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SummaryVisuals triumph while gameplay suffers
The GoodPanzer Dragoon Saga occupies a somewhat unusual place in the long list of Japanese RPGs. It is a part of a series, but not role-playing series - its two predecessors were rail shooters. As such, it focuses largely on dramatic presentation and visual flair - and doubtlessly succeeds there.
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. This must have contributed greatly to its status of a cult classic.
The game has some of the best graphics of its era, and certainly the best I've seen on the Saturn. Every location is reasonably detailed, with some superbly crafted, imaginative areas that come to life with their breadth and vivid colors. It is enough to take a look at the sea ruins at night to fall in love with the game's graphics.
Many games claim to be "cinematic", but Panzer Dragoon Saga really deserves to be called that. Excellent camera work, orchestrated background music, and surprisingly good voice acting leave almost nothing to be desired. The game is not just a collection of pretty pictures: with its visuals it conveys drama and emotions. Even simple navigation is rendered more pleasant because of the lovely vistas spread beneath our dragon. All this graphical splendor is complemented by well-directed, theatrical full-motion videos that advance the story.
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 plot seems incredibly sparse at first, but this laconically told story succeeds, in a way, more than its overblown, melodramatic brothers of the Final Fantasy order. There are sad moments and an overall feeling of pervasive melancholy, which gives the story a certain dignity that was all but shattered by the overwritten, overacted Japanese RPGs of its time and beyond.
It's needless to say that controlling a flying dragon and being able to change its altitude is much more fun than just moving around a character on the ground. The battles are dynamic and fast-paced thanks to the limited ability to move around.
The BadPanzer Dragoon Saga may have all the eye candy in the world, but as an RPG, it is not satisfactory in any way. In fact, its role-playing elements are so weak that you hardly notice them. Much of what happens in the game are semi-automatized procedures with beautiful views and cutscenes.
There is no party management or character management in general in this game. 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 choice of spells for your dragon.
When this simplicity is coupled with an utter lack of challenge, you begin to feel the game is playing itself. There are a few secret items and two non-mandatory dragon transformations, but they don't mean anything. Who needs the super-powerful Light Wing dragon model if your current dragon is overpowered anyway? The supposedly 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. In short, Panzer Dragoon Saga can take such a good care of itself that I'm surprised they didn't just make a movie out of it.
The game's world is small and almost empty. There is one (!) real town in the entire game, and there is barely anything to do there. There are hardly any characters to talk to. Also, the game is very short - completing it in ten hours or so is not uncommon. I understand all those reductions must have occurred due to hardware limitations. But if that was the case, why bother designing an RPG in the first place? This game clearly wanted to be a rail shooter just like its predecessors. Perhaps fans of that genre will be satisfied by its "streamlined" gameplay, but it's the death sentence of role-playing.