Not much of an RPG, but a beautiful and fun game in its own way
"Panzer Dragoon Saga" occupies a special place in the long list of console RPGs. It is a part of a series, but not role-playing series - its two predecessors were rail shooters. "Panzer Dragoon Saga" is a light RPG with a lot of classic routine omitted. Its combat system is unique to RPGs, simple and fast-paced, and its main attractions are its wonderful cut scenes and its beautiful design.
This game was often called "Saturn's Swan Song". It was made for a console that was already sentenced to death, and only a few copies of it were released outside of Japan. Today it became one of the rarest console games - a used copy of "Panzer Dragoon Saga" usually sells for 100 dollars or higher. I bought and played the Japanese version, entitled "Azel: Panzer Dragoon RPG".
The game is set in a sort of post-apocalyptic environment, where a new, still primitive culture is trying to gain access to the Ancient Civilization with its strange devices and powerful weapons. It is an interesting setting - neither a medieval fantasy nor sci-fi, but something between. The overall premise is full of the most cherished game clichés - the motive of a now destroyed superior civilization of the past has its parallels in many other games, particularly in those dealing with Atlantis. Two most typical subjects of console RPGs - an evil empire and a girl with mysterious powers - form the shell of the game's story. At first sight, it appears to be nothing but another clone of the same old story that was told thousand times before.
Yet in reality it is not as simple and as unoriginal as it appears. The particular appeal of the game's story is in the ambiguity of the sides participating in the conflict. Usually there are only two sides in RPGs - the good guys and the bad guys. "Panzer Dragoon Saga", however, begins with the introduction of three sides - the Empire, Edge, and Craymen. Edge is sided with the Empire in the beginning, but soon the Empire is revealed to be the "bad guys" of the story. Craymen has his own plans and is the enemy of both Edge, whose friends he has killed, and the Empire, whom he betrayed. Edge is totally alone on his quest for revenge, but soon the situation becomes even more complicated - the mysterious girl Azel appears on the scene, as well as the organization of the Seekers, which plays an important role during the later stages of the game and also becomes one of the interested parties in the conflict. The unclear intentions of the game's characters make the story suspenseful and complex enough to suit an epic RPG. It is undoubtedly more transparent and simple than Squaresoft's stories, but its main characters are interesting and are nicely integrated into the philosophical background of the story. The conflicting parties in "Panzer Dragoon Saga" represent different visions of the world, and the Ancient Civilization is a symbol of unlimited control and power which can be positive or negative depending on the one who has access to it. The Empire, Craymen, and the Seekers - each one of those groups tries to build its own future, and the game's heroes Edge and Azel are caught in the middle of a large conflict, where they are used by all the sides and where only their good will can guarantee success for any of them.
I don't want to spoil the story for you, but be prepared for a couple of very good plot twists, and most importantly - for a tragedy. If you have read some of my other reviews, you must know I have a weakness for tragic stories. "Panzer Dragoon Saga" gracefully avoids the cliché happy ending of "saving the world and getting the girl". To tell more would mean to spoil the ending, but here is something tragically inevitable that hangs in the air and that appears in the game from the very beginning, and the feeling of tremendous loneliness accompanies it until the end.
But more important than the actual story is the manner in which it is told. Thankfully, while omitting many solid RPG aspects, "Panzer Dragoon Saga" also got rid of some of the genre's shortcomings - both in storytelling and in gameplay. Every fan of console-style RPGs knows how "talkative" most of them are. Many of those games are filled with endless dialogues, countless explanations, and "self-presentations": every character feels obliged to talk hours about himself, his personal stuff, or his "evil plans", if he happens to be a villain. In "Panzer Dragoon Saga", you won't be bored by excessive dialogue, abundance of pseudo-psychology, or cartoony villain talk. Characters are more mysterious, they don't talk much, and surprisingly they become more realistic this way. Each person is characterized only by a few lines of dialogue. The game is more interested in symbols and in situations than in characters. The result is a more thought-provoking story and character cast, where some explanations have to be added by the player. It is easier to associate oneself with Edge than with most other "complex" RPG heroes. It is easier to imagine Azel or Craymen mysterious, and the Empire evil - both mystery and evil have more effect when they are not accompanied by words. The Empire appears as a kind of abstract force without personality, a manifestation of greed and will to power. Quite deliberately, the final enemy from the Empire's side is not the Emperor, who hardly has anything to say in the whole game, but the inanimate Grig Orig, a mutated battle ship - a symbol of inhuman, mechanized power.
This story is backed by fabulous design. The locations of the game are beautiful in a dark, majestic way. Every location is superbly crafted and looks very original - rocky mountains with caves, a desert with huge sand worms diving into the sand, a black, stormy sea, a strangely colored and strangely shaped town, a burning forest, claustrophobic underground passages, and a lot of ruins - ruins of the Ancient Civilization with its bizarre devices - the only inhabitants who have survived its destruction, cold, impartial machines, without soul and own will. Particularly noticeable is the coloring of the world. The developers certainly didn't spare imagination there - some of the locations are truly breathtaking. It is enough to take a look at the sea ruins at night to fall in love with the game's graphics.
Those graphics are outstanding both from artistic and technical point of view. No epitaph could bring more honor to the dying console than "Panzer Dragoon Saga". It seems that the game is saying to us: "Look what a wonderful machine is going away from us". The game squeezes every ounce of power out of Saturn. We are talking almost Dreamcast-quality graphics here - real-time 3D with extremely detailed backgrounds, some amazing effects, and fantastic character models. Hands down, "Panzer Dragoon Saga" visually blows away almost every Playstation game. It is hard to imagine old Saturn was capable of such graphic power. Add to that full voice-overs and majestic orchestral score, and you'll get one of the technically most impressive console games in history.
To top the fabulous graphics with even more eye candy, the developers of "Panzer Dragoon Saga" decided to rely almost fully on FMVs for story-telling. You know that in most console games of that time FMVs were like a decoration: a few short scenes that were there to reward the player for his efforts. Even in Squaresoft's masterpieces FMVs were mostly brief and served more as embellishments than as a full-fledged story-telling vehicle. In "Panzer Dragoon Saga", FMVs play the role of a real movie inside a game. If you are tired of the typical commercials for "1+ hours of FMV", which are revealed to be a dozen of short clips of several seconds each, have no fear - "Panzer Dragoon Saga" has some real
FMVs for you. First of all, they are long
. Alone the intro has gigantic proportions and consists of several parts. The FMVs of "Panzer Dragoon Saga" often appear one after another, and there are no "FMV droughts" that would leave you with several important story-related scenes that are told through in-game graphics. Granted, the graphic quality of those FMVs is perhaps inferior to that of Squaresoft, but in terms of quantity, longevity, and cinematic feeling it leaves the great wizards behind. Many games claim to be "cinematic", but "Panzer Dragoon Saga" is one of the few that really deserves to be called this way. Excellent camera work, orchestrated background music, and surprisingly good voice acting leave almost nothing to be desired. The in-game graphics are so good that FMVs don't quite have the same stunning effect as in other games of the time, but this also has a positive side: the FMVs are better integrated into the rest of the game, with better transition and minimal contrast.
Traditional console RPG-style gameplay is another established component "Panzer Dragoon Saga" has thrown over board. Had enough of those tedious turn-based battles with heavy party management? Welcome to "Panzer Dragoon Saga" with its fast-paced, fun combat style. You control only one character in the game - Edge, or, to be exact, his dragon. Already the navigation is unusual in "Panzer Dragoon Saga" - you don't walk in the game, you fly. Needless to say that controlling a flying dragon and to be able to change its altitude is much more fun than just moving around a character. The battles are half turn-based, like in Final Fantasy games, but are much more fast-paced thanks to the lack of party and the ability to move. Moving around is very important in battles. You can position yourself in front of the enemy, fly behind it, or attack it from the sides. You attack with Edge's gun, with the dragon's lasers, or use one of the dragon's many berserk abilities. Almost every enemy has its weak points, which are often situated in "damage zones" - places where you are most likely to be hit. You should constantly fly around during battles, trying to position yourself in safe zones, and attack the enemy's weak point periodically. The battles are sometimes random, but many locations have obligatory series of battles, after which you are free to fly around and to explore them without being bugged by enemies every minute.
Saturn users weren't spoiled by RPGs - especially due to the limited appeal of excellent, but Japanese-only, Megaten RPGs Devil Summoner
and Soul Hackers
. "Panzer Dragoon Saga" is a wonderful game, but as a RPG, it is shallow. It seems to work fine as an enhanced interactive shooter, but make no mistake: it tries
to be an RPG, and it doesn't offer another kind of gameplay and challenge. Yet compare it to any other more or less solid console-style RPG and you'll see the difference. "Panzer Dragoon Saga" requires from the player little to no strategic planning. A lot of typical RPG stuff - party management, weapons and armor, building up characters - is absent here. You have only one character to control in the entire game, who uses only one weapon and doesn't wear any equipment. There is virtually nothing you would expect to see in a RPG here, except automatic leveling up, a couple of weapon enhancements to equip, and a pretty vast choice of attack and supporting spells. The fun battle system makes you forget the lack of true RPG gameplay, but if you came to this game hoping to find another massive Final Fantasy-like epic, you've got the wrong address.
You also won't find many character to talk to and many towns to visit in "Panzer Dragoon Saga". There are in fact only three populated locations in the game, only one of which is a real town. Except the four main characters - Edge, Azel, Craymen, and Gash - there is hardly anyone with a developed personality in the game. The story relies a bit too much on clichés (evil empire, girl with mysterious powers, etc.). At times "Panzer Dragoon Saga" feels like some sort of a "mini-RPG", with its modest scope and somewhat underdeveloped story parts.
Lack of challenge also severely damages the game's RPG aspect. "Panzer Dragoon Saga" is shamelessly easy. It has a couple of secret areas, rare items, and even two non-obligatory dragon transformations, but they are useless, since the game is so easy even without finding them. Who needs the super-powerful Light Wing dragon model, if your current dragon is overpowered anyway? The low difficulty level also damages some of the more interesting aspects of the game's role-playing system - the interesting dragon class feature is an almost useless gimmick, since it is perfectly possible (and even easier) to complete the game while staying a "normal" dragon. Even easier than the battles is the navigation. The game is totally linear - you can only jump from location to location on the world map, and the areas themselves are small and straightforward. You should never care about being lost, unprepared, underpowered, trapped by too many enemies, or running low on supplies.
You'll rarely hear me complain about a game's length - and to be frank, it didn't disturb me even here - but I have to warn every RPG fan: "Panzer Dragoon Saga" is very short. I completed the game in only sixteen hours.
The Bottom Line
This is a game that totally depends on the player's sympathy. It is shallow as a RPG, it doesn't offer anything truly original, and it doesn't develop and gaming aspect to perfection. It is just a very beautiful, highly artistic, cinematic game, with a simple story that manages to be convincing despite all its clichés, and fun light-hearted gameplay. Its strong personality and its high aesthetic value are enough to make it a great game, but don't expect it to be a typical RPG with complex characters and gameplay. The best way to enjoy it is not to analyze it and not to compare it to anything. Then it is easy to be enchanted by the magical beauty of "Panzer Dragoon Saga", its easy-going gameplay, and its tragic story.