"The dragon is responding to me.
Is this what it feels like to form a bond?"
Team Andromeda's latest Panzer Dragoon game is the finale of its trilogy on the Saturn and is, of all things, a role playing game. But what a role playing game it is. I'm sure many had doubts as to whether a straight up 3D shooter could actually translate to an RPG. But Team Andromeda has done it, and done it with style. They've wrapped up their trilogy and answered all of the questions left in mystery from the first two chapters in an incredible game that really defines the term, "cinematic RPG".
The game spans 4 CD's with many high-quality CG FMV cut scenes, and incredible voice acting. Thankfully, Sega decided to simply subtitle the original Japanese dialogue. Not only does this create an even greater sense of playing a game in an entirely different world, but also saves us from the usually awful English dubbing from American voice actors with no understanding of the characters or the emotions involved. The Japanese voice actors do a wonderful job and breathe real life into the hero, Edge, and the supporting cast. The cinemas are top of the line and are by far the best ever seen on the Saturn. The biggest improvement in the FMV is the excellent array of facial expressions on the characters. Characters no longer act like plastic toys that walk, but like real people.
"The enemy of my enemy is my friend,
the friend of my enemy is my enemy."
The story is one of numerous twists and turns that keep you wondering and enthralled to the very end. You control Edge, a young mercenary in the hire of the Empire to protect one of the ancient ruins from the monsters and thieves that roam the world. The story opens with a monster appearing in the ruin Edge is helping to protect. In the ensuing battle with the beast, a strange artifact is uncovered. It is a beautiful girl enclosed in some kind of cocoon, hidden underground for ages. Before Edge can even begin to wonder what she's doing there, a distress call that was sent out earlier is answered by a rebellious faction of the Empire led by Lord Craymen. Craymen's henchmen kill Edge's comrades and knock him unconscious. He awakens to see them leaving with the girl, and begins running after them. But before he gets very far he is shot and falls into a deep chasm.
He miraculously finds himself alive at the bottom of the chasm. He swims out of a large pool of water near the entrance to a hidden area underneath the ruin. Shortly, he is attacked by a countless number of monsters and his demise seems imminent. But he is saved at the last second by a dragon. This is the beginning of a unique bond and friendship that will lead Edge and the dragon on an incredible journey with an astounding climax that ties together all 3 Panzer Dragoon games and explains the purpose of the dragons and the mysteries of the towers.
The graphics in Panzer Dragoon Saga are wonderful, and at times simply breathtaking. It starts out rather slowly, flying through bare canyons and deserts, but when you reach areas like Georgius and Uru, you'll find yourself simply staring at the screen with your jaw on the floor. The beauty and sheer creativity of many of the levels is incredible. Team Andromeda has not only created a living, vibrant world, but they've also given it a style that is unique to the series. You'll see quite a few similar elements from the previous games, and many new surprises. The environments range from futuristic, to organic, to classical architecture from Greece, Rome and nomadic cultures. And at many times it is a combination of all of these together to create a unique look, which invokes a sense of the past, overlapped by nature and technology. It really has to be seen to get the sense of what I'm trying to convey with words.
The entire game is fully 3D and made up of textured polygons. They really pushed every ounce of power out of the Saturn's 3D engine to create the look of the game. It makes for a very immersing experience. There are very few polygonal glitches and the game runs at a very smooth frame rate. There is some slowdown in spots when Edge is exploring a town and goes through an enclosed area. But it is brief and effects the gameplay not at all. There is excellent use of light sourcing in areas like the camp and the caravan at nighttime and excellent transparencies on some levels. The battle scenes run very fast and look wonderful. Some of the monsters look so amazing that it's a shame you have to kill them. Your dragon's Berserker spells are very impressive and use every graphical trick the Saturn has.
The music and sound are equally impressive. The music combines the same aspects as the graphics with classical arrangements supported by tribal drum beats with some futuristic sounding instruments to give that same sense of historical layering that you get from the graphics. All of the dialogue in the game is done with Japanese voice actors and English subtitles. I was very happy when I heard that this is what they were doing for the US version. Not only does it further enhance the feeling of being in a different world; the English dubs are generally awful and often ruin the experience. The Japanese voice actors did an incredible job, especially for the main characters of Edge and Azel. Every emotion is expressed wonderfully and it makes the characters seem so real that you begin to empathize with them during the game. Panzer Saga is a visual and aural masterpiece, and Team Andromeda deserves much praise for putting so much effort into making a world for us to play in.
The gameplay in Panzer Saga is equally impressive and is likely a glimpse into the future of the traditional RPG's gameplay. I highly recommend using the Nights analog controller for this game as it works perfectly with it. You control the dragon's flight with the pad and you can perform barrel rolls and fly anywhere you please in the area you're in. By pressing the A button you bring up the lock on sights which you use to explore and examine various items and creatures. These can open items, battles or one of the many secrets hidden throughout the game. It's well worth it to explore everything and look everywhere.
Most battles occur randomly as you're flying around. The battles are run in real time and use a variation on the active time battle system of Squaresoft's. It also incorporates movement during battles which is something that I've always felt should be used in traditional RPG's. It adds a higher sense of realism as well as more complex strategies. The center of your battle menu is the radar display. Your dragon can move to four points around its enemies. Where to move is determined by the radar display. A green section is safe and you can stay there without fear of being attacked. A clear section indicates an area where you can be attacked by a weak enemy weapon. Red areas are to be avoided at all costs as they represent a powerful attack by the enemy. Next to the radar are your three charge bars. Depending on what type of attack you wish to make will determine how many bars you need to let charge. One bar allows a basic attack with your gun or the dragon's homing laser's. Two bars allow for a Berserker, or magic, attack. Your dragon has 6 berserk classes with certain spells in each class. Some classes are best against single enemies, others for large groups, and others for healing. You gain new berserk attacks as you gain levels, but two are earned by finding certain items during the course of the game and one class takes 3 charge bars to use. Every battle requires you to be on your toes and manage your attacks properly. It's rare in an RPG to have random battles that are so much fun. Usually they become tedious rather quickly, but the pace of the ones in Saga keep you interested and always looking for more. They're fun, and that makes a big difference in the gameplay.
At the end of each battle you receive a ranking based on your performance. The rankings go from Narrow Escape (the worst) to Excellent (the best). How you do determines how much experience and money you receive, and also whether you'll receive an item. Some items are rare and can only be found by defeating a monster with an excellent rating. And after you gain a certain number of levels, your dragon will evolve into a new form with stronger lasers and statistics.
Panzer Dragoon Saga is a revolutionary RPG that combines elements from numerous genres into an incredible whole that could very well change the way RPG's play in the near future. My gripes with the game are few and barely worth mentioning, but I would be remiss as a reviewer if I didn't. The game is a bit too short. Total gameplay time is around 18 hours without cinemas. With all the cinemas it runs around 25 to 30 hours. The game didn't feel unfinished or rushed; you just want it to last longer. A few more areas to explore and side quests couldn't have hurt, but storage limitations were likely what prevented that.
Another problem was that it was a very easy game. Yes, there are a lot of secrets to find and plenty of replay value, but to finish the game doesn't take much. I didn't die once and I wasn't trying to level up to become stronger than the enemies. A game doesn't need to be mind numbingly hard, but some intense battles that are tough to win really increase a sense of accomplishment on completion of the game. And finally, the ranking system was fairly inconsistent. Most of the time I couldn't understand why I received the rank that I did. I could take a ton of damage from an enemy and have to heal more than once in the course of the battle, and still receive an Excellent rank. Other times I could take no damage and not even be close to danger and receive a Close Call rank. It just rarely made sense and I still haven't figured it out. The manual says that high ranks are given for fighting "efficiently". What that entails, I do not know.
But all of those gripes are minor and don't effect the experience negatively. This is an incredible game and one that every RPG fan should own. And hopefully it will hook many that never considered playing an RPG, and make them love the genre. RPG's are experiencing a renaissance right now, and Panzer Saga is a Michelangelo in the genre. Team Andromeda is a rising star in the industry and are easily the equal of the greatest developers in the industry. You can tell when a developer really cares about making a great game, and it's obvious everywhere you look in Panzer Saga that they love what they do.