Panzer Dragoon Saga is the first of the final quintet of Saturn games to be released in the US, and it's one of very few Saturn games that garnered a good amount of pre-release hype. Before playing Panzer Dragoon Saga (hereafter referred to as "PDS"), I honestly could not see what the big deal was; to me, PDS looked like an above average RPG, but nothing more. Upon completing it, I'm happy to report that I was dead wrong about it.
PDS takes place in the same world as the first 2 Panzer Dragoon games and revolves around a young hunter named Edge. Edge has just begun working in the employ of the Empire, the political entity that rules over human society in his world. One of Edge's first assignments is to guard some ancient ruins in a mountainous setting. Edge is an orphan, and the friends of his who raised him, also Empire-contracted hunters, accompany him on this assignment.
Powerful ancient weapons are rumored to be contained within these ruins, and, as a result, the ruins are of extreme interest to the power-hungry Empire. However, extracting these weapons is difficult due to monsters residing in the ruins, and, sure enough, a powerful monster within the excavation site that Edge is guarding begins to terrorize the archaeologists/tomb raiders inside. Edge and his friends immediately rush inside the ruins to lend a hand.
Meanwhile, some rebellious factions within the Empire want the power of the ancient weapons for themselves. The most militant of these is led by a general named Craymen, who has planned a major coup d'etat. Hearing of the disturbance within the ruins that Edge is guarding, Craymen decides that the time has come for him to begin his revolution.
Inside the cave, Edge is no match for the powerful monster, and he ends up scrambling around to avoid the behemoth and hopefully set up a good shot at it. During the fracas, a relic containing a mysterious woman is unearthed by the monster's errant blows. This distraction gives Edge the opportunity to shoot the floor out from underneath the giant creature, sending it tumbling into the dark depths of the ruins.
Knowing that the tough monster probably survived the fall, Edge and his friends decide to pick up the wounded and make a hasty departure from the ruins. As they reach the exit, however, they are confronted by Craymen and his two top officers, Armen and Zastava. Craymen's men proceed to kill all of Edge's friends, leaving only him standing when Craymen decides that there's been enough bloodshed for the day. Zastava then knocks Edge unconscious, and Craymen and his forces proceed to loot the ruins.
When Edge wakes up, he is in time only to see Craymen's fleet pulling away from the site. To his dismay, Edge notices that Craymen is in possession of the relic containing the mysterious woman. Enraged, Edge futilely charges toward Craymen's airship, only to be stopped when the sadistically amused Zastava shoots him and knocks him off of the cliff to fall to his doom.
When Edge awakens again, this time at the bottom of some kind of ruins, he is shocked to be alive. His new lease on life appears to be short-lived, however, as he encounters a pack of fierce monsters. From out of nowhere, a huge dragon swoops down and destroys the monsters with its homing lasers. After saving Edge, the dragon selects him to be its pilot, and from there, Edge's quest begins.
PDS carries a strong story line that remains cohesive throughout its length. The large scope of the plot is established early on, and it manages to increase to epic proportions as the game progresses. Although the event-based portions of the story aren't among the most riveting ever seen in an RPG, they are presented very well throughout most of the game. Character development also isn't at the elite level, but most of the major characters exhibit distinct personalities, and PDS proves to be one of the best at hinting at unplumbed depth in its characters.
Another noteworthy aspect of PDS' storyline is the near-flawless translation. The dialogue, while somewhat sparse, flows smoothly and conveys personality and emotion very well, accomplishing this in a more subtle way than most RPGs do. In addition, spelling and grammatical errors are very rare. A few pop culture references are present, but they are mostly vague and peripheral. Overall, PDS' translation quality is surpassed only by that of Hudson's Ys I and II and Activision's Guardian's Crusade, in this reviewer's opinion.
PDS excels in the gameplay department, and it turns out to be one of the most innovative RPGs around, too. Instead of walking around like in most RPGs, the bulk of your quest is spent riding on the back of your trusty dragon. Regardless of whether or not you are riding your dragon, PDS' gameplay mostly takes place from a pseudo-first-person perspective. Items are examined and acquired through a movable cursor that is used to scan your surroundings. There's a great degree of freedom in movement, especially when you are riding your dragon.
The randomly encountered battles also take a fresh new approach to RPG combat. Instead of having players watch stationary land-confined characters participate in turn-based combat, PDS draws you in with an exhilarating new system in which Edge and his dragon are in constant flying motion.
In most traditional RPGs, you have little influence on the placement of your playable characters once combat is entered. In PDS, however, you can choose to position your dragon behind, in front of, or to either side of your enemies. Location is important; placing your dragon in proper position can allow you to deal more damage as well as take less punishment.
Although PDS' combat system is turn-based, the turns are generated in real time. As time passes in combat, a meter fills up. When this meter is full, the player has the option of performing an action or allowing a second meter to fill. Some of the spells (known as "Berserks") in PDS cost more than one full meter to cast; Edge and his dragon can fill up to 3 meters at a time.
Also noteworthy is the fact that Edge has two different primary weapons at his disposal. His handgun is excellent for dealing out massive damage to a singular enemy, and his dragon's homing laser does a fine job of knocking out multiple weaker enemies.
As Edge and his dragon progress in their quest, the dragon undergoes form changes that further increase its strength. In addition, players can freely customize the dragon's strengths and weaknesses.
Despite its abundance of innovation, PDS does maintain many tried-and-true gameplay mechanics. Battles are for the most part encountered randomly. As mentioned before, spells can be cast in battle, and items can be used, too. Edge and his dragon gain experience for defeating enemies, and they level up together at certain experience point levels. One interesting twist on the experience point system is the fact that your performance in combat affects the amount of experience awarded, but this feature ultimately doesn't make a large impact on the total amount of experience you receive in the game.
All of the innovative new elements are executed beautifully, and PDS turns out to be one of the most enjoyable and best-playing RPGs around. The constant motion of the battles makes PDS more intense than most other RPGs, and the combat involves a good amount of strategy, too.
Some RPG fans will be disappointed with PDS' length, however. At 15-20 hours long, PDS is shorter than most other traditional RPGs, and it definitely left me wanting more. In addition to the short chronological length, there's a relatively limited number of locations to visit and explore.
PDS is generally sharp in its control. On foot, Edge can move in 8 directions, and a dash button helps him move along at a good clip. The first-person camera stays behind Edge, but there's a slight lag in its pursuit so players can get a better look at the surroundings. Edge's movements are responsive to the control pad, and the camera movements are predictable.
While riding the dragon, movement is even more free, with height the additional dimension of movement. Similar to when Edge is on foot, the camera stays behind the dragon, but there's thankfully no lag in its pursuit in flight, as there's no need for the lag here. The cursor that is used to explore objects and items is responsive and moves smoothly both in flight and on foot.
Although the control is strong, there are some weaknesses with it. The movement of the dragon in flight is somewhat sluggish; even at its fastest speed, it's a bit slow when you are flying through open spaces. In addition, a few locations in the game force your dragon to fly straight up and straight down. The controls for these movements are pretty unresponsive and take a bit of time to get the hang of.
The camera in PDS presents a few minor annoyances as well. On foot, even though the camera's movement is relatively predictable, manual camera control independent of character movement would have been much more precise. Also, the cursor sometimes has difficulty locking onto objects that you can interact with, even when the objects are onscreen, if the camera is too close to the object.
Graphically, PDS is quite deceptive if all you've ever seen of it are screen shots. The backgrounds and characters look pretty good, but they do get blocky up close and aren't among the most impressive in the detail of their polygon textures. There's a fair amount of polygon breakup and popup, too, when you are moving along slowly. The colors used are a bit drab, but not excessively so.
However, much of PDS is spent flying rapidly, and this is where it truly impresses with its visuals. In flight, the animation of the dragon and your enemies is superb, and the strategic placement of the camera serves to augment the effect even more. The spells are spectacular, too, making up for their lack of cutting-edge lighting effects with ingenious design. Some of the bosses are hundreds of times the size of your dragon; these also look great. The impressive visuals in these rapid flight sequences are part of what gives PDS its uncommon intensity.
In addition, the PDS world is extremely stylized, with lost technology that looks almost biological in nature. I found the unique technology to be extremely appealing.
A fair amount of the storyline is told through the use of CG movies. These look good, too, in spite of their graininess, featuring excellent animation and strong direction. I was not particularly impressed with the character artwork in PDS, particularly in the movies, but it's by no means hideous.
As strong as it is all around, PDS' biggest strength is perhaps its sound department. PDS is one of the finest RPGs yet released in terms of its sound effects. From the cries of damaged beasts to the explosions of sinking airships, the sound effects are always full and booming, leaving an impact that also helps contribute to its overall intensity.
The majority of the text in PDS is accompanied by spoken dialogue, and RPG purists will be pleased to hear that it has been left in its original Japanese language. The voices are accompanied by subtitles, and I'm pleased to report that the acting is excellent, too.
As great as the sound effects and voice acting are, though, the biggest strength of PDS' sound department is an incredible soundtrack that undoubtedly ranks as one of the very best that the post-16-bit era has yet seen. Composed by Saori Kobayashi and Mariko Nanba, PDS' score is atmospheric like many recent RPG soundtracks, but it distinguishes itself from the rest of the mood-setters with a constant infusion of subtle but compelling melodies. Highlights include "Giant Creature" and "Pure Blood Seed", which slowly but brilliantly construct melodies over their airy backgrounds.
Also noteworthy is the fact that the percussion of the music has a distinct tribal influence to it in many of the up-tempo songs, further establishing the unique identity of this soundtrack. At times, the drumming gets absolutely frantic, adding intensity to the already thrilling battles. "Atolm Dragon", the game's strongest track, is a perfect example of this phenomenon.
Panzer Dragoon Saga turns out to be a surprisingly impressive RPG, and it ranks with Shining Force III as this reviewer's top US-released games of 1998. Its mix of impressive visuals, riveting gameplay, and an incredible soundtrack merit a wholehearted recommendation.