generations will be able to enjoy what it has to offer.

In the description of this video I’ve included the links to a couple of websites and a petition – perhaps you’ll check those out, maybe sign the petition. Like all things gaming related, nothing happens unless someone thinks there’s money to be made, so show this game the support it deserves and who knows – one day soon you could be downloading it from Xbox Live, PlayStation Network, or Steam.

Until that day comes, if it comes at all, Panzer Dragoon Saga remains one of the rarer yet most rewarding titles on the market. If you haven’t played it I simultaneously pity and envy you, because you have no idea how magnificent and rewarding it is, and perhaps in some ways that’s a kindness given the likelihood of Team Andromeda’s masterpiece fading away in years to come.

Without question one of my all time favourite games and one I’ll remember for as long as my higher brain functions remain intact.

5 stars

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