Over two years in the making, Panzer Dragoon Saga (PDS), Team Andromeda’s last game, wraps up the events from the first two Panzer Dragoon games and turns this rail-shooter series into a role-playing game (RPG). Released at the end of the Sega Saturn’s life span and around the time Final Fantasy VII was released on the Playstation, the game was criminally overlooked by the general gaming public and released in small numbers. These days, however, it holds a legendary, highly sought-after status among retro-gamers and for good reason: it is a solid adventure with an emotional and thought provoking story, innovative gameplay, awesome graphics (for the time) and an atmospheric soundtrack.
Taking place after the events of the first Panzer Dragoon (Zwei was a prequel), the story delves deeper into the foreign world ravaged by ancient secrets and hostile monsters established in the first two games. It follows bored Empire mercenary Edge, who, defending some miners from a monster attack, discovers a sleeping girl, Azel, in an ancient technological device, buried in the cavern’s wall. A rebel faction, led by Craymen, attacks and steals Azel. After Edge is seemingly killed, he encounters a dragon who rescues him from attacking monsters. Edge then sets out to seek revenge for his fallen comrades. This is just the introduction; the story thickens with intrigue, deceit, and revelations about not only why the rebels attacked the mine site, but also about the state of the world, the purpose of the mysterious people from the Ancient Age, the dragon’s goal, the Empire’s greedy nature, and free will versus predetermined destiny. The story’s existential exploration of life is presented through gorgeous Full-Motion-Video(FMV) and in-game generated sequences that are filled with quirky characters, horrifying encounters, and many twists and turns. The story alone, which takes a while to get moving, is worth the high prices the game now fetches on ebay.
The gameplay is novel, turning the rail-shooting action of the first-two games into a turns-based RPG that feels like it plays out in real-time. In what was probably the first game to implement three-dimensional gameplay into RPGs, the player can rotate 360 degrees around enemies in order to locate the enemy’s weak spot, find a position where the player is safe from enemy attack, or situate yourself where the enemy’s attacks are less damaging. Players can charge up to three time-sensitive bars that allow for different attack types. Level one attacks allow the player to shoot the enemy with Edge’s gun or the dragon’s lasers, while levels two and three allow use of the dragon’s special attacks, which range from a berserk of lasers and astral scythes, to bombastic detonations and spiritual dragon aid. The more players level up, the more special attacks are available and most are devastating. Players can also use items, such as healing elixirs or time-limited shields. After each battle, the player is given a ranking from “Close Call” to “Excellent” depending on their performance.
How you perform in your battles is an important strategic element, because a good rank not only equates to more experience points and loot, but also to which special attacks you can use. Like your in-game performance effected how your dragon transformed in Panzer Dragoon Zwei, in PDS your battle performance effects what forms your dragon can take. Each dragon form allows players to accentuate or deemphasise four interrelated battle attributes –attack, defence, agility, and spirit– that effect the way your dragon handles in battle. Knowing which attributes to sacrifice in favour of others when fighting particular enemies is key to battle strategy.
Other gameplay sections includes exploration, both of the world’s environments atop your dragon, in which you solve visual-spacial puzzles to reach your destination, and also on foot as Edge in the game’s town environments, where you must talk to characters and perform tasks for residents to obtain necessary items or information to further the story.
Enhancing the emotional storyline and the gameplay sections, while also creating an otherworldly atmosphere is Saori Kobayashi and Mariko Nanba’s amazing soundtrack. Combining orchestral, tribal, and electronic music styles into a unique fusion, the soundtrack prompts emotion from players in the cut-scenes, while evoking the isolated nature of the landscapes and the threatening nature of the battles. The sound effects are appropriate, and some, like the dragon’s scream when hit during battle, are even moving.
The game’s introduction and ending are voiced in the fictional Panzerese language, but the rest of the game’s dialogue, which is subtitled, is spoken in Japanese. This adds to the world’s foreign nature and is well performed.
Graphically, the game pushes the Saturn to do amazing visual effects seen in few Saturn games. The reflective, rippling waters of Georgius, the stunning effects the different times of day on the Uru Ruins, and the dragon’s special attacks are absolutely stunning. Unfortunately, the display wasn’t PAL optimised, leaving players in PAL territories with large borders.
Overall, Panzer Dragoon Saga is a spectacular videogame that I encourage all role-playing and adventure game fans to experience at least once in their lifetime.