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Panzer Dragoon Saga
Reviewed by Jason Falconer

The first two Panzer Dragoon games were coined "dramatic shooting games"; a rail-shooter with a plot and character development in a dazzling setting reminiscent of Miyazaki's "Nausicaa". In fact, they were so dramatic that the designers decided a third game in the series should be an RPG to squeeze in all the extra details needed to explain the story, the end product being a massive 4 CD game. Perhaps due to the failing Saturn sales, or because of the production costs (the first 4 CD console game), SEGA made only 6000 copies for North America - a ridiculously small number - causing Panzer Dragoon Saga to become one of the most rare and sought after videogames.

The setting is a future world controlled by the remnants of a once powerful (but now extinct) ancient civilization. The gigantic structures left behind by this civilization, though masterless, still pulse with life. Biological mutant terrors, bred to control human population and maintain ecological equilibrium, continue their gruesome task. There is the typical power-hungry Empire (and its fleet of airships), excavating ruins in the hopes of finding war machines left by the Ancients. There is Craymen, a rogue general who is trying to overthrow the Empire. There are the Seekers, a rebel group that believes the ancient technology is evil and must be destroyed. In the middle of all this conflict is the hero, Edge, and the mysterious bio-organic woman found at the excavation site, Azel.

Clearly, anyone familiar with Nausicaa's setting will find plenty of similarities, but since Miyazaki has said he doesn't want any of his films to be made into games, its forgivable. Luckily in this case the designers know when to stray from their source material, and do so liberally, giving us all sorts of interesting people to meet and places to go. Most notable is the design work for the Ancient technology (simultaneously mechanical and biological), as well as Edge's steed Lagi (the "Divine Messenger"), with no less than 30 different evolutionary states, all of which are extremely cool. Early in production of the original Panzer Dragoon, SEGA hired french artist Moebius to conceptualize these things, and his ground-breaking designs continue to flourish.

The gameplay is where the game truly takes flight. In a market oversaturated with RPGs, a heavily formulaic genre steeped in the traditions of the dusty Dragon Quest, SEGA dared to create something new.

First, the battle system, which is very unique and fun to play. You can attack in two ways: with a rapid-fire machine-gun attack (one target, aimed manually), or with the dragon's fire breath (multiple targets, auto aimed). These are the main attacks from previous games, but in addition the dragon has Berserk abilities (offensive, defensive, curative and augmentative "spells"), items, and you can customize your Gun parts.

Using a variation of the "Active Time Battle" system, you have a series of meters which must fill up before you can perform specific actions. Equally important is the dragon's position in relation to his enemies (which you can adjust at any time), in order to avoid their super attacks and pinpoint their weak spots. For example, some enemies have safe zones (allowing you to prepare a big attack or heal without worry), but often in order to destroy them you have to move into their super attack zone to pinpoint their weakness. You're constantly moving during battle, sweeping into hot zones to deliver an attack while deftly dodging the enemy's counter attack.

Easily the coolest aspect of this game is the dragon's evolutions, which add an extra layer of strategy. As the dragon gets stronger he can attack more targets at the same time in a single breath, and can change his affinity to one of five types (power, defense, agility, spiritual and normal). As you change his affinity, the dragon morphs in real-time to reflect the changes in size, color and various details like wingspan, length of tail, and the armor on its head. If you choose agility, for example, the dragon has a weaker defense but can attack twice as fast. The chosen affinity will also affect what Berserk attacks are acquired at the time of a level up.

Battle results are graded based on a variety of factors. The better you are, the more experience points you get, and there is a higher chance of winning an item. Defeating enemies generates an entry in a comprehensive bestiary, allowing you to examine the 3d models, or simply learn the history (and statistics) of whatever species or machine you have defeated.

Oustide of battles is the exploration of the vast game world. With the exception of exploring towns, you are riding your dragon. Therefore, most of the game you are flying around, and interacting with the environment by targetting things and shooting with the breath attack. This works really well, because instead of having to walk right up to a treasure chest to open it, you can just shoot it from a distance. The same goes for towns, even if you are standing far from someone, you can target them and speak with them from a distance.

What is most impressive about the environments (other than the technically advanced water effects sprinkled throughout), is the sheer size of them. These areas are as huge as they are diverse; vast desert plains, deep canyons, subterranean ruins, rainforests, and oceanic coral reefs to name just a few. Another nice touch is the detail in the towns, where any given house is full of all sorts of little trinkets which you can target and read a description of. For example, if you target the stained-glass window in the church, it will say something like "Its made out of giant insect wings". Its the nice little touches like these that flesh out the world, and there's plenty of them.

Graphically, the game is very ambitious. Full 3d environments with full 3d characters, in a time when games on the technically superiour PlayStation had rendered environments or sprite-based characters, is no small feat for the Saturn (which was never intended to do 3D). Unlike the N64 which hid pop-up with dense fog, the Saturn was never designed to do transparency. Because of this, there is some unsightly pop-up on the horizon of some stages (like the ocean stage) but in most instances they have hidden it rather cleverly. Slow-down is kept to a minimum. Battles look great, and there are some cool special effects for the spells. And of course, the hallmark of Panzer Dragoon, the best water effects of the 32-bit era, and there are a number of different techniques used!

In terms of sound, the game is no less ambitious. Featuring full voice-acting for every single character in the game, from the main characters on down to the lowliest peasants, with up to three seperate exchanges per character (per disc), is a mind-boggling technical achievement when you consider we have yet to reach that standard in the latest RPGs. The music was composed by Saori Kobayashi, and is amongst the finest you will hear in any videogame. Presentation is good, but not great. CG animation is used frequently throughout the game to accentuate the storyline, but the quality is inconsistent. The introduction and ending are suitably higher quality than the rest, however the general standard is not even in the same league as Final Fantasy VII's worst stuff. Most FMV games from that period look dated by today's standards anyway, and should be appreciated for what they get right, not condemned for lack of technology or production values. The implementation of voice-overs required lip-synching, which few games of the time even bothered to attempt (let alone implement) in every scene, as this game does.

SEGA, by combining such a unique and in-depth battle system with a completely different method of exploration, created a new type of game that is a hybrid between shooters and RPGs. The marriage of unique gameplay to a Nausicaa-inspired setting, with the addition of the most in-depth dragon mythology ever, amounts to an instant and timeless classic.

Trivia: Extra options become available for the "Pandora's Box" in Panzer Dragoon 2 when a save file from Panzer Dragoon Saga is present on the internal memory, allowing Players to tweak various game settings and ride any dragon form they like.