Panzer Dragoon Saga may not have much cachet with gamers these days (what does, besides Call of Duty? olol), but make no mistake: the name used to be whispered amongst gamers beyond just the hardest of the hardcore. Sega’s last hurrah for their doomed Saturn game console. The bizarre RPG follow-up to a rail-shooting franchise. The pathetically small print run which ultimately led to its infamy. Panzer Dragoon Saga was critically acclaimed when it released, but its legacy afterward became the stuff of myths, due to the fact that it printed only 6,000 copies initially, with the final units shipped at the end of its production run totaling 30,000. Keep in mind that most games these days have to sell through at least more than 100,000 units in order to be considered successful. Panzer Dragoon Saga is something of a holy grail amongst video game collectors, a unicorn. One rarely spots a copy in the wild, and if one does, one must be ready to pay dearly for it.
I never, ever thought I would come across a copy outside of, say, eBay. But one day, I found myself on the end of an offer to sell me the game for a price which, while still quite high, I knew I would never beat. I grimaced, forked over the change, and waited for the copy to arrive in the mail. You readers already know full-well the joyous bounty of the package I received, but the question still remained: Is Panzer Dragoon Saga all it’s cracked up to be?
Panzer Dragoon Saga takes place in the same universe as (and chronologically takes place after) the first two games in the franchise. The world was devastated by some unspecified calamity in the past that decimated an ancient, hyper-advanced civilization. The survivors of this apocalypse could only eke out a meager existence and over the millennia humanity once again divides itself into factions, the most powerful being the Empire. Aggressive mutants also roam the landscape, making survival harsh. Bioweapon dragons also seem to exist, rare relics of the Ancient civilization.
Edge, the main character, is a grunt in the massive Empire and is currently assigned to guard an archaeological dig site out in the boonies. It’s a pretty quiet gig until one day, a rogue faction of Imperial soldiers led by a charismatic officer named Craymen attacks the site, stealing one of the recent mysterious finds: what looked like a perfectly preserved young woman buried inside the rock. In the ensuing chaos, Edge and his compatriots are shot and left for dead. Surprisingly, though, Edge survives the attack unharmed and happens across a mysterious dragon that takes to him. Using the dragon, he vows to take revenge on Craymen and discover the secret behind why the mysterious girl was so valuable.
It’s not the most original story in the universe. If you’re a keen observer, you’re probably already saying to yourself, “Oh this is just Castle in the Sky, that Miyazaki film from the 80s.” And you’d be right. The dopey young man thrust into an adventure bigger than he could possibly comprehend, the mysterious young woman with special powers, the mutinous soldier from the powerful, villainous Empire… It’s been done before. Especially by JRPGs. It seems like every other JRPG is just retelling the story of Castle in the Sky with a few tweaks here and there. But the story isn’t why anyone would want to play Panzer Dragoon Saga, though. No, the jewel in its crown is the battle system.
When I mentioned that this was an RPG sequel to an on-rails shooter, you were probably wondering how the hell that would play, right? Would they just have it be like a typical shooter but with hit points and stats? Would they turn it into a fully turn-based affair with enemies lining up on one side and your party members on the other? Instead of going with either lazy, uncreative approach, Team Andromeda, the internal Sega studio that pumped out the three Saturn installments in the franchise, decided to blaze a trail and try something so off-beat and unusual that it could only work in a game like Panzer Dragoon Saga. It all starts with the layout of each individual battle. It’s always just you and your dragon: no extra party members you pick up along the way or anything. Your dragon and the enemy unit are placed on a four quadrant circle where both you and the enemy can circle around each other. This is necessary because certain enemies have weak points behind them, or in front or on the sides (or consequently, may be immune to attacks from a certain direction), and it’s up to the player to position himself in the quadrant where he has the biggest advantage at any given time.
This becomes more difficult than it sounds when the player’s action gauge comes into play. Much like the Final Fantasy series, in Panzer Dragoon Saga there’s several gauges that fill up with the passage of time that determine when and what actions the player can perform. Shooting with the player’s gun or using the dragon’s homing lasers uses up one full gauge, where some special attacks may take all three. And while the player is positioning himself in battle, the gauge stops filling up. So players who constantly shift position will have to deal with the enemy getting more turns to act, and vice versa. There’s a tension between keeping an advantageous position in relation to the enemy while also moving as little as possible in order to build up your action gauge.
When the player actually chooses to act, more complexity is added to the formula. You can attack with Edge’s gun, which is a one-shot attack that deals concentrated damage to one target. You can equip different gun types for different effects, such as extra damage to an enemy’s weak point. The other method of physical attack is using the dragon’s homing lasers, which send out lasers that lock on to multiple enemy targets at once, but deal less damage. This can work well with swarms of many weaker enemies or bosses that have more than one target on their bodies. Other options include the omnipresent Use Item or selecting a Berserk technique. Berserk techniques are what Panzer Dragoon Saga calls its magic system. As your dragon levels up, it learns new Berserk techniques from different disciplines: Attack, Agility, Defense and Spiritual classes. Each technique uses up “BP” which is the MP of the game. You need at least one full action gauge to use a technique and many of the more powerful techniques require two or three full gauges to perform.
There’s also a whole other aspect to how your dragon performs in battle. You see… your dragon can actually re-spec its stats on the fly. While you gain some stats uniformly as you level up in the game, you can redistribute the balance of them whenever you want to in the game, inside or outside of battle. If you want to take points away from your Spiritual power and Defense to create an agile, offense-driven dragon, you can. Or you can go the other way or mix and match between any of the other classes of dragon as you like. And as you do so, the appearance of your dragon actually morphs. At certain key points in the game, your dragon will actually morph into a new specialized class of dragon that has access to new techniques in its chosen area of expertise that other classes aren’t able to select. There’s also other tangible benefits to specializing your dragon’s class. When all your action gauges are full in battle, your dragon will be granted a boon based on its area of expertise. Defensive dragons have regenerating HP, Spiritual dragons have regenerating BP, Attack dragons will randomly counterattack the enemy’s actions, etc. This aspect of the game allows for a lot of personal style on the player’s part as well as making subsequent playthroughs potentially tangibly different than the original.
As you can see, no other RPG has ever even ATTEMPTED what Panzer Dragoon Saga accomplished in using its shooter heritage in such a creative way as well as putting in some elements that are recognizably from RPGs. In the best RPGs, you don’t dread battles, you rejoice at them. Panzer Dragoon Saga engages the player enough so that it’s never as simple as mashing the attack button. In fact, several battles are set up almost like puzzles, where the player has to figure out the pattern of positioning and targeting in order to make the enemy vulnerable to attack. On top of all that, it also has a rating system at the end of the battle which determines item drops as well as the amount of experience and Dyne (the game world’s currency) it gives the player. Finish a battle swiftly and without a scratch and you can be sure you’ll have an Excellent rating. Merely scrape by without getting killed? Sorry, bud, booby prize for you.
In fact, with all this hubbub about the game’s battle system, it’s often easy to forget that there’s actually things you do besides get into battles! There’s on-foot as well as dragon-based exploration that you do in the game. But the reason that it probably never gets mentioned is because it’s bizarre and often unsatisfying. The dragon-based exploration is pretty standard. You have the usual flight controls of controlling your dragon’s elevation as well as its banking on turns while pressing an acceleration button. You fly around 3D environments and interact with objects such as switches, treasure chests and doors by targeting them with your laser. The extremely limited draw-in range for graphics means that unless you use the in-game map, you’re bound to get lost in some of the game’s more expansive dungeons. (I only found out about the map button a few hours before I beat the game. Read your manuals, kids!)
The REALLY awkward stuff comes with the on-foot exploration. The controls of Edge running around are… unsatisfying, to put it succinctly. It just never feels like you’re actually running around versus just changing position of a bunch of polygons in the environment. And the method of interaction with objects is… the exact same as it was on a dragon! Which means that whenever you want to talk to a villager or examine an item, you have to make a TARGETING RETICULE pop up, hover over the object you want to interact with, and click. Whaaaaaaaat. This has got to be the fault of limited memory on the Saturn not allowing for a separate interface for these sections. Even more bizarre is that everything has a “far away” description and an “up close” description, usually adding little to any relevant information.
While the cumbersome interactions with your environments may be glossed over in other reviews, you can’t scan through any Panzer Dragoon Saga article without hearing about the game’s unique aesthetic. And it’s all true. There’s an understated, asymmetrical beauty to the game’s art design. The rudimentary graphical potential of the Sega Saturn is worked around in order to craft haunting alien landscapes and creatures. In fact, the Saturn’s technical limitations were most successfully exploited in this area. It’s no secret that the Saturn has trouble rendering 3D graphics. There would be moments running through a hallway in a village in this game where the system would seem to slow to a crawl, as if it was hyperventilating, having to breathe through a paper bag in order to render the meager amount of polygons on the screen. This meant that villages couldn’t be crawling with NPCs for Edge to interact with, as the Saturn would most likely melt if more than two or three people were on screen at once. This lends the game a very isolated, lonely atmosphere, as if you can palpably feel that humanity is dwindling in the post-apocalyptic world. The dark palette of colors also gives the game an uncharacteristically moody feel for an RPG adventure.
And that’s important, because Panzer Dragoon Saga never feels like a carefree adventurous romp. There’s never an “I’M FLYYYYYYYYYIIIIIIIIIIIIIING” scene like in The Neverending Story or something. Everything feels so damn somber, probably due to the fact that the world ended and what’s left is a harsh life for most. If you’re looking to unwind with a game, don’t look here. Yeah, battles are fun and interesting, but the world just felt oppressive. Diving back into it for another play session seemed to take something out of me. Possibly due to the fact that if I looked at the grainy textures and aliased polygons long enough my eyes hurt. Seriously, half of the reason it took me so long to finish the game is the damn headaches I would get from my HDTV. It’s only a 12 or 15 hour game!
Another big help in the brooding atmosphere in the game is the soundtrack. Haunting is a good word to describe it. Everything from melancholy backdrops to deserted ruins to anthemic tunes to cruise through the initial areas of the game with, the soundtrack is really unlike any other you’ve heard, and I recommend finding a copy of it online (to torrent, obviously). It also has a really great closing number, complete with vocals! 1998 was a really good year for that, I guess. Another component to the aural properties of the game is the voice acting. Cutscenes are fully-voiced, and in a really strange twist, you can control the speed of the delivery of dialogue in some circumstances by pressing the triggers of the Sega Saturn’s analog pad. Even more bizarre is that although the game purports to have a fictional language that characters are speaking, the majority of the game is actually in Japanese, subtitled into English. If you have an ear for languages, you can hear some passages that sound totally unlike Japanese, and then scenes where everyone in the room is speaking Japanese. A really odd thing, and I never found out if I was indeed right, or what the reasoning was behind who spoke what language and when.
With all the things that the game does well, and all the effusive praise that gets thrown it’s way, you might think that the game is perfect. It’s not. There’s weaknesses to the game besides the graphical limitations of the hardware it was made for. The story, whose premise is simple enough at the beginning, gets murky and surprisingly mired in the pre-existing Panzer Dragoon canon from the previous two games. It seems especially the story from Panzer Dragoon Zwei plays a big part in explaining some of the twists that come in the final act of the game that left me scratching my head. And the ending… hoo boy. It’s hard to remember, since diehard fans of Final Fantasy VII like to pretend the game was perfect in every aspect, but when it came out people were left extremely confused by the ambiguous ending to the game. It seems that Sega took a page out of that book for the ending to Panzer Dragoon Saga, where I was left asking myself, “Wait, did the game just END?” I mean, there’s a final boss and some cutscenes that follow… but they never carry with them any weight or finality to suggest, “That’s all you’re getting, move along now!” There’s also the remainders of 32-bit RPG design left in the game. Lengthy cutscenes you can’t skip? Boss battles coming one after another with no chance to save or heal? Cutscenes happening BEFORE these boss fights?! Check, check and double-check.
But while it’s not a perfect game, it is an extraordinary one. No one has attempted a melange of shooting and traditional RPG gameplay like this game has. Even after it achieved cult status and became the stuff of 32-bit legend, we never saw another game, not even in the Panzer Dragoon franchise, attempt the same style of gameplay again. To me, this is madness. You’d think every company developing an RPG would be looking for a way to set its own entry apart, and Panzer Dragoon Saga showed a terrific way to do that. So why hasn’t it been more influential? I think for the same reason other pioneering Sega franchises, such as Phantasy Star, ultimately were forgotten by the industry: no one really played them. To be influenced by a work of art, you have to have actually experienced it in some way, such as hearing a piece of music or seeing a painting. For a game, you have to actually play it to see what all the fuss is about. And with the Saturn’s already minuscule audience and criminally small print runs in the U.S. thanks to the Saturn’s even more precipitous nosedive in 1998, there was almost no chance that anyone who wasn’t specifically looking for this game would ever pick it up. Hell, it even wound up in clearance bins before it got disappeared from stores. No one I know has actually laid a finger on the game. Apparently, Panzer Dragoon Saga never made an in-road with developers, to influence their game design into future generations.
One would think that simply re-releasing the game could help it garner the audience it always deserved, but there’s a few unfortunate roadblocks to that. First of all, Saturn emulation seems to either be extremely difficult or the Saturn is so unpopular that few people have ever bothered to try to emulate it in the first place. Secondly, the source code to the game was actually lost, which is a travesty. You’d think that a company like Sega could at least keep track of where its GAMES are, but no dice. Thirdly… is there even an audience for this game? Apparently, GameTap actually had the rights to put Panzer Dragoon Saga on its service, where it had a few other Saturn games, and declined to do so, stating that it didn’t think the demand was there. And since nary a ripple went through the Internet when that happened… are they right? Is Panzer Dragoon Saga so forgotten, so ancillary that its absence from the collective video game canon goes by unnoticed? Its funeral unattended?
Perhaps so. How many of you out there were even aware of this game before reading this article? Even now, what recourse do you have to experience Panzer Dragoon Saga? Sega Saturns are relatively cheap, but the game regularly sells for $150 and up on eBay. How can a curious gamer play this forgotten chapter of RPG history? I wish I could tell you that the game was worth any price… but $150 is ridiculous. Don’t pay that much for it unless you’re an obsessive collector of gaming ephemera like myself. If you have to question if Panzer Dragoon Saga could possibly be worth that much, forget about it right now. It’s an elegant, elegiac entry in Sega’s storied past, but it’s not the best game or even RPG ever. It deserves to be remembered and grieved, however… like a candle in the wind~