Few games in the Sega Saturn library have the almost mythical reputation of Panzer Dragoon Saga, an ambitious RPG game that arrived in the latter stages of the console's life and consequently didn't get as much attention as it deserved. Typically, an original copy of the game sells for over a thousand dollars these days.
When you start the game, you immediately figure out that Team Andromeda had huge ambitions for it. Filling four discs and featuring fully-voiced dialogue, the game wanted to be a cinematic masterpiece. Additionally, the world which the team crafted over the two previous Rail Shooter Panzer Dragoon games was to be expanded upon with this one; even featuring an invented language in the opening scenes.
The end result is probably one of the most ambitious games in the 5th generation of consoles, and while some aspects didn't age gracefully, that wasn't enough to hide the masterpiece this game was made to be.
1: Panzer Dragoon Saga:
Developer: Team Andromeda (Sega).
First things first, I am changing my rating system to a simpler 10 point system. Games that get above a 7 I fully recommend, and those that get below that are mostly a waste of time. That leaves the score of 7 to depend on your taste.
"From my experience, the less you know about the Empire, the better off you are"
There are three elements to Panzer Dragoon Saga's story, all of which combine to create a truly compelling narrative.
The first element is the post-apocalyptic setting of the game and its unique world, which is well-crafted through both environmental storytelling and written lore. It is an oppressive world where a previous calamity has reduced humanity to a constant fear from biotechnological monsters and ancient forces which obviously had something to do with the apocalypse.
The second element is the cultural and political setting at the game's beginning. In this harsh world, an empire rose through its utilization of ancient technology, professing a willingness to fight the monsters of the world but in effect oppressing the already ravaged people of the world.
Then there are factions in the empire pursuing their own goals
The third element, and the one that game needed to do right most of all, is the actual narrative of the game itself. Taking place in the frontier of the empire, the game follows the story of Edge, a mercenary boy that's guarding an imperial mine that may hold some useful ancient technologies.
It turns out that is indeed the case, as Edge and his crew uncovers a mysterious girl and promptly gets exterminated by a rogue faction of the empire. Except, Edge isn't killed but is then rescued by a Dragon who gives him the "edge" in fighting for revenge.
From there, the story unfolds, telling a more intimate story (with fewer characters and locations than most other RPGs). If it wasn't for the masterful direction of the story, it wouldn't shine as much. However, since the game is fully voiced and scenes progress in both in-engine and CGI cut-scenes, the acting in those scenes matter, and it is delivered very well, even if some of the more dramatic moments are over-acted.
However, low-key moments are expertly handled
In short, the narrative and story of Panzer Dragoon Saga is compelling not only in virtue of itself but also because it constructed very well. From the visual designs that sell the unique setting of the world to the cinematic direction which frankly challenges many of the games in that generation
"But power gave birth to ambition, and ambition to war. The battles became epic struggles"
In changing its genre fro a Rail Shooter to an RPG (which was needed to expand its story), the game risked jeopardizing its identity. Reportedly, that was the biggest headache the team faced, which is surprising when you look at the end result; a battle and gameplay system that is both great and ostensibly an expression of the series.
Basically, the gameplay progress almost entirely on top of your dragon. Both overworld areas and dungeons are traversed by flying around like in the first two games. Except, you control movement fluidly and can access areas through a cursor system. This is like having the flying machine you usually get in the latter stages of other RPGs, but from the start, but this is not the core gameplay and is only a "flavored" movement system.
The core gameplay is the turn-based battle system. Turns are awarded based on three gauges that fill with time. You can use the gauges at any time to execute an action, with magic attacks (called Berserk attacks in this game) costing two gauges. Typically, you can choose to shoot with your gun or use the multi-targeting lasers of your Dragon.
Battles are dynamic affairs fitting the series
Where the system truly shines is in the movement options within the battle. The battlespace consists of four quadrants which you can freely move about without spending any gauges (but you stop the gauges from refilling while moving), and you will need to move about to avoid enemy attack zone and/or search for enemy weak points which you can then shoot with your gun for massive damage.
This system not only works wonderfully, but also retains the personality of the series which focuses on the abilities of the Dragon and his rider. It especially shines in boss battles, where safe zones suddenly change to danger zones and constant moving can be key.
It is worth noting at this point that there is a grading system that awards more experience points after each battle. To get the best grades, you must finish battles as efficiently as possible, meaning with less time, fewer moves, and less damage. So your actions need to be deliberate, and you should utilize the "continuous action" mechanic which the game explains well in its tutorials.
One negative in having almost the entire game on top of your Dragon is the lack of other party members. Interestingly, the game identified that issue, and it offered a class change mechanic for you to play with. At an early point in the game, you can freely change the core statistics of your Dragon, changing his class and appearance in the process. You can even change classes in mid-battle.
"Well, if there were Gods, these villages wouldn't have been ripped to pieces in a feeding frenzy"
Outside of battles and exploration segments, there are also a few settlements to wander about and NPCs to talk to. The in-foot segments reminded me of early PC RPGs, especially with the cursor system that helps you interact with the world.
In Panzer Dragoon Saga, all NPCs have names and voiced dialogue, lending the setting more authenticity in the process. Some of them will start sidequests, but there should be more of those in my opinion.
Generally, I felt that the game should have had more location and side content, but I am under the impression that the team simply didn't have enough time (or space given the four discs). As such, we end up with a relatively short RPG.
The game could have used more opportunities to strut its stuff
Of course, there is always the argument that an intimately told short story is better than a sprawling unfocused mess. However, I feel that the game could have been enriched by adding one or two locations as well as more sidequests. It could have even reduced the length of some dungeons to accommodate for that.
I only say that because what's in the game is so well-made that I would have liked to see more of it. Especially when you consider that much of the side content may be completely missable unless you vigilantly talk to NPCs several times just in case they have something else to say. Which I think is important to build the emotional connections that underline some events in the story.
"Our destination was destroyed, but we must continue to travel until we find a place to settle"
As with everything else, the production values of the game were hugely ambitious and very impressive for the time.
Let's start with the graphics, which split into three types. The in-game graphics, the in-game engine cutscenes, and the CGI cutscenes. All of these are significantly compromised with age. However, an impeccable art direction and attention to detail retain some of their past glory.
Everything looks better in motion, and as such, battle and exploration segments don't suffer much, and there is even some beauty to be found. The same cannot be said when in town and during some cut-scenes. Faces sometimes devolve into an unrecognizable blob and the textures of buildings and locations meld into each other. It is in those instances that you value the details the artists put in the world, making the interior of an ugly polygonal looking house believable by filling it with real items you can point to and wonder about. As for the CGI cutscenes, they were great in the past, but they do look battered by age today.
Nearly every item you see can be examined
One thing that can be said for the cut scenes is that the scene direction works really well. Composing drama in movement and voice acting that sells the scene despite the diminished graphics. Except in a few cases where the scenes devolve into melodrama.
That brings us to the voice acting, which is thankfully only offered in Japanese and is done by professional voice actors. This spared us from the incongruity of Western voice acting at the time. I am still baffled by the sheer ballsiness in having nearly all dialogue voiced.
Finally, we discuss the unique and atmospheric soundtrack, which is the final component in setting up the Panzer Dragoon world. Consisting of some orchestral arrangments, but mostly made with synthesizers, the music is a blend of sci-phi and ethnic influences that creates a new and unique sound.
There are few soundtracks like this one, suggesting a different world and a different culture (even the ending song features the fictional Panzreese language), but also hinting at the desolate landscapes and post-apocalyptic horrors. While the music rarely takes the center stage it had in Zwei, it nonetheless is a continuous influence throughout the game. This makes it hard for me to pick my favorite tracks, but I can always go with the opening "Behold the Precious Wings", and the second city theme "Source of the Protective Flame" is not my favorite, but is a very fitting track.
Before playing the game, I expected to enjoy it, as its reputation surely wasn't entirely built on sand. What I didn't expect is exactly how well its "cinematic" efforts aged. Except for the expected graphical limitations, the world is still brilliantly composed in art direction, soundtrack, and well-choreographed and expertly voice-acted narrative.
This, coupled with an inventive and fitting battle system allowed me to engage with the story at a level comparable with current experiences. True, the game could have expanded in some directions, and it may be a tad too easy some times.
In the end, this game obviously had the makings of a great game back when it was first released, and it still retains most of that greatness today.
The game honestly looks better in action
1-Practice doing "continuous actions" to avoid damage and get better battle grades.
2-Use the button attack shortcuts (A for the gun and B for the Dragon lasers).
3-The majority of green "Access" points are useful, but some (like fish) are not useful.
4-Move away from danger zones in battle, but don't move excessively.
5-To get good battle grades, finish the battle quickly without getting to much damage, and without moving too much.
6-Experiment with changing the dragon class.
7-Talk to NPCsseveral times just in case they have more things to say.
8- Heal and prepare outside of battle so that you don't waste time.
9- Gather all D-Units to unlock a secret dragon class (which in turn allows you to unlock the FINAL dragon form).
For those reading one of my Saturn review blogs for the first time, here is the basic concept:
I already reviewed both major Generation 4 consoles, and am now to review Generation 5 consoles; starting with the Sega Saturn. In these reviews, I take a top 100 games list and review the games that interest me in that list.
This time, my review series is based on this top 100 games list from Retro Sanctuary.
Also, note the following:
-If you have any suggestions for a game that is not in the Retro Sanctuary list that I should review, please suggest it.
-Make a bet on each game to check whether Chris Charter played it or not.
But then, nothing can save the game when the engine seemingly invents new faces on the spot
As I said in my review, I expected to like the game, but I didn't expect it to have aged so well. Compared to other 3D RPGs in the era, and compared to everything else besides maybe Metal Gear Solid, the game had them all beat as a "cinematic" game. It truly was one of the most ambitious games at the time.
With this, I am now nearly done with my review of the Sega Saturn's "best" games as per the Retro Sanctuary list. Next, I will make one final report regarding the top 10 games on the list, and I will then share my top 10 games in the system as well as review the system itself.
For Previous Saturn game Reviews:
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