With its compelling story and cinematic battles, Panzer Dragoon Saga is one of the most unique RPG’s ever made.
Known in Japan as Azel, Panzer Dragoon RPG, it was released in 1998 on the Sega Saturn by Project Andromeda, it was the latest entry in the popular rail shooter series on the commercially unsuccessful console. Though this time, Andromeda decided to create a very different game, but with a few similarities to its predecessors for some familiarity. Despite being a critical darling, and being considered one of the best RPGS and video games of all time, and earned a spot at #22 on G4’s 100 Greatest Video Games of All Time, this game failed to sell because it was released very late in the Sega Saturn’s lifetime. The game was released in April, and the console was discontinued in August, only 30,000 copies of Panzer Dragoon Saga were sold in the US, and any English copy of the game is rare and can run you at least $300 USD on sites like Ebay, making this a collector’s item.
Taking place in a post-apocalyptic world, you play as Edge, a young solder who is in a group charged with protecting an excavation site. All seems well until an evil monster attacks you. While escaping this creature, you then stumble upon what appears to be a girl sticking out of the wall. Before you know what this is, some imperial troops come and attack your group. These troops are led by the evil Craymen and they ruthlessly kill everyone and take the wall containing the girl. In a fit of rage, you try to attack the soldiers and you are then shot off the cliff down into a ravine.
Apparently unharmed, you wander around confused and run into a mysterious dragon who seems that he wants to help you. You have some strange spiritual connection with the dragon and you place your trust in him, and the dragon whisks you out of the ravine and takes you to your captain. As you watch your beloved captain die, you vow to go on a revenge to kill Craymen and you and the dragon go off on your search for Craymen and try to solve the mystery behind that girl.
The game is largely voice acted, but it seems like Team Andromeda cut some corners on the localization by keeping the Japanese voices, instead of dubbing it over. Luckily they have subtitles. The opening cutscene is all done in a made up language for the game. It’s cool, but kind of silly that only the opening cutscene is in that language, but the rest is Japanese.
While the previous Panzer Dragoon games are rail shooters, Saga is an RPG with mostly free-roaming exploration. There are two modes of exploration: flight, and on foot. On foot exploration is where you control Edge, and mostly takes place in towns. Towns serve the typical RPG purpose of collecting information on where to go, and can sometimes buy items. The game carries over some of its rail-shooting roots by having you call up a targeting cursor to select items or people. All of the dialog in the game is voice acted. The opening movie is in a made up language that’s unique for the series, but the rest of the in-game voices are spoken in Japanese with English subtitles, which is sort of confusing with why they’re different.
Flight exploration is basically this game’s version of dungeons. You control the dragon and you fly around full 3D environments and can fly in any direction. Similar to foot exploration, you have the targeting cursor to select item chests, suspicious places, and target the save machines. Many of these dungeons also have some kind of puzzle that allows you to progress further into the dungeon. These dungeons feature the typical random encounters that everyone either hates or tolerates. This is where the game gets even more unique.
The game features a strange, and very unique and very cinematic battle system. The game is sort of in real time, and you have 3 bars that fill up over time, and sort of like the ATB system in Final Fantasy games, when a bar is filled, you are able to perform an action in battle. Having all 3 bars filled means you can perform 3 consecutive actions. While you wait for your bar(s) to fill up, you are able to maneuver around the enemies to avoid attacks and target their weak zones. There is a radar on the bottom that indicates: neutral, hazardous, and safe zones. These are subject to change, either from the monsters also able to rotate their position, or from the monsters changing these zones. Safe zones mean you’re safe from attack, neutral means you either have a chance of attack, or the monsters use their weaker attacks on you. The hazardous zones mean that you’re prone to being heavily attacked by the monster’s special move.
With the action gauges, you have three choices: you can either use a basic attack, use a berserk move, or use an item. With the basic attack, you either have a choice between using the dragon’s attack to target on a single target, or use Edge’s laser to attack several targets. If you have one target, then these lasers will attack the same target multiple times. It’s more wise to use Edge’s laser to attack since it either does more damage, or attacks multiple enemies, making the battles less time consuming. Berserk moves don’t need that much of an explanation, basically it just like your typical RPG magic/special attacks. At the cost of berserk points, you can cast either a really strong attack, or heal yourself. After a battle, it ranks you based on how well you fought and better scores give you more EXP.
Another aspect is dragon transformation and dragon morphing. Transformations only happen at key story points, and your dragon changes shape and becomes stronger. With morphing, you have a giant circular gauge with 4 points: attack, spirit, defense, and speed. You move your cursor around to get your dragon’s stats to focus on these various stats, or just have it dead center for balanced stats. These various points also alter how your dragon looks.
While they’re pretty good for Sega Saturn standards, they look sort of clunky today. Especially since the Sega Saturn’s graphics uses quadrilaterals for their polygon rendering instead of triangles like the PS1 and N64. The battle scenes are still very nice, and are sort of like the charm point of the game. The battles are very flashy and the attack sequences are pretty well animated, especially the boss scenes. While flight mode is nice, the lack of the use of fog and the short draw distance sometimes makes distant objects sort of pop up out of nowhere instead of fading in so keep that in mind. The on foot scenes are where the game also shows its age with the characters. So if you can deal with blocky characters, you’ll be okay. There are also a few full CGI cutscenes that look very nice compared to the rest of the game.
The environments themselves focus largely on the typical post-apocalyptic scenery, much of the game has a depressing desolate feeling. You venture through hazardous cliffs, vast deserts, and even several ruins that are in the previous environments, and even scattered over a sea. Typical post-apocalyptic signs that a past war has ravaged the entire world.
The music for it is sort of strange. Unlike other RPG’s where the soundtrack is almost entirely of a symphonic nature, Panzer Dragoon Saga seems to range between the standard symphonic music with other songs that are almost tribal sounding. This makes Panzer Dragoon Saga’s soundtrack one of the most interesting, adding more to the overall unique feel of the game.
Panzer Dragoon Saga is definitely one of the most ambitious RPG’s ever created, and definitely one of the best swan songs for a video game console, it’s a definite must have for anyone who’s a fan of RPG’s. On a whopping 4 discs with its very unique and innovated gameplay, and amazing cinematic battle system, even several years later, this game still has no counterparts and sits in a RPG world where it is the only game that mixes aspects of a rail-shooter into its battle system. Though since this game had a limited print, you’re stuck with three choices: coughing up a few hundred bucks for the game, illegally playing it on a Sega Saturn Emulator (or modding your Saturn to play pirated games), or patiently wait until someone either ports the game and/or remake it, seeing that Team Andromeda is a now defunct company. We all pray that this game will someday see the light of day and get more recognition that it certainly deserves. This isn’t a game that’s hyped up based on its rarity, it’s praised because there is simply no other game like Panzer Dragoon Saga.
Visuals (Or Graphics): 8/10.